Popular culture is the focus of some of the most determined attempts to shift attitudes on a host of issues within society at large, and such forms of representation are an important dimension of this. While popular media and the various ‘messages’ within it may often appear innocuous, they are frequently anything but. Behind them lie concerted efforts to change the public’s thinking and perception on key matters and some carefully calculated agendas. The supposed shallowness of pop culture is deceptive: It is a realm where brilliant and talented people go to try to shape minds at their most unguarded and impressionable. It is on the ground of entertainment media that the so-called culture wars have largely been lost.
There's quite a bit more that could be said about the subject of the "strong female character" and whether she is as "strong" or even a "character" as is sometimes debated. One of the more memorable pleas to get rid of "strong female characters" came from an author at Overthinking It.
For those who fall for Roberts' title as being an argument that women need to be weak, that's a failure of imagination. Shana Mlawski made a more cogent and elegant argument against "strong female characters" a few years ago and argued explicitly for "weak" female characters with an important clarifying point:
I think the major problem here is that women were clamoring for “strong female characters,” and male writers misunderstood. They thought the feminists meant [Strong Female] Characters. The feminists meant [Strong Characters], Female.
So feminists shouldn’t have said “we want more strong female characters.” We should have said “we want more WEAK female characters.” Not “weak” meaning “Damsel in Distress.” “Weak” meaning “flawed.”
Good characters, male or female, have goals, and they have flaws. Any character without flaws will be a cardboard cutout. Perhaps a sexy cardboard cutout, but two-dimensional nonetheless. And no, “Always goes for douchebags instead of the Nice Guy” (the flaw of Megan Fox’s character in Transformers) is not a real flaw. Men think women have that flaw, but most women avoid “Nice Guys” because they just aren’t that nice. So that doesn’t count.
So what flaws can female characters have? How about the same flaws a male character would have? This is especially important in comedies, because many male writers are so clueless about writing funny women that female characters in sitcoms, sitcomish-movies, and comics tend to be the Smart, Gorgeous Snarky Voice of Reason in an unreasonable world. In other words, Not Flawed and Not Funny.
I’m sick of it. Let’s see more female characters
- who fall down hilariously (like Lucille Ball)
- who are arrogant (like Zhang Yiyi in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)
- who are realistic or exuberant villains (like Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton or Atia from Rome)
- who are neurotic (like Elliott from Scrubs)
- who are just mean (like Elaine from Seinfeld)
- who are vengeful (like The Bride from Kill Bill)
- who are forgetful (like Dory from Finding Nemo)
- who say the wrong things (like C.J. in The West Wing, or, again, Elliott from Scrubs)
- who are emotionally repressed (like Marge from The Simpsons)
- who are nerdy and awkward (like Belle from Beauty and the Beast)
- who are just messed up (like everyone, male or female, from Neon Genesis Evangelion)
- who are insufferable know-it-alls (like Hermione or Lisa Simpson)
- who are depressed (I can’t think of one, which is interesting, since women are more likely to be depressed in real life. Who’s the female equivalent of Hamlet? Is there one?)
Something I would suggest more mature writers will grasp is that the flaw a character may have will often be an extension of their virtues. I'll use an example from a cartoon series I love, The Last Airbender. Let's take Katara, the fantastic character whose story frames the entire series. She is unfailingly loyal and loving toward her friends but that is mirrored by her capacity to hold very bitter, irrational grudges. She goes much of the series loathing Prince Zuko to a degree comparable to her love for her brother Sokka and her friend Aang. Why? Well, we could get into that some other time but I'm proposing here that a character's strength can frequently be a weakness.
Let's take Marge Simpson. She's repressed a lot of her failings out of a realization that the males in her life will probably, on the whole, never become especially more reasonable and avoid the kinds of actions that cause trouble for the family. Repression isn't a healthy reaction to us and yet within Marge's world it makes a certain amount of sense. It takes a lot for her to stop repressing her feelings and share how she feels. The other people in her life can then take it that when she stops repressing and starts expressing it's because she feels something is too important to not share, such as when she tells Lisa that while her mother has repressed she would urge Lisa to not make the same mistake herself.
Arrogance is a trait that's given to Wonder Woman in the animated series Justice League and it's what made her a great character. Wonder Woman is regarded as stuck up by other characters in the series, particularly Hawkgirl, and it's because Wonder Woman IS better than most of the other people who show up in the series. She's elitist and arrogant but this in itself doesn't make her a villain. What it means is that in a boy's club like the Justice League often is Wonder Woman gets along better with Batman who, also being an elitist, is able to relate to her a bit. And she likes Wally because basically everybody likes Wally because his first concern is whether everyone is okay. Heroes will disagree on a lot, but not on that. Over time Wonder Woman learns to overcome her arrogance, which makes her a fun character.
The trouble is that for some Wonder Woman fans she has to e perfect and come from a perfect society. That's another topic for another time, but there's a way in which the problems of making Wonder Woman "work" in the 21st century get at a problem that applies not only to "strong female characters" but to action heroes more generally.
For instance, in light of the recent Batman vs Superman one of the basic mistakes that keeps getting made is thinking that Superman can only be challenged by either throwing brute force/Kryptonite at him or "emotionally hurting him". Superman's invulnerability has been so given that too few storytellers (save in Paul Dini and Bruce Timm's version) have arrived at the insight that the best way to challenge such a character is not to invent some villain so powerful as to be able to kill him (since the world's doomed in that scenario) but to test Superman's moral compass. This is why the great villain for Superman isn't really Darkseid or Metallo or even Brainiac but Lex Luthor. Because Superman isn't a Christ type at all, he's a depiction of what we want America to be while Lex Luthor is a depiction of what America unfortunately all too often is. That Lois can believe in the idea (i.e. loves Superman) but is cavalier about Clark suggests that Lois represents another element here, another America-as-it-is: the tension between her regard for Superman and disregard for Clark is absent in Snyder's franchise and the films hurt a bit for it. Lois is, in a sense, blind to power that doesn't make itself overtly known.
A shortcoming in the "strong female character" is that she can reveal how bland her male counterpoint is by being as bland. Frankly Optimus Prime has never been a particularly interesting character to me compared to, say, Starscream.
But getting back to the quoted segment of Roberts' piece, what's interesting to consider as someone who's been a lifelong fan of animation as an art form is that many subtle but profound shifts have happened in an art form that many "grown ups" can't even regard as really art. It's possible that some of the subtle yet revolutionary shifts in pop culture happened at the level of kids' shows, the kind of thing that wasn't on the radar of anyone paying attention to officially "adult" arts.
Something Roberts didn't touch on that seems worth mentioning is that the reboot of the Powerpuff Girls has gotten some gentle pushback from authors at Slate. When contributors to Double X feel something has been lost in transforming the girl power theme of PPG from subtext to text it might be that we don't have to make this about complementarianism/egalitarianism in the echo chambers of the Christian blogosphere. I love the original Powerpuff Girls series and own every episode. McCracken has said many times that he wanted to make sure that the first thing he did was make a show "everyone" could have fun watching and that the thematic stuff could and should be secondary. At best a strong female character gambit can be a form of tokenism and at worst, per Mlawski's arguments, it turns out the "strong female character" isn't a character so much as a fetish for males.
I thought Roberts could have done more to discuss Miyazaki's heroines and antagonists. The badass warrior woman has some representation in Lady Eboshi and Princess Kushana and neither is presented as uniformly evil. They make fine antagonists because what they want is understandable, even admirable, but that how they aim to get what they want causes more long-term harm than they recognize. Even here it could be argued that the effective badass warriors, whether male or female, become memorable and effective because at some level we're able to believe this is not what they want their default mode to be. Take Fury Road, whether it's Mad Max or Imperator Furiosa, we get enough clues in the narrative that being the badass warrior was not what either of these wanted for themselves that makes their taking up of arms sympathetic. They can be coaxed into fighting for others but would like to be left alone. It's George Miller so it's not exactly delving depths but it's a point worth noting.
If there's a trouble or a risk with Rey moving forward it's that she's such an obvious audience surrogate. That's not necessarily bad. She gets to be the Skywalker character. But audience surrogate characters can risk being blank slates. It's possible for an actor or an actress to play audience surrogate characters for decades. Jimmy Stewart had this kind of role down. Women tend to be written as, well, trophies so an everywoman role is harder to find. Perhaps we could play with the idea that Meg Ryan was an audience surrogate for women ... it could explain, possibly, why men tend to only seem to watch Ryan films on account of women they know in my observation. If it's a choice between watching a film with Dench or Blanchett on the one hand and Meg Ryan on the other, Meg Ryan's always going to lose that contest for me. if it's a choice between films with Adam Sandler or Jim Carrey and, I dunno, Fassbender, I'll gamble on the Fassbender film. Sandler and carrey have milked a sort of entitled everydude role for decades that I've found annoying.
If the "strong female character" can spark a discussion about how audience surrogate characters male and female can slip into the lazy storytelling of unexamined privilege and entitlement then so much the better.