|Jaime Alexander as Lady Sif|
Thor: The Dark Side of the World
|Lucy Lawless as Xena|
Xena: Warrior Princess
I've read a lot of material in the past months about the much-lauded Strong Female Character. From the now classic Sophia McDougall article, "I Hate Strong Female Characters", to Tasha Robinson's "Trinity Syndrome" a couple weeks back, many good points have been made about plot relevance, screen time, emotional complexity, and clothing choices. My friend Andrew Dyce wrote a great piece for Screen Rant a few weeks back looking specifically at women in superhero blockbusters, wondering when the makers of these movies are going to stop giving the gals defensive, support-oriented powers that stem from some esoteric energy source, mental instability, or nature, and lamenting the bent in screen adaptation to portray female heroes as burdened and/or corrupted by their power. Jean Grey loses control, becomes the villain. Rogue can no longer have personal contact with loved ones. Mystique suffers from something of an identity crisis. And there's Sif, who may be the only on-screen heroine in this 21st century string of superhero films allowed to revel in her power, even if that power comes de facto with being born Asgardian, but in Moore's books she's just another "popular 'warrior woman'", and cannot be upheld as a point of reference. Neither can Xena, whose television reign was more than a little revolutionary in the area of female characters who could hold their own, alongside shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. These characters are improper role models because of their...skirts? Is that all it takes?
Do we consider a female character to be a poor example when they exhibit femininity by design?
The history of Wonder Woman has been beaten to death in the course of Strong Female Character debate. She was written by William Moulton Marston in the 1940s. Marston was a psychologist, the inventor of the polygraph test. He was also fond of bondage, and shared a female lover with his wife. All of this made its way into the character we know as Wonder Woman, an icon of feminine strength and liberty who will tie you to a chair and make you tell the truth. Remove femininity from that equation and you gut the character.
A long list of Strong Female Characters was shared with me a little while ago, and it prompted a lot of sound discussion. A friend of mine chimed in with a thought about much she appreciates the character of Isabelle from the Mortal Instruments books, a character who is deadly when she needs to be, girlish when she wants to be, and loves it all equally. It got me thinking about Buffy, slaying demons in and around her love life, always well-dressed and quippy, and about how often resistance of that girlish nature is used in action cinema as a critical plot point. Hanna tries so hard to relax and be a girl (Hanna), but her training ends up being stronger than that desire. Merida's entire shtick is how much she disdains her role as princess (Brave), similar to our introduction to Arya Stark (Game of Thrones). Hit Girl (Kick Ass) and Buffy may be closest to Isabelle, both very much girlish though maybe not finding their strength in that. Now we have potentially the greatest heroine to grace the silver screen, a woman who stands as an equal among the greatest male figures in her stories, whose power is rooted in her femininity. I refuse to believe that whether she wears a skirt is going to make or break that power.
The other question to emerge from that discussion was the matter of violence. Do Strong Female Characters have to be violent, physically capable women? When Man of Steel came out there was a tendency in online response to cite General Zod's ruthless and beautiful right hand, Faora, as a breath of fresh air for female characters, due to the sheer number of times she was able to punch Superman. Kudos. If combat and aggression have become prerequisites for character strength, then it's worth asking: are we defining strong women by traditional forms of masculine expression? It comes full circle, in a way. When femininity by design is frowned upon, perhaps as sexualized but possibly also as simply "weak", then we turn in the other direction and masculinize our female characters. Add to that the fact that most weaponry through history can be interpreted as phallic: swords, spears, guns, and Buffy's stake "Mr. Pointy", which Joss was sure to get full comedic mileage out of. With all of this comes language of rigidity, pointing, penetration, and the rest. It's a mess of double-entendre which some characters have been able to escape. Xena's signature weapon is a circle; Wonder Woman uses, well, rope and the truth. One way this new Wonder Woman may be able to move us towards a true modern superheroine is by presenting a woman who sees the damage humanity does through violence, and exhibits strength and power along an alternative, constructive path.
I should, I suppose, touch on one last thing, a design element I neglected in my previous piece: the heels. Where, many people are asking, is the pragmatism in wearing high heels with armour? You can't fight in that. To which I feel compelled to respond: she's a demigod who deflects bullets, wielding a sword Hephaestus forged as a gift for her...
...who the f**k are you to tell her she can't wear heels?