Strong Female Characters

I liked the new Avengers movie. It wasn’t the greatest movie, of course, and the plotline wasn’t all that creative. But as far as summer superhero flicks go it was quite solid, much better than most of its predecessors. One of the most interesting parts of the movie was Scarlett Johansson as Agent Romanoff (aka Black Widow).

Like all the other members of the Avengers she appeared in a previous movie — Iron Man 2 – but her part there was quite small. She had a good amount of screen time but was basically eye candy. Elegant and kick-ass eye candy perhaps, but eye candy nonetheless. It’s only in the last part of the movie do we see her true character and even then in a pretty small role. Her portrayal in Avengers is quite different. In less than five minutes she’s set up as being on top of her game – she’s a very capable agent with her own goals and motivations. Her first focus is her work and her duty, she’s not just a foil for one the “lead” heroes.

I found her relationship with Hawkeye particularly interesting and well done. They clearly have a shared (and bloody) past and it’s very clear there’s some romantic/sexual tension at play. But I was pleasantly surprised that both of them put their duty above it all. It’s exactly what you’d expect from members of a professional and elite military organization. I’m happy it didn’t get substituted for a run-of-the-mill romantic subplot. While characters like Iron Man and the Hulk are meant to be (and were) over the top and unbelievable I found Agent Romanoff refreshingly down-to-earth and believable.

As Morgan Hyde points out, she’s not the only female character in the movie. Agent Fury’s second-in-command is a woman and just like Romanoff is professional, focused and capable. She does her job, does it well and doesn’t need rescuing thank you very much.

Last night I went to see Snow White and the Huntsman. It’s a bad movie. Snow White’s character is confused, uninspiring and largely boring. Her defining quality is supposed to be her purity and innocence which I suppose is to be expected from a Snow White movie. She shows real potential when she cleverly escapes from the Queen’s castle. But for the rest of the movie sh’s content to be led around by her Huntsman savior (a self-proclaimed drunkard who was quite happy to turn her in for his own purposes), then the dwarves and finally her childhood sweatheart. Finally after being brought back to life she suddenly becomes all fiery and battle-heardened and gets around to stabbing the Queen straight through the heart. So much for being pure and innocent. Lot of potential completely squandered.

By comparison, Charlize Theron as the evil Queen is so much more interesting. Sure, she’s a psychopath, but she’s so good at it. She’s actually intelligent, she’s powerful, she’s scheming and she doesn’t take no for an answer. She has a background, a past and a purpose that she’s really fighting and risking all for (sure it involves dominion over all life on earth and eating Snow White’s heart, but that’s besides the point). Given all the other characters, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the movie’s actually about her, that it’s a sad tragedy about how some upstart brat ruins everything through basically sheer dumb luck.

Yes I did just spoil the whole movie for you. And you’re welcome.

I wrote a strong female character once (or at least I’d like to think that I did). Her name was Agent Nalini Mewar and she was an Indian princess working undercover in Nazi Germany. Why yes, I do have an overactive imagination. Now that I think about it, she was part Agent Romanoff, part Captain Katherine Janeway. I did not make her the main character (though perhaps I should have). The lead role was a dashing young RAF pilot caught behind enemy lines. No they did not fall madly in love. Yes, she has better things to do than go galavanting across Europe with a man she just met in a Nazi jail cell. There’s a war on damnit! (though to be fair, there’s is some of that, but it’s for a higher purpose)

If there’s a point to this, it’s that strong female characters in movies are hard to come by. Books are more interesting and varied, but then again, books generally are. It’s possible that this is related to the general dearth of original screenplays nowadays – if you’re just recycling old material then you’re recycling old stereotypes and ideas (and no, I don’t care how gritty your reboot is). But even a damn good screenplay (like Drive) is no promise of a decent female character. I’m very interested in seeing Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman. In the previous movies Rachel Daws was interesting and not entirely a damsel in distress. Hence I have some hopes.

I’m acutely aware that my selection above spans fantasy, action and science fiction mainly because that’s what I generally watch. I have a taste for impossible. If I’ve been missing out on strong female characters in other genres please do let me know in the comments. I’d like nothing more than to be pleasantly surprised.

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2 thoughts on “Strong Female Characters

  1. I’m glad to hear someone’s optimistic about Catwoman. She’s a dangerous character in that her sexuality can be – and often is – overplayed in a way that transforms her from a woman who is strong, capable, and knows what she wants into a – for lack of a better term – sex kitten.

    As for strong female characters in the rest of pop culture, I’ve noticed over the years (and I might be wrong) that genre fiction has tended to be an early and enthusiastic adopter of the strong woman. I mean, there are some (many of the female interns from House, for instance) in “mainstream” TV, but a lot of the ones I remember being really popular started out in genre fiction. Looking waaay back there were characters like Emma Peel and Sarah Jane Smith (because the Doctor doesn’t put up with women who can’t hold their own). When I was a kid, there were Agent Scully and Buffy to look up to as empowered, take-no-prisoners women with intellect, physical strength, and beauty. Nowadays, I guess you could look at Lisbeth Salander and Kate Beckett from Castle. In all of these cases, genre fiction exploded in popularity and broke into the mainstream in no small part (I think) because the public really does find this type of female character compelling. The sooner Hollywood realize that strong women are what the public wants, the better.

  2. Thanks for removing any last vestiges of desire to see Snow White and the Huntsman. When I first saw ads for it, I thought it might be good despite Kristin Stewart. Alas, from everything I’ve heard, not so much.

    I liked how you talked about the Queen and how it could have been her story. I think part of what’s missing from a lot of movies and media is strong female characters as villains. Not your stereotypical “slutty assassin” or “sexy [anything]” but fleshed out characters like the Queen. Just like with men, strong females can be evil. And I won’t like them as people, but I will like them as villains. (you know what I mean, right?)

    Last but not least, thanks for linking to my post!

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