Female Characters that are actual characters and not caricatures

Its a problem now, this “Strong Female Character”. Used to be, females in film (and most other media but let’s stick to film) existed only as romantic fodder or foil for the male hero. Thus the “damsel in distress”. She was two dimensional, (or worse) she was petty, she was not very bright but she was ravishingly beautiful. And I use the word “ravishingly” for a reason.

Over time, this became tiresome for people. Yes, women mostly spoke up but it can’t be ignored that men, when asked, by and large were pretty tired of having good movies ruined by vacuous caricatures that women played. If you can’t put a decent character in there, then don’t, seemed to be the overall agreement. Though most men weren’t exactly clamoring for SFC, they certainly weren’t against them. So, Hollywood responded.

It started small, with female leads not being weak – women knew self-defense. Women weren’t afraid to talk back to the hero when he was being a jerk and they proved they were smart. Women started kicking ass occasionally too. Male viewers were thrilled – women kicking butt is sexy, after all. But it wasn’t quite what was asked for. It felt like a bone being thrown – here; have some physical prowess, some brains and you don’t have to bow and scrape. But they were still weak, weak as characters.

But hold up a minute… I agree that the ratio of male to female characters is WAY off (come on, 50% of the world is female and we’re lucky to have ONE female co-lead in any story?) and I agree that the mainstream idea of “good female character” is really a comic-book version of a hero with some boobs attached and I absolutely agree that the vast majority of movies don’t pass The Bechdel Test (which isn’t the arbiter of what makes a good female character or good feminist-sympathetic movie, its just a good indicator of sad trends)
I also think something else is going on… I think we are starting to have Fading Female Syndrome.
There are, in fact, many movies and more every year that rise above those problems in hollywood and break the usual expectations about female characters and feminism itself. But we can’t seem to remember them

Take Black Widow… from teh Avengers? Remember what she did? The really super cool thing she did that NOBODY else could do? You don’t remember? She was just a babe in a black vinyl suit who kicked a few butts and ran around showing her tits? Yeah, wasn’t that the same thing she did in the new Captain America movie? Yeah, run around in leather and show her tits?


In the Avengers, Black Widow was the only hero who managed to get Loki to reveal himself. She was the ONLY one who could mind-play better than he could. If you recall, his face was pretty shocked when he realized he’d been played too. And she DNGAF. Her neckline was no lower than Hawkeye’s. She was the person who negotiated half of what the Avengers did. She was the one Hawkeye talked to – without a shred of romance – when he came out of his brainwashing because he knew she had been through similar. As noted in the article, she was the one who closed the portal that let all the aliens in!
So in essence, Black Widow wasn’t just a SFC (although being a counter-spy, interrogator and heroine she had to be some kind of strong, they all were) she was interesting. She carried her own scenes. She added to the story. She contributed to the group dynamic. She was a real character, not a caricature. And that film probably doesn’t even pass the Bechdel test.

But let’s go back… other female characters who carry scenes, add to the story, move the plot and contribute to the group dynamic – women who are interesting characters. (and who may or may not pass the Bechdel Test)

Jane in Thor (1-3) (passes)
Giselle in Enchanted! (Passes)
Merida in Brave (passes)
Tiana in Princess and the Frog (passes)
Mulan in Mulan (doesn’t pass but given the plot that makes sense)
Maleficent (passes)
Snow White and the Huntsman (passes)
Rapunzel in Tangled (passes)
Mother Gothel in Tangled
Caroline Fry in Pitch Black (passes)
Alexa in Aliens Versus Predator (passes)
Vasquez in Aliens (passes)
Ripley in Alien (passes)
Susanna in Girl, Interrupted (passes)
“Haley” in Hard Candy (doesn’t pass – only two characters in teh whole movie- however, the main character does talk on the phone to another named female about other subjects. However it fails because that other female was never shown or heard in the movie so she is not a real character)
Juno in Juno (passes)

These women are real characters. They mean something to the movies they are in. Most of the are central characters but some of them aren’t even that. They are still important characters to the plot of the movie and if they were replaced by a man, the story would not really be the same.

These aren’t the only ones I’m sure but they are the ones I particularly remember. How many do you remember?

How many did you watch on screen, enjoy watching, in fact, because they were interesting, competent, real characters yet promptly glaze over in your memory later? I’ve heard different views on the quality of each of these films but I often wonder when I hear someone else talk about them, if the person saying so does not remember the main character like I do? Didn’t have the same visceral reaction to experiencing a real woman on-screen. A woman I could really get into, worship, love, hate, or otherwise be immersed in was up there onscreen for 2-3 hours? Did they see the same characters I did? Did it not mean anythign to them?

How often have you seen a character – especially NOT a main character – played by a female where the character wouldn’t have been the same, had the same impact, wouldn’t have nuanced the story if it were played by a man?

Going on the first linked essay.
If Trinity had been played by a man, and Neo were gay, how different, REALLY, would the Matrix storyline have been? Aside from teh whole socio-political fallout, let’s pretend society DNGAF about gay characters anymore and society even accepts that gays can fall in love and love each other just like straights do. Now does the story change?
No. Because Trinity, bless her wall-climbing heels, exists to fuel the main character to action. She provides an excuse for the villain and the strength of her character is how much she believes in the hero. If it weren’t for her belief, he wouldn’t be the man he becomes.
Nope. Wouldn’t be any different if Trinity were a man.
Because there’s no nuance to her. There’s no depth to her. She exists purely in service to the male characters entirely. And the Matrix franchise fails the Bechdel test too! Even though there’s more than two females!

So in addition to the Bechdel test, I propose the “real character test” (Or hey if it get popular, call it the smibbo test, that’d be awesome)
1. is there a female in the main cast who has unique lines?
2. does she get a scene to herself?
3. when she has a scene, does it NOT revolve around one of the main heroes? (Damsel in Distress, Fall of the ass-kicker, romancing the stone-heart etc)
4. if she were replaced by a male actor, would the story seem much different?

Now, after all that, the question I ask of you is… will you now remember that character? Or will her boobs blind you to the fact that there’s some excellent writing and acting going on right now? Will you look back and know the reason why you liked that movie was because the FEMALE CHARACTER made it what it was?

Because if the character wouldn’t be the same if it were played by a man, then why can’t you remember how very real she was?


One thought on “Female Characters that are actual characters and not caricatures

  1. Pingback: Again with the Feminism | smibbo

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