A NewStatesman piece is going around this week called “I Hate Strong Female Characters,” and it’s actually pretty good. Sophia McDougall makes the not-new but needs-repeating argument that we conflate the presence of “strong female characters” in our media with equality. She points out that a) implying strength as an unusual asset for female characters is belittling (would we crow about a film with strong male characters? HAH) and that b) boxing female characters into narrow tropes of success (she can roundhouse kick!) reduces human complexity and replaces one archetype with another. Putting Scarlet Johnson on the cover of the Avengers does not equality make, even if she can roundhouse. See Margaret Lyons’ similar argument regarding The Newsroom.
Though I wouldn’t state my position with quite the extremity McDougall’s essay title suggests (though that’s probably just a smart editor baiting for clicks), I generally feel the same way. The female characters that I am thrilled to see in TV and movies are complicated, multi-faceted, not-always-right, not-always-wrong humans. While there’s an aspirational part of me that will always love CJ Cregg (The Jackal is forever in my heart), CJ is not complicated for me. She is strong and devoted and loyal and smart, but I always agree with her. She never makes mistakes. Never behaves badly, or selfishly, or shows weakness that isn’t also designed to show strength. She is an idealized version of what I want a press secretary to be (Remember “Crackpots and These Women?” Bartlett idealizes her too) and never forces me to confront hard truths or tough ethical dilemmas.
There’s room for the CJs, of course, but it’s also important that we show that women can be messy and difficult (This is the age of the anti-hero, right? How about an anti-heroine?) They can be good people who make mistakes, or bad people who aren’t always bad, or, you know, just people who are hella complicated because they’re humans. Here are a few of the characters that I generally like because they are forceful, ambitious, strong, driven but who are sometimes dishonest, weak, foolish, selfish, conflicted, etc.
- Deb Morgan (Dexter)
- Skyler White (Breaking Bad)
- Piper Chapman (Orange is the New Black…actually, everyone on Orange is the New Black)
- Rayna James, Juliette Barnes (Nashville)
- Jeanette Desautel, LaDonna Baptiste-Williams (Treme)
- Peggy Olson (Mad Men)
- Carrie Mathison (Homeland)
- Claire Underwood (House of Cards)
- Cersei Lannister (Game of Thrones)
- Diane Lockhart, Alicia Florrick (The Good Wife)
There’s something to be said for the fact that I could pull this list off the top of my head. I do think things are getting better, with more and more interesting (not “strong,” but interesting) roles for women. So what do we want? I think McDougall sums it up well:
What do I want instead of a Strong Female Character? I want a male:female character ratio of 1:1 instead of 3:1 on our screens. I want a wealth of complex female protagonists who can be either strong or weak or both or neither, because they are more than strength or weakness. Badass gunslingers and martial artists sure, but also interesting women who are shy and quiet and do, sometimes, put up with others’ shit because in real life there’s often no practical alternative. And besides heroines, I want to see women in as many and varied secondary and character roles as men: female sidekicks, mentors, comic relief, rivals, villains.
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