Strong Women in Film and TV
EVERY so often we hear about the need for strong female characters in film, TV and, to a lesser extent, literature. Too many women in cinema, especially, are focussed on getting and keeping a man. There’s even the Bedchel test – do two female characters talk about something other than a man at any point in the movie? Surprisingly few films pass this seemingly-simple test.
Of course, this is not always possible. Films set during a historical period of wartime – World War I is a good example, as well as being topical – cannot really be judged by this criteria. Protagonists in such films could plausibly go weeks without seeing a woman, never mind two. But this hardly excuses films like Cloudy with A Chance of Meatballs 2, Godzilla or Robocop (the 2014 versions).
When a woman is actually involved in a film, too often she is there as decoration to check off a list of attractive qualities. Formulaic blockbusters are the worst offenders. Take the Transformers films – firstly Megan Fox and secondly Rosie Huntingdon-Whitely – were involved merely because having the protagonist finish the film still single would be unthinkable. What makes a strong, memorable female character is not much different from what makes a strong male character. They don’t necessarily need to be good or wholesome or a positive role model, but they must have a character.
Let’s go all the way back to 1939 and the engrossing epic Gone with the Wind. Scarlett O’Hara is a schemer, she is vain, melodramatic and self-centred. She is also unforgettable. Vivien Leigh inhabited the role so perfectly that it’s easy to forget that she was nowhere near first choice for the role or that she was actually British.
A female character does not need to be good or moral to be strong. Just as there are many male anti-heroes (Travis Bickle, Tony Montana, Jules Winnfield, to name but a few), why don’t we embrace our female anti-heroines? Strides are being made in this direction, notably in children’s entertainment. Frozen made The Snow Queen a sympathetic and believable character and Angelina Jolie looks set to have an absolute ball playing the wicked Maleficent in the upcoming twist on the Sleeping Beauty villain.
Strong female characters can be more ambiguous too. Audrey Hepburn played a more sanitised version of Holly Golightly in the 1961 adaptation of Truman Capote’s novella, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Holly has inspired countless quirky ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girls’ since but the original character was darker and sometimes cruel or dismissive. But she was a realistic, rounded character and that’s why we remember her. Of course, strong characters can be a force for good too – look at Buffy or Hermione Granger or Katniss Everdeen.
It sounds obvious but good writing will lead to believable characters. Funnily enough, most of the characters mentioned started life on the page of a novel. It is easier to paint a fuller picture of a character in literary form but perhaps as there are more female novelists than female screenwriters, the form leads to better female characters.
Not that you need to be a woman to write a good female character. Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy, loves writing strong women. Stephen King’s main strength is the depth of his characterisation and he manages the enviable feat of seeing into men and women’s heads, whether it be a mentally disturbed teenage girl or a woman pregnant with her first child during a deadly pandemic. Indeed, one of King’s complaints about Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining was that Wendy Torrance, the wife of the crazed Jack, was reduced to a mere screaming victim.
Compare with the cipher-like Bella Swan and gibbering wreck Ana Steele, ‘heroines’ of Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey respectively and created by women. Good writers create good characters. The last word has to go to George RR Martin. The creator of the hugely popular A Song of Ice and Fire series, adapted into the all-conquering Game of Thrones for TV, was once asked how he wrote such convincing and strong female characters. “You know,” he said, “I’ve always considered women to be people.”
Photos c/o disney.fr, manilovefilms.com