Monday, December 30, 2013

Coin Operated Girl

Okay. Okay, look. I’ve got another little annoyance digging in my brain.

The token “strong female character.”

I went and saw the second Hobbit film last night. I won’t really dig deep into what I thought of the film as a whole (summary: good fun, many great elements, was on the cusp of feeling bored multiple times, probably won’t see it again), but I will speak about a very specific character decision that was made: the pretty red-headed elf lady. The orcs call her She-Elf, for some reason. It’s entirely possible that it’s a Tolkien thing, man of his time and whatnot, but really? Not elf. No, not elf. She-Elf. Totally different breed, apparently. Silly She-Elf.

Now before I continue on my ranty ranty bit, let me say this: Evangeline Lilly is lovely as the elf Tauriel, both in appearance and performance. And the little girl inside me enjoys watching her dance gracefully on the wind and on the earth as she shoots and slashes her way through spiders and orcs alike. I genuinely like her character. Tauriel’s compassion, her feisty defy-orders-to-do-what-she-feels-is-right attitude, and her battle skills all mesh together to make… Movie Arwen 2.0. Except redheaded and with more bloodlust.

Here’s my problem: an unnecessary plot addition was written so one single female character got to stand out as strong willed, feisty, and beautiful, among the men she interacts with. Is that, by itself, a problem? Not necessarily. Is it a problem that a female character was written in to a story that originally featured only men? No. Is it a problem that we have a gal who fights, is empathetic, and makes choices independently? Certainly not.

The problem is this character has been written many times before, in different stories and different circumstances, but she fills the exact same slot. She is a token writers stick into a story when they suddenly realize they need or want a female character, because this is nearly 2014, and shouldn’t we be progressive and stuff?

Her name is Tauriel. Her name is Arwen when she holds a sword to her lover’s throat and brags about sneaking up on him (Liv Tyler herself later recognized “you don’t have to put a sword in her hand to make her strong”). Her name is Fiona, from Shrek. Sure, she does kung-fu, but so do all princesses these days. What else do you have for her? She’s the blonde from the most recent Star Trek movie, whose only purpose seems to be functioning as a plot device and a hot piece of ass. Her name is Black Widow, to a certain extent, as depicted in the Iron Man movies and The Avengers.

It’s not bad to be kick-ass and pretty, that can be kind of awesome. But it’s not enough to be kick-ass and pretty. Those two elements do not a well-developed character make. Is Legolas strong? Is he kick ass? Is he pretty?

He’s all three of these things. Funny, we don’t seem to need to ask those questions. Well, except maybe that last one. But we often skip the “strong” adjective for male characters. Why? A) it’s a given or B) it doesn’t matter. It isn’t necessarily a part of the character’s merit. That doesn’t have to be proven, so we get to skip ahead to the other parts.

This woman’s token is wearing out real fast because it’s easy to use and it’s used often. The token’s characteristics have expanded to include “strong” and “badass fighting skills” but the role has not changed. The ratio of male to female protagonists has not changed.

But, you might say, some of these stories are based on older works and all the main characters are male! What do you want us to do?

The people behind the 2004 adaptation of Battlestar Galactica did something brilliant. They turned Starbuck, originally a male character, into a female (who was her own person). And it fucking worked. It worked brilliantly. Now, will I always expect gender bending in classic stories? No. Do I want every single story to be carefully balanced between male, female, and othergender characters? No. But tossing in a woman who can fight and be feisty and pretty does not warrant an automatic pat on the back. It does not warrant a “good job, look at how mindful you are to making sure women get positive representation! Look how much you get that women can be strong, independent, and badass! Here, have a cookie, because: Yay! Equality!"

This is not about women being depicted as sword wielding badasses or not. This is about WHY they are depicted as such. The why is incredibly, incredibly important. The why is the difference between a token and a thoughtfully constructed complex character. The why is the difference between a character who impacts and shapes the story and a character who is simply given something “to do” by the creation of elaborate side stories. Tauriel, in the midst of all her badassery, is also kind of just... an excuse for a romantic interest triange. 

As I’ve been writing I’ve come across this problem. It’s not a male vs female vs somegender problem, it’s simply a character writing problem. I find myself thinking “Oh! I want this character to do this, I want them to end up here. So this, this and this needs to happen, and then they can have this moment.”

Characters inevitably fall flat when they just react to whatever plot is written up. They will do anything I tell them to, but that does not mean they should. Characters, when they are allowed to be given life, will shape their own destinies. Is the plot serving the character and story, or is it simply serving a situation? Is the character breathing life, or is she coin operated? 


  1. Yeah... Arwen 2.0 is about right. Although I kind of feel like a lot of the movie content was made up of similar stuff - things we've seen before, maybe with a little comical twist, but nothing profound. And any "token" character is cheap at best. However the main appearance of the female in Hollywood as needing to prove herself is a sad testament to the underlying pervasiveness of people not truly viewing all others as "created equal."

    1. I remember you and I talking about similar topics after we saw the first hobbit movie. It looks, sounds, feels, so much the same as Lord of the Rings. I suspect that is partly why I felt almost bored throughout most of the movie this time around, even though the pacing was better and it IS very beautiful and comical in parts.

      The point about the female needing to "prove herself" is very spot on, too, and I wonder if that attitude goes hand-in-hand with the need to label that character as a "Strong female character;" she isn't inherently strong, she has to continue proving it.