by Steve Wetherell
I stopped looking for myself in Hollywood movies a long time ago. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I entertained the leading man fantasy. I recall as a boy watching Young Guns and trying to jut out my jaw like Emilio Estevez, hoping that with enough stretching my ball-like face might become a little narrower. I trained myself as a teen to raise a single eyebrow like Bruce Campbell, as though the rest of my body might get its act together and follow suit.
It didn’t, of course. There is no Hollywood representation of me, because even Paul Blart had a full head of hair.
But it’s undeniable there’s no shortage of straight white men on screen, in far more variations than their non-straight, non-white and (least forgivably perhaps, seeing as they’re half the world,) non-male counterparts. This is not to say that men aren’t dumbed down into boxes by Hollywood. Of course. That is what Hollywood does. But there are far less boxes for women, it seems. Maybe only three, in fact. Love interest, Mother and Unflappable Bad Ass who Knows Everything and is Always Right Bar A Few Instances of Watery Eyed Vulnerability. Otherwise known as The Strong Female Character.
These three boxes, to me, are each exactly as boring and predictable as the other. The Strong Female Character is a damned yawn fest and I’m sick of it. I have been for a long time, and I’ll set the scene for when I first noticed;
Years ago I was working on a self-financed short film and talking to my assistant producer about casting. I needed a guy to play the lead; a soldier in a post-apocalyptic zombie infested wasteland. I can’t remember why I wrote the soldier as a guy, I just did. I get the impression it was a mixture of pragmatism (I knew more guys than girls who might be interested in running around in a field for no pay while I shouted at them,) and unconscious wish fulfilment (like many young men, I secretly believed that I could only truly be happy when everyone else was dead.)
Anyway, as it turned out, my assistant producer didn’t know any men, but did know an interested woman. “Why don’t we turn the stereotype on its head?” she suggested. I agreed. But the phrase bothered me.
At this point, wasn’t a badass, undead-fighting woman already the stereotype? Had she not heard of Buffy? Underworld? Resident Evil? Countless B-movies where slight blonde women used the power of kung-fu to beat down men and monsters twice their size? Had she, by all that’s holy, forgotten about Xena?
Anyway, as the years went by the ‘turned on its head’ stereotype became the plain old mainstream stereotype. Was I surprised when watching Shrek that Princess Fiona, for no real reason, had an entire scene dedicated to her exceptional kung-fu skills, which are then never mentioned again? Nah. That’s just girl power. Just another trope, a shortcut to remind you that, while she may not be the leading man, she can kick his ass anytime she wants. She just doesn’t feel like it at the moment.
Flash forward to present day and I’m watching Guardians of the Galaxy 2. There’s an opening scene where the Guardians are all getting their asses handed to them by a giant space beast. Well, almost all of them. While every male Guardian takes his lumps, Gamora, the Unflappable Bad Ass who Knows Everything and is Always Right Bar A Few Instances of Watery Eyed Vulnerability, never has a shot landed on her.
Why not? Why can’t she be part of the fun? Peter Quill, the leading man, endures all kinds of physical and emotional humiliation, and we love him for it. Gamora’s entire emotional journey apexes with her admitting she might have emotions. Do I have a problem with that? No, not really. Differing characters make for a fun movie, and GoTG2 is all about very different personalities finding a sense of family with one another.
But here’s the thing- more and more people are starting to realise “Hey, wait, if Gamora is stronger, smarter, more capable and more mature than Peter Quill, why isn’t she the leading character?”
It’s a fair point, and to answer it I’d like to introduce you to a trope I call The Hermione Factor.
Harry Potter is a story about a young orphan boy destined to be the saviour of the wizarding world. He has two key allies- Ron Weasley, who is good hearted but bad everything else, and Hermione, a girl so smart her teachers force her to break the laws of physics just so she can over-achieve to her full potential. Hermione’s only weakness is that she’s so much smarter than everybody else that she finds it difficult to make friends, and this weakness is all but obliterated as soon as she grows tits. (She may have developed as a character beyond this. I’ll confess- I couldn’t force myself to read beyond Goblet of Fire. Still, if it’s true for four books, please do indulge me.)
There’s a lot of joking (and serious) memes that Hermione should have been the one to take on Voldemort, as she is vastly, vastly more capable than Harry, and so far ahead of Ron that he may as well be a sentient ginger turd. Remember, in the wizarding world, knowledge is power. Literal shooting-lightning-at-a-motherfucker power. And Hermione is more knowledgeable than everyone else. And so we have the Hermione Factor- a supporting character, almost certainly female, who is best qualified to be the hero but somehow isn’t.
Think about it- Harry Potter as a hero character is pure, balls-out wish fulfilment. Sure his parents are dead, but their love of him echoes through the ages. He’s a fish out of water, but he garners instant wealth, celebrity, sporting heroism, an enigmatic benefactor and the favouritism of the most beloved teacher. The guy’s made. But still, Hermione consistently one-ups him. And yet she’s not the hero.
Is this patriarchal injustice? Or is it bad story telling?
Neither, it’s just an over correction. Women have been denied a fair share of leading roles, so to make up for it we subconsciously make them invincible, the same way movies will make up for the lack of black leads by making the police chief/president/wisest character black. We forget to treat them like fallible human beings, so they become just another box. A positive one, sure, but boxed in none-the-less.
This, to me, becomes very boring. I don’t want an invincible character in the lead. That’s dull. I want a John McClane. Sure, he’s technically invincible (all action heroes are,) but he does a very good job of convincing you he’s not. Remember when action heroes used to sweat? Used to get beat down? Rebuffed? Remember when they used to show fear? Genuine comical fear? Indiana Jones was the ultimate macho leading man, but he spent a good portion of his screen time being a sweaty, beat-down, desperate punchline.
When’s the last time you saw a female action star do any of that? We’re so busy putting the ‘strong’ In Strong Female Character we forget to make them fun.
And that’s the ultimate flaw of the Hermione factor. For all her strengths, she’s just not that interesting a character. If we read the adventures of Hermione, it’d be a very short book about how there was a problem and how she instantly solved it because she’s never wrong. Gamora’s the least popular character in GOTG2 precisely because she is the least fun. When you’re far more sensible than everyone else, you almost always default to wet-blanket.
The danger of the Hermione factor is that it has stifled the way Hollywood writes women, and so further boxed our expectations as an audience. To site Guardians 2 again (yeah, I really enjoyed that movie) a new female character they introduced was Mantis. I was speaking on a marvel movie panel at a convention recently, and a fellow panellist could not disguise his contempt for the movie character. She wasn’t the badass she was in the comics. She was submissive. She was weak. She perpetuated negative Asian woman stereotypes. All of those things are true, from a certain perspective, but here’s the thing; she was fun. She was a funny, likeable, warm character. And you know what? She took her lumps! She was made fun of! She was physically hurt in amusing ways! Just like the guys! She was by no means a Strong Female Character, she wasn’t icy and no-nonsense, but she made me laugh more in one scene than Gamora and Nebula had over two movies. She endeared me to her in the same way that Rocket, Groot, Drax and Quill had. She was flawed, and silly, but still brave and capable and true when it counted.
As of writing, I’ve yet to see Wonder Woman. I will, I’m just waiting for my daughter to pester me about it (she hasn’t, yet. Much like me at that age, her idea of a strong character is based on how many anvils they can take to the face.) But I have to say, I’m genuinely surprised by the emotion surrounding the release of the movie. I read a lot of posts about people genuinely crying to see a woman triumphing in an action scene (I read similar about Holtzmann’s action scene in the Ghostbusters remake*.) And if the posts are anything to go by, seeing a female lead directed by a woman director is literally going to explode my head.
Am I little cynical? Yeah, probably. I am, after all, a prick, and to be fair I did watch the Ghostbuster’s remake. But I’m also a little hopeful, because maybe Wonder Woman is what I’ve been waiting for- maybe she’s not just another Strong Female Character. Maybe she’s just a great heroine.
(*As an aside, I recognise that the Ghostbuster’s remake was cast with character that were silly, funny and non-sexualised, yet also capable and brave. It just goes to show that good female characters aren’t in and of themselves enough to save a bad movie.)