I am a sucker for a strong female character and these gun-wielding, sword-swinging gals are skyrocketing in popularity both in books and film. 2017 has served up both Wonder Woman and Atomic Blonde, two characters who are as different as Amarillo and the moon, and this has given me a lot of food for thought.
What makes a female character truly bad@$$?
Last week I watched the pilot for Midnight, Texas and, like most shows, I’m undecided how I feel about it. It usually takes at least three episodes for me to get a clear picture of whether I want to remain or bail.
I loved True Blood and am a fan of Charlaine Harris. As a Texan and an author who writes stories set in Texas, this series of course piqued my interest.
Overall I enjoyed the pilot, but there was one scene that bugged the dickens out of me and thus prompted me to write a post about creating strong female characters.
More about Midnight later and what hit the sour note.
There’s No Mystery Why the Bad@$$ Female Has Gained Appeal
Being an older gal, I remember a time when every woman in every show twisted an ankle. She huddled in a corner panicking and weeping waiting for a man to save her instead of standing up and being useful instead of just decorative. I also recall being a seriously ticked off five-year-old.
Why was she just sobbing in a pile instead of picking up the gun? Tire iron? Whatever.
As a kid of the 80s our female action heroines were Charlie’s Angels *rolls eyes* but it was a start…even though this magazine cover (below) gives me gun safety apoplexy.
*Kristen breathes into paper bag*
But back in the day it was a fresh idea. Take some pretty women with lots of lipgloss and even more hairspray, hand them guns and —> POWER.
Terminator & The Tectonic Shift
For me, Terminator 2 was a tectonic shift in how women could be viewed in terms of an “action hero” especially since I was the only girl in 1985 taking martial arts instead of ballet. When I initially competed in karate, there were no “girls” divisions so I competed against boys.
With T2, finally there was a female action hero for me!
Yet, it seemed like Hollywood completely missed the point of Sarah Connor. Yes, in T2 she is all buff and devoid of emotion, fixated on a singular objective and willing to use any means to get there.
But that was because the STORY compelled such a character. After what Sarah endured, witnessed and survived in T1, she inadvertently became the very thing she sought to destroy. In her desire to defeat the Terminator, she’d become the very thing she hated.
Kyle Reese gives us the foreshadowing of this in T1.
It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear! And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead!
He says these words regarding the Terminator, yet this is eerily prophetic regarding Sarah in T2.
The Sarah Connor of T2 was a METAPHOR, not the singular template for what makes a bad@$$ female action hero.
Yet, T2 set the pattern for over two decades of one-dimensional, bitter, unfeeling and often unlikable female action heroes from Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, to Evelyn Salt in Salt, to the female assassin Fox in Wanted and now we get Lorraine Broughton in Atomic Blonde.
Will This Change?
Though I haven’t seen Atomic Blonde yet, I’ve watched enough clips and trailers to know she’s basically John Wick with boobs. Which *shrugs* is cool.
To be clear, I watch and enjoy a lot of these movies and I think they have a place. For instance, no one expects James Bond or Ethan Hunt (Mission Impossible) to be dimensional.
We expect these guys to have fast cars, cool gadgets, woo beautiful and often dangerous women, and take out the bad guy in new and creative ways. I’m certain Atomic Blonde will deliver the same, because that’s the movie’s goal.
Yet, in my POV, the female action hero who can shoot and fight as well or better than any man has gone from breaking ground (and glass ceilings) and devolved into a die cut trope. In short, this assembly-line character is low-hanging fruit when it comes to storytelling.
I’m sure Atomic Blonde will have all kinds of cool fight scenes and I’m beyond impressed with Charlize Theron and what she did to prepare for the role. Atomic Blonde is groundbreaking for me in that Hollywood cast an over-forty female and not some twenty-something Megan Fox clone.
For that? They get major applause from me.
I know Lorraine Broughton will thrill and electrify me. She will not, however, be my hero which makes me wonder WHY?
Why Wonder Woman is STILL My Hero
One of the many reasons the newest rendition of Wonder Woman had me in tears through most of the movie is the creators ignored the low-hanging fruit and reached higher…MUCH MUCH higher.
We weren’t handed (yet again) what boiled down essentially to a man with girl parts. We had a fully realized and definitively feminine heroine. Additionally, her femininity didn’t “lessen” her.
The story showed us that a woman wasn’t required to become a man in order to be powerful.
THIS is what I feel is a superlative example of a female action hero. Yes, she is amazing with her fighting skills and ability with weapons etc. but the creators didn’t stop there. What made Diana even more powerful (to me) was she possessed innocence and naivete and was motivated by love and compassion not some bitter backstory.
For me, Wonder Woman demonstrated more power in a singular act of undeserved mercy than every Jolie female bad@$$ combined. Being powerful is more than the ability to be violent.
In fact, authentic power is often the opposite.
Back to Midnight, Texas
As mentioned earlier, I enjoyed the pilot and look forward to more episodes, but one scene really rubbed me the wrong way and if the show wants me to root for Olivia, they are off to a bad start. There’s a scene where the band of “supers” for lack of a better word, need to detain protagonist Manfred Bernardo to pepper him with questions when he unexpectedly moves to the town.
Okay, fair enough.
But Manfred is a psychic with the demeanor and physical prowess of a high school English teacher. Why then did Olivia (resident female bad@$$) find it necessary to sucker punch him in the face with brass knuckles to knock him out/detain him?
First of all, no one bothered, I dunno, asking him to come for a chat. Maybe start there? Over some chips and salsa? Even some salsa dosed with Benadryl?
With so many other options, why brass knuckles? Brass knuckles would have crushed his nose and likely cracked orbital sockets and cheekbones. The sheer factual inaccuracy of the results of such a blow irritated me.
Manfred wouldn’t have been simply rendered unconscious, he’d more likely be in surgery to cobble his face back together with wire and bone grafts.
Also, sucker punching a man who’s done nothing wrong (and who’s only been amiable) in the face with brass knuckles was overkill. It was needless and not what truly powerful characters do, especially ones I’m supposed to root for.
Compassion…Strong Enough for a Man AND a Woman
Olivia can show off all she wants with throwing knives and shooting arrows indoors and all of her b*^%iness and brooding doesn’t make her a better character, it makes her a tiresome trope. And authentic bad@$$es don’t ambush unarmed people who’ve done nothing wrong and assault them.
Though so far I like the story concept and other characters, this gal is off to a real bad start with me.
I dislike Olivia for the same reasons I stopped rooting for Arya Stark (though Game of Thrones is chock full of despicable characters). I was on Arya’s side and could ignore a lot of bad things she did (she was a survivor). I was able to overlook a lot of brutality…until she was needlessly cruel, then?
I’m good. Bye, Felicia.
In the end, there will always be audiences eager for the emotionless femme fatale who’s as volatile as she is violent. But, I feel there is great opportunity for writers to dig deeper and reach higher and offer us a wider range of female bad@$$es. If we don’t, then we are like painters who only use black paint, and thus are limiting what we can create.
Wonder Woman has shown us there is a middle-ground between the helpless victim and the pointless brute.
For me? I desire to create strong female bad@$$es characters I wouldn’t mind little girls aspiring to be, and I feel we need more of these women. I would want my daughter to be like Wonder Woman. Evelyn Salt? Atomic Blonde?
Um, yeah. No thanks.
What are your thoughts? Do you have mixed feelings about many of the female bad@$$es? I don’t mind them, but come on! Can we get something different? What do you think makes a female character powerful?
Who are your favorites? Did you cry all through Wonder Woman too? Hollywood portrayed my childhood role model so brilliantly. And I loved that all the Amazons were different ages, shapes, sizes, races and that’s another post. But WOW!
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Have you seen the new Wynonna Earp show? I watched a few episodes on Netflix. Will probably go back to it, cause it’s a western with demons that won’t die/maybe zombies/ not sure what else. She’s got a bad history, but yeah – everything escalates to violent very fast. Sometimes there’s a need for it, sometimes she’s too stupid to live.
I love Wynonna Earp. She’s super flawed which is nice but she has a good heart. And this current storyline is killing me – I love that she has so much to deal with and no alcohol to deal with it.
Love this and yes! I cried through most of WW. Someone asked about Wynonna Earp. I think you’d enjoy this show as well. She’s definitely the reluctant hero who has been on the wrong side of the tracks.
I completely agree about WW. An amazing breakthrough in the centuries-old male domination in Hollywood. Even the high-school male sports jock I took to see it commented that it was the best superhero movie this year. Thanks for the post!
You’re not alone. I cried during WW too. I loved that she was a woman first and a warrior second. Especially loved the sees a baby scene. We can all relate to that.
Maybe I’m even older than you, but I grew up thinking that Leia Organa and Ellen Ripley were pretty bad@$$ female characters in the 70’s 80’s. I didn’t get exposed to the Alien franchise until a little bit later in the 80’s ’cause my parents wouldn’t let me watch movies with that level of violence until I was older. Was that your experience with that movie series too?
I feel that Leia and Ripley meet the middle ground criteria for brutes and helpless victim. They’re vulnerable at times but kick butt when the crunch is on!
I was also a big fan of Murder She Wrote in the 80’s. Not exactly a sci-fi/super hero character, but she was my idol. She’s part of the reason I want to be a mystery writer some day.
Agree 100% and I’ll throw in some bonus percentage points. That’s the type of heroine I’ve strove to create in every story I’ve written. Kick A$$ females who are basically males with female parts and who (strangely) further prove their female masculinity by disrobing whenever possible are like being kicked and told I like it. Kick A$$ is fine if it fits organically, but when the message is the only way a woman can be successful is by being a man I’ve had enough.
Dead on. Our femininity–not to be confused with sexuality–is what makes us powerful. Eliminate that, and you have a cardboard cutout with boobs.
I just blogged about Wonder Woman myself, though it was more of a ramble and lacked your concise points! 🙂
WW truly inspired me because of many of the points you made. Tropes aside, male heroes and villains have more depth and variety than their female counterparts. I want to explore female CMs, anti-heroes, and villains in my writing and reading. If you have book recommendations along this line I hope you’ll share!
Thanks for the blog – I always learn something!
I saw Wonder Woman and Atomic Blonde, and you raise some great points, Kristen. I enjoyed both movies, but Wonder Woman was light years ahead for the reasons you mentioned. She was true to herself and her beliefs, vulnerable (at least to Aries), insightful, and merciful. She certainly wasn’t a stock character or like a typical male action hero in a female form.
While it was fun (and I’m sure empowering) to see Charleze Theron’s character kick ass and out-Bourning Bourne, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman had meaningful depth, an enlightened perspective, AND kicked ass. I also felt Rey in The Force Awakens was a well-done heroine, though Wonder Woman took it even higher IMO. Both are excellent role models for both girls and boys (and adults of course).
I was conflicted about Rei. A boy could have played the role and no one noticed. Nothing feminine about her. I also felt it was a cheat that she was INSTANTLY mega-perfect fighting with a light-saber when even Luke had to do some training. But no, she is a girl and so by sheer girlish magic she can go toe-to-toe with the villain using a weapon she’s never seen before a week ago. It diminished Kylo Ren (making him a pathetic villain) and made me roll my eyes. I don’t mind him being beaten by a girl, but can she at least have to work for it?
I just want to see a female warrior with the same simple truths and values as are assigned to so many male warrior tales. Where only true evil is dehumanized, and then only so long as it takes to stop the destruction.
I liked Wonder Woman as a kid, but had trouble with the physical presentation: perfect hour-glass figure, tall (much taller than I would ever be), gorgeous hair, etc. My brothers looooooved Wonder Woman…
What I liked most about Wonder Woman was the backstory, the culture she came from, the values that drove that culture — and the, um, equality that somehow I felt would be inherent in an all-female society (obviously that felt right in grade school).
Thanks for this post, Kristen, it reminded me of how easily a character can be accepted based on actions — shallow, subjective shadows of what they should be, and could be. Why do we so often stop at that point? Why isn’t there a pursuit beyond ‘good enough’?
okay – time to get back to the latest edit project: the life of Hitler. (maybe this is why I’m standing deep inside my head?) Wonder Woman! Rescue me!!
Yes! Cried on & off through the whole thing, especially having my 9 & 13- year old daughters beside me. What great conversations we had afterwards.
Not sure if I’ve ever left a comment in the 2 or 3 years I’ve been following your blog, but thank you! Love your advice & your attitude
I really like how you point out that there is “middle ground between helpless victim and pointless brute.” I’ve never thought about it that way, and you’re right.
Nope, haven’t seen Wonder Woman yet (rages at the quirks of fate) and yes, watched Charlie’s Angels, as well as the WW TV series when they were both first-run television. Being an only child who lived in a rural area and was friends with more boys than girls in elementary and middle school, I thought it was great that women were finally kicking some ass instead of being unable to do more than scream and be abducted–or killed–in every show. Of course now I cringe at what was essentially a T-and-A (tits and ass) show for the men-folk, but it was definitely a beginning.
The pendulum has swung from capable beauty queens to capable, emotionally wounded women, and now to capable, complex and compassionate female characters. The one dimensional, smart-ass action hero, both male and female, will always have a place at the table b/c they’re fun to watch while munching a tub of popcorn, but I’m glad this generation of script writers is beginning to pass up the easy tropes in favor of more emotionally resonant characters we can empathise with and believe in.
I would be very interested in your opinion of Ripley from the movie “Alien.”
I think she was very ground-breaking and dimensional. She had moral struggles, a desperate want to protect and save her crew (family), and in the end to do what was right even when it came at great personal cost. She isn’t a particularly feminine character but that would have been inauthentic within the scope of the story. A more “masculine/engineer” tomboy is logical to cast as part of a deep space mining crew. I think for the time, it showed girls who had more mathematical/engineer/analytical personalities that they could be feminine too. There could be a female hero who didn’t wear go-go boots and a silver mini-skirt 😀 . That girly-girls were only one TYPE of girl.
YES! So much YES! The power of femininity. YES! Somebody finally agrees with me. Can you tell i’m excited about this!
I am working on a story that people keep comparing to Midnight Texas. I cringe a bit because I know the writer and how she portrays the power struggle as something that I feel cheapens true strength. Most of the women I write are incredibly vulnerable for the most part, and their magical gifted strength almost is something they don’t know what to do with. It is a great responsibility that they definitely recognize. Then their heart/morality motivates them to use it for good, and sometimes mistakenly, bad. The goal of every writer isn’t to hide the growing pains of a powerful character for fear that she will look weak. The goal should be to teeter totter through the rise and fall, showing you are not insecure as an author/director to show that women, like men, fail. And they fail just as hard. And when they do it hurts. They have a heart despite what powers you deem to give them in your fantasy world. And they are going to navigate things the same (if you are about equality) in terms of making choices. Strength isn’t always physical. A woman’s tremendous nature is endurance of brutality if anything. (brutality of the world). Her gifts are plenty. No need to apologize for the drawbacks of being feminine. Full stop.
PREACH ON and YES!!!!
I confess; I’m a guy that likes Jane Austen, especially “Pride and Prejudice.” I think that the women in her stories are pretty bad@$$, considering the time period they would have lived in. Women of power, choosing to marry for love and principle, or to not marry, rather than playing the part of chattel.
AMEN, Sister Kristen!
For years – years – there has been some insane insistence that female leads must be kickass and as ruthless as men. That we cannot be empowered unless we’re kicking in some dude’s teeth. To me, Arya Stark is the flip side of Cersei Lannister. Daenerys Targaryen could easily cross the line and let power seduce her. I’ve met women in corporations with ruthless streaks, with just as much capacity for cruelty as men.
Just because I’m a woman, doesn’t mean I exalt all women. We have just as much capacity for evil as men, and our evil manifests in different ways, (“Mean Girls,” anyone?) Belle Gunness was a notorious serial killer who murdered her husbands, suitors and kids – and she died over a century ago.
You cannot write a romance novel today without making the female lead cynical, kickass or popping off. There is zilch self-doubt. As an author, if you dare write any vulnerability, the character’s eviscerated as a “Mary Sue,” or “too stupid to live.” When a character makes mistakes and then must overcome them, it does not make them stupid, it makes them human. It makes for great storytelling.
I remember trying to watch Kathleen Turner as V.I. Warshawski and not liking it half as much as Bruce Willis in “Die Hard.” Both were wisecrackers, but the Willis character seemed more vulnerable.
I’m a fan of the TV series “Younger,” because I love the female lead, Liza, who’s played by the very appealing Sutton Foster. The character is caring, thoughtful, and carries a secret – she’s really 40 and trying to pass off as 26 so she can work in publishing. She makes mistakes and tries to own them, rather than pass off that she’s Ms. Perfect.
I’ve not yet seen “Wonder Woman,” but always loved the comic book. Because she was decent and had kindness, and wasn’t tough to prove her superiority – she showed grit and resourcefulness instead. She wasn’t afraid to show her heart, to be tender. To be occasionally vulnerable. To have honor.
Now you’ve piqued my interest in Midnight Texas! Adding that one to my list for the long, cold winter. I loved Wonder Woman and I loved the fact that she could be innocent and strong. So many people when they come across someone who’s innocent or naive assume they’re weak…and that isn’t always the case. 🙂 Great post, Kristen!
What an excellent post. I love how you’re able to analyze all of this. I still haven’t seen Wonder Woman. Have been living under a rock and have a ton of catching up to do. When I was a kid, one of my favorite movies was Calamity Jane starring Doris Day. Not only bada$$, but man oh man she could belt out beautiful songs.
All the classes sound great. I hope to take some soon.
One movie that caught me off guard with their female protagonist was You’re Next. I actually cheered through the movie because that character kicked butt. It’s not action (it’s horror) and it was so refreshing to have the hero be a female who stood her ground from the beginning (not because she was the only one left or because she’s been beaten so bad that she decided she wanted to live). It’s movie I often recommend. I think what is sad is that it’s not mentioned when you talk powerful female characters because she is my go-to when I talk about the shift in movies.
We are getting a great shift in movies lately – lots of great female roles and so much variety across the genres.
I love so much of what you say and the way you say it.
We have so few examples of powerful women because women are so seldom dynamic characters. We need more female characters and a variety of them, otherwise they have to represent too much and become cartoonish (or, at the very least, limited). What makes it even worse is that when we do have female heroes on the screen or in literature, everyone is very quick to point out what they are not. Females in fiction and in the real world are confined to our culture’s artificial limitations.
Thank you so much, Kristen, for upholding the unique strength of the feminine hero. One that’s moral over macho. Never been interested in ladies made strong just by adding testosterone. There’s enough of that going around already. And thanks also to the men who share the vision.
I didn’t cry *all* through Wonder Women, but yes, I cried a little. I loved it. I loved that she was female throughout. She was sincere and funny and still kicked a$$.
I want to see more of the. I feel society mirrors this prejudice. If you want to be successful, you have to take on more “masculine” traits, but then you’re seen as b!tchy rather than assertive.
I loved the portrayal of the Amazons. I never feel comfortable writing POC as I’m not, and I’ve heard often enough it’s not okay to be white and write them.
Daughter and I saw Wonder Woman, and she noted afterward “I saw you had your kleenexes… which parts made you cry?” (She knows I’m a sucker for the feelz. Hell, I’ve cried at Opening Credits before! (Lion King! LOL))
Which is to say: Yes. I cried. I loved it. I want to own this movie, and I never actually *buy* the superhero movies for repeat viewing.
Also saw the promo for Atomic Blonde that night, and I felt nothing. No desire to see that one at all. It looks like all the other BadAssFemale Movies (and tv shows, honestly) out there. Dull.
“Being powerful is more than the ability to be violent.
In fact, authentic power is often the opposite.”
Yes, yes, YES! Preach it! Hear, hear! +1!
I cried during Wonder Woman. No Man’s Land. All I’ll say.
“We weren’t handed (yet again) what boiled down essentially to a man with girl parts. We had a fully realized and definitively feminine heroine. Additionally, her femininity didn’t “lessen” her.” Yes!!! This is why I love this movie so much. She is a tough woman but she is a woman. They showed that you can be feminine and tough and that they aren’t mutually exclusive. I said the other day she has ruined any other superhero movie for me. 2019 can’t come soon enough.
Perhaps I just grew up consuming different media than most people, because I really don’t get all the recent fuss about how females have always been kept down until this year (which ever the current year is). Last year it was about how women were kept out of SF/F (you know, except for Leigh Brackett, Andre Norton, Anne McCaffrey, Connie Willis, CJ Cherryh, Barbary Hambly, etc. but they were apparently invisible), now it’s they’ve not been represented in movies and TV. I haven’t seen either WW or AB yet (hoping to see WW Thursday for our anniversary), but unless it’s really, really different it’ll likely come off as highly entertaining yet not ground breaking.
I grew up with Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman, Lindsay Wagner as Jaime Summers, Angie Dickinson as Pepper Anderson and the revolving door of ladies as Charlie’s Angels. There was Ellen Ripley and Leia Organa on the big screen in the 70’s. Later in the 80’s we got more of Leia and Ripley, showcasing their growth and becoming even more badass. Cagney and Lacey bagged the criminals. We were introduced to Sarah Connor, and watched as she went from a scared target of assassination to full on badass survivor determined to fight and live. In the 90’s we saw Scully the equal, and usually the better, of Mulder. Buffy and Xena kicked everyone’s butts, and Murphy Brown stood toe to toe with her male peers. We were introduced to Lori Petty as she surfed with the rest of the guys in Point Break, and Sandra Bullock rocked in how many movies exactly? Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) came back for more, and Leeloo (Mila Jovovich) showed up to save us as well. Carrie-Ann Moss’s Trinity was easily equal to the other main characters on screen. By the new century we had the crew of Serenity where half the cast was female and able to kick ass when needed, along with Mila showing up in the Resident Evil series. Before I was even born Emma Peel was an icon. And did we all forget Joan of Arc and Boudica?
Female characters able to kick ass have been around at least since the 60’s in popular TV/movies. They’re there if we just look.
But the number one thing is to have an entertaining story. Because it doesn’t really matter if the character can go 12 rounds with Odin and Mars or if they curl up and hide from seeing their shadow if the story isn’t entertaining.
I agree and I think big screen has been more guilty of the die cut bad@$$ trope. You get more layers and depth with television because the medium permits it. There is more time to work with. You can layer a character more easily with 15 hours and multiple seasons than a 90 minute movie.
Actually, female action heroes are much older than most people are aware of but this is usually forgotten as we have no access anymore to older movies and TV shows.
For the interested the action heroine already started in the silent age (here a very informative link):
Before Emma Peel there was Cathy Gale (played by later-Bond girl Honor Blackman), almost at the same time there was “Honey West” (Anne Francis)in the US. and I personally remember from my childhood quite a number of heroines in Westerns and pirate movies such as “Anne of the Indies” (Jean Peters), “Against all flags” (Maureen O’Hara, who played strong females in quite some movies),Yellow Sky (Anne Baxter)or the assembled women of “Westward the women” (a Western entirely with women and one sole male protagonist).
Of course not necessarily what we would call “action movies” but as close as it gets considering the pre-dominant genres of the time, as “real” action movies didn’t start until the 60s with the James Bond movies (I also recommend “Fathom” with Raquel Welch from that era).
My feeling is that strong female (action) heroes have always been there but some of the older ones have simply been forgotten.
Bravo! I never understood why the entertainment establishment felt that for a woman to be strong she had to be quasi-masculine. That’s the thinking that gave us the horrific ‘dress for success’ of the 70s/80s. I loved Kyra Sedgwick’s character in The Closer, because she was fully feminine but tough.
***Thunderous round of applause***
Perfectly summed up what I’d been thinking, but couldn’t verbalize. I saw Atomic Blonde yesterday, and I was underwhelmed. No spoilers, it’s worth watching, but I could’ve waited for DVD, and saved the $$$.
You also nailed her characterization – bitter, little dimension. Charlize Theron absolutely deserves major props for her work, but the story ended up leaving me cold.
I cried a lot during Wonder Woman too.
completely agree! Ripley in Alien was the first woman action hero I remember & loved. But by Alien 3 her original character morphed into someone I wasn’t fond of. I’m turned off by non-feminine woman hero that’s in most movies/tv shows now. As an engineer, sometimes the physics doesn’t make sense. There’s no way a woman who is 105lbs soak & wet in Stiletto heels is going to kick a 200lb man & he goes flying out a window. I’m at the point when I see trailers where the woman is kicking butt I’m turned off. I was never a fan of Arya Stark but at least she’s cunning instead of ninja fighting men all over Westeros. I’ll have to check out Wonder Woman now.
I generally just figure the girl beating the bigger guy as akin to the shotgun blast to the chest that blows the guy through the closed door and ten feet down the hallway. There is a reason you don’t see 160 lb linemen in the NFL. Or why bantam weight boxers don’t take on their heavyweight brethren. You need muscle mass to repeatedly take body blows and keep fighting.
I agree with you so completely. They did a great job with Wonder Woman. You said it so well. Strong women don’t have to act like men to be strong. I don’t want my daughter to want to be a man.
I agree that true power is emotional as much as physical. It manifests in thoughtful agency and restraint more often than it manifests in violence. Perhaps, however, this inclination toward kindness is something that stems from experience, self acceptance, exposure to its absence. We’re all tempered in life by our experiences. It feels like too few characters male or female reflect this arc, they either fall into the tropes of heroes or villians. I think seeing characters with agency, self awareness, and personal stakes is so important and sometimes absent in storytelling. We as humans don’t have to grow cold in adversity and stay there. We come back, even if we’re fundamentally changed, our characters should reflect that.
I think it’s funny that you mention “unlikabale female action heroes” Lara Croft, Evelyn Salt, and Fox from Wanted in the same breath – perhaps not coincidentally, they’re all played by the same actress (Anjelina Jolie). I just saw Atomic Blonde this weekend (and LOVED it). I also loved Wonder Woman, but for very different reasons. Lorraine Broughton is the heroine you can get behind, but not necessarily one you root for. Doing what she does, her moral compass is definitely in that grey area between “right” and “wrong”. WW, on the other hand, is a superhero, with superpowers, and as such, we expect her to be GOOD. She can’t operate in the same gray area that Lorraine does, but I love her just the same.
What’s really great about Wonder Woman is that she’s in a class by herself. Yeah, for female superheroes we have Black Widow, but she’s got far, far more in common with Lorraine than with Diana. I’m not sure there CAN be another hero like WW, which is a conundrum, because I adore strong female characters too. Huh.
Having grown up loving Princess Leia, Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor, I’m hoping that WW will be a trend-setter and not the exception to the rule.
Great post! Thanks! You reached into my head and pulled out exactly what I thought of Atomic Blonde and WW. The emotionless female badass has become an empty Hollywood trope – Ghost In the Shell being just another recent example. Entertaining as far as it goes, but cookie-cutter.
T2 set the standard, as you say, for a generation of scriptwriters. But before Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor we had Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien and Alien 2. Ripley was capable of being tough and vulnerable, emotional and stone cold, physical and subtle, sexy and scary. It might be that her character arc was too tragic to serve as a useful template for writers. Sarah Connor, being simpler, could be copied and reused more easily.
WW is a sign that Hollywood is willing to dig a little deeper with its female heroes than it has tried for a generation. I want to see a more down-to-earth girl badass hero, though. Like Taylor Stevens’ Vanessa Monroe.
I saw the brass knuckles hit too on Midnight, Texas,
and thought WHAT? Why did she do that? Lately, I’ve read a couple of good novels with strong female leads
– done right! and enjoyed them so much more!
Haven’t seen Wonder Woman yet, but it’s on my to-do list. Thanks for the nice article on strong women.
‘The story showed us that a woman wasn’t required to become a man in order to be powerful.’ Absolutely correct Kristen. My first experience of this was in the late 70’s training to become officer in Army Women’s Corps. I was the last graduating class of the WAC. We began with 80 women and finished with 10. I remember saying to myself that I wouldn’t want to serve with the other 9 since they had become ‘ersatz men’. I also experienced while working in the Health Care Corporate World. The distinctiveness of each gender is in fact each’s ‘strength’. Regarding ‘Midnight’ pilot, I agree, no rhyme or reason to the transaction. The pilot didn’t convince me that the Story line has interest-staying power. An example for me of a Powerful female : Danielle in the book and movie ‘Ever After’
Hi Kristen: I saw the course ‘Back Story’ listed on a page. Will this be offered? Thanks Mary
Yes, I know Cait is loading it so will confer with her.
“Being powerful is more than the ability to be violent.”
This sums my feelings up perfectly!
Thank you for sharing this. It feels like so many stories are desperate to have ‘strong female protagonists’ without considering WHAT makes them strong. Often it seems like they feel the need to weaken the males involved- look, the poor guy can’t do anything, girls gotta take over- whooo!
I appreciate stories where characters can be strong because they ARE strong, not because they needed to be so for the plot.
Another great article- again, thanks 🙂
Try being a 5-year-old in the 1950s! The woman wouldn’t even have been in a position to twist an ankle. The worst that could happen to her is a nasty burn from her iron.
I missed out on Wonder Woman – but that was mostly because I looked at the costume and rolled my eyes – really?? We have a superheroine who has to wear that wretched basque in this day and age? However, I’m all about heroic women. I love the writing of women like Jo Walton, N.K. Jemisin, Foz Meadows and Emma Newman who write wonderful female characters with plenty depth – and often feature older characters who are not necessarily in the full flush of youth, but have hard-won experience instead…
As for the big screen – I thoroughly enjoyed watching the character Louise Banks overcome her fear and revulsion of the unknown in ARRIVAL – a character with edges but trying to do the best in difficult circumstances.
It’s very similar to the outfits worn by the Amazons on Diana’s island and to battle skirts worn by men. I really appreciated her not being in the usual Wonder Woman swimsuit-type outfit. She looks wonderful—strong and powerful and not objectified. I just saw the movie on Labor Day weekend and saw “Atomic Blonde” the next day. I was happy to see the variety. And yes, I did cry during the incredible “No Man’s Land” scene.
You really hit it on the head with female characters. I’ve gotten so sick of misogyny in books and literature I will rarely read a book or go see a movie that doesn’t have a female lead. Maybe it’s just a phase that I’m going through of the back lash of living in this world for 40+ years.
I have tried to give my female characters realistic and bad a$$ qualities, but as a new writer I know I have room for improvement. You have given great advice and I will make sure to make sure my female characters have dimension. I will definitely be re-reading this blog post over and over. Thank you!!
Is it too late for me to agree with KAMAS716?
Yes, it’s a credibility strain watching light weight ladies go against mountainous muscle mass. Technically it can be done, but only if they’re fast enough to do deadly damage before the guy can blink. Like poke their eyes out or rip something important off — then get the heck out of there! It’s yucky, and Hollywood doesn’t like to go that far, which I appreciate. Maybe that’s just for George RR Martin. 🙂
The long, knock down drag out fights are just as unreal with equally matched men. Specifically, there’s the three-minute rule that’s usually ignored. That’s the amount of time you’ve got to do your worst before your energy wains. If you’re up against someone stronger, you’re in big trouble after that. Running is advisable.
I guess some folks just like to see people hit each other ad nauseam. Watching black belts spar, however, is truly thrilling. They have to pull their punches in practice or they’d kill each other, but they move so fast it’s impossible to see everything. They’re up, then down, then across the mat, reversing a move on their opponent that you didn’t know was possible . . . it’s dazzling. You can only begin to see their moves when your own speed increases.
Thanks for the chat, Kristen!
I was really annoyed at how innocent and naive Diana was. I wanted more Athena and less Kore.
You summed up exactly why I was tearing up at Wonder Woman. The iconic scene where she’s running across the battlefield was triggered so she could save innocent lives that the others factored into a cost of war. THAT was what moved me. Beyond the imagery being super cool, it meant something. And that is what was missing from the Superman movie from a few years back.
Loved this post! Yes, I wrote about the Wonder Woman movie as well (no surprise to you, I’m sure–LOL!), and I loved many of the same aspects you did.
Here’s a snippet of what I said about the different types of strengths they portrayed in the movie (http://jamigold.com/2017/06/wonder-woman-the-essence-of-a-strong-female-character/):
Ways that Diana’s strengths are portrayed throughout the movie include:
* She’s allowed to coo over a baby without the act “weakening” her or pigeon-holing her into the mother role.
* Her naïvety is never shown as stupidity or foolishness. Instead, she’s simply uninformed about modern culture, which reflects the purity of her history.
* Even her physical strength is shown as coming from her goodness, compassion, kindness, and determination to live up to her potential.
In other words, unlike so many other comic book movies, which focus on physical strengths or egos or overcoming a masculine trait like arrogance, she is the embodiment of the feminine spirit. 🙂
I just saw this film yesterday, Kristen, and loved it. Gal Gadot brought an effortless grace to her portrayal of a young woman hurtling toward destiny with a ferocity tempered by her comical innocence of the world that she was born to protect. I found myself sobbing when her feminine instinct to protect the vulnerable sent her charging into battle. I was with her on that battlefield, and for once it felt right. Of all her divine gifts, her compassion gave her the greatest strength and nobility. I cried because the little girl in me was so impressed and thankful that a hero worth noting actually had “woman” in her wonderful name. I loved this movie too. Thank you so much for writing about the difference between creating a masculine lead that a woman can play and making a woman a hero who truly saves the day.
Agreed, her compassion was beautiful and celebrated instead of being seen as a weakness
I’m less thrilled by all the ass kicking than most. While I’m not a fan of wimpy women I like it when they use innate feminine skills and power to win. Beating men with physical strength feels like we’ve joined their game as opposed to bringing our own. Intuitive intelligence doesn’t work as well with CGI but it’s truly a female power. Persistence is under rated. Our strength is often our tenacity. “The Beguiled” version by Sophia Coppola is a fantastic example of women working together to solve a problem using their heads. It’s understated but it was definitely a movie that thrilled my feminist soul.
Wow! This is fantastic! This is everything I’ve struggled to put into words about what bugs me about “strong” female protagonists. And also why I loved Wonder Woman so much.
I loved WW too. I agree she was great because she was both strong and feminine. I’m still trying to understand how they did that. It did not feel at all like they had written a male superhero and then said, Let’s cast a woman for this. I think you’re right that her love and compassion had a lot to do with that. And they got the perfect actress for it. Gal Gadot is not only drop dead gorgeous but she was able to embody the full complexity of the character.
I’m not sure I agree that Sarah Connor in T2 was unfeminine. She had moments where she showed her femininity, especially in her devotion to her son and how she changed her views and expressed some hope for humanity at the end. I do agree, though, that WW succeeded in giving us a true super-heroine in ways I’ve never seen in any other movie, comic book or novel.
One of the most powerful female scenes I remember happened on a TV show. It was many years ago now, and I don’t remember what show it was–one of the cop/EMT shows that was popular at the time. A female police officer–also wife and mother–was in an elevator with her husband. It was 9/11, and when the disaster happened, they got trapped in the elevator. Then the husband had a heart attack. And the police woman started to cry. If that was where they’d left it, I wouldn’t remember it. BUT the woman broke out of the elevator, dragged her unconscious husband through the doors (she was a large enough woman that this was plausible), and then humped him to the closest hospital. All the while crying. It was such a poignant mix of fear and competence that it stuck with me. She was absolutely terrified and devastated, yet she did what she had to do to save him (he lived). That was powerful to me.
This was an interesting piece and I largely agree with you that feminine super woman are often one simensiak, hard, and lack that emotional and caring aspect many or most woman ghabe to some degree. I think that these and other characteristics that would flesh out a woman superhero are important.
I very much liked Wonderwomqn the movie was very well done. If you’ve watched the X-men movies featuring Jennifer Lawrence as mystic I very much liked her character at first b/c it showed us mystic was not just some feelingless villain, thee were reasons she became who she was. I did think in Age of Furyres past she lost some of that character.
As well, the X-men character Rogue was well done as she becomes an essential X-men character, and not a bad guy such as Mystic but a super hero of sorts.
Another I can think of is a show on TV (if it hasn’t been cut) on Supergirl and a character named Kara. They show, being a show and not just a movie, Ithibk is better able to show depth to Kara’s character and what she goes through to become supergirl. Ishe’s not emotionless and life isn’t just a walk in the park for her.
In 21st Century Hollywood, tiresome tropes are our most important product.
Yes! I love Wonder Woman, and totally agree that a strong woman should be more than “a man with girl parts.” Thanks for sharing! 🙂