Monday, July 18, 2011

Do we really need fewer "strong female characters" on TV?

The strong women of Battlestar Galactica: from left, Lucy Lawless, Grace Park, Mary McDonnell, Katee Sackhoff and Tricia Helfer. Photo courtesy of

Those of you who are more in-tune with the cultural zeitgeist than I am have probably already heard about Carina Chocano's NYT Magazine article, "A Plague of Strong Female Characters." In her piece, Chocano complains about the prevalence of the "strong female character" cropping up in various films, describing the "strong female character" as "one of those shorthand memes that has leached into the cultural groundwater and spawned all kinds of cinematic cliches." The author then goes on to list the different cliches this archetype supposedly encompasses, which ranges from "alpha professionals whose laserlike focus on career advancement has turned them into grim, celibate automatons" to "gloomy ninjas with commitment issues." It appears that, to Chocano, every single female character who appears in a film these days is a stereotyped "strong female character," with the possible exception of a few manic pixie dream girls.

Chocano admits at one point in the article that it isn't the idea of the "strong female character" that bothers her, it's the set of characteristics that has come to be associated with the term; in her words, "tough, cold, taciturn and prone to scowling and not saying goodbye when they hang up the phone." This sort of archetype is one that has become irritatingly prevalent on TV and in film (Chocano talks mainly about film, but since this blog is about TV the small screen is where I'll be focusing my attentions), particularly in recent years. The Kyra Sedgewick vehicle The Closer kick-started the trend of stereotypical "strong female characters" on television, and was quickly followed by a number of copycat shows such as In Plain Sight and Saving Grace. Each of these shows feature a tough-talking, no-nonsense female crime fighter of some variety, one who is unwilling to form close emotional bonds and who spurns love, but who is given some sort of weakness in order to humanize them.

I'm certainly not defending these shows, as I personally find their portrayal of women who actually have the potential to be interesting (and are played by talented actresses) depressingly one-note and obviously written by men. However, I think that, by including so many different types of characters in her umbrella description of "strong female characters" and refusing to acknowledge the exceptions - the women who resemble her descriptions, but who are actually fascinatingly complex, fully-drawn creatures - Chocano undermines her own argument. Lumping Sigourney Weaver's Ripley from Alien in with Katherine Heigl's character from The Ugly Truth (or, really, any Katherine Heigl character) is an example of generalization gone awry; in her irritation at strong female characters, she throws the baby out with the bathwater.

There are many, many exceptions to Chocano's archetype. She claims that these types of "strong female characters" are impossible to relate to as a woman, because they are too unlike us. Chocano uses Kristen Wiig's character in Bridesmaids as an example, saying that women "don't relate to her despite the fact she is weak, we relate to her because she is weak." This may be true - after all, most women are flawed, are occasionally neurotic, and sometimes lose control of their lives. I know I do. However, that doesn't mean that I, as a woman, want to relate to this type of character. Seeing my own flaws on-screen, blown up for comedic effect, isn't necessarily an uplifting experience. I watch 30 Rock because it is funny and smart, not because I identify (all that often, anyway) with Tina Fey's Liz Lemon, who is so fixated on motherhood that she steals a baby, and so unorganized that she occasionally wears a Duane Reade bag as underwear.

In my opinion, some of the most interesting characters in television are the women of Battlestar Galactica. These women - in particular Tricia Helfer's Caprica Six, Grace Park's Sharon Agathon, Katee Sackhoff's Kara "Starbuck" Thrace and Mary McDonnell's Laura Roslin - are all fully drawn characters, women are strong but also flawed (realistically flawed, not given some arbitrary flaw in order to make them relatable), women who can kick ass one minute and break down the next in a completely realistic way.

I find Starbuck to be the single most fascinating woman on a show full of strong women (no disrespect meant to McDonnell, Park and Helfer fans, because they're fantastic too). I've only watched two seasons and one episode of the show, since I finally decided to start watching a month ago and I have to work, and in the time Starbuck's character has evolved from a spitfire viper pilot with a messy personal life to a woman - not a girl, a fully realized woman - who will fight tooth and nail for her family, her friends and her people. At the beginning of the series Starbuck was a fighter, but she fought because she couldn't think of anything else. By the midpoint of season two, however, she has found love with Anders, fighting the cylons on Caprica, and her new, less rash and impulsive persona is summed up by Helo when he tells her, "now you have something to live for."

Starbuck also has wonderful, joyful moments that contrast deeply with Chocano's description of a strong female character who is "tough, cold, terse, taciturn." Starbuck's face grows joyful both in the cockpit of her viper and when she's sparring, verbally and physically, with Anders on Caprica, and her joy is infectious. Starbuck may be a natural fighter, but she isn't a constantly serious one, and her fighting instincts go beyond her job, causing her to fight for those she cares about. Her character is certainly identifiable - her tendency to hop into bed in search of some sort of connection while still resisting commitment, her quick temper, her occasional reliance on alcohol to keep going in the worst of circumstances - but her strength is that she gets past these flaws. Starbuck is both identifiable and aspirational; unlike the neurotic messes that Chocano identifies with because they resemble the way she is now, Starbuck starts out the way many of us are now, and then shows us that we can transcend those flaws and better ourselves.

Starbuck is far from the only complex, strong woman on television - as I pointed out before, she makes up only a small contingent of the strong women on Battlestar Galactica. Regular readers of this blog will know that two of my favorite characters in all of television are Game of Thrones' Daenerys Targaryen and The Vampire Diaries' Elena Gilbert. Neither of these women really fit into Chocano's definition of "strong female characters," but to me they are two of the strongest women on television. I find Daenerys fascinating because of her transformation from frightened chattel to powerful, fireproof Dragon. I also like the way that the writers keep her from seeming too perfect by having the character walk a fine line between brave and ruthless. Her execution of the witch who she blames for Drogo and her son's deaths in the finale was sad and more than a little chilling; watching the normally kind-hearted Dany calmly tell the women that she would scream as the flames engulfed her caused the viewer to pause momentarily and question their support of the character. Only for a moment though, because when she emerged, naked and powerful and with three dragons, from the ashes of her husband's funeral pyre, it was impossible not to stand in awe of the Khaleesi.

Elena Gilbert is a very different type of strong woman from both Starbuck and Daenerys. Her strength lies in the fact that she is a normal teenage girl who has managed to stay herself and stay grounded through both her romance with Stefan and a string of tragedies that would have brought most people to their knees. One of my favorite moments in the second season was a quiet one, in which Elena contemplated the possibility of becoming a vampire after Damon had fed her his blood to "save" her. After several scenes of conversation between Elena and Stefan she finally, tearfully but with fearsome inner strength, told Stefan that she didn't want to become a vampire. Compare Elena to Twilight's Bella Swan, who begs to become a vampire because she can't stand the thought of growing old while Edward remains young forever. Elena, secure in herself and her identity, is willing - is determined - to put aside something that could let her be with Stefan forever in order to stay true to who she is.

Both Elena and Daenerys are strong female characters who don't follow Chocano's archetype, and Starbuck is a tough woman who follows the archetype while transcending it. These women are all identifiable, but not as our current selves (or at least as my current self; you could very well be a stronger, more stable, more courageous person than I am). Instead, their identifiable qualities make their strength all the more impressive, while also making their courage, stability and strength seem reachable. If I wanted to watch a show about women like me - and plenty of people seem to want that - I could watch Grey's Anatomy and see myself in the whiny, bed-hopping basket cases that populate that show. I don't want that. I want to see myself as the badass viper pilot, or the center that holds together a group of supernatural beings. I want to see myself as the Dragon.

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