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Female roles second tier in male-dominated pop culture

Where did all the strong female characters go?


Published: Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, December 17, 2013 16:12


Photo in Public Domain

While sitting in the Aksarben theater enjoying “Riddick” in all its B-movie goodness, my friend kept insistently nudging me every time the tough blonde sniper Dahl entered the screen. His huge winking grin screamed, “You’re always complaining about female characters in movies––but this one’s a real tough cookie!”

At first, I hoped his assessment proved to be true. After all, Dahl was wearing reasonably fitted tactical gear (no boob indentions in the Kevlar vest either, thank God) and seemed to be in control with her short, pushed-back hair. Every time the sassy blonde sniper Dahl (played by Katee Sackhoff) quipped about “not takin’ nothin’ from nobody,” my friend would look quickly over, winking. Unfortunately, Dahl’s character soon turns into an embarrassing reminder of other cliché female characters in Hollywood films. Even with a gratuitous topless scene, I was optimistic. After all, you can’t get everything you want (how about for every naked women, directors show a naked man?). But it only got worse.

After the movie, my friend was so ready to triumph over our oft-argued topic of female characters lacking depth. He gave me this “surely you can’t complain about that badass chick” face. But even for a lover of vapid romantic comedy characters, it wasn’t difficult to get my jimmies rustled when the self¬ proclaimed gay Dahl (gauchely pronounced “doll”) is somehow turned straight by the swaggeringly arrogant Vin Diesel finesse (it’s true: all women need a good schtupping from the right man to be right as rain.) I don’t believe I could get away with quoting the most hilariously stupid line from the movie here, but let’s just say that I think a real life female sniper would have broken his arm for saying it.

Given that a large part of the current feminist trend is attempting to add depth and personality to otherwise doll¬like characters whose sole existence in films is to complement a male lead’s ego, it would be really refreshing to have just a few movies that gave women a modicum of personality. Which is why every time I go to the movies, I leave just a bit more disappointed. The disappointment is how female characters seems to be an echo of what a male producer believes a woman is really like. Yikes. The often staggeringly wrong assumptions are painful to watch. Dahl, for instance, probably was sold as a no-nonsense, capable female character. And I really cannot believe Vin Diesel at any point thought that he was being ridiculous in his portrayal of a womanizing action hero, which is why there is now more than ever a need for diverse female characters in film.

And to be fair, the level of accuracy expected in a sci-fi B-movie is already low. But it got me thinking about the enormous lack of women’s roles with any depth.  The Bechdel test is a test of how feminist-friendly a movie is by asking the question: are there at least two women talking to each other about anything other than a man. Can you imagine limiting your movie viewing to this test? Besides obscure film festival movies, I cannot think of a single recent movie off the top of my head that passes this test. About an hour of brainstorming left me with one recent blockbuster that would pass the test: The Help. After this tiny breakthrough, I gave up.

I then began to wonder if this is a current film trend. Looking back, if you used portrayal of women in film as barometer of equality between men and women in the U.S., you would think we were still stuck in a Warrant or Mötley Crüe video. I often read points of view showing how film and literature’s lack of worthy characters is a glaring reflection on current women’s status in the US. But perhaps a real indication of how well women are doing in a culture is how archaic the film portrayals of women are? After all, I personally know many interesting, successful, intelligent women who in very few ways feel they are under anyone’s thumb. Unfortunately, to test this theory, I would need a golden age of strong female characters to compare to today.

The only comparison I can make would be to the penultimate female action figure: Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in “Alien.” Her 6-foot frame, bold short hair, and understated heroics are inspiring and strong. This movie was made in the cultural dark age of the ‘80s and showed a refreshing image of women opposite the culture. Is it possible the more equal women become in pop culture, the more dense and ridiculous their characters become? For the sake of feminism, I really hope not.

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