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New Voices in Film Criticism: Tasha Robinson at The Dissolve

The Dissolve’s Tasha Robinson writes up a brilliant piece about female characters in films who are supposed to be “strong” but who, in the end, really are just your usual backseat babe, making the world easier for the male hero to swoop in and save the day. Most of the films aimed at young people and the male demographic that Hollywood believes dominates the box office feature this dynamic.

Writing strong female characters does not mean always making them “good.” Emily Blunt and Meryl Streep are both strong female characters in The Devil Wears Prada, for instance, and neither of them are “good.” What Robinson is addressing isn’t the status quo: women hardly ever exist in films at all unless it’s to provide support to the male characters. She’s writing about this new trend of pretending you have a strong female in the film when it turns out, in the end, she isn’t. You can test this by imagining those supporting characters actually in the lead. Imagine how much better The Edge of Tomorrow would have been with Emily Blunt in the lead. They set her up as a fighting machine, an expert monster killer. But in the end, we never see her do any of that because he’s the better fighter, ultimately, and the one she defers to again and again. We are an audience that has evolved enough to accept a movie with a woman in the lead being the badass who wins the day. We can totally go there. We all watch Game of Thrones and Hunger Games, with no problem. But for some reason, it is assumed that a movie like this can only get made if there is a central male figure in the lead.

However, Robinson makes an exception to Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow, trading in the fine qualities her character possesses, even if it means she is surpassed and given not that much to do by the end. It isn’t that I didn’t like Edge of Tomorrow. I thought it was fine. But it let one of its best assets slip right through its fingers and in so doing it created, ultimately, a flaccid action pic. That is what Tasha Robinson calls “Trinity Syndrome.” She talks about it in terms of How to Train Your Dragon, which is a wonderful film which absolutely does the same thing as Edge of Tomorrow. It pulls the bait and switch – oh look, strong female! Oh, wait. Nevermind.

Incidentally, it isn’t just about feminism or political correctness in this case. It’s about broader thinking overall, more interesting and challenging stories for very sophisticated audiences. There are so many different ways they could have taken Edge of Tomorrow, which ends up as a futuristic film that might have been made ten years ago. But just playing with memory and living lives over can be experienced in any video game 12 year-olds play. What would be about the future that would be or could be MORE interesting than an alien invasion? What about tomorrow would you like to know? Groundhog Day was far more thoughtful in this regard. Having Blunt be the hero in the end COULD HAVE played with convention a little and made it a better ride.

Here’s Robinson:

So here’s a quick questionnaire for filmmakers who’ve created a female character who isn’t a dishrag, a harpy, a McGuffin to be passed around, or a sex toy. Congratulations, you have a Strong Female Character. That’s a great start! But now what? Screenwriters, producers, directors, consider this:

After being introduced, does your Strong Female Character then fail to do anything fundamentally significant to the outcome of the plot? Anything at all?

If she does accomplish something plot-significant, is it primarily getting raped, beaten, or killed to motivate a male hero?

Or deciding to have sex with/not have sex with/agreeing to date/deciding to break up with a male hero?

Or nagging a male hero into growing up, or nagging him to stop being so heroic? Basically, does she only exist to service the male hero’s needs, development, or motivations?

Could your Strong Female Character be seamlessly replaced with a floor lamp with some useful information written on it to help a male hero?

Is a fundamental point of your plot that your Strong Female Character is the strongest, smartest, meanest, toughest, or most experienced character in the story—until the protagonist arrives?

…or worse, does he enter the story as a bumbling fuck-up, but spend the whole movie rapidly evolving past her, while she stays entirely static, and even cheers him on? Does your Strong Female Character exist primarily so the protagonist can impress her?

It’s nice if she’s hyper-cool, but does she only start off that way so a male hero will look even cooler by comparison when he rescues or surpasses her?

Is she so strong and capable that she’s never needed rescuing before now, but once the plot kicks into gear, she’s suddenly captured or threatened by the villain, and needs the hero’s intervention? Is breaking down her pride a fundamental part of the story?

Does she disappear entirely for the second half/third act of the film, for any reason other than because she’s doing something significant to the plot (besides being a hostage, or dying)?

If you can honestly answer “no” to every one of these questions, you might actually have a Strong Female Character worthy of the name. Congratulations!

The thing is, this is about always portraying women in a good light. That is the mistake a lot of people make when figuring out whether there are well written female parts or not. It is the bait and switch that is most often the most bothersome – when they pretend they’re presenting a “strong female character” but her role exists only to help the central male figure succeed and win the day, which basically equates to 99% of Hollywood product that isn’t on television.

Television has Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Nurse Jackie, Veep – you name it, there are well written, brilliant female characters everywhere you turn. Movies? Not so much. And I no longer think it’s because people won’t buy tickets to them. They WILL because the audience demographics are changing. It’s time for Hollywood to change along with them.

13 Comments on this Post

  1. alexww

    This immediately made me think of last nights GOT finale (MILD SPOILERS), but seeing Lady Brienne finally kick some ass, and to have her fight be just as brutal as all the ones between the male characters, was so refreshing, and shocking at the same time!

  2. Ryan, stand back. I’m about to get all feminist on your ass* again ;)

    I pondered over Emily Blunt’s character in Edge of Tomorrow a lot in this regard the second time I saw it, and I realised why it didn’t irk me that she hadn’t been the film’s protagonist. I think Edge of Tomorrow is a part of the problem, but it’s not a problem in itself – I took issue more with the fact that it was another Tom-Cruise-saves-the-day film, not another white-man-saves-the-day film. Blunt’s character is Cruise’s mentor, his trainer, the authority figure in the relationship. Had the roles been reversed, there’d likely be even more outcry about how the film takes a weak-willed woman and only brings out her strength and heroism under the tutelage of a strong, capable man. Cruise may be the more prominent of the two in the film’s world-saving narrative, but it’s Blunt who makes it happen.

    There are flaws therein, I know, that’s the nature of the masculine-dominated culture in which we live. But it would have been worse had it been switched, imo. Now, making both characters women? Now that’s a change I could definitely have supported!

    *This was not initially intended as innuendo, but it certainly is now. Gotta sweeten the pill, yanno?

  3. Profile photo of Sasha Stone

    Wasn’t that great? She has to be my favorite.

  4. Sasha ,please watch Orange is the New Black.It is among the best shows currently.A series composed of multiracial women and regular women at that.You will love it I am sure.

  5. Linda Callaghan

    Here is an interesting article on gender reversal in BBC America’s “Orphan Black”, a show where nearly all the main characters are female (and nearly all played by Tatiana Maslany!) and the male characters are mostly underdeveloped and secondary.

    http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2014/04/male_characters_on_orphan_black_are_undeveloped_making_the_show_s_feminist.html

  6. Why can’t Lisbeth Fucking Salander just be the mold all female characters are based off of? :P

  7. You know me by now. I saw EDGE OF TOMORROW and just liked it. I didn’t notice any of that stuff. I thought they were working together and helping each other. I didn’t think one character was better or more important than the other.

    I usually don’t have HBO I only got it lately to watch “Game of Thrones” and will be getting rid of it shortly. Previously, I got “Veep” out of the library to see if it was any good, mainly because of Tony Hale who played Buster on “Arrested Development”. I watched like two episodes and lost interest. She seems like a dipshit, Vice President or not. Being a dipshit isn’t really something I think shows any kind of women’s lib. Even if she’s got the position she has in the world she’s still not someone to want to be like. I’d much rather look up to Emily Blunt’s character in EOT.

    Brienne of Tarth is amazeballs. So is Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, the First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of Meereen, Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons. But Cersei isn’t. And Shae is the devil. But Arya is even more amazeballs. But then most of the women who’ve appeared on the show are naked ladies I’m never going to see again. So how do we judge a show like that? Is it sending good or bad messages? Maybe it’s doing neither. Maybe it’s just a show.

    Once again, I’m thinking in terms of racism, sexism, all the other -isms, when you watch a movie or TV show your going to come out of it with the -ism you went looking for in the first place.

  8. Antoinette, you’re right about Veep. The Selina, and the rest of her underlings, are dipshits. Highly unlikeable people. But I love the show :)

    Your last paragraph is aces.

  9. Jason B.

    I totally agree with Paddy Mulholland’s comment, “Had the roles been reversed, there’d likely be even more outcry about how the film takes a weak-willed woman…”

    I actually disagree entirely with this analysis of Edge of Tomorrow. Yes, it isn’t a perfect, female-driven action film. But unlike other action films, the marketing of this film puts her at or almost at equal weight to Tom Cruise. Granted, he might stand slightly in front of her in some (not all) the posters, he also has 20 years of box office clout. But none of the posters sexualize Blunt. They don’t have her do the generic look over the shoulder shot just so we can see her ass.

    And in the film, she is treated as an equal. She’s resilient, even to a fault. And I think this comment is completely made up, “we never see HER do any of that because HE’S the better fighter.” They are shown as a unit and neither can accomplish anything without the other. And she’s shown right next to him up until the very end and sacrifices her life (knowing neither will escape alive).

    It’s not the most amazing action film ever but I would say it does a far better job than any Marvel or Michael Bay film to treat women as equals in the narrative and in the marketing… minus the yoga shots, but they weren’t TOO sexualized.

  10. Jason B.

    Also want to add more broadly about Blunt, why isn’t she leading lady status yet (no offense to their fans) overrated actresses like Jennifer Lawrence and Jessica Chastain got 4-5 films a year?

    That said, I am excited to see Chastain’s upcoming two-part Eleanor Rigby film. But my interest in her faded after Zero Dark Thirty… Still don’t see why it was praised by feminists when it makes women look unstable and emotional compared to level-headed men. But I’ve been meaning to revisit that film to see if I just missed a subtle, gripping performance in all the hysterics.

  11. Al Robinson

    “Why can’t Lisbeth Fucking Salander just be the mold all female characters are based off of?”

    Adam, (I mean no harm by this, just a generalizing guess, but…) you want to fuck Lisbeth don’t you? Don’t worry, I feel the same way. I just plain ‘ol find her sexy. Now granted, she’s not a real person…

  12. Actually, Tasha Robinson wasn’t really that brilliant. Not if you actually examine her examples. Take a look at my response to her! http://foodandfilmreelsblog.wordpress.com/2014/06/20/response-to-tasha-robinson/

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