December 1, 2007
The decline of the strong female character - and 10 ladies who defy the trend
In regards to actors and actresses, I typically subscribe to the school of "they just don't make 'em like that anymore." In other words, I can't really think of too many actors/actresses who can even hold a candle to those of yesteryear. This dichotomy becomes particularly striking when it comes to women. There is no modern-day equivalent to a Joan Crawford, a Barbara Stanwyck, a Bette Davis, a Katharine Hepburn, etc. People would line up to see any movie they headlined, because they delivered the goods. People today aren't gonna line up for a Hilary Swank movie, they're gonna crowd the theaters of a Jessica Biel or Scarlett Johansson movie because they're hot. Yeah, I know old-timey actresses were hot too, but the attraction was more all-encompassing - Myrna Loy was called "The Perfect Wife," not "The Perfect Piece of Ass." Obviously, women have always been relegated to an inferior position in society, but cinema was one of the places where they could be equal, or even superior. One day, I was in a feminist sort of mood, and started compiling a mental list of strong female characters. "Strong" doesn't have to mean the character herself has a strong personality, but rather that she is well-written, multifaceted, sympathetic, and compelling. I could think of tons - Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce in Mildred Pierce, Mae West in anything, Katharine Hepburn as Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story, Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate, Lauren Bacall as "Slim" in To Have or Have Not, the entire cast of The Women...basically I could have gone on for days. But then I realized something...none of these are even remotely recent. So I shifted my focus to recent films of the last 10 years or so. I could still think of tons - Audrey Tatou as Amelie in Amelie or as Mathilde in A Very Long Engagement, Franka Potente as Lola in Run Lola Run, Eihi Shiina as Asami in Audition, any female character in a Pedro Almodovar movie, any female character in a Wong Kar Wai movie, and on and on. But wait - these are all foreign films! Exasperated and disheartened, I tried to think of strong female characters in American movies from the last 10 years. And it was really, really hard.
Females on the silver screen are becoming an endangered species. Warner Brothers recently issued a statement that based on the poor performance of recent female-led films (namely, The Invasion and The Brave One), they will stop making movies with women in the lead. (Read more about it here.) Wait, WHAT?! So maybe the aforementioned films weren't that good...must all women be punished for that? Women's rights attorney Gloria Allred wisely notes in the article, "when movies with men as the lead fail, no one says we'll stop making movies with men in the lead." Lead roles aren't the only place where a female presence is diminishing - according to 2004 figures from the Screen Actors Guild, men outnumber women onscreen in a ratio of 65 to 35 percent. I'm sorry, can I just take a break from my eloquent and composed blogger demeanor to say WHAT THE FUCK.
Before I completely depress you (and myself) beyond all reason, let us turn to the few and the proud - strong female characters in American films of the past 10(ish) years. This list is not definitive, and I welcome your suggestions - obviously, I haven't seen every film made in the past decade, but I really couldn't think of many to begin with. My requirements are as follows:
- The character can be any type of person, but "strong" implies, as I said earlier, well-written, multifaceted, sympathetic, and compelling. It's not just a synonym for "kickass," and this list isn't just going to be a list of action heroines.
- Must be from an American film
- The character cannot be based on/ be a portrayal of a real person, because those characters are "pre-written" by history, so to speak. So Marie Antoinette or Aileen Wuornos wouldn't count.
- The characters cannot be creations of another time - i.e. based on novels written 100 years ago or featured in a film that's a remake
- The character cannot be animated, because I'm not giving this distinction out to fish and toys and shit.
Onto the list - as always, in no particular order.
1. Uma Thurman as The Bride in Kill Bill: Vol 1 & 2.
The Bride is most definitely kickass. Among other feats, she fights a mob of several dozen ninjas, plucks out another chick's eye, has special samurai training with a crazy old dude and punches her way out of a sealed and buried coffin. But Quentin Tarantino (who develops some very interesting female characters) doesn't just leave her as a two-dimensional action figure - he gives her pathos and weight. The first film opens with a black and white image of The Bride bloodied, breathless, and pregnant, pleading for her life, and then her fiancee shoots her and leaves her for dead. She is driven by a quest for vengeance, but also, in the second volume, the quest to reunite with her daughter. Thus, the masculine notion of revenge and her maternal urges are combined to form a multi-dimensional character.
2. Kate Winslet as Sarah Pierce in Little Children
Things are not going well for Sarah Pierce. She hasn't quite figured out her role as a mother yet, and she just discovered that her husband is addicted to internet porn and chats with scandalous strangers. The only highlight of her life is her hunky neighbor Brad, with whom she starts an affair. The thing I appreciated about this movie was that winning Brad over does not come easy for Sarah. She desperately purchases a sexy swimsuit from a catalog, kisses him randomly on the playground to shock some neighborhood mothers, and still in a voiceover Brad says that her eyebrows are "bushier than necessary." She's desperate and sympathetic, nuanced and realistic. I think she could have totally won the Best Actress Oscar this past year if it wasn't for the awards season wrecking ball named Helen Mirren.
3. Rachel Weisz as Evelyn Anne Thompson in The Shape of Things
All four characters in this film are great - due in no small part to the fact that it is a direct adaptation of a play, with the same actors and director (Neil LaBute). Evelyn is an art student with funky hairstyles and a penchant for spraypainting ancient statues. In my opinion, she goes from annoying to intriguing to sociopathic. It's really hard to explain too much about this character without giving the movie away, but let's just say that she achieves drastic and morally questionable measures through meticulous emotional manipulation. Fun night at the movies!
4. Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson in Fargo
McDormand received a well-deserved Academy Award for this role. Under her adorably Midwestern exterior, she's a no-nonsense policewoman. She gets the job done without being rude and abrasive, but without backing down. After reining in all the bad guys, she cuddles into bed with her husband, who rubs her pregnant belly. They are completely unglamorous, but ridiculously cute. Plus, she wears the pants in the relationship (her stay-at-home husband makes her breakfast).
5. Natalie Portman as Sam in Garden State
I have a permanent beef with Natalie Portman for being so girl-next-door-sy gorgeous, but I'll let it slide momentarily. What struck me about this character was, for lack of a better word, how real she was. After I saw the movie for the first time with some friends, they all turned to me and said, "Julie, the character in that movie was YOU." And for them to compare a character to someone they know well, the character has to be pretty well-formed. I would be kind of offended if they compared me to, say, a Bond girl. Sam is unafraid to be random, make funny noises, and laugh at life. After a really intense and emotional conversation with Andrew (Zach Braff), she blurts out, "I can tap dance. Wanna see me tap dance?" That line made me smile so much, because that's how people's brains really work (er, mine anyway). She's also an epileptic, a habitual liar, an animal lover and a former figure skater. What's not to love?
6. Judi Dench as Barbara Covett and Cate Blanchett as Sheba Hart in Notes on a Scandal
This movie kicks ass. It proves that you don't need anything fancy to make a good movie, just two awesome actors going all out. The plot of the film is simple: Sheba is a new art teacher at the school where Barbara teaches, and starts having (consentual) physical relations with a young male student. She confides in the reclusive Barbara, who has warmed up to this intriguing newcomer. Barbara then uses this secret to manipulate her. Yeah, the plot by itself sounds kind of eh, but that's why the performances are so important in making this movie great. Judi Dench is ridiculously creepy, pathetic, and a quasi-lesbian, and Sheba is desperate, sympathetic but also morally questionable. It gets real ugly between these two lovely ladies. The strength of these characters is probably due in no small part to the fact that the film is an adaptation of a female-written novel.
7. Keri Russell as Jenna Hunterson in Waitress
Who knew that cute little gal from "Felicity" had such a great role in her? Waitress is a sweet story about a Southern waitress who discovers she's pregnant with her loser husband's baby, and starts an affair with her doctor. What could have been a Lifetime movie is most decidedly not - Jenna is sweet and vulnerable, but spunky and sassy. She channels her emotions into the original pies she makes, giving them such names as “Baby Screaming Its Head Off In the Middle of the Night and Ruining My Life Pie.” She is also surprisingly un-maternal for the majority of the film, which is pretty radical if you think about how much of cinematic female identity is centered on the motherhood role. She leads a double life - aggressive, passionate and loved by her doctor, and frustrated, bored and almost enslaved by her husband. The female supporting cast is great as well, probably due again to the fact that the film was written and directed by a woman, the late Adrienne Shelly.
9. Helena Bonham Carter as “Woman” in Conversations with Other Women
Hans Canosa’s sophomore effort is a split-screen tour de force, featuring Helena Bonham Carter and Aaron Eckhart going at each other both verbally and physically. It’s hard to describe the plot without giving too much away, but I basically saw this film as a kind of boxing match between the two perfectly matched opponents. They both have dirt on the other’s past, they both know how to make the other happy, sad, jealous, or lusty. In a way it reminded me of a edgier, modern Tracy and Hepburn dynamic. This movie is an actors’ piece, and Carter really shines, being alternately abrasive, nonchalant, and helpless.
10. Catherine Keener as Trish in The 40-Year-Old Virgin
Oh, Judd Apatow. I can’t say anything about you that hasn’t already been said in the trillions of articles praising your existence and calling you the next big thing. Like those articles, I will echo the sentiment that you have redefined the “date movie,” and found something that both men and women can enjoy: realistic depictions of themselves. Trish is a single mom who runs her own eBay store, gives out her number to shy Andy and tells a supposed telemarketer (actually Andy) to fuck his mother. She also fights with her daughters and feels undesired by Andy (due to the titular problem). In the character of Trish I can see a very real woman who resembles actual forty-something women I know.
This list is not all-inclusive, but I also had trouble thinking of more that really fit. If there’s a character here that you think was left out, chances are I considered it and decided it didn’t fit the criteria or just, well, didn’t move me enough.
At this rate, the future of female roles in film looks pretty depressing. Hopefully I can become a successful director some day and do my part to get women back in the roles they deserve!