No, “Strong Female Characters” Do Not Earn Us a Cookie

The other day I was wasting time on Facebook when I came across an article that a friend posted about how all the Strong Female Characters ™ in film these days are being subjected to what the author of the article called “Trinity Syndrome” (I’m assuming that’s a dig at Trinity from The Matrix who is really cool and interesting in her introduction, but by the time the story’s over she’s just the cheerleader to the male lead who has far surpassed her in coolness).  It was a really good read, and included links to some other great articles discussing the same problem (links for the original article here and my favorite rabbit hole from that article here).

There was just one thing that bugged me.

Trinityfull

Trinity’s a Strong Female Character. She also does very little for the plot besides supporting the male protagonist. (Image credit: Matrix Wiki)

Now, this is not a complaint about either of those articles.  In fact, I highly recommend both of them.  My complaint is with a random comment on the original posting of the article on Facebook that a friend of a friend (you know the ones, the people who say stuff and leave you wondering why that person’s networked to the same awesome person you are).  Unfortunately, my Facebook fu is teh suck, so I can’t go back and look at the comment to see exactly what it said (I really hate having to paraphrase from memory), but the general point the commenter wanted to make was that the article overlooks how great it is that there are so many female characters to criticize in the first place, since twenty years ago they would have been much more scarce.  From there he went on to talk about how Hollywood is risk averse and they’re more likely to write complex women who actually do stuff when our social attitudes match up with that image.

Okay.

Let’s stop and take a moment to acknowledge that, yes, film studios don’t like to take risks because they invest a lot of money up front for products that could turn into huge losses if they don’t perform at the box office (ignore the fact that there’s a lot of crap that gets made and sequelized because the studios still turn a profit on international grosses).

We got all that out of the way?  Good.

I really want to give this guy, whoever he is, the benefit of the doubt and think that he’s probably generally positively disposed towards the advancement of gender equality.  I like to think of myself that way too (I’ll even go so far as to label myself a feminist because its not a dirty word and no one should be ashamed to identify as one).  But what seems to be missing here is this guy’s realization that he’s saying to the author, “Stop complaining; things are better than they were and will be better in the future if you just let them happen.”

The problem is, you can’t do that.  Besides the fact that saying the number of women represented in film has improved is an unfounded assertion, and ignores that any improvement that has been made has happened naturally.  I think the Strong Female Character ™ has been part of popular discourse long enough now that we can all recognize that it’s turned into a rut.  Filmmakers (and storytellers in general) use the Strong Female Character ™ trope as a low bar to say, “Hey, we care about the womenz!  Just look at our Strong Female Character ™ being all badass and having agency!”

That’s nice, guys.  Let me know when you have multiple female characters in a single story who don’t revolve around the male leads.  Until then, quit acting like you deserve a cookie and a pat on the head for doing the bare minimum to achieve gender parity in your realm of fiction (also screw you, Drive Angry, with your one woman who’s perfectly competent until she gets captured by the villain and then gets shoved into motherhood for no good reason as her ‘reward’ for surviving the adventure; letting her beat up her cheating ex-boyfriend and shoot a couple of bad guys early in the movie is not what we’re looking for when we talk about agency).

Look, it’s a simple enough problem.  Inertia is a really hard force to overcome, and if we don’t keep criticizing sub-par portrayals of women, then everyone continues to think that everything’s working out fine.  That doesn’t mean you have to be relentlessly negative (the article by Tasha Robinson is pretty generous in its praise of what’s being done right with recent female characters), but you can’t ever just sit back and say, “That’s good enough.”  Progress isn’t something inevitable that we’re always sliding towards; it takes work.  Criticizing what’s still wrong with a problem is part of that work.

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3 thoughts on “No, “Strong Female Characters” Do Not Earn Us a Cookie

  1. “Stop complaining; things are better than they were and will be better in the future if you just let them happen.” I see this SO often! I completely sympathize. Its like the #notallmen argument in the form of #notallmovies

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