What is a ‘feminist character’?

// 16 March 2011

True Grit has been much praised in the feminist media for its lead character, Mattie Ross. (Including at The F-Word: Taraneh Ghajar Jerven’s review makes the case in a lively manner.)

Feminist Frequency released a counterpoint to the love-in, criticising the way that Mattie’s character is considered ‘strong’ because she behaves in a masculine-coded manner, which plays into the standard Hollywood model of lauding ‘masculine’ and the expense of ‘feminine’ coded qualities:

I won’t go into the specifics of where I agree or disagree with Anita Sarkeesian’s analysis here, but I do think that this idea we should be aiming for “feminist characters” is somewhat not the point. Perhaps it’s a symptom of how far we have to go with representation of women and how gender plays out in the movies, but I think this is just too much weight to put on specific female characters.

What I want is to see a wide range of female characters, who are basically represented as human beings, not for individual characters to be particular embodiments of feminist values. (Unless they are feminists, and that’s part of the plot!)

Alternatively, and as well as this, I want to see films that deal with feminist issues.

True Grit is a Western and retains many of the limitations of that genre. It is problematic in places. One of the strengths is Hailee Steinfeld’s performance as Mattie, without question. She is a refreshing female character, to be sure, but let’s look more broadly.

meekscutoff.jpgFor example, also in the Western genre, last week I caught the screening of Meek’s Cutoff at the Birds Eye View festival, which follows three families as they get extremely lost.

A totally different sort of film, it’s a lot less fun and a lot grimmer than True Grit, but riveting – mostly because of the female characters, who are at the centre of the film. One of the things that I like from a feminist perspective is that, while there is a central female character, the film’s strength is that character is not a lone woman plopped down in a ‘man’s world’, but we see her interact with the other women and men in the wagon trail.

Creating Complex Female Characters in Video Games ยป Sociological Images.jpgAlso on the theme of creating female characters, this time in a different medium, games, Sociological Images also posted this interesting Escapist video about writing a specific type of female character, where sex or gender plays a role in the characterisation, for example, showing female characters as having a complex relationship with gender norms. (It must be said, the video is problematic in its own ways – the “angry women” slide – was that really necessary?! There is a good discussion about this in comments at Sociological Images.)

Comments From You

Schnee // Posted 17 March 2011 at 8:12 pm

I agree, what we need on TV and in films and TV ads, is a far greater female presence. It has certainly been a step forward to have more strong female characters, but now we need to get past that tokenism. There is still a tendency for having say, a female head of a police unit, but who we rarely see, or just gets to give a one-line decision on the work of the mostly male officers at the business end (eg the otherwise excellent ‘Law and Order UK). Another one is to have a couple of females, but the person the show is ‘about’ is male and so everyone’s activity is focussed on that person (eg. ‘The Mentalist’). We really need to now be seeing our screens filled with women and men in far more equal numbers, otherwise the absence of women is one more ever so subtle way of reinforcing that life in general is really about men, with women as either the supporting cast, or if they are really super-duper extra special women, allowed to be in charge.

Clavoy // Posted 6 April 2012 at 10:01 pm

This really is an interesting question isn’t it? Is a character that steps beyond the constraints of a stereotypical female roll truly a feminist character if she then embraces destructive male values of violence and domination? On the converse, could a male character potentially be a feminist character if he trades in these male values for the positive female values of compassion, cooperation and non-violence?

Regardless, it is good to see more female characters in the media, but we’re starting to see a perverse sort of corruption of this progress in the (to borrow a word from Rolling Stones latest cover piece on the Hunger Games’ female protagonist) “Kick-Ass Sweetheart” stereotype that is now coming to dominate the female population of our fictional Universe.

Of course it’s no surprise Hollywood is twisting the whole thing around. To really find a fair treatment of women, I often poke around in the Indie world. For example, there’s a small production being shot out in Alabama (of all places) featuring a fascinating pair of characters that deal with a lot of these issues. Here’s a link to their page if anyone wants to take a look. http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/85536?a=388047

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