Feminism in Film

Why Hollywood’s empowerment narrative falls flat

by Breanna Beers

The mere inclusion of a female protagonist was once considered box office suicide, especially for major franchises with predominantly male fanbases. Movies like “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent,” and “Captain Marvel” have repeatedly disproven that theory, driven in part by the rise of modern mainstream feminism in the early 2010s. Accordingly, we’ve seen more and more movies with women in the center of the poster. 

However, while increased representation is a wonderful start, Hollywood remains a male-dominated industry. Women, while increasingly represented, remain represented primarily from a male perspective. More women are being given stories, but most of them are not female-driven stories.

Instead, we see new archetypes being carved out as contemporary stereotypes replace the outdated ones. The shimmering cocktail dress has been swapped for black pleather pants.

I’m talking, of course, about the strong female character, or SFC. Always on the defensive, she stands alone and a little apart from the group. She’s the one woman in a team of men but smarter and tougher than any of them, and she’s ready to prove it. If someone so much as dares a kind word, she’ll knock them out for their brazen flirtation. Needless to say, she’s “not your typical damsel in distress.” 

Congratulations, Hollywood, on moving past Disney’s “Snow White.” Here’s your gold star and suffragette sash.

Of course, I’m not the first to notice this trend. As novelist Sophia McDougall wrote for New Statesman way back in 2013, “Nowadays the princesses all know kung fu, and yet they’re still the same princesses. They’re still love interests, still the one girl in a team of five boys, and they’re all kind of the same.”

As McDougall points out, the popularization of feminism created the SFC, but the more I see this trope played out, the more I’m convinced that the SFC actually works against the goals of feminism.

Now, since ‘feminism’ is a term that’s nebulously defined, inevitably controversial and inherently political, allow me to clarify. Throughout this article, I’ll be using the word in its most basic sense: advocacy for the equality of women based on the equal value, dignity and humanity of the sexes. And it’s on these terms that I find the SFC mold so frustrating.

It’s not just that it’s a new trope, a fresh box to force women back into. Male characters, too, have their archetypes, and some of these tropes are just as damaging to the cultural concept of masculinity as the SFC is to what it means to be female.

The problem isn’t the mere existence of archetypes. It’s the predominance of one particular perspective to the total exclusion of more fully formed frameworks for femininity. Too often, mere inclusivity is billed as a feminist victory, when, in reality, the SFC vilifies complex womanhood as often as it vindicates it. The SFC lets Hollywood claim “feminism” while limiting women to a single vision of empowerment. 

For one thing, the SFC promotes a paradigm of empowerment defined primarily by physical toughness. Women desiring the agency and autonomy of men are forced to compete with men on masculine terms, often requiring either years of austere, often-traumatic training or literal superpowers to do so. It’s a slap in the face for women who aren’t either born half-alien or raised in an assassin school. 

While the question of how society responds to physically strong women is worthy of discussion, limiting feminism in film to physical fortitude ignores the real desire of female audience members: to see themselves reflected in complex characters who drive their own stories. The SFC often fails to accomplish this because it is so focused on (rightly) avoiding problematic stereotypes that it creates an entirely new one, producing characters that are uncompelling and one-dimensional.  

Maybe studios are afraid to write real women because the SFC is seen as the only way for women to compete with men. But this assumption is a comically shallow view of what real power is and, by extension, what equality requires. Even #MeToo, a feminist movement focused on men exerting physical control over women, was more about the subtler domination of financial and cultural power than brute physical strength.

In fact, tying feminism to physical dominance gives women a pass for toxic behavior that would be seen as outright abusive if performed by a man. For instance, in “Captain America: The First Avenger,” Peggy Carter grabs her gun and shoots at Steve Rogers, protected only by his untested prototype shield, after seeing him with another woman.

Ultimately, focusing exclusively on the physicality of female characters, even in these “positive” ways, is inherently objectifying. The SFC is defined solely by her strength in the same way that the damsel-in-distress was defined solely by her weakness. Her value comes from her physical abilities rather than from who she is as a person.

And it’s who women are as people that audiences, male and female, actually care about. Rather than investing in genuine character development, the SFC is a lazy ticking of the inclusion checkbox that ignores the complexities of real women. 

That’s why, on the one hand, there’s me, who wants to see more female representation done right, and on the other there are angry fanboys complaining about the “agenda” taking over their favorite franchises. While I would argue that an “agenda” as unambitious as mere female presence is one that we should probably all get behind, we are both frustrated by the same thing: subpar storytelling.

Despite its well-intentioned attempt at subversion, the SFC is ultimately more macho than modern. It subliminally suggests that to be “empowered,” a woman must go out of her way to get rid of anything that could possibly be construed as “girly.” This includes not only feminine stereotypes of weakness and passivity but any universally human qualities that don’t fit the tough, hardcore mold.

By contrast, real feminism creates a richer vision of womanhood, not a more limited one. Having women in your movies is a step in the right direction, but real representation is more than just female presence.

Falling back on this shorthand to prove how progressive your movie is isn’t empowering; it’s just lazy. It implies, as critic Carina Chocano wrote for the New York Times, that “unless a female character is ‘strong,’ she’s not interesting or worth identifying with.”

The condescension of the SFC “feminism” becomes painfully obvious contrasted against the marketing of male characters. No one ever asks if a male lead is “strong.” As McDougall astutely points out, this may partly be because male strength is assumed.

“Part of the patronising promise of the Strong Female Character is that she’s anomalous,” she writes. “Of course, normal women are weak and boring and can’t do anything worthwhile. But this one is different. She is strong! See, she roundhouses people in the face.”

Yet the excuse that strength is the male default tells an incomplete story. Our best-loved male characters are not necessarily strong (McDougall uses the example of Sherlock Holmes) and even those that are strong are not best loved for their strength. Tony Stark is not compelling as a character primarily because of his billionaire empire or epic superpowers. He’s compelling because of who he is: intelligent, narcissistic, irreverent, damaged. His suit gives him power, but his choices give him agency. His physical abilities are incidental, not essential. The story of Tony Stark is defined by his character flaws and personal growth. His superpowers are just the context that allows that growth to occur.

The “Strong Male Character” box is far too small for all but the blandest characters—early iterations of Superman come to mind. And yet the SFC is marketed as expanding the catalog of female roles.

My point isn’t that female characters shouldn’t be physically strong, that the trait in itself is either demeaning or unrealistic. It’s that when we’re looking to celebrate feminism in film, we should evaluate whether portrayals of women are truly representative of the nuanced, complex, lived experiences of real humans, or are just hollow avatars “courageously” subverting stereotypes that were already outdated in the 1960s. 

Ultimately, the problem here is not that movie studios haven’t “gone far enough” to undermine female stereotypes. The problem is that they’re going about it in entirely the wrong way. Female representation doesn’t mean a woman gets her picture on a poster. It means her story gets told. That requires developing characters, not just including them. 

So if all this is actually the fault of crazy far-far-left sixth-and-a-half-wave feminists pressuring movie executives into creating only the strongest version of female characters, what’s the solution? Avoiding feminism altogether? Gender-blind casting?

Maybe it involves understanding what feminism, at its core, really means. Equality doesn’t necessarily mean sameness, but it does mean…well, equality. It means giving female characters agency and nuance and identities and arcs, and yes, even weaknesses.

Here’s a secret, Hollywood: the more women you have, in as many diverse and varied roles, personalities, and situations as possible, the less one single character has to bear the weight of being the perfect ambassador for femaleness in a sea of men and the less you have to worry about whether she specifically will be perceived as sufficiently “strong.”

I’m not trying to contend that fewer characters that look like me on screen is some form of oppression. But this deficit is both revealing and shaping: revealing of the latent concept of womanhood in broader culture and shaping the minds of viewers to reinforce those ideas.

I’m all for more princesses who know kung fu, as long as they’re also surrounded by teachers and rivals and villains and mentors and artists and moms and scientists and businesswomen and travellers and sisters who don’t have to. 

Breanna Beers is a senior Molecular Biology major and the Editor-in-Chief of Cedars. She loves exercising curiosity, hiking new trails, and citrus tea.

1 Reply to "Feminism in Film"

  • comment-avatar
    Tom April 28, 2021 (7:57 pm)

    Let’s not forget that at it’s core, Hollywood is still a money making enterprise. Their first obligation is not to be SJWs, but to provide their investors with a return on investment. If not, there won’t be anymore movies to worry about. I think the best high profile series to represent men and women with complex characters was undoubtedly Game of Thrones. A very diverse combination of both male and female roles in a complex story line.

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