We need heroines who tell girls that they are strong and capable entirely on their own, that they don’t need a family and ESPECIALLY don’t need a lover in order to become themselves. We need heroines who prove in action that no one ever—EVER—has the right to take your livelihood or body or home away from you, as well as that—if it happens—it doesn’t have to destroy you forever. Girls need to see that it’s okay to seek and use power, that there is nothing at all wrong with being a strong, emotional, powerful leader as a woman.
A useful piece of advice I received as a screenwriter was to make my main character proactive. If my lead was willful and had a clear goal, I would have no problem following them through their own actions to achieve, or not achieve, that goal. This was useful insofar as it allowed me to finally complete a script. With just a little finagling the plot points unfolded in all the right places and things made good sense. But naturally, I was therefore incapable of writing anything remotely true to my own life experience.
Sagay discovered the subject of her Jane Austen-like drama a decade ago when she viewed the 18th century portrait by an unknown artist of a beautiful, biracial woman standing next to a blond, a woman in a pink brocade gown, in the galleries of Scone Palace in Scotland. The blond woman reaches out to the other woman who is slightly above here in the picture, and who wears a silk gown and an exotic headdress. She has a twinkle in her eye and exudes life and even has a sense of mischief. You cannot take your eyes off her.
While women are generally underrepresented in the media, stories about domestic and sexual violence overwhelmingly place women in the roles of the victim. In a world where men play the heroes and villains, the damsel in distress is an on-screen role where women are positively overflowing. Breaking that stereotype with strong women is crucial, but for true gender equality, men need to be seen in vulnerable positions as well.
There Are Roles and There Are Roles: Reminders and Expectations from 1992’s ‘Orlando’ (and the “Boo Box” in ‘Hook’)
Despite our limited options and scope in the world of movies, many cinematic characters get their fair share of explorative opportunities. But most of these characters, as many of us know, are male, right down to who we see standing in the frame. This is why for me, the core question of potential is most intricately entwined with female characters in popular movies. Although there have been many great female roles out there, there is much to do nonetheless, and this in turn reminds me of the progress that needs to be made for both sexes and all gender identities.
As a writer, comedian, and feminist who works in television development, I am continuously frustrated by not only the lack of female characters in entertainment but also the types of female characters in entertainment. Don’t get me wrong, they’re not all bad, some are fantastic (like the ones in the above photo), but others don’t have nearly as much depth, power, or memorability as the men do, and I ask you, dear readers, why? Why? WHY?!?! I don’t have the answer but I do have a list of tips for how we can write, not good, but superb female characters. Now, I am no expert, but I am a passionate person filled with rage, and those are always the best people to bestow advice upon others. Fingers crossed I change the world with this.
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What disappointed me most, I think, was that Black Swan could easily have been a progressive film with a positive, young woman-centered journey out of repression at its center. It could have recouped that gender-centric childhood ballerina dream of so many little girls into a message about determination, hard work, personal strength, and emotional growth. Instead, Darren Aronofsy has produced an Oscar-winning horror film. That’s right: I said HORROR. While that might seem like a stretch, it seems clear to me that the horror I refer to is the possibility of changing an age-old story. The horror of Black Swan is the absolutely terrifying idea that a young woman might make it through the difficult process of maturation, develop a healthy, multi-faceted sexuality, and be successful at her chosen career at the same time.
Early in the film, Dawn is a nymph-like virgin committed to “saving herself” until marriage. She is the poster child for the “good” girl: a loving daughter who obeys the doctrines of the church and spends her time spreading the gospel of virginity. Everything Dawn knows about the world and herself changes when her falsely pious boyfriend Tobey takes her to a far off swimming hole and tries to rape her. A confused and terrified Dawn reacts by screaming and then—much to everyone’s surprise—cutting off his penis to interrupt the rape. Little does Dawn know that her lessons about Darwin in her biology classes are taking hold in her own body.
My main issue with the film is that it is speckled with meaningless platitudes and clichés about girl empowerment when the film simply isn’t empowering. The women in the film are portrayed as oversexualized, helpless, damaged goods. Though there are metaphors at work that symbolize abuse or objectification of women, nowhere does the film stress an injustice or seek to dismantle its source. It is just like any other formulaic action movie complete with boobs, guns, and explosions, but it has a shiny, artificial veneer of girl empowerment. The false veneer is the aspect of the film that truly infuriates me, along with the side of artsy pretentious bullshit.
The expectations for girls in film and television are incredibly mixed. It is naïve to say that girls nowadays are just expected to be a sexy sidekick or afterthought. With more strong female roles popping up in bigger budget films such as Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, there is the expectation that girls should also be intelligent and incredibly clever (while also being visually pleasing). I love Harry Potter and The Hunger Games for giving women these intense and interesting character traits. However, I remember thinking after I saw/read the series, “Wow, I’m not nearly as clever as Hermione and could never be as brave as Katniss.” There isn’t really a place for the all-around average girl. The first two examples of strong female protagonists that I could think of are in fantasy franchises. Are real female characters really that difficult to come up with? Real female characters are often created with good intentions but tend not to work on a larger scale.
I’ve recently taken to revisiting some of these forgotten (or culty, depending on who’s looking) classics with a new, more grown-up and feminist eye, and I’ve been examining the lessons that each of these gems showed us. One of my recent new/old film crushes is a 1990 film called Lisa (starring Cheryl Ladd, Staci Keenan, and DW Moffet). It has all the teen angst that a gal could hope for. At first glance you expect this to be a typical thriller, but this film is so much more. It is an open exploration of a young woman coming into her own, exploring her sexuality, rebelling against traditional convention, and if that weren’t interesting enough, Lisa’s story runs parallel to the exploits of a serial rapist/killer. One of the things that makes this film so different is the point at which these two stories intersect, and Lisa proves herself more capable than imaginable and saves herself and her mother from the killer’s clutches. The ending of the film flipped the traditional damsel in distress cliché on its head.