Tropes Begone: Strong Female Character and The Perfect Woman

Hello, all! This post brought to you by the SAT. The SAT, where math questions range from what is the sum of  2x + 6 to if Juan has two bags of rice with a ratio of 5:6 for price and 5:8 for weight, what is the ratio of price per ounce? Hint: it’s not racist if it’s a standardized test. I guess my mind didn’t explode after taking the test (for the second bleeping time) because I’m here writing to you right now, but the test did make me think about media. Bad media, in particularly, and what makes media so bad? It can be many different things (Adam Driver, for one), but today I’m going to focus on one problem in particular: stupid ass tropes.

  1. Strong Female Character

Let me be frank: I detest the Strong Female Character trope. If I hear one more fictional female humanoid described in this way, I will pull a Strong Female Character and punch that person in the face. Strength == violence, duh. Now some of you may be thinking: “You don’t like Strong Female Characters? You’re a sexist! No, worse, you’re a misogynist! No, worse, you’re a Nazi!” Let me assure you that I am none of those things, but I don’t feel like Strong Female Character benefits women at all. It’s sexist. And it’s certainly not…feminist.

If anything, the trope only creates a deeper divide between the way men and women are depicted in media. There’s not a real definition of the trope (except on Wikipedia), but these are several key traits I’ve seen assigned to these types of women in media.

  • Violent bad-ass. She doesn’t need a man to solve her problems because she can just punch people in the face. Or kick them. Or break their arms. Whatever, it’s all fine because it’s a girl doing it, right?
  • Femme Fatale. That girl is hawt. Boys swarm like flies just to get rejected. And sometimes she’s a lesbian or bisexual because isn’t that funny? Such irony.
  • She often has a boy’s name like Charlie or Sam to emphasize her masculine, tom-boy qualities.
  • She’s in a very high-powered job such as CEO, or a traditional “man’s job” like police man or fire fighter. Her mission is all about proving how she can do everything as well or better than the boys, and damn anyone who might think otherwise.

There have been many criticisms of this stereotype. Many feminists believe that to be a real, complex female character, the character can’t only be physically strong, but also mentally and emotionally strong, as well as capable and having her own “agency.” I agree with all of these points. However, when push comes to shove and fictional women  are created that actually ARE complex, interesting characters, this is often ignored because they don’t fit the typical strong female mold. Sometimes, they even get called out by said feminists for not having the very traits they disdained.

For instance, take Claire in Jurassic World. She received a lot of flack for wearing heels throughout the whole movie, her cold and critical nature, her bad decision making, and for basically just existing.

Claire will not be deterred … from wearing nude patent-leather pumps with stiletto heels. Instead of character development, Claire is saddled with character broadcasting via wardrobe. Was it really necessary for Jurassic World to resurrect gender stereotypes along with the dinosaurs?

Claire’s outfit isn’t a sign of fierceness; it’s a crime of lazy filmmaking — a patronizing shorthand for her cluelessness and stubborn need for control. See how out-of-touch she is with her environment? Silly girl!

-“There’s no Feminism to be Found in Jurassic World’s Genetic Code” by Jada Yuan on Vulture.com

Isn’t it a little superficial to judge someone’s capability by their footwear, Vulture? Sure, wearing stilettos while running through the jungle isn’t the smartest idea. But it’s not as if Claire had a half hour to chill and change into some sneakers while trying to rescue her nephews from a terrorizing mega T-Rex. Bryce Dallas Howard, the actress who plays Claire, was given the choice to wear sneakers during filming, but she chose not to, claiming that she thought her character would have stuck with the heels. And if you watch the movie, that mentality makes sense. Claire dresses impeccably, just as any CEO of a company might (High ranking position? Check!). Her wardrobe does give character insight: it shows how fucking wealthy and powerful she is. Don Draper wears a tailored pin-striped suit, Claire wears a flawless white blouse. Both demonstrate their power through clothing. It’s not a sexist thing, IT’S A QUICK WAY OF  VISUALLY REPRESENTING CHARACTER IN A VISUAL MEDIUM!

Women wear beautiful clothing? How is that sexist?!

In the rare moments when the script actually allows Claire to do something empowering, it’s quick to undercut her triumph. Shortly after Claire and Owen reunite with her nephews, she saves Grady’s life by shooting a Pteranodon off his back. Yet, minutes later, the kids announce, “We want to stay with him,” (meaning Owen, whom they have just met) in what was apparently intended as a hilarious laugh line. “Your boyfriend is a badass,” one of the boys tells her. She blushes girlishly at this, like she just can’t wait to tell her diary all about it

– ” ‘Jurassic Park is 100 Times More Feminist Than ‘Jurassic World’ ” by Molly Fitzpatrick on Fusion.net

Two teenage boys are impressed with a badass looking Chris Pratt? Sexist! She does save Chris Pratt from a Pteradon, but so far that’s the only right decision she’s made thus far in the film. When her nephews meet her for the first time in 8 years, she shoves them off on her assistant so that she can focus on her work. It makes sense that they wouldn’t have much faith in her. And while Claire is a very successful and intelligent director of the park, her expertise does not lie in fending off dinosaurs. Chris Pratt is an expert in that field and his overwhelming confidence and stereotypical machismo display that. The boys might not know Chris Pratt, but they hardly know Claire any better, and in times of distress, it’s realistic that two teens would latch on to the toughest-looking dude around.

Be realistic. Who would you choose?

And all of Claire’s victories are not undercut. She lures the T-Rex into saving them from the other T-Rex (this was a really silly movie) and she drives their get-away truck when they’re being chased by velociraptors. Besides this, the main complaint seems to be that Claire is too flawed. Why is she the one making all the bad decisions, they ask, while Chris Pratt gets to ride around saving the day? Why is she the stereotype of a successful women (cold, control-freak, averse to children)?

Claire is cold and she is a control-freak. But once again, I will compare her to the lovely Don Draper. They’re both extremely successful, bad with children (look how Sally turned out!), emotionally cold and self-contained, and controlling. Men are like this; we see them being portrayed in this manner all the time. So why is it suddenly sexist if a woman gets portrayed in the same way? Claire makes bad decisions, but so do ALL  good characters. They didn’t make her flawed because she was a woman, they made her flawed because she was a damn protagonist!

The real stereotype is Chris Pratt’s character. What is he except Super Macho Man/ Typical Chris Pratt character. We know nothing about his family, nothing about his background except he was in the military. He has no complexities because he has no flaws. We should be chastising the writers for creating such a stock male character. The two teenage boys are equally formulaic. Claire is really the only character who has any depth to her. But unless a woman can run two business, be warm and charming, and instantly know the solution to every dilemma, they’re not a “good”  female character.

And speaking of…

2. The Perfect Woman/ Idealized Bird Creature

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have this monstrosity. It occurs more often in literature than in film because it’s much more acceptable to describe a woman as “bird-like” through text than through the spoken word.

I said most times!

This woman is even more obnoxious than the Strong Female Character. She’s perfect, delicate, and good at everything. The kind of woman that men fall in love with and women are happily obsessed with. Usually involved with some artistic profession, most often a mother with beautiful children and an inattentive husband, and has the same temperament as a seventeen year old debutante. Example:

Everything came alive in her company. She cast a charmed theatrical light about her so that to see anything through her eyes was to see it in brighter colors than ordinary…she was wholly herself: a rarity. I cannot recall seeing another person who really resembled her. She had black hair, fair skin that freckled in summer, china-blue eyes with a lot of light in them…she was glossy and nervy and stylish as a racehorse…she moved with a thrilling quickness, gestures sudden and light, always perched on the edge of her chair like some elegant marsh-bird about to startle and fly away…and her laugh was enough to make you want to kick over what you were doing and follow her down the street. Wherever she went, men looked at her out of the corner of her eyes.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

What the EVEN FUCK? No woman in the entire world has ever been all of these qualities and I’m sick and tired of people writing like this and pretending it’s original! It’s a manic pixie dream girl, but grown up and now “elegant”. Women are not nervy like racehorses or flighty like little marsh-birds. Stop! With every detail that author uses to try to establish a unique character, she instead buries the character under the myth of the perfect woman. Some women are beautiful, some are outlandishly gorgeous, some are delicate, some have great laughs. But to have all of these things and to present them as reality is like writing about how the dinosaurs had dinner with George Washington and making it into a US History textbook.

I had heard so many things about The Goldfinch, it won a Pultizer for chrissake, but I was extremely disappointed. How did a book which describes a woman like THIS win a Pultizer? I had the same issue with The Woman Upstairs. The main character is obsessed with a woman who is unbelievably elegant and beautiful. Both of these books were written by women, so I’m at a loss to understand how they could write such clap-trap. Why is it bad for men to write female characters like this, but when women do it, they get off scot-free?

No woman should be written in such an idealized manner, whether they’re manic pixie dream girls or impossible bird women. It makes these characters fake, cheap, and ridiculous. This isn’t the 1700s any more. Sweet-cheeked, golden haired maidens are no longer sufficient.

So who is my favorite female character, you may ask? Well, that’s simple. Sugar from The Crimson Petal and the White. Because she breaks both tropes with ease. She’s alluring and beautiful, yet also insecure, selfish, and high-minded. She’s capable of handing her business and highly intelligent, but she’s not a badass in any sense of the term. She acts, sounds, and looks like a real-life woman. But then again, Michel Faber is a spectacular author. I know that it’s difficult to dispense with stereotypes, but all I want is a little more effort. Less idealization, more realization.

You know what is a really good television show that doesn’t use either of these tropes? Jane the Virgin. And they have so many female characters too. The truth is that it’s not difficult to write interesting, complex female characters, but that most television shows aren’t trying hard enough. I’m looking at you, Gotham!

You were so good for exactly one episode!

P.S

If you’re in the mood to listen to a few really cool soundtracks, here’s some I’ve been ‘a listening to lately.

Donnie Darko OST

Everest Epilogue

Far From The Madding Crowd OST

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4 thoughts on “Tropes Begone: Strong Female Character and The Perfect Woman”

  1. Hi, Lily! Great stuff! this almost as much fun as sparring in the tai chi front office.

    Since we’re on the subject of how women are portrayed in the media, let’s consider Eliza D in My Fair Lady. I’d be very interested in what you think of her. Then take a look at Eliza as created, in GB Shaw’s Pygmalion. (Did we have this conversation? I’m sounding familiar to myself.) You can cut to the last act, because in both versions, poor Liza is at the mercy of Higgins and his very masculine-oriented teaching scheme. Yet she puts up with it, and eventually wins the bet for Dr. H. via sheer willpower. Then what happens, in the two versions? What does the change in the last act say about Liza, as a person and as a woman? About the authors (men, of course) and their motivations?

    Same character in both plays, right to the end. But what a difference!

    Since you ask, my favorite female character is Xena, Warrior Princess.

    Congratulations on your test! Sorry we missed it! Regards, Ray

    Like

  2. I agree completely, good write up.

    I Google “unealistic strong female trope” after watching Van Helsing (2016) on Netflix.
    One more in a growing list of impossibly strong women or women whose abilities are inexplicable in even the internal logic of the narrative.
    It was bad enough watching Dutch ruin Killjoys for me.

    I’m so sick of these unrealistically strong and perfect female leads. Consider Chris Pratt – do you remember him from Parks and Recreation? He was fat.
    To be cast as the male action lead, he was required to tone up in the gym. This is the case for MOST male leads. The audience would not accept some twig of a man performing the ridiculous feats we see twigs of women perform on screen.

    Women may not be able to bulk up the same as men but they can absolutely fit the part of an action lead if they at least look FIT with good muscle tone. The actress who plays Dutch may be thin, likewise Vanessa in Van Helsing, but they are very obviously unfit and physically weak.

    So why must men struggle to tone and maintain a strong looking body but women can just eat celery?

    It’s shit and I’m tired of it. A lot of people heavily criticise this trope and this criticism tends to get dismissed as chauvanism. Men are just afraaaaid of a strong female. No. We aren’t. We just can’t suspend our disbelief when we see a 70 pound twig of a woman bring down heavy set men three times her mass. It’s boring. As someone who has worked as a bouncer for 4 years – it’s hard bringing a man down. The ease of this is exaggerated in most of cinema, yes, but Holywood tends to meet the audience halfway at least when they make the hero seem believably capable of the feat. No writer or director can demand suspension of disbelief – they need to offer something to the audience in exchange for it. An internal logic within the narrative at the very least.

    Canadian producers seem to be the worst for casting ludicrously unbelievably strong and perfect women in every sci-fi action of this decade.

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    1. Thanks for your incisive comment. I agree that men are held to an unfair standard when it comes to “combat-ready” appearance. I think that in order to have a realistic narrative, movie studios will have to sacrifice their thin at all costs mandate for the leading ladies and let them be as bulky as their roles demand. Ronda Rousey I see as someone capable of kicking ass, but like you said, most other actresses fall pretty short

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