Why we need to be seen as more than just strong
WHY WE NEED TO BE SEEN AS MORE THAN JUST STRONG
‘ 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