Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Movie Heroine

I recently received a comment about the series I did a while back on how women are portrayed in Hollywood movies.  In one post (Feminism and the Movies), I used several examples of movies by James Cameron, including the Terminator series, and applied a couple of tests designed to gauge how central female characters are portrayed (as true heroines or as stereotypes designed to support a male protagonist).

One of these is called the Bechdel Test and the other is one I made up called (tongue in cheek) the Feminist Film Test.

It's been a while, so I'll repeat them here:

To pass the Bechdel Test, the movie must have:
1. Two women (who have names),
2. Who talk to each other,
3. About something other than a man.
The Feminist Film Test requires that the movie:
1. Have a female lead,
2. Who survives or succeeds,
3. Without the intervention of a man (saving her, dying so she can live, etc.). 

The commenter focused on the fact that I said Terminator II failed the two tests and argued that technically this movie passes both tests, pointing out how the lead female character (Sarah Connor) had matured from the helpless victim in Terminator I into an aggressive, militaristic woman with a violent plan (to save the world) in Terminator II.

Well, maybe Terminator II squeaks by on minor technical points (Sarah speaks briefly to another woman and does take charge of her destiny), but this comment misses the point of the litmus tests and my series on feminism and the movies. My purpose was not to identify "anti-feminist" films or to nitpick movie details, but to question the presumption that these are films that align with feminist ideals and/or provide useful role models of "strong female characters" simply because they have women who can shoot, cuss, and fight as well as a man.

The two litmus tests I described are meant to make people think about stereotypes and how women are portrayed in film.  One blogger, talking about the Bechdel test, emphasizes that "passing the test does not necessarily make it more feminist, or otherwise, positive-for-women." Nor does failing the test make it a bad movie.  This blogger goes on to explain that the test is a crude tool to begin examining sexism in movies.  If you look at the site that lists movies and whether they pass the Bechdel Test, you'll see lots of nitpicking about minor details; but it's not very productive to focus too closely on these tests (or try to find technical loopholes). 

Both tests are designed to uncover the glaring pattern of sexism in Hollywood movies.  When you have to really search and search for movies that portray true heroines, you have to conclude that there is something wrong somewhere.  Can you think of, say, just ten movies (out of the thousands made) in which there are two female characters who have meaningful conversations (about something other than a man) that advance the storyline (see end of this post for a few)?  Hollywood writers, directors, and producers seem to have difficulty in creating strong female characters without making them violent, gun-toting, and physically threatening (with a few exceptions, see below). In the past, women were routinely portrayed as weak victims (to be saved by a man).  Now it seems their only option to be "strong" is to adopt violent, masculine behavior.

Let's be realistic.  These are male fantasies:  the helpless woman (needing to be saved by a man) and the "I can be as tough as a guy" woman (a titillating sex object). Movies with such characters are not sincere efforts to portray strong women. They are in these films solely to sustain the male (mostly adolescent) viewpoint.  One can speculate as to the reasons: screenwriters/directors/producers are mostly male and, therefore, emphasize a male point of view; the target demographic is the young adolescent male, and action movies are geared toward their perspective. There's nothing wrong with this; the objective is to make money on these movies, after all. However, one wonders why Hollywood is ignoring half the population of movie-goers.

But back to the point.  What constitutes a strong female character who is the heroine of a film? She might be mentally and intellectually powerful, emotionally resilient, highly competent and skilled (in something other than gun play), of great moral character, and courageous...all without resorting to violence.  A heroine is defined as "a woman of distinguished courage or ability, admired for her brave deeds and noble qualities".  Is Sarah Connor a true heroine?  Do we admire her or feel repulsed by her adoption of violent methods to solve problems? Is her plan to kill the creator of Starnet (the computer network that will take over the future world and destroy humanity) courageous, noble, or admirable?  Was she a good mother (to John Connor)?  Is she a role model you would want your children to emulate? 

I'd say Sarah Connor is the anti-heroine.  Not that there's anything wrong with an anti-heroine character....just don't confuse it with a heroine. 

Can we think of other movies, even violent movies, in which a true heroine appears?

Yes.  There are very violent films that manage to depict strong female characters who are the antithesis of the Sarah Connor character (in T2). One example that comes to mind is Police Chief Marge Gunderson in "Fargo", played to perfection by Frances McDormand. She manages to solve an extortion/kidnapping/murder case and captures a killer (carefully shooting him in the leg, instead of blowing his head off)...all while pregnant and suffering morning sickness.

This film passes the Feminist Film Test (Marge succeeds without any male assistance), but fails the Bechdel Test (technically, Marge interviews a couple of female prostitutes, but the focus is on men [the killers]); she also talks briefly on the phone with a high school friend, but about a man who is stalking Marge).  Does that mean the movie is flawed from a feminist standpoint? Of course not.

In my view, this film provides a compelling portrait of a real heroine.  Marge is a down-to-earth, no-nonsense kind of woman who is successful in a very male-dominated profession.  She's a heroine, not because she catches a killer, but because of the courage, integrity, and humility she displays in her professional and personal life. 

Some other movies with well-developed female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man and whose interactions advance the storyline: 
Gone With the Wind (1939)
All About Eve (1950)
The Bad Seed (1956)
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
Julia (1977)
Nine to Five (1980)
Silkwood (1983)
Working Girl (1988)
Mermaids (1990)
Thelma and Louise (1991)
Enchanted April (1992)
Girl, Interrupted (1999)
Black Swan (2010)
The Help (2011)

Image Credits:
Still image from Terminator 2, TriStar Pictures
Still image from Fargo, Gramercy Pictures

No comments: