Fe­male char­ac­ters don’t have to be “good” to be pro­gres­sive, says jour­nal­ist and author Maria Lewis

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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”

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