Why we need to be seen as more than just strong


Grazia (UK) - - Contents -

‘ I HAVE AB­SO­LUTELY no in­ter­est in por­tray­ing what other peo­ple think of as strong. It’s a way of mak­ing women more ac­cept­able in a male world.’

So said Claire Foy in an in­ter­view last week. It might seem a strange thing to say for a woman who em­bod­ied author­ity and en­durance in The Crown, and who’s about to be seen kick­ing ass as Lis­beth Sa­lan­der, the venge­ful and supremely ca­pa­ble star of The Girl In The Spi­der’s Web .

But it isn’t that Claire only wants to play weak roles. The real prob­lem is the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try’s def­i­ni­tion of a ‘strong woman’ – a lazy short­hand thrown about over the past cou­ple of decades as a handy coun­ter­point to fem­i­nist crit­ics or ac­tors who de­mand bet­ter roles for women. It’s OK that our film only fea­tures one or two fe­male roles, say film­mak­ers, be­cause she’s a ‘strong woman’. 

Ev­ery re­cent Bond girl, for ex­am­ple, has lined up to claim that her char­ac­ter is ‘strong’. Denise Richards, who played pa­per-thin Bond girl Dr Christ­mas Jones in The World Is Not Enough, claimed that, ‘ The fe­male roles now have a lot more depth – it’s more than just run­ning around on Bond’s arm. Christ­mas is strong, in­tel­li­gent and sassy.’ She is also dressed in hot pants and, like most other ‘strong women’ roles, there to be ro­manced and res­cued by the male lead.

And she’s not alone: al­most ev­ery ac­tion movie lead­ing lady has de­scribed how her char­ac­ter is not just an­other damsel in dis­tress. Fe­male char­ac­ters in film or TV all es­sen­tially claim to be like Buffy The Vam­pire Slayer: the one girl in all the world tough enough to beat the mon­sters, who­ever they are. But un­like Buffy, none of them seemed to have fe­male friends, or much in the way of char­ac­ter nu­ance be­yond be­ing able to punch things.

And there’s the rub. The prob­lem with ‘strong women’ on screen is that it’s of­ten Hol­ly­wood script for, ‘ We want to sell ex­actly the same old male-ori­ented ac­tion films as ever, but we want to pre­tend we’re fem­i­nists’. So they’d cre­ate a sin­gle fe­male char­ac­ter who had the re­spect of her male peers. She’d be young, and slim, and gor­geous, and prob­a­bly white. They might throw in a fight scene with her: you know, give the bad guy a hench­woman, so that th­ese two could square off at the end with­out any con­cerns about a man hit­ting a girl. In a more dra­matic movie, she’d get a speech so the ac­tor could wax lyri­cal about the depth of the script. And they’d con­sider the is­sue of equal­ity mag­i­cally solved for­ever. This one ‘strong woman’ be­came a sub­sti­tute for the whole gen­der in all our di­ver­sity.

Yet if all fe­male char­ac­ters must earn their place by be­ing ‘strong’, while men are sim­ply as­sumed to have sto­ries worth telling, it dis­torts how the world sees us all. We get re­ac­tions like those that re­cently greeted TV hit Body­guard. That fea­tured a fe­male Home Sec­re­tary, a fe­male head of counter-ter­ror­ism for the Met po­lice, a fe­male SWAT team leader and a fe­male sui­cide bomber.

And yet Trevor Phillips, for­mer chair of the Equal­ity and Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion no less, de­scribed it as, ‘pos­si­bly the most misog­y­nist piece of TV I’ve seen in years,’ be­cause ‘all the women were dim, de­vi­ous, pusil­lan­i­mous or all three’. Phillips thought that the show’s cre­ator, Jed Mer­cu­rio, ‘got some rub­bish ( prob­a­bly male) ad­vice on this oc­ca­sion’.

Now Phillips’ heart might be in the right place, but this is a bizarre read­ing of the show. The male lead and the few other sig­nif­i­cant male char­ac­ters were reck­less, vi­o­lent, trau­ma­tised or in­ef­fec­tive: just as flawed as the women. We’re so ac­cus­tomed to see­ing only ide­alised women on­screen that Phillips pre­sum­ably thinks it’s ac­tively woman-hat­ing to show us as we are.

No won­der Foy wants no part of this de­scrip­tion. ‘I don’t think women are cry­ing out to see strong women,’ she con­tin­ued. ‘I think we know we are all strong, but we’re just cry­ing out to see women on­screen at all.’

And that’s the key. Equal­ity means we tell women’s sto­ries as of­ten as we tell sto­ries about men; it means that women have to be given the same chance to be flawed, or weird, or old, or unattrac­tive, or flat-out vil­lain­ous. There’s noth­ing wrong with hav­ing a ‘strong woman’ in there, kick­ing ass along­side the guys. But that girl, the one in hot pants, can’t and must not speak for all of us. We’re more than that. He­len O’hara is a film jour­nal­ist for ‘ Empire’ mag­a­zine and oth­ers

one ‘ strong woman’ be­came a sub­sti­tute for the whole gen­der

Left: Claire Foy as Lis­beth Sa­lan­der. Above: as the Queen

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