The Failure of Strong Female Characters

In Featured, Industry Insights, Marielle Cuccinelli by Amanda Valdovinos

– By Marielle Cuccinelli –

(This article contains some spoilers for Roar Uthaug’s Tomb Raider)

Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen a push to bring more female representation to the screen. Every genre has manifested varying degrees of change on this front; where I’m most informed is the action genre, so that will be for the most part the focus of this article. As a result of the longstanding scarcity of good female action heroes, those of us in the audience that want to see that scarcity remedied are so starved for female-strong action content that we are inclined to write off and overlook any flaws these films may have, even going so far as to be unable to acknowledge when one of them turns out simply bad. However, to be true to the end goal that makes us so eager for a greater female presence, we must hold any female-driven story to the same standards we apply to any other story; to cut it more slack or make excuses for it is actually counterproductive.

Before we jump in, here, let’s talk about the elephant in the room so we don’t have to dance around the word “feminism” for the rest of this piece. This principle – that balanced female representation on the screen is important – is, yes, a feminist notion, if you want to oversimplify things. But what exactly do we mean by that? It’s remarkably straightforward: the point of feminism, at the end of the day, is egalitarianism (ie, equality). So for the sake of accuracy, that is the terminology to which we will be adhering.

Back to the point. What’s brought us here? Without even beginning to tackle the representation gap behind the scenes in both the live action world and the animation world, it is gapingly obvious that women have always been nowhere near equally represented on screen. This is true in terms of both hard numbers (this analysis of 2000 screenplays reports that 75% of screenplays give most of the dialogue to men, while a 2014 study reports that 2.3 men appear on screen for every 1 woman) and less concrete issues of presentation (women consistently existing only as tropes: the love interest, the damsel in distress, the “fridged” female, the token girl, the sex appeal, the female knockoff, the one-dimensional badass – but more on that in a couple of minutes when we take a crack at the so-called “strong female character”). 

Because of this gaping deficiency of female-led stories, or even stories with a balanced female presence, we’ve hatched a certain desperation for stories of this sort to attach ourselves to. Coupled with loyalty to a cause – in this case, equality – this results in a sense of blind obligation to support, like, and praise content geared toward a feminist audience. Especially when it comes to the action genre, we fall prey to this subconscious pressure to love the stories about female heroes and to champion the so-called strong women, because if we don’t, we are proving what the cynics have been saying all along: there is no audience for this kind of female-driven story. 

And while there has surely been an uptick in the number of genuinely excellent movies and TV shows that do manage to include a balanced female presence, there’s a lot of jetsam in the mix – maybe even a majority, just as it’s fully possible the majority of film is mediocre or bad. However, our combined desperation for female-driven content and loyalty to the ideal of equal representation results in the lowering of our standards and the turning of a blind eye to a piece’s faults. The studios are certainly aware of this, and have effectively commodified equality in order to monetize off those who look for it on screen.

Okay, but how do we objectively measure something like this? It seems largely opinion based, right? Well, no, actually. Aside from the articles linked above, many of which are packed with concrete data, there are a plethora of hard numbers and actual statistics available. But even when it comes to the construction of characters, there’s a certain degree of objectivity to whether any character is well-drawn. A strong character is an interesting and realistic one; a compelling, relatable, conflicted, complicated, well-drawn human person. Lara Croft of Roar Uthaug’s Tomb Raider, for example: she’s physically strong, for sure, but if you look past that, she’s actually kind of a loser when we meet her. 

Spoilers for a great film incoming, so if you haven’t seen Tomb Raider, skip this paragraph. Lara Croft is too broke to pay her dues at her boxing gym – where she gets thoroughly trounced anyway – and her only prospect at scraping up the money she needs is a bicycle fox chase, which she botches up and doesn’t get paid for. She’s hiding from her responsibility and childishly refusing to face the fact that her father is dead (although the movie forgives her for this by turning him up alive in order to kill him properly). As she follows a challenging journey, she remains human and realistic; she runs from a knife fight, sobs in pain when she takes a life-threatening fall and gets impaled – but ultimately prevails by virtue of sheer, tenacious grit.

Let’s bring that back around. Here’s where filmmakers are going wrong as they try to appeal to an audience eager for equal representation: a strong female character is not a woman who is literally strong, but a woman who is compelling, relatable, realistic and well-drawn, who has vices and weaknesses she struggles with that balance, compete with or even outweigh the strengths that make her stand out. A strong female character is not a character who is a strong female, but a strong character who is a female. If we want to see characters like this normalized on screen, we have to stop convincing ourselves that anything less is good enough. For more on the entertainment industry’s misled interpretation of strong female characters, take a look at this article.

Still confused? Here are a couple quick tips to recognize failed attempts at equality on screen. We all know good stories show rather than tell; if a film needs to tell its audience that it’s feminist, then it isn’t. So when Breaking In’s villain Eddie goes on an evil monologue about how Shaun Russell cannot prevail because she’s just a woman, or when Ocean’s 8’s Debbie Ocean lectures Lou about how they don’t want a “him” on the team because “hims” are trouble, or when Batwoman’s Kate Kane smirks that the batsuit will be perfect “when it fits a woman” and (just in case we missed it the first time) the soundtrack kicks in with “I’m a woman!” – it undermines what might otherwise be an impactful point.

Furthermore, treating it as unexpected, extraordinary and an exception to the rule for women to be strong is so very counterproductive. Nothing is more detrimental to the goal of reaching a societal state where women are universally equal to men than the idea that strong or remarkable women are “not like other girls” – as if in some way it’s a phenomenon or singularity to stumble across a girl who’s powerful, special, spunky, attractive, capable, good, worthwhile, or what have you. 

If a movie treats femininity like a weakness, stripping the “strong” girl of girliness as if that would prevent her from being capable – that’s an equality fail. 

If a story is female driven, but that driving female stands alone against an all-male backdrop – that’s an equality fail. 

When female characters are unnecessarily sexualized and objectified, but it’s spun as empowerment – that’s an equality fail. 

When male characters are sexualized and objectified, as if overcorrecting in the other direction is the solution to the problem – yes, that’s an equality fail, too. 

When a woman derives her supposed strength from her sexuality, whether that manifests as distinguishing herself by getting naked, seducing someone to use them toward an end goal, outdoing the crudeness of her male counterparts, or flexing her feminine wiles to get what she wants – that’s an equality fail. 

The point is. If we really want to see equality on the screen, we have to take an unbiased stance when we’re viewing films. We have to stop turning a blind eye when female-driven films we’ve been looking forward to turn out mediocre. We have to be just as willing to call out bad female characters as we are to call out bad characters anywhere else. We have to stop making excuses for tropes, bad writing, and failed attempts at feminism.

About the Author

Marielle Cuccinelli (class of 2019) is Virginia-bred storyteller who’s been obsessed with action movies for as long as she can remember. She’s pursuing a Communications Major with a double emphasis in Screenwriting and Directing at JPCatholic in order to live out her ambitions of bringing the female action heroes she looked for as a kid to life on the big screen. She spends her free time writing feature films and choreographing fight scenes.