So. The Strong Female Character. She’s becoming more common… but is she doing enough?

As I explored in my Bechdel test article, and as has been pointed out by numerous others, what seems to be lacking in female characters in film is not only their presence, but more importantly their depth. Even when a movie features a Strong Female Character (SFC), this woman frequently succumbs to the old victim/object/prize role, and fails to carry the entire movie alone. She might kick ass for the first half of a movie, but then get captured by a villain and require rescuing by a male hero. She might show up, fiercely independent and brave, but then not really do anything, plot-wise, or do something nonsensical. She might make a point of defying expectations, spurning an unworthy man, but then reward herself to the nerdy guy who deserves someone like her (*cough* Star Trek *cough*).

Why is it that believable, decision-making, plot-driving female characters are so hard to find? Why is it that when you ask yourself “Do you want to be her?” the answer is so often “No, thanks”?

First, let’s take a look at who is creating and directing these SFCs. Below are ten movies currently playing:

  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
  • Transformers: Age of Extinction
  • Tammy
  • Earth to Echo
  • The Purge 2
  • Sex Tape
  • Deliver Us from Evil
  • Maleficent
  • Begin Again
  • Obvious Child

Screen-Shot-2014-04-15-at-4.33.21-PMOf these ten movies, nine are directed by men (according to info from IMDb), six are written exclusively by men, three are written by one woman plus one or more men, and one is written and directed by women. You get one guess as to which film that is.

So, I think I’m beginning to see why it is that Hollywood has trouble not only with including female characters to begin with, but with including SFCs that are complex, believable, and effective. I knew that there weren’t that many women writing and directing, but, to be honest, I thought the division was more like 70/30, not 90/10. The imbalance is shocking, to say the least.

“But Katherine,” you say, “That’s not entirely fair – you only looked at fairly mainstream, popular movies, which cater to the lowest common denominator. What about higher brow movies, like those at the most recent Sundance Film Festival?”  Okay. Fair enough. Let’s sample ten of those.

  • To Kill a Man
  • Difret
  • Low Down
  • The Overnighters
  • God Help the Girl
  • The Skeleton Twins
  • Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
  • 52 Tuesdays
  • Whiplash
  • Watchers of the Sky

Of these ten films, which I chose at random from the list of 2014 Sundance Film Festival winners, eight are directed by men, two are directed by women, seven are written by men exclusively, two are written by teams of men and women, and one is written by a woman.

So… the ratio there is hardly better. What is going on? Is it that women aren’t going into film-making, or is it that they face such ingrained discrimination in the industry that they can’t get ahead? Or some combination?

Regardless of the cause, I’d posit that a lack of women behind the cameras and authoring screenplays is directly responsible for this dearth of SFCs that are truly believable, truly carry a film, and make it all the way to the end of a plot without being surpassed by a male character, gifting themselves to a male character as a reward for good behavior, or being rescued by a male character when their strength inevitably falls short. A talented and thoughtful man can certainly write a believable female character with believable motivations, but I think perhaps men often create what they imagine a strong woman would be, and then get stuck when it comes to understanding what drives her. Is it babies? Is it improving that hopeless guy so that he’s worthy of having sex with her? Is it shoes?  A woman would more easily grasp what would motivate one of these SFCs, and moreover, a woman would better know what kind of person other women would admire – and want to be.

Second reason.

Art reflects culture. The fact that there are more SCFs lately is good. The fact that there are more women in film and more women-driven films period is good. However, our culture is a place where being a woman often means sacrificing your identity, to some degree. There’s often the expectation that you’ll accommodate, step aside, lend your administrative skills, to allow your partner/husband/child/boss to succeed. By the time you’ve done all of that, where are you? You’ve disappeared into a supporting role. If that’s the expectation in everyday life, why would it be any different in film?

So then, will it take a cultural shift before we have the SFCs we want? I should hope not. Although art reflects culture, I firmly believe that art can also change culture. Instead of a trickle down, passive approach, where we wait for underlying assumptions to change, trusting that more believable SFCs will follow, we could attack on all fronts by working to challenge assumptions about gender in everyday life, while doing the same in film. If we keep the conversation going, keep it at the surface of our awareness, while at the same time create films showing the world as we wish it already were and sometimes is (full of SFCs with agency in their own stories), then perhaps one day it won’t take so much effort, and every article I write won’t turn into a feminist argument. Edet Belzberg (the director of Watchers of the Sky, one of the Sundance winners) says in her interview with Filmmaker Magazine, “the challenge is finding the ideas and stories that help transcend gender and ultimately even ourselves — stories that reach a more universal place and have the power to unite everyone.”  And it should absolutely be about the stories. But when the stories are written by men, directed by men, and mostly feature men, we’re failing this objective. We’re not transcending gender.

But of course, this comes back to the question of women behind the camera, and women writing screenplays. Why are there so few, and how can we increase our numbers? Is there a systemic problem within the film-making industry, working to exclude women, or are there simply that many fewer women that go into writing and directing? If the latter… why? Until we answer these questions, and until we get the ratio of women to men closer to 1:1 (instead of 1:9), we won’t have that many Strong Female Characters whose motivations are believable, and who do not eventually capitulate to traditional gender roles.

So, let’s get to work. When we come up with an idea for how something ought to be, our next thought should be, “I can definitely make that happen!” rather than, “I doubt I have the skill required.” You’ve got it. I’ve got it. Now, off to start writing that screenplay…