Whilst Twittering this morning, I came across two links that made me ask more questions of myself than they answered — in my opinion, always a good quality in an article. After having read the two pieces, by Carina Chocano and Alyssa Rosenberg, it got me thinking: what IS a strong female character in TV and film?
First off the top of my head came:
Buffy, obviously. Ripley in “Aliens.” Carmela Soprano. Trinity in “The Matrix.” Cut-Throat Bitch — or Amber — and Thirteen (I refuse to call her Remy, on the grounds that “Thirteen” is a much more kickass name) in “House.” Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.” Erin Brockovich. Olivia Benson in “Law & Order: SVU.” Rusty Dennis in “Mask.” Christina Yang in “Grey’s Anatomy.” Angelina Jolie in… well, pretty much everything she’s ever done (I doubt the woman could play cowed even if she wanted to) — but we’ll go with “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” as our example.
Now, let’s break those characters down into vocations, shall we?
Vampire Slayer, Alien Killer, Mob Boss’s Wife, Hacker/Kung-Fu Artist/Killer, Doctor, Doctor, Hacker/Assassin, Health Crusader, Detective, Biker Mom, Doctor, and Hitwoman.
My first realization was: we only consider female characters strong if they wield a god-like power to either kill people or heal them (physically or emotionally).
As long as they hold the power of life and death in their hands — even the ones whose power derives from their relationships with men (Carmela Soprano) — we perceive a strength that we might not attribute to, say, good ol’ everyday Roseanne. And that sucks. Because Roseanne was one of my strongest female role models when I was growing up. She might not have killed anyone or saved anyone’s life, but she was a lower-middle-class woman who managed to run her blue-collar family with an indefatigable sense of humor. And trust me, that isn’t just strong — it’s miraculous.
I grew up in a blue-collar family. I know whereof I speak.
Which brought me to my second realization:
Most of the women we consider strong female characters are also rich. Or if not out-and-out wealthy, at least incredibly well-educated.
With the exception of Erin Brockovich and Rusty Dennis (who, by the way, are also the only characters based on real women, just as Roseanne’s character was a version of herself before fame came calling), all these “strong female characters” possess amazing educations (paid for by someone) that provide them the opportunity to become what we consider “strong.”
Buffy? Upper-middle class. Ripley? Space aviator. Carmela? Upper class. Trinity? Computer hacker. Doctors? Goes without saying. Continue on down the list and try to find a “strong female character” — not based on a real person — who’s ever eaten government cheese.
It’s as if we, the general public, can’t conceive of a poor strong woman. Yet more likely than not, in your day-to-day experiences you’ve met more Roseannes than you have Christina Yangs. More Rusty Dennises than Lisbeth Salanders. More Erin Brockoviches than Jane Smiths.
Whence I arrived at my third realization: in our current media, even “normal strong” is not strong enough anymore.
It’s not enough to simply follow your heart. To stand your ground. To earn a paycheck. To raise your children, keep your family together, take care of an aging parent. It’s not enough to have worthy friends, to be loyal, to be compassionate. While Hollywood has always exploited a heightened reality — these days it seems it’s not even enough to be a heightened real woman and be seen as strong.
Strong female characters must hold the power of life-and-death. They must be wealthy or well-educated. And they must be stronger than any real woman.
In other words, they must be mythical.
Is this why we have to turn, over and over, to “genre” films and TV to find our heroines?
Because women who don’t attempt laughably-outsized endeavors (prevent Alien invasion — Ripley; save the world from demons — Buffy; transform life on Earth — Trinity) are considered only… ordinary? Nothing special? Must a woman spend well over $100,000 in med school bills and be able to perform open-heart surgery in order to be considered “strong”?
How crushingly depressing for those of us who aren’t doctors, hackers, or hired killers.
So let’s do an experiment:
You have 30 seconds from the end of this paragraph. (No cheating!) First, come up with any three “strong female characters” from film or TV. Then, in the next 30 seconds, come up with three more — from NON-GENRE films or TV (no lawyers, no doctors, no cops, no superpowers — and no one I’ve already mentioned) — and Twitter them to my account: @EvilGalProds. I’ll do a follow-up blog with people’s responses.
I’ll be interested to see which names pop up.
Me, I’ll stick with Roseanne.
She can’t be cowed, either — and to me, that’s worth three Jane Smiths any day.