Source: NY Times July 1, 2011
‘Tough, Cold, Terse, Taciturn and Prone to Not Saying Goodbye When They Hang Up the Phone’
Every time I hear someone use the term “strong female character,” I want to punch them. The problem is, I hit like a girl. Before I go further, here’s an anecdote that might help set the tone for what I’m about to try to say, which I worry has the potential to come across all wrong unless I manage to dispel certain widely shared assumptions without unduly setting anyone off.
Years ago, in the nascent days of the George W. Bush administration, while en route to the airport from his parents’ house in Florida, my boyfriend at that time and I spent an afternoon visiting with his brother and his brother’s girlfriend. Like many Democrats, I was still very angry with Florida, and as fond as I was of my ex-boyfriend’s parents, navigating the minefield of our respective political affiliations (which pretty much meant we had to limit our debates to discussing the relative merits of Outback Steakhouse versus Chili’s) left me exhausted, depressed and somewhat bloated. By the time we reached his brother’s house, I was ready to go back to California and resume my life of loudly resenting Florida from a safe distance while eating at restaurants that didn’t require their servers to memorize corporate scripts. All that stood in the way of me and this golden dream was the visit.
It started, innocuously enough, with lunch in the kitsch-yet-sinister town of Celebration, where we hoped to be lucky enough to experience a postprandial, regularly scheduled fake snowfall. It took a darker turn after we piled back into the S.U.V., headed to their house to pick up the guns and drove to the indoor gun range. As Rush Limbaugh fulminated at top volume, I slumped in the back seat like a sullen 13-year-old, a gun case resting heavily on my lap, and wondered how I had arrived at this place. What did it mean that I was here? Could I be here and still be me? Who was I? Within about 15 seconds of stepping inside the shooting range, before the guy behind the counter could take my gun order, I burst into tears, ran outside and spent the next couple of hours alone in the car reading Jane Austen.
So here is the question I’m posing: If this story were a scene in a movie, and the movie were being told from the point of view of a young woman, would you describe that protagonist as a “strong female character”? Or would you consider her to be weak?
If weak, would you find it possible to relate to her on the basis of something other than her sex characteristics? Or would identifying with this “feminine” behavior threaten your sense of self, whether you were a man or a woman? Would you consider the scene funny, or not, and if not, why not? And what would a “strong female character” in a movie have done in this situation, anyway? Toss off an epigram and then shoot the radio? Reveal a latent talent for martial arts, jump the rifle-range counter and start pummeling the guy at the desk? Confidently march out the door to the strains of a Motown anthem and never look back? And what would she be wearing? Would boots or stilettos need to be involved? Or would flip-flops or ballet flats be O.K.?
“Strong female character” is one of those shorthand memes that has leached into the cultural groundwater and spawned all kinds of cinematic clichés: alpha professionals whose laserlike focus on career advancement has turned them into grim, celibate automatons; robotic, lone-wolf, ascetic action heroines whose monomaniacal devotion to their crime-fighting makes them lean and cranky and very impatient; murderous 20-something comic-book salesgirls who dream of one day sidekicking for a superhero; avenging brides; poker-faced assassins; and gloomy ninjas with commitment issues. It has resulted in characters like Natalie Portman’s in “No Strings Attached,” who does everything in her power to avoid commitment, even with a guy she’s actually in love with; or Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy; or pretty much every character Jodie Foster has played since “Nell” or, possibly, “Freaky Friday.”
Maybe I’m a cream puff, but few cultural tropes get under my skin like “strong female character,” and it still surprises me when like-minded people use it. Maybe the problem is semantic. Maybe what people mean when they say “strong female characters” is female characters who are “strong,” i.e., interesting or complex or well written — “strong” in the sense that they figure predominantly in the story, rather than recede decoratively into the background. But I get the feeling that what most people mean or hear when they say or hear “strong female character” is female characters who are tough, cold, terse, taciturn and prone to scowling and not saying goodbye when they hang up the phone.
Of course, I get the point of characters like these. They do serve as a kind of gateway drug to slightly more realistic — or at least representational — representations of women. On the other hand, they also reinforce the unspoken idea that in order for a female character to be worth identifying with, she should really try to rein in the gross girly stuff. This implies that unless a female character is “strong,” she is not interesting or worth identifying with.
“Strong women characters” are a canard. They refer to the old-fashioned “strong, silent type,” a type that tolerates very little blubbering, dithering, neuroticism, anxiety, melancholy or any other character flaw or weakness that makes a character unpredictable and human.
The absurdity of the strong-female-character expectation becomes apparent if you reverse it: Not only does calling for “strong male characters” sound ridiculous and kind of reactionary, but who really wants to watch them? They sound boring. In fact, traditional “strong male characters” have been almost entirely abandoned in favor of male characters who are blubbery, dithering, neurotic, anxious, melancholic or otherwise “weak,” because this weakness is precisely what makes characters interesting, relatable and funny.
Just to give an idea how entrenched, pervasive and distorting this idea can be: A few weeks back, I was in the car listening to Elvis Mitchell interview Paul Feig, the director of “Bridesmaids.” Mitchell remarked that “Bridesmaids” seemed an unlikely project for Feig to have taken on. Feig replied that he had wanted to do a project for “strong women characters” for a while and pointed out that, after all, “Freaks and Geeks” was Lindsay’s — a teenage girl’s — story.
Funny, Mitchell remarked, Kristen Wiig’s character in the movie didn’t exactly strike him as particularly strong — she actually seemed like kind of a mess. Feig conceded that, yes, she was kind of a mess, but it was O.K., because they had made sure to establish in two scenes that, before she was temporarily derailed by the recession, she was a talented and successful business owner and would soon be back on top.
I don’t really believe that Feig, whose movie is the first in a while to feature women who sound a lot like women, thinks that the reason that we feel empathy and not contempt for Wiig’s delightfully, deliriously, awesomely messed-up and pathetic character is because she used to own a bakery. I think he meant it in the other sense, in the sense that he meant to do a story told strongly from a woman’s point of view. Either that or what happened was that he felt himself pulled into a discussion that’s been so distorted by this pervasive and stifling either/or fallacy that confronting it actually makes people get nervous and say weird things. I’m sure he’s perfectly aware that the movie has struck a nerve because its female characters are such a jumble of flaws and contradictions. Wiig’s not likeable despite the fact that she never gets her brake lights fixed and thoughtlessly hurts someone even as she herself is experiencing the pain of being hurt; or despite the fact that she’s jealous of her best friend’s happiness or of her best friend’s new best friend’s money and apparent perfection; or that she lingers in a destructive relationship with a guy she knows is treating her like dirt; or that, unlike the protagonists of the average romantic comedy aimed at women, she is forced to live with weirdos, who treat her miserably, and she doesn’t live in an adorable downtown loft complete with a pale blue refrigerator that retails for $2,000. (Nice touch, “Something Borrowed.”) We don’t relate to her despite the fact that she is weak, we relate to her because she is weak.
In an essay about MTV’s reality show “The Real World,” Chuck Klosterman wrote about how he and his raw-hot-dog-eating roommate came to be enthralled by the show in its first season and subsequent seasons: “The raw hot dog eater and I watched these people argue all summer long, and then we watched them argue again in the summer of 1993, and then again in the summer of 1994. Technically, these people were completely different every year, but they were also exactly the same. And pretty soon it became clear that the producers of ‘The Real World’ weren’t sampling the youth of America — they were unintentionally creating it.”
Something similar happens when we talk about strong female characters. Certain traits become codified into a bad-faith embodiment of a type rarely found in nature: the stunning blond 23-year-old astrophysicist whose precocious brilliance and professional-grade beauty are no match for her otherworldly self-confidence, say, or the workaholic mercenary encumbered by emotions. It’s as if the naturalism of male characters has grown in inverse proportion to the realism in female characters. The insistence on “strong female character” is not bad because it aspires to engender respect, it’s bad because it tries to compensate for an existing imbalance by stacking the deck in favor of the female character, by making her better, more deserving, higher-toned, more virtuous and deserving of respect, somehow.
“Strength,” in the parlance, is the 21st-century equivalent of “virtue.” And what we think of as “virtuous,” or culturally sanctioned, socially acceptable behavior now, in women as in men, is the ability to play down qualities that have been traditionally considered feminine and play up the qualities that have traditionally been considered masculine. “Strong female characters,” in other words, are often just female characters with the gendered behavior taken out. This makes me think that the problem is not that there aren’t enough “strong” female characters in the movies — it’s that there aren’t enough realistically weak ones. You know what’s better than a prostitute with a machine gun for a leg or a propulsion engineer with a sideline in avionics whose maternal instincts and belief in herself allow her to take apart an airborne plane and discover a terrorist plot despite being gaslighted by the flight crew? A girl who reminds you of you.