Fe­male chil­dren land pow­er­ful roles.

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - SANDY COHEN

From the mur­der­ous Laura in Amer­i­can su­per­hero movie“Lo­gan,” to the mys­te­ri­ous Eleven in the sci­ence fiction hor­ror show “Stranger Things,” to the au­da­cious de­ter­mi­na­tion of Mija in “Okja,” open­ing Wed­nes­day, pow­er­ful young girls are star­ring in main­stream ac­tion fare once again.

Though Nancy Drew was solv­ing mys­ter­ies in the United States in the 1930s and Buffy slayed vam­pires all through high school in the late 1990s, young girls are rarely shown as he­roes to the Amer­i­can TV or film au­di­ence, said Mary Ce­leste Kear­ney, di­rec­tor of gen­der stud­ies and a pro­fes­sor of film, tele­vi­sion and theatre at Univer­sity of Notre Dame.

“Girls have seen these fig­ures … but when they’ve looked to main­stream stuff and what their brothers and their dads and boys are watch­ing, those girls are never there,” on Amer­i­can screens, Kear­ney said. “And now they are, and that’s huge.”

It means girls don’t have to look to young, but grown up he­roes like Kat­niss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games” or Rey in “Star Wars: The Force Awak­ens.”

Like 10-year-old El­liot on the flying bi­cy­cle in “E.T. the Ex­trater­res­trial,” now girls are hav­ing awe­some genre ad­ven­tures as pow­er­ful young kids on­screen.

U.S. film­mak­ers Matt and Ross Duf­fer said gen­der was never a ques­tion when it came to cre­at­ing the su­per­pow­ered star char­ac­ter in their Net­flix se­ries “Stranger Things.” Eleven, played by Mil­lie Bobby Brown, 13, can move things with her mind and is the fas­ci­nat­ing se­cret friend of a group of pre­teen boys in the fic­tional town of Hawkins, Ind. “Eleven was al­ways a girl. I don’t even re­mem­ber when or why we made that de­ci­sion ex­cept that was al­ways the case,” Matt Duf­fer said in a re­cent in­ter­view. “Eleven was the cen­tre­piece of the show for us al­ways and was al­ways go­ing to be this girl who es­caped the lab … I think we liked the idea be­cause it wasn’t some­thing we had seen be­fore.” A sec­ond girl is join­ing the cast for the show’s sec­ond sea­son, which pre­mières Oct. 31.

The film “Okja,” by South Korean writer-di­rec­tor Bong Joon Ho, in­ten­tion­ally made his cen­tral hu­man char­ac­ter a girl.

The in­ter­na­tional ad­ven­ture film is named for the ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neered six-ton “su­per pig” at its heart. “In car­toons or movies, young girls are of­ten por­trayed as char­ac­ters that need to be pro­tected or res­cued.

I wanted to do the op­po­site,” the film­maker said. “I liked that a young fe­male char­ac­ter was the un­stop­pable guardian of a crea­ture, and that she had to charge and break through all ob­sta­cles that stood in her way.”

Played by 13-year-old South Korean An Seo Hyun, Mija has grown up with Okja, and risks ev­ery­thing to pro­tect the mas­sive crea­ture when the cor­po­ra­tion that spon­sored the su­per-pig pro­gram comes to claim its prod­uct.

One thing that’s miss­ing from “Okja” and the other projects is a stereo­typ­i­cal lit­tle girl who needs sav­ing.

“Lo­gan” writer-di­rec­tor James Man­gold can’t take credit for cre­at­ing the young fe­male mu­tant Laura — he mined the char­ac­ter from “X-Men” his­tory. But Man­gold cast an ex­cep­tional ac­tress, 11-year-old Dafne Keen of Spain, and suc­cess­fully brought a killer fe­male char­ac­ter to the ul­tra-male world of big-screen su­per­heroes.

He chose to make Laura a child rather than the teenager she is in the comics be­cause of the bond it would al­low with Hugh Jack­man’s char­ac­ter and the shock it might elicit when Laura draws her claws.

Like Hit-Girl in 2010s “Kick­Ass,” Laura is a char­ac­ter created in her fa­ther’s im­age. She’s Wolverine’s daugh­ter and has just as much flesh-shred­ding power as her dad.

“I did think the shock­ing na­ture of Laura’s abil­ity to kill sav­agely would be all the more shock­ing, in a re­ally won­der­ful way, that it was a girl and not a boy, that that lethal­ness would be ex­hib­ited by this lit­tle girl,” Man­gold said.

“I won­dered whether we could pull it off, whether the au­di­ence would truly be­lieve this level of vi­o­lence and in­ten­sity trapped inside an 11-year-old body. To me that made it even more ex­cit­ing to put it on the screen.”

Man­gold said he took care with Laura’s char­ac­ter, who’s mute for the first half of the film and speaks only Span­ish in the sec­ond, to “un­der­mine the kind of cute fac­tor of what this young woman would be and al­low her to ex­ist as her own unique char­ac­ter.”

It’s notable, too, that these young hero­ines are not all em­bod­ied by white ac­tresses.

Kear­ney says it’s more than just the “Won­der Woman” ef­fect in­spir­ing these em­pow­ered char­ac­ters: “His­tory has ev­ery­thing to do with this and the gen­der pol­i­tics of dif­fer­ent his­tor­i­cal mo­ments.”

The pow­er­ful women and girls on­screen re­flect more pro­gres­sive gen­der at­ti­tudes, she said, adding that some writers and pro­duc­ers may have been in­spired to cre­ate such he­roes out of a de­sire to see more real-life fe­male lead­ers.

She noted the re­cent crop of char­ac­ters all ex­ist in “fan­tasy nar­ra­tives,” where peo­ple can have su­per pow­ers.

“It’s not in our re­al­ity; it’s in some other re­al­ity, and that’s re­ally dis­heart­en­ing if you think about it in that way,” she said. “Like girls are great as ac­tion he­roes, but not as pres­i­dent of the United States, not in real life.”

Con­sider that “Billy El­liot,” the charm­ing, re­al­is­tic 2000 in­de­pen­dent film about an 11-year-old boy who learns about gen­der and iden­tity through dance, be­came a sleeper hit that was adapted for the stage. “The Fits,” a sim­i­larly re­al­is­tic, 2016 indie film about an 11-year-old girl who does the same, didn’t get the same re­cep­tion.

Girl ac­tion he­roes are a start, though, es­pe­cially ones with mass-mar­ket appeal.

“They have a pow­er­ful, pow­er­ful cul­tural im­pact,” Kear­ney said, “which is girls see­ing these things and boys see­ing girls do these things … A boy can’t go and see ‘Lo­gan’ and not see a girl as pow­er­ful as Lo­gan.”

Man­gold said that when his pre­teen sons vis­ited the set dur­ing the mak­ing of “Lo­gan,” they were more in­ter­ested in Laura than Wolverine him­self.

“They were com­pletely mes­mer­ized by her,” he said. “It’s re­ally re­fresh­ing for every­one to see a kid, es­pe­cially a young girl, who’s not a kew­pie doll first or a dim­pled smile first, you know?

“That what’s re­ally go­ing on … there is some­one in con­flict, some­one who’s search­ing for some­thing, some­one by the way, in my film who ends up of­fer­ing pretty in­tense ad­vice and wis­dom and sta­bil­ity.”


Hugh Jack­man with Dafne Keen in “Lo­gan.” Eleven-year-old Keen suc­cess­fully brought a killer fe­male char­ac­ter to the ul­tra-male world of big-screen su­per­heroes.


Seo-Hyun Ahn as Mija and the char­ac­ter Okja in a scene from the South Korean film “Okja.” There is an in­ter­est in adding very young fe­male he­roes to the U.S. cul­tural mi­lieu.

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