MOVING BEYOND THE STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS: ARE WE READY?

I’m writing this post in answer to Sophia McDougall’s juicy article for the New Statesman, “I hate Strong Female Characters” (15 August, http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/08/i-hate-strong-female-characters). Basically she complains that while male characters get pinned on them a variety of adjectives (see her list for Sherlock Holmes), female characters in recent audiovisual fiction “get to be Strong.”

McDougall finds the idea of the Strong Female Character patronising, as she is usually an anomaly, a single effective woman in a world of men. Too often, her supposed psychological strength is signalled by abusive behaviour, including physical violence (though she is not that self-reliant and must be frequently rescued). And far from eliminating sexism, she helps condone it, as many men think that to write one SFC “per story” is enough. Instead, McDougall demands more female roles on screens (a “1:1 instead of 3:1” ratio), more variety both in main and secondary roles, more stories in which women interrelate, and female characters that are more complete in their characterisation, including weakness if necessary.

Since my first paper, on Silence of the Lambs’ hero Clarice Starling, I have been defending the SFC as a solution to the previous all-pervading weak female character, the one that screamed but was completely paralysed by fear, which is why she always needed rescuing by the Strong Male Character. The contemporary SFC came about quite by accident, when the wife of one of the producers of Alien (1979) suggested that Lieutenant Ripley could be a woman, Ellen. There have been since then many more, for whom I am very grateful, as no one uses any more the silly screaming heroine that reigned on screens until the late 1970s.

I agree, though, with McDougall that she has become a stereotype –or, rather, that all the other changes she demands are by no means on the way of being implemented.

As usual, though, I find she misses the main point in her protest. This is the message I have been preaching in recent years and I’m sure I have already discussed the same issue here several times. The key question here is not when male screenwriters, directors and producers will finally understand the need to change women’s representation on screen but when will films and TV be fully open to women.

I truly believe that film and TV are far less sexist than they were thirty-five fifty years ago. Yet this refers mainly to the content of the stories, not to who is making decisions about what is told. The Directors’ Guild of America only has 10% female members. A recent study of the Writers Guild of America indicates that since 1999, the presence of women writers in US TV staff increased “from 25 percent to 30.5 percent.” At that rate, the study concludes, “it will be another 42 years before women reach proportionate representation.” That’s 2058… (See http://www.thewrap.com/tv/article/tv-writing-remains-white-mans-world-writers-guild-study-finds-82556).

The equality that McDougall demands can only come, then, from young women’s efforts to tear down the barriers that hold them back from entering the film and TV industries in full equality and to tell their stories. As consumers we women can also affect the film and TV industries by demanding more stories that appeal to us. And by ‘teaching’ the men around us what we like: your boyfriend asks you to see a film you don’t much like? Ok, go and then take him to see one you like. Of course, if that is Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey, then I would say we’re not on the right track –as, well, we women do have a serious problem with some of the stories we write and enjoy.

Whenever I ask men whether they feel offended by their representation on screen, which includes many Strong Male Characters but also many despicable bastards, they shrug their shoulders: for them, generic representation is easier to separate from real individuality. We women do not have that advantage because, logically, our representation is very much restricted to a handful of stereotypes. What we need to consider, and this is right now not that clear, is whether we can contribute to the screens a significantly richer variety that satisfies our needs as 21st century women. To be blunt: if opening the doors of TV and films to women means a proliferation of Bellas and Anastasias, then I’d rather have men go on producing more SFC.

For the big, big, big question to ask ourselves is why the SFC are not ours.

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