This is something I’ve had on my mind a lot lately. I’ve said it a few times now, that there are some fantastic female actors in the industry but sadly very few are receiving the opportunities to play the kind of characters they deserve. I’ve heard the role of female characters described as “being there for men to talk to”, being treated as the subject of exposition rather than the object. It’s something I observe infrequently, but I do find myself thinking that I rarely see a female character who stands apart, someone that I want to discuss at length after the film is over.
So I present a few quick case studies of the portrayal of female characters, good and bad.
I begin with a puzzle. Eva Green is a magnificently powerful on-screen figure, captivating and intense with a voice that could topple empires. I love her! I do, she’s a woman apart. In some ways that is the problem, because that is all I see her as these days. Every role she seems to have taken for the last few years she’s playing a powerful woman, in the case of Artemesia in 300: Rise of an Empire excessively and off-puttingly powerful and domineering. She’s a villain, and I don’t expect depth from a Zach Snyder film, but she plays an almost identical character in Sin City: a Dame to Kill For, and her part in Dark Shadows is scarcely different.
I set this against the role of hers that has my absolute attention, Vanessa Ives in Penny Dreadful. Oh she’s kept the power and force of will, she’s almost a little villainous at times, but there’s a humanity to Ives not present in 300, Sin City or Dark Shadows. If anything she shows more depth of character than any one else in the series except for Victor Frankenstein and his creations.
Now if these are choices on her part, kudos, who are we to take that from her, but if she’s being typecast as that person then on some level that’s weirdly sad. Ah well, questions I’ll probably never ask her if I ever get the chance. I’ll probably burst into tears and tell her that she’s wonderful.
From the people who brought you Cloud Atlas and the Matrix comes the exact opposite, a film with all the depth and purpose The Only Way Is Essex (for those of you in America, read Jersey Shore). I won’t go too deeply into this film as it’ll go too off-topic. The whole “damsel in distress” thing is very tired although it can be done well, The Princess Bride for example, but really? I counted four times in Jupiter Ascending (you may find more) where the supposed protagonist has to be rescued by the male lead and romantic interest and he steps in just in time.
That would be fine if the character, Jupiter Jones, had depth, but she utters no lines more profound or interesting than “I’m not your mother”. A reincarnation of an interstellar dynasty’s queen who lives a life of toil and servitude oblivious to her own power, I don’t think there’s a more Mary Sue backstory in modern media, even Harry Potter had more depth and personality within the first few chapters of the series. I expected more from the people who brought us Trinity, a character who held our attention from minute three of the Matrix and held it there through “dodge this” even up to “The Oracle told me I would fall in love, and the man I love would be the one”, which becomes a rather forgiveable sin by this point.
More specifically Black Widow, in fact, I’m going to leave this one until Tuesday.
Game of Thrones
George R. R. Martin famously said in response to the a question about the quality of his female characters that “I always think of women as people”. Fans of Game of Thrones know how diverse and brilliant his female characters are, from the spiteful but matriarchal Cersei Lannister, to the powerful but well-meaning Brienne of Tarth, and the vengeful cut-throat Arya Stark. Each has their own motivations, their own reasons to be who they are and do what they do, like real people. Martin and HBO have been heavily criticized for overly sexualizing the series as a whole, but there’s no other series that offers such a realistic cast of characters… and dragons. And snow zombies!
I watch soap-operas passively, that is to say I’m more frequently in rooms where they’re on the TV than I’d like. There is far less depth and diversity in those casts, actually make that no depth, characters with dimension tend to only have the one. While quite far removed from realism, if you’re looking for realistic characters (male or female) watch Game of Thrones. It’s also a fantastic example of how good female characters can be written without the need to remove gender from the equation.
Small side-note, young girls and boys being de-gendered in most films allows them to have a kind of personal diversity not often present amongst adults who almost seem to be presumed to have pre-set personality types.
There’s a few prime examples here but I want to start with some great ones from cartoons of the 90’s, Hey Arnold, Recess and Rugrats. Both have big casts of characters, male and female, and both have far more depth of character than the average soap-opera. Hey Arnold‘s lead female role is Helga, Arnold’s primary antagonist and secret admirer, the classic childish behavioural dichotomy; Recess features the lanky super-nerd Gretchen Grundler, and the tough-nut Ashley Spinelli; Rugrats has Angelica and Lil, two more opposed characters I don’t think I’ve ever encountered.
There are a few other examples I’d recommend watching, for example I never liked Dakota Fanning more than in Push, and Chloe Moretz may yet prove to be the best female actor of her time. Who knows, maybe child actresses will get roles that today’s finest are only just starting to recieve.
I take a fairly harsh view on sexual equality. In the 60’s we put man on the moon, and since then we’ve done little more scientifically dramatic (note, dramatic, not important) than putting the entire world and it’s collected intelligence into a device that fits into a pocket, and we grumble when that gets sluggish. To presume that sexual equality should be something that can be accomplished in an evening is juvenile, and it’s important to look at the staggering strides made over the last decade, and appreciate that those developments will continue.
However, these things tend to self-perpetuate, an industry that shows bland women will create a culture that views women as bland who will in turn produce films showing bland women. Gandhi said “be the change you want to see in the world” and that is what we are doing more and more, through our creative efforts we shape the future.
I for one am rooting for a nerdier future, just saying…