Tuesday, September 17, 2013

In search of the "strong female lead"

The recent women-as-goddesses domestic abuse posters got me thinking about notions of strong and weak... how we view them, why, and who really came up with them. It also reminded me about a scribble I wrote a while ago... but this one is about TV characters...


“Which TV show are you watching?” has become a wildly popular and intense discussion point with most of my friends – online and offline – in the recent years. The question is second only to the much more satisfying TV show exchange, complete with hard drives, pen drives and some soul searching questions about which season of which show to delete to make room for the new ones! Admittedly, our focus is mainly on American series, however,over the last few months, I found myself questioning my ability to watch those shows meant for “women.”

It started rather innocently, with a friend suggesting I watch this new show ‘Mistresses’ which, she admitted, was not fantastic but time-pass. I suppose being a 30-something woman; I must be the target audience for this show, which is another one of those meant-for-women shows capitalizing on the Sex and the City formula. Yes, the formula. Four women with different personalities, all embroiled in some complicated relationship drama and extremely different but challenging jobs who have all the time in the world to meet for coffee/drinks to endlessly discuss their personal lives. You can tweak it, you can make it younger – as done by the creator of the hit-show ‘Girls’ or make it older – as done by ‘Mistresses’ but it ultimately remains the same. Yet somehow, after the second episode, I could not bear to watch more.

Instead, I found myself getting attracted to action-dramas with strong female leads. The phenomenal ‘Orphan Black’, a show about cloning,not only features a superbly complex storyline but features women (but really, one actor) who dons the hats of a number of women working together to uncover a scientific whodunit. The other show I have enjoyed very much has been the Canadian, ‘Continuum’ which features an ass-kicking super cop from the future stuck in 2013, trying to stop the course of history from changing her (future)world. And while I was feeling rather satisfied with good stories and good characters, I came across the haunting mini-series, ‘Top of the Lake’ which features Elizabeth Moss (Peggy of Mad Men) as a police officer solving a rape case, while dealing her own history of having being gang raped as a teenager.

Perhaps the fact that I was attracted more to the crime fighting women on TV than the “lets talk about relationships” ladies of primetime, led me to wonder what it said about me. Was I getting attracted to what I perceived to be ‘empowered’ characters only? Were the girly shows simply not enough for me? What does this say about the current messaging in the West about‘empowered’ women on TV?

Then something unexpectedly phenomenal happened. I came across one of those special galleries on a website that had put together a list of TV’s 15 most empowered and least empowered women characters. The most empowered had some predictable ones, which most TV watchers will recognize; Daenarys Targayren of Game of Thrones, Nikita of Nikita, Emily Thorne of Revenge, Olivia Pope of Scandal and so on. In the least empowered list came the Marnie and Hannah of Girls, Haley Dunphy of Modern Family, the Liars of Pretty Little Liars and Sansa Stark of Game of Thrones. It was the inclusion of the last name – Sansa Stark – in the least empowered list that cause an outrage explosion in the comments thread and made for extremely interesting reading. Commenters were disgusted that the list faulted a teenage girl for being held captive by a powerful family against her will, and further criticized her for not being able to fight against them. Most of those who argued against her inclusion in the list pointed out that Sansa’s character is a victim of great abuse in the show,and therefore, should not be blamed for being a victim. Some further argued that teen show Pretty Little Liars also centers around the bullying of teenage girls and to that end, they have been surviving the best they can. The conversation turned into what it means to be empowered in the first place, and whether characters like Olivia Pope who are engrossed in sordid affairs with married men are really empowered. Ultimately, the entire article was accused of being misogynistic, victim-blaming and slut-shaming.

However, another very interesting point came about, one that has been raised and debated in many other forums. The shape and form of‘empowered’ female characters on TV (and movies) have morphed over the years.In an overwhelming number of stories with ‘strong’ female characters, physical strength has become a necessary attribute. Blogger JS Andrijeski wrote an extremely interesting post exploring this phenomenon, “I don’t believe these female characters. I don’t believe that character X is good at fixing cars as well as being a crack shot with an automatic rifle while looking stunning in a cocktail dress and bossing the men around at the police precinct where she works.” In fact, other posts exploring the idea of ‘strong’ women characters which are attempting to move away from the simpering-neurotic-klutzy-mess-leading-lady routine have fallen into their own trap of so-good-at-everything-its-unreal, or simply put, almost every action character Angelina Jolie has ever played! In fact, in a rather surprising development, when posters of Pixar’s cartoon ‘Brave’ showed the title character without her bow and arrow, there was criticism which led to the weapon being shown in all future posters.

So what is empowerment? Are people like me falling into traps of watching shows about super cops and thinking these are strong female characters? And as a result, are others watching female characters struggle in non-violent ways (such as Sansa or the Liars) and conversely, finding them rather disempowered? And what about the endless characters whose focus on sex and relationships have made them icons for many others looking for a show “for women”. Does that necessarily mean they are weaker characters?

I started looking into the traits that really define strong female characters, and as expected, neither her co-dependent relationship with her friends nor the ability to be a black-belt astro physicist topped the list. One article put it well as it said – ‘Female characters should be characters first and female second. The fact that they’re women shouldn’t get in the way of their other traits.’

Ultimately, as it always does, the female character is truly empowered by the real motivation of the writer. If it is to give the boys their fantasy female, or give the girls a heightened version of every problem they could ever have, the characters ring untrue. Some shows make women so strong that they become unreal. But if the character has a story, a reason for existing, which is above and beyond the fact that are they simply female, then we are making headway.

Growing up, I watched Buffy endlessly,wanted to be C.J. Craig of the West Wing, and laughed at every terrible joke Lucille Bluth made on Arrested Development. They weren’t just strong women, but they were women with strong stories. Ultimately, that is really what makes the difference.  This balance is also why Alicia Florrick of The Good Wife and Peggy Olsen of Mad Men are topping my new list. And imagine my surprise to realize that there is neither martial arts nor a tight group of girlfriends in either show!

1 comment:

egg style said...

Makes me shudder, this post: which of course is a sign of how good it is. It makes me wonder whether a male creator of a female fictional character—in a book, say—is at risk of being sexist without knowing it. It also makes me wonder whether I could possibly have a half-sensible response, being a male who watches almost no televised fiction. For whatever it’s worth, here goes:
From afar, kickass characters in the Tomb Raider Angelina mould strike me as products of a male fantasy, which as you point out are falsely seen as ‘strong’. Sexually ‘liberated’ characters, as seen on SATC and its knockoffs, may perhaps be the same—since men see obvious benefits in their liberation. I say ‘perhaps’ because their motives in pursuing pleasure against artificially-imposed social norms may entirely be their own and thus eminently justified. Yet, many of these wild-n-sexy characters do not really come across as intellectually liberated, which is a pity (but then, America is America, a country past its prime).
Maybe a strong female character, at the risk of being clobbered for presuming to offer a description at all, is one who has a Mind of Her Own.
And by that, I dare say, I imagine someone who refuses to be idolized in any sort of pantheonic range (be it from Sita to Sexpot, or any other), does not want to be moulded into any particular shape (dictated by Miss Whatever contests for example), and, in resistance to all forms of false consciousness, is not under the unreasoned sway of anything man-made at all.