Sophia McDougall recently wrote an explosive article called “I hate Strong Female Characters” for New Statesman. Her point, targeted at Hollywood, is that in effort to counter claims of sexism, blockbuster films include a token “Strong Female Character” in their action films and allow extreme acts of violence fly from these not-so-delicate flowers to prove the point that they are just as good as any man for any job. After seeing the latest teen paranormal romance book-turned movie MORTAL INSTRUMENTS: CITY OF BONES, I might just hop on McDougall’s bandwagon.
The MORTAL INSTRUMENTS series by Cassandra Clare, follows Clary Fray as she discovers that she was born into the world of Nephillim, a world where demons, angels, vampires, and werewolves exist but are essentially invisible to normal “mundane” human eyes. As Clary’s “sight” returns, she gets involved with a group of teen Shadowhunters (part human, part angel) who kill demons for a living. When Clary’s mother is kidnapped by the most villainous and presumed-dead Shadowhunter Valentine, a massive hunt for the “mortal cup” ensues with Clary and her burgeoning memory and understanding of her mother’s secrets and this new world at the forefrunt. Along the way, she falls for the self-possessed, gorgeous adonis Jace, who is untouchable and unreachable but who of course falls in love with her too. There’s some really annoying drama about whether they are brother or sister for 2 too many books in the series, but aside from that, they battle the world together and learn to depend on one another as they try to stop Valentine and demon-kind from taking over the world and destroying humanity. There is still one more book coming out in Spring 2014 which promises to be the final (sixth) chapter.
Is Clary a “Strong Female Character”? In the series, she becomes physically stronger. She is naturally gifted intellectually. With the Shadowhunter rune language that casts spells when written, Clary can actually make up new words/runes. She has wherewithal under pressure but ultimately is driven by her emotions and impulsive gut instincts more than anything else. She manages to figure her way through it all, but she also causes a lot of her own problems. So, essentially, she’s a typical teenager. Headstrong, stubborn, thinks she knows everything, thinks she can handle everything, and on top of that acts before thinking.
In the movie, Clary is reduced to a bumbling, hysterical girl who blunders her way into dangerous situations without any thought for her own safety or anyone else’s and manages to put everyone at risk while doing it. Her love affair with Jace is assumed and is only substantiated from Jace’s side (and only then because other characters keep commenting on it). The amazing feats she accomplishes are purely accidental and the movie doesn’t show her truly working to hone her craft, as she does in the books. She’s an idiot savant. The movie is confusing chaos.
There is a “Strong Female Character” in the role of Isabelle. She kicks butt, takes names, and shows no vulnerability. She’s hot with the confidence to match. She is mostly just a show piece in the movie, and a minimal one at that.
The need for strong female characters runs deep, especially in Hollywood where women are rarely protagonists let alone directors. Female characters, no matter how strong, eventually become defined as the love interest and everything that made them strong crumbles at the sight of their beloved. To be fair, this can often be said of male characters as well; they are undone by the very woman they’ve let into their bed. It says a lot about society’s perception of love and relationships making us weak, blind, unrealistic, and stupid.
In my mind, the concept of a “strong female character” does not usually describe physical strength but rather what McDougall calls agency: they effect change in their story and in other characters. When actors wish for strong female characters, they mean meaty roles where there’s a 3-dimensional person they can represent instead of a cartoon character. They don’t want to play perfect perky centerpieces no matter how much they kick ass if they can’t also be flawed in some deep human way that makes the audience care about what happens to them. Chuck Wendig validates this concept in his article “On the Subject of ‘Strong Female Characters’,” but McDougall is not convinced:
…I simply don’t think it’s true that the majority of writers or readers are reading the term that way. How else to explain the fact that when the screenwriters of The Lord of the Rings decided to (clumsily) expand Arwen’s role from the books, they had her wander on screen, put a sword to her boyfriend’s throat and boast about how she’d sneaked up on him? (It took Liv Tyler to realise later “you don’t have to put a sword in her hand to make her strong”).
I think McDougall, however, is comparing apples to oranges. One problem lies in the transition from book to film. Two completely different worlds with different rules and needs. Books are often written by a single author whereas movies are written and rewritten and then shaped by the director, producer, cinematographer, actors, editor, sound…which all effect the impact the visual story will have on its audience. At best, this movie-making process is a thing of beauty, at worst it’s a bag of junk parts that never come together. MORTAL INSTRUMENTS is somewhere in between. Even with having read the books, I was confused by the action. It didn’t take a traditional movie trajectory but instead had lots of mini-climaxes that felt like the end of the movie but then it kept on going. Likewise, books are consumed individually and cannot be shared concurrently, whereas movies are targeted as a group activity. This gives different motives to the vehicles. While both publishing and Hollywood are commercial ventures, most people tend to agree that the movie version of books are WORSE.
McDougall has valid points, but she’s only looking at comic book heroines or sidekicks and even the male counterpoints are going to be lacking complexity. I would venture that in the translation from comic book to screen complexity is ADDED in an attempt to flesh out the characters. Another recent article in LA Times “‘Hunger Games’, ‘Divergent’: The new wave of strong female-led sic-fi” by Nicole Sperling, lauds these books-turned movies such as Hunger Games, Divergent, Legend, Mortal Instruments for having “Strong Female Characters”, but what I’ve found in reading these books and then watching the movies is that those female protagonists end up stripped of their complexity in order to pare down the story for time. These are fairly large novels with multiple characters and twists and internal dialogue that readers are privy to and movie audiences are not. All of that gets lost because internal dialogue cannot be conveyed through action and often much of what is expressed in internal dialogue cannot be translated appropriately into action. So in the movies we are left with silly, stubborn, hysterical girls who fall in love with the first guy who takes care of them but also rejects them. It is true, even in the books, that stubborn girls like challenges, but whereas the books tend to give reason to this behavior, the movies just make it assumed or stereotyped.
Hollywood seems to have equated “Strong Female Character” with a woman that looks like a beauty queen and packs the muscle of body builder. It only furthers a sexist point of view. What makes these female characters strong and interesting in the books does NOT translate onto the screen. It certainly didn’t with MORTAL INSTRUMENTS. Out of all the teen fiction that’s become a movie recently HUNGER GAMES keeps its integrity so far, but the love story is its weakest link. In the Hunger Games books, the love story is part of the game, a cerebral concept that’s difficult to convey in the action necessary for making a movie. But the strong female characters in ALL these books are all headstrong, stubborn, act-first-think-later teenagers. That might be what society equates as “male” thinking, which could be why “Strong Female Characters” are lauded as proper replacements for the male-dominated protagonist role. However, it doesn’t make it GOOD thinking.
McDougall makes the point that Peggy Carter in CAPTAIN AMERICA, in an attempt to depict a “Strong Female Character” is actually given action that if the gender roles were flipped, would be absolutely ludicrous:
That a female character is allowed to get away with behaviour that, in a male character, would rightly be seen as abusive (or outright murderous) may seem…an unfair imbalance in her favour.
Peggy is allowed to punch a new recruit who mouths off at her and shoot at Captain America to express her jealousy to show she’s strong and, given the timing, witty. But who wants to be around anyone who acts this way? Is this a model of female behavior we want girls to emulate as they grow up? McDougall also points out that the men get to be more complex because there are other male characters that offer contrasts by comparison, but when you only have 1 female character, she has to do it all.
Is it possible to make headway for women characters here?
In that LA Times article, Kristen Stewart is quoted as saying
Flop the roles. If Bella was a vampire and Edward was the human and you changed nothing but the genders, none of that criticism would exist. It would be ‘Wow, he just laid everything on the line for her. It’s so amazing, and it must take such strength to subject yourself to that.’ Also, the relationship is entirely equal.
What Kristen Stewart fails to realize, though, is that this swapping of roles would NEVER happen. Because no one is interested in a doormat male protagonist. And Edward is about as doormat-y as they get. He’s still going to high school, FOREVER! His whole world revolves around his love for Bella and protecting Bella. He doesn’t need or want anything else. Women and young girls, among others, swoon at this ideal. The strong yet gentle protector who will never look at another woman or want to play poker with his buddies or retreat into his man-cave. The real Edwards of the world are called stalkers and Bella would never want to date him.
But the fantasy is still there. Millions have swooned for these books and been made fun of in the process because of their rabid devotion to fictional characters. Twi-Moms are belittled as women with too much time on their hands, desperate for escape from crying babies and distant husbands. Twi-hards are still broken-hearted that Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson broke up in a blazingly anti-Edward-and-Bella cheating scandal.
I wonder, though, if this is exactly the appeal. In this day and age, women are supposed to be Wonder Woman – beautiful, brilliant, perfect parents, perfect lovers, perfect cooks, perfect house-keepers, perfect friends, and perfect individuals. Debora Spar says in her article “Why the Woman Who ‘Has It All’ Doesn’t Really Exist” “Because we can do anything, we feel as if we have to do everything.” And like anyone, women need an escape. And maybe, deep down, a woman’s version of escape is rooted in biology: she wants to submit. What makes a woman feel like a woman? Women may protest as men gape at a hot-looking body, but women can be just as bad. Women may not want to admit that they want a big strong man to throw them into bed, and of course it is a stereotype and there are all kinds of types and appetites, but the point is that our bodies are animals, hard-wired with instincts that we cannot rationalize. It goes against the politically-correct notion that we are what we think. But the reality just may be that we are what we feel. Our psyche and society are often dismissive of and antagonistic to our animalism. As humans we want to rise above such baseness.
But Harlequin romance novels and Playboy tell a very different story. Hollywood is taking our instincts all the way to the bank.