Updated: Jul 28, 2021
It should come as no surprise that sadly there are a lack of female protagonists starring in movies and television. As discussed in Nathan’s previous critique, ‘Female Protagonists-do their creators allow them to fail?’, whether it is intentional or subconscious there are faults with how leading ladies are presented by the industry. I have talked a little about the positive impact of such protagonists and representation in my “Kids” Animated TV piece about the titular heroine Star Butterfly who I feel encapsulates and delivers on the “Powerful Potential” part of this very article.
Generally speaking there’s just so much promise that isn’t being fulfilled. If the industry was willing to listen, take a step back, or even collaborate equally between genders, then what women could achieve on and off camera would probably blow people's minds.
Now, neither Nathan nor I are women and we certainly don’t know what it is like to be one in a man’s world. I acknowledge that we have our innately misinformed biases, which is why my aim is to try to offer insight as a viewer rather than mansplain the issue. Everyone has opinions on the subjective art they watch, and I think a discussion on female representation in media is a conversation worth having, especially if we want to see positive change.
To start with, I feel there is something more to be said about the theme of emancipation in certain movies. It’s not to say that works like Little Women and Hidden Figures are not good, the latter is amazing and the first I have downloaded and primed to watch. However, I imagine a lot of people want to see a variety of projects with leading women not just centred on discrimination. Not as much for gender, but for race I have a personal pet peeve to a certain extent on the aforementioned matter. Once you’ve seen one slavery movie you’ve seen them all, and I feel that a story about society’s historical and present sexism towards women shares similarities with this. Though, they are both stories that absolutely need to be told and acknowledged, an oversaturation of these types movies can be unfavourable for the cause they support.
If I’m tired of watching and enduring movies centred on racism as a minority, then I can imagine maybe some women might feel the way I do but towards emancipation movies. I mean why can’t a female protagonist just approach things the way any other male action hero we are used to watching? Something we’re already used to but more inclusive with its casting and storytelling.
Imagine what the people behind Spider-Verse can do with Gwen Stacy’s character the way they did with Miles. I can’t wait for her to star in a movie of her own.
Evidently, in the same way Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Black Panther are superhero movies with Black leads, a superhero movie can still be just that but with a female lead. The former acknowledged the protagonist’s roots without racial conflict, along with going as far as celebrating who Miles is as a person. And even though the latter acknowledges the truth of racial injustice it also remembers to generally be entertaining.
Even admired characters from successful movies such as Captain Marvel prove that themes like emancipation don’t have to be stressed as the focal point in order to make a good movie. I’m not saying don’t ever bring up societal issues, I would just be considerate of the approach taken given messages can be conveyed in multiple ways. I believe people will have a better chance at accepting new things like being considerate of new social norms, but only if they feel they are not being overtly preached at. I know I felt that way when it came to certain lessons and teachers at school.
“Men don't go see women do action movies” - Elizabeth Banks
So what are examples of “good” and “bad” female led projects? What about these makes them work, and why? By comparing the success stories and box office failures we can maybe find out what Hollywood should strive towards as well as what to avoid.
The following are just my views on a mix of individual movies.
Directed by Patty Jenkins, WW is about an Amazonian Warrior Princess whose race are tasked with protecting mankind from evil and itself. Also known as Diana Prince, the superhero is strong, powerful and beautiful amongst many qualities.
Besides her physical prowess, she represents the values of strength, empathy and virtue, promoting these admirable core beliefs throughout her adventure to save the world. The movie was critically well received and the box office reflects this, as it and the character have become a symbol and beacon for girls, women, and even guys to strive towards.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day
Directed by James Cameron, Sarah Connor leads the sequel where her prior role was as a supporting character in the original. She is determined and with purpose actively trying to stop the rise of Skynet and fall of humanity. Yes Sarah is a mother trying to achieve this in part by protecting her son, but also as the mother of the Resistance, Connor has a responsibility to humanity doing whatever is necessary to win the future war against the machines.
She represents all the hallmarks of an ideal protagonist and bad-ass role model, and yet her creator’s statements about the portrayal of strong women tell a different story. They rely on age-old stereotypes about women in media, including the notion that women exist within strict binaries of labels – either beautiful or powerful but never both. He also compared Diana Prince to his own character, saying the Terminator 2 lead is the ideal female character for movies.
In a succinct response the WW director said:
“There is no right and wrong kind of powerful woman.” - Patty Jenkins (Full Tweet)
I'm addressing the Paul Feig 2016 reboot of the original because female led reboots are seen as avenues to introduce more women on screen. While I agree with the idea and the sentiment behind it, personally I’m not quite sure what the appeal of this subgenre is. Then again I’m not a woman who deserves more representation so to each their own.
The way the reboot came across to me was that the only unique selling point was the fact that the leads were gender swapped. For the most part it was McKinnon’s, Wiig’s, Jones’ and McCarthy’s individual performances that were meant to carry the existing premise. There was of course updated CGI and a decent soundtrack in my opinion, but nothing else really going for it. With little difference from the original which I had already seen, it was stale in my eyes.
However to be fair, in terms of format Bridesmaids (2011) in a manner is essentially this to Hangover (2009) and that apparently was a brilliant movie. Though a dangerous line to walk from my perspective, I’ll put this on my watchlist and see where the charm lies. Maybe this type of movie can lend itself well to the cause for improving the influence and representation of women.
At the very least, I feel it is still beneficial for newer generations to be exposed to reboots like these. In that if they haven’t seen the originals, then the goal of granting normalcy to the thought that women can also be seen as leading protagonists is achieved. I guess we’ll see as more of these types of movies become more prevalent like the upcoming Pirates of the Caribbean reboot.
Based on the treasured video game character and following the early 2000’s Angelina Jolie movies, it’s safe to say expectations were already set in stone for the character. Alicia Vikander’s portrayal of Lara Croft ended up being fairly different, but even in comparison to these, as a standalone movie there was nothing much to the story or character. She had little development and motivation, making me feel like this was a shadow of a character I had no reason to get behind.
I don’t know what you took away from these examples, but for me there are a couple standout characteristics between the movies and their leading ladies I prominently mentioned in the last one: Story and Character Development. The movie itself supports the character and vice versa if you think about it. How a story is received by an audience can also have a knock-on effect towards how the protagonist in said story comes across.
It is difficult for one to work without the other as proven in the TV series Avatar: Legend of Korra which faced production hurdles from start to finish for being too “risky” . Among many things, including (unconfirmed) reports that Nickelodeon executives didn’t like the idea of a woman of colour as the lead, there is the well known fact that the network attempted to cut off the show mid series. Unsure of renewal, the creators and writers were put in a weird position understandably making a show that had sloppy writing, messy plot arcs and a myriad of other problems.
There are people who enjoyed Legend of Korra and those who were put off by what ended up occurring throughout the eventual four seasons of the show. Despite the fact that its divisive nature did not cripple the show it certainly hindered it, and in any case whether you argue if this is all intentional or circumstantial, this ultimately affected how the new female reincarnation of the Avatar was portrayed. In the show's lore the titular protagonist has always had big shoes to fill and a massive undertaking, but former Avatar Aang never had to deal with anything quite like this. It’s a shame and a disservice to the series, character, and women, that as his successor Korra's potential was weighed down before it could even find its footing.
Another way to look at it is that as I said in my comment on Nathan’s article is that people writing for projects don't always seem to care about or appreciate the Hero's Journey. Whether it's through the active choices the character makes, dealing with the consequences of these, or the challenges they must overcome throughout the story, it is necessary to show the protagonist evolve. As the audience we’re consistently asking “why should we care?” It is their job as the directors and writers to make us care. I'll give credit to the fact that movies don't always necessarily allow for the time to do this in, especially compared to TV, but I argue again that the writers' need to make time. It's been done for many a male hero before, and women are just as capable so show it.
In essence, have an engaging premise/story as a backbone for the character. Then set up the hero to be well developed as likeable, interesting and a protagonist we can empathise with who also just happens to be a woman. Simple enough.
Of course this is just my opinion and everything is always up for debate. After all, Wonder Woman 1984 as a sequel was strange and divisive, but people still love and admire the character. And Kate Mckinnon in the Ghostbusters reboot was the stand out favourite, but her performance as Holtzmann wasn’t enough to save the movie.
It will naturally take time for male writers, directors, producers, and even audiences to understand and accept that there are certain problems when it comes to how (leading) women are portrayed in movies. Not only this, but also how to improve upon these existing interpretations and show that it is possible to change them for the benefit of everyone. We need to walk a mile in their shoes, heels even, because though literally speaking that sounds painful and uncomfortable, metaphorically it means getting better quality content and more heroes to rally behind.