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Monday, October 14, 2013

Female Heroines And Male Catalysts in Film

"All we talk about anymore is Big or balls or small d**cks. How does it happen that four smart women have nothing to talk about but their boyfriends? It's like seventh grade but with bank accounts. What about us? What we think, we feel, we know, Christ! Does it always have to be about them?" If you were a fan of Sex and the City like I was (and still am), then you probably remember no-nonsense lawyer Miranda Hobbs calling out her male-obsessed friends. It was what Oprah would have probably called an "Aha" moment, when your subconscious default mode is brought to the surface and you have no idea it had even become your modus operandi.

A similar sentiment was explored at a panel I attended a few days ago at New York Comic Con titled "Kill or Be Killed: Crafting a Powerful Female Protagonist." On the panel were four accomplished female authors (Kendare Blake of "Antigoddess," Amelia Kahaney of "Brokenhearted," Lauren Oliver of "Delirium trilogy," Danielle Paige of "Dorothy Must Die" and Lindsay Ribar of "The Art of Wishing") who discussed their perspective female heroines--how they were inspired (lots of mentions for Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor) and how they fit into the general literary landscape. This led to a very interesting question posed by the moderator, blogger Thea James of the Book Smugglers, which asked why so many female characters are influenced by male catalysts. In other words, why can't female characters rely on themselves or some alternate object in their quest for strength or self-identity?

It's an honest question, a profound one of which I never really thought about before. Where male characters are often propelled by outside sources or events that boost or help shape their character, females are often always elevated by the presence of a male character.This is not simply a case of the writer being a male scribe, since this panel strictly consisted of strong, seemingly independent women from various walks of life. When it came to this question, there was a bit of a hesitation, as if all four women were searching for the correct responses. As it happens, each of their female characters apparently fall under the category of being metaphorically awakened by their male counterparts (something that I call the Sleeping Beauty effect). While the story is about them, a male character still helps propel their arc.

You may remember I noticed that same problem in Rust and Bone, which featured a great performance by Marion Cotillard, but her character almost strictly relied on her male counterpart for emotional resonance. This type of writing further supports the notion that women are often identified by their relation to men, and perhaps could not be deemed universal without that crutch.

Interestingly enough, I can't say that whenever I meet up with a few girlfriends the topic doesn't always shift to men at some point. It does, without fail. But I wonder whether that is also in part due to the societal pressures to find someone to "complete" you, as if you are no one--or just half a person--without this counterpart. This is something the authors on the panel seemed to agree with, even sighting their own personal examples of how a male helped shape them in their lives. Can female characters be strong without the presence of a man?

Well, that depends on your definition of strong. Is it emotional, physical or mental strength we look for in our search for strong female characters? Or is it enough that the character is strongly written, but not actually strong in character? In the case of being strong, is it physical or emotional strength we seek in a female character, or do we look for them to be strong in relation to their male counterpart?

We also run into the issue of whether some audiences even want a story about a strong women with no man in sight? Some would complain that a strong, beautiful and single woman sends a bad message. For instance, while The Hunger Games doesn't exactly have a romantic element in the story, the marketing of the film is still tailored toward the Twilight-heavy crowd which focused on the romance. It's a device that helps encourage audiences to believe that while Katniss Everdeen is strong and single, she is still vulnerable, romantic and, most importantly, accessible (which also plays to the themes in the book).

But at the same time, others would say that a strong woman is too often eclipsed by the presence of a man in fiction. It would become less about the woman's evolution and focus more on how it compares or reflects the man's story. This seems to be a catch 22.

There is, however, the case in Bridesmaids in which lead character Annie's new friend Megan served as her catalyst (but in tandem with a male romantic interest). It seems the types of stories in which female characters are more self-reliant or rely on female counterparts are part of the minority for both younger female (high school age) and women characters. Even the pro-feminist themes in Gravity showed small signs of a male catalyst, as did The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

As someone who has had both men and women catalysts in my life, I can't really say I favor either side of the debate more than the other, but I do want the female character to at least be fully realized on her own. Everything that is most interesting about the character shouldn't be her relationship or reflection of someone else. To me, that's a strong character--one with the ability to stand on her own in spite of her catalysts. 


Daniel said...

I've always thought female characters can and should be shown on screen without a male propellant all the time. I think it's possible but it something Hollywood and TV seem afraid to do as if it's impossible.

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