The actress Olivia Williams, along with so many others, laments Hollywood’s dearth of interesting roles for women. Once you’re too old to be the hero’s sexy girlfriend, you get cast as the hero’s mother. Seemingly without irony, she gives film-makers a piece of advice on creating that Strong Female Lead. “Don’t write it for females,” she says. “Write it for a male and just change the name to a girl.”
This is a problem.
Williams, of course, is just making the best of a bad situation. But how bad is the bad situation when our most powerful culture-makers can’t see women as people unless they’ve first imagined them as men? When the only way to write characters, as opposed to those flat, decorative, disposable Female Characters, is to write them as men?
That Strong Female Lead, too, is a problem – even though she might look like the solution. She’s an outdated reaction to worse archetypes, the honey-I’m-home wife, the damsel in distress. She could probably fire a gun in heels, and look great doing it. There will probably be a scene in which she shocks by swearing like a trouper, or struts confidently away while the men look on in awe. She gets what she wants. She will be a power-dresser, or perhaps one of those kooky Dream Girls who sews her own clothes and needs nobody.
Perhaps this kind of strength offers something, a blunt reply to those old whispers of the weaker sex. Even in this age of anti-heroes, some stories are a natural home for uncomplicated courage, confidence, competence. Perhaps occasionally, when we struggle to find our own strength, her strength can inspire. She is a crudely-sketched outline of our possibilities.
But she is not enough. She does not, as one impassioned piece recently argued, get to be Sherlock Holmes – “Brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, polymath genius.” She gets to be that one bland adjective. If she is lucky she gets another – tough but vulnerable. She gets to be the defensive reply to the question we should have stopped asking long ago.
If we are not careful, we accept her as our compensation. It’s alright, look, there she is – the Strong Woman. We stop complaining. We stop noticing that hers is the only female face in the crowd; that her clothes come off just because; that she is only in those two scenes; that she is always so much younger than him, that she always looks like that. That even when she’s front and centre, it’s only in that kind of story. That so often she is not the funny one, or the socially awkward one, or the techy one, or the loveable rogue, or the tortured soul, or the mastermind, or the loyal sidekick. That she is not on the adventure, one of the gang, in on the joke.
The impoverished part she gets to play is about more than a failure of imagination. Write it for a male and just change the name to a girl. On the part of a male-dominated, male-driven industry – on the part of a world in which she’s just the tiniest tip of the iceberg – it’s a failure of empathy. To see that the ‘Other’ experiences the world just as I experience the world, spans that same dizzyingly complex range of good and of fallen traits.
To see that she is entirely and completely human. Bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh.
(Photo via Summit Entertainment)