Female characters don’t have to be “good” to be progressive, says journalist and author Maria Lewis
Angels or whores. Mothers or madams. Virgins or tarts with heart. In the pop culture pantheon, few character tropes are more damaging than those assigned to women on the big screen. From Manic Pixie Dreamgirls to the archetype Strong Female Character, pigeonholing ladies has essentially been a profitable business model in Hollywood for the past, oh, say, 100 or so years. Yet thankfully, the times they are a changin’ – largely thanks to women like Jennifer Lawrence and directors Ava DuVernay and Lexi Alexander, calling out sexist bullshit wherever they see it. More than ever, gender representation matters in movies. Female- led franchises are breaking box- office records, research from the Geena Davis Institute On Gender In Media is getting mainstream traction and “feminism” is no longer a dirty word avoided by Hollywood starlets like Jack Nicholson at an Oscars after- party.
Yet there’s another battleground being marked. It’s not enough to have more women on screen: they need to be racially, sexually and physically diverse. They also need to be monsters. For each leather- clad, emotionally unavailable “tough girl” there needs to be a complex villainess whose wrath extends outside the box. Everyone’s imaginary best friend Natalie Portman summed it up best when she said: “The fallacy in Hollywood is that if you’re making a ‘ feminist’ story, the woman kicks ass and wins. That’s not feminist, that’s macho.” In a similar vein, the sooner we start seeing sinister sisters on the big screen, the better we’ll be.
Television and literature have been miles ahead of cinema for decades in this regard, giving consumers a refreshing cast of women antagonists. More recently Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne was a complex twist on the Reese Witherspoon “all American girl” archetype, offering audiences an antagonist whose motivations weren’t completely unrelatable and who leapt off both the page and screen. Heck, even Julianne Moore’s portrayal of President Alma Coin in The Hunger Games [ left] was progressive in that it gave us a Claire Underwood ( House Of Cards) of the dystopian future – a role we’ve seen played a thousand times before by men. In comics, there have been horrible honeys threatening to take over the world ( Livewire), blow up the world ( Jean Grey/ Dark Phoenix), break your spine ( Lady Deathstrike) or a combination of all three ( Harley Quinn). Meanwhile film… sadly the maniacal performance of Charlize Theron’s Evil Queen in Snow White or Jessica Chastain’s “monstrous” lover in Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak are few and far between. The idea is simple: less corporate bitches, more actual witches.
Hollywood’s tendency to shy away from the feminine grotesque isn’t helping anyone and instead depriving audiences of something special. In the modern horror movie pantheon, there’s a reason Sonia Suhl and Katharine Isabelle’s werewolves in When Animals Dream and Ginger Snaps, respectively, shine and it’s the same reason Pinhead and Freddy Krueger have become iconic. A Strong Female Character doesn’t need to be made so by giving her stereotypically masculine traits like physical strength – female roles don’t need to be inherently “good” for them to be progressive. From the Joker to Darth Vader, some of cinema’s most famous characters ( and performances) are bad guys. Key word: guys. Gender representation behind the camera is important, so too is representation in front of it – monsters matter.
Maria Lewis’s debut novel, Who’s Afraid?, is out on 14 July.
“The idea is simple: les corporate bitches, more actual witches”