Archives for posts with tag: strong female characters

James Worsdale hasn’t been able to so shamelessly dabble in postmodern-gender musings in years and he kind of maybe definitely loves it.

I open this review with a presumably cringe-inducing question to the reader, is there a difference between “a strong female character” and “a strong character who happens to be female”? An admittedly antifeminist distinction to draw and work around, I know. And a distinction that still leaves a serious representational deficit in both categories. But I promise I won’t leave it at that. Is there a way to create a character that seems to inhabit a space more within the latter of those categories, but through learning from those in the former, subverts the very logic that that question posits itself in and around? And through introducing such a character into this binary framework, who adapts to it while muddling it, isn’t that introducing a character that subverts and undermines the very logic of patriarchy? That logic that feminism seeks to draw attention to and resist?

From a recent Canonball-induced craving for a reinterpretation of and greater appreciation for strong female characters, alongside increasing evidence of the feminist messaging and framework this film was based in and around, I excitedly went to see Hanna this past weekend (and fortunately was one of many who chose to do so) and was in awe of how well it fulfilled the need for feminist reclamations in both the action and fairytale genres, artfully choreographed a tale of determination despite violent chaos and crushing disillusionment, and created a desexualized, brilliant and focused heroine.

A brief plot synopsis for the unaware (and plot spoilers intentionally kept to a minimum): Hanna (Saoirse Ronan…a force of nature this young lady) is a teenage girl living with her father, Erik (Eric Bana) in the woods, undergoing physically and intellectually intensive training for an ambiguous purpose. You quickly gather that Hanna is a genius, transitioning flawlessly in conversation with her father from English to German to Spanish so on and so forth, and has learned all she knows from her father’s rigorous teachings with the ultimate intention and interest of survival. Adapt or die. She informs her father that she is ready for life on the outside, what that entails is unknown at this point.

Erik shows Hanna a switch to flip and lets her know that when she does, they will come and find them, and he and Hanna’s plan will commence. You hear the details of their plan as Erik grills Hanna on her back story and route to their end destination, which will bring them together at a recreated home from one of Grimm’s fairytales. Declaring herself ready, she flips the switch and the race begins. Erik flees, according to plan, and a team of soldiers arrives at the home in the woods to seize him. You gather from back story at this point that Erik is a rogue agent of sorts and he and Hanna were in hiding from Marissa Weigler (a cartoonishly villainous and ginger-haired Cate Blanchett). Holding Hanna in an interrogation cell, she lets the people she’s speaking with know that she needs to speak with

Unsure of what she will do, they send in an impersonator, on whom Hanna demonstrates her strength and agility in an act of vengeance. Escaping the unit she takes her and her father’s plan to the next level and shows Weigler just how little she can afford to underestimate her. Hanna turns out to be in Morocco, where she befriends a girl (the first she’s seen since her mother’s death when she was a baby) and her family who react to her eccentricity welcomingly. The differences in viewpoints and expectations also provide for some moments of humor.

Here the narrative reaches a very interesting point in that Hanna’s made sense of existence on the outside through her father’s teachings, largely through his reciting fairytales to her, though with the ubiquitous message of survival as the priority. In this sense, her interactions with this family and her suddent presence in this conventional world reminded me of another fairytale adaptation, Enchanted. Though, I assure you, in this fairytale, Hanna does not end up with McDreamy. Hanna gathers from this family real feelings of friendship, sisterhood, and family outside of the narrative she had built her life in and around. This paralleled with Wiegler’s relentless hunt, as well as some harsh realizations that I won’t reveal, unravels the thread of Hanna’s fairytale narrative and shatters her illusion. Though despite this inevitable disappointment, Hanna perseveres, always remembering to prioritize survival above any lie.

Lindsay’s question still remains surrounding the perceived necessity for masculinization and militarization of female heroines to be ordained into the canon of “strong female characters.” But I went into this movie already thinking that Hanna was a kick-ass character for reasons other than kicking-ass. Hanna is “not just an avatar for an idea” but is presented with enough nuance and complexity that her presence transcends the phallogocentrism and the conflating of strength with masculinity. Once she enters the sphere of “the outside” her femininity is omnipresent and appreciated, though it does not hold her back from asserting herself and it does not pin her down in interpreting herself. She comes from a place where her gender does not define her, but her survival does.

When she enters the outside, however, her existence as a woman is read by those surrounding her as presumably weaker and submissive (particularly in an interaction with a young Spaniard that is at times romantic but ultimately hysterical and empowering) but she utilizes the same survival mechanisms she learned from her father to do just that, to survive. She doesn’t use her femininity, she barely even considers it. She is here to survive, her survival is her existence. This feminist, dare I say, post-female interpretation of herself was the intention of director Joe Wright, saying, “I think the character exists outside of gender, in the same way that perhaps an angel does; and partly because I didn’t want her to exist within the kind of binary-opposition thinking. Her personality as a female is not reliant on there being a male.” So is Hanna a post-female feminist heroine? You will have to go see and decide for yourself. But as I said, regardless of where you categorize her, Hanna will survive, despite just missing your heart.

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In which Lindsay reveals that her muscles are made of CGI.

Hollywood hates women” is the line going around this week, thanks to Tad Friend’s New Yorker piece (sorry dudes, behind a paywall) about comedienne Anna Faris and the commentary (which I like to call “Internet dust”) it’s kicked up. Though it’s nice to see this conversation taking place in the mainstream media — and Friend’s article is thoughtful and refreshingly plaintive (“Studio executive believe that male moviegoers would rather prep for a colonoscopy than experience a woman’s point of view, particularly if that woman drinks or swears or has a great job or an orgasm.”), it all just prompts me to say, “Well yeah, duh.” Those of us who follow the Women and Hollywood beat know the drill: every year or so, we are treated to one of these State of the Lady in Hollywood exposes, replete with all sorts of quotes and statistics that make us feel totally helpless, and then up from the comments sections spring all sorts of well-intentioned but maddeningly vague rally cries about how we can make it better. “We just need more strong female characters!”, goes one of these refrains. And Hollywood, on the rare occasion that it acknowledges the sound of tiny people shouting, replies with a wave of its hand, “Strong female characters? We’ve got those! Have y’all seen Tomb Raider? And…like…Tomb Raider 2: The Cradle of Life?” Which makes obvious something that we’ve always known: Hollywood has no idea what a strong female character actually looks like.

Blockbuster Hollywood’s idea of a Strong Female Character involves some kind of hybrid between brute, male strength and hyperfeminized sexuality: an Uzi-toting Rosie the Riveter with a 16-inch waist and CGI boobs. In recent years, Hollywood has inundated us with representations of this particular vision of strength, from the aforementioned Tomb Raider (and, for that matter, the entire cult of personality surrounding Angelina Jolie) to Charlie’s Angels to Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle right up to Sucker Punch (the latter of which Sady Doyle terrifically skewered in an Atlantic piece last week).

The problem with this definition of “strength” is that it’s rooted in the patriarchal notion that bigger is better, might is right, and that “weakness,” its opposite, is inherently feminine. For these characters, strength is one’s ability to step in line with a paradigm that is already tainted with misogyny; feminine strength is one’s ability to, in the elegant words of pop phenom Jessie J, “do it like a dude.” (Interestingly enough, this is also the problem that Anna Faris and others experience in the realm of comedy; in Friend’s article, a director praises her for not being “light and sweet…she’s funny like a guy would be funny.”) Once those muscles have been sufficiently flexed, the only “feminine” traits that these Strong Female Characters are allowed to exhibit are those which have been pre-approved by the patriarchy; so, namely, CGI boobs.The Strong Female Character is not one who’s able to provide a personal revision as to what strength is and what it looks like, but one who’s able to successfully navigate the narrow channels in which she’s allowed to be visible in the mainstream Hollywood film.

So if we can’t look to Hollywood for unproblematic views of female strength, can we find them instead in the margins? Not really, says Elizabeth Greenwood, who recently proposed that indie cinema kind of hates women too. In an article entitled “Why So Many Boring Women in Indie Film?” she implicates a number of supposedly more enlightened films for portraying female characters as “meek,” “mild” and “utterly forgettable”  and accuses both male and female filmmakers of “hav[ing] shown little regard for their young female protagonists as people.”

It’s a brave and noble piece, one that articulates something I’ve felt but haven’t quite been able to name — but I only agree with her to a point. First of all, I’ll acknowledge the false dichotomy I’m setting up between “Hollywood films” and “indie films” here; in film as in music, “indie” is no longer synonymous with a  counterculture or a space in which the greater forces of sexism and other forms of oppression are challenged (plus, most of the films she mentions have relatively huge budgets and big names behind them). Greenwood calls out some female characters whose one-dimensional emptiness I find worthy of critique, from the title character in (500) Days of Summer to Michelle Williams’s Cindy in Blue Valentine. But I think she’s too quick to lump a large and varied group of films together — and in some cases her definition of “boring” relies on yet another preexisting paradigm.

“Some of the women Greenwood calls out as boring are deeply sympathetic, brave characters, even if the people around them on-screen don’t always see them for who they are,” Alyssa Rosenberg writes in a response to the original piece. She goes on to defend some of the characters Greenwood initially criticizes. Margot Tenenbaum, for one, she sees as a character who hides her inferiority from those who seek to externally define her. (And of course she’s successful. “What do you know?” her husband is asked right before seeing a dossier recounting the secrets about her love life. “Very little, I’m afraid.”) I’ll extend the defense along to Greta Gerwig’s Florence in Greenberg, a film that Greenwood also faults. Having seen the film twice now, I find Florence’s inarticulateness hugely sympathetic and relatable — even though she’s not a “strong female character” in the sense that she’s ambitious, has a “good job” or could kick your teeth out. Her tangential anecdotes and eccentric sense of humor don’t serve to fetishize her into the film’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but rather convey a disconnect between her and the rest of the people populating her world.  And in contrast with the film’s titular male protagonist, something about her has stuck with me. As my friend Kristen said upon rewatching the film last week, “That movie really should have been called Florence.”

So then, if it’s not the machine gun or the combat boots or a well-articulated interiority, what exactly makes a strong female character? Is it the character’s ability to evade a simple answer to that very question? Maybe. I’m not even sure. But, paradoxically, I have always felt a weird strength in not feeling sure, so maybe there is potential in that: characters who appear before us in the process of working things out. Or maybe, better yet, the word “strong” is too entangled in false, rotted-out visions of masculinity to ever do us any good. To end Hollywood’s hatred of women, I don’t think we don’t need more strong female characters — we need a complete reimagining of what strength is.