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.
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.