They’re powerful, fictional and holding a mirror to our culture

“So, why do you write these strong female characters?”

“Because you’re still asking me that question.”

That exchange took place a few years ago between a reporter and Joss Whedon, the creator of TV’s Firefly and Marvel’s Avengers films, among other things. Whedon, whose work is known for its powerful heroines, was making an incisive point. As long as society finds it strange or remarkable to have strong female characters in a story, it’s vital to keep pushing the boundary of societal expectations.

Societal expectations have a way of pushing back, however. Witness the recent examples of two popular movies and a TV series, all wildly dissimilar save for one fact. Each drew hostile responses from a vocal minority, not because of the quality of their story, but because there was a strong female character at the centre of it.

Who are these fictional women, and why are some people so angry about them? More to the point, what does that anger suggest about our culture’s attitude toward real women?

Imperator Furiosa (Mad Max: Fury Road)

After a hiatus of three decades, the Mad Max film franchise returned in 2015 with a new installment called Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s an intense film, full of disturbing imagery not suitable for young viewers. But it’s also a high-quality piece of cinema that has garnered loads of praise from critics, unusual for a post-apocalyptic fantasy.

One of Fury Road’s more clever twists is in shifting the attention from the familiar character of Max, essentially making him a supporting player in his own movie. Instead the story focuses on Imperator Furiosa, a battle-scarred veteran female soldier who rescues five young women from a horrific fate in the harem of a local warlord.

Despite the movie’s success, it drew the ire of some fans who were unhappy that the macho world of Max had been taken over by a woman’s story. Not that Fury Road is a “chick flick,” by any stretch; there’s plenty of grim-and-gritty to go around. Still, for some viewers at least, these movies should only be about two-fisted male heroes, not a one-armed heroine and her journey of personal redemption.

Kara Zor-El (Supergirl)

In the fall of 2015, the ongoing popularity of superheroes prompted CBS, America’s largest TV network, to enter the market with Supergirl. The series, which moved to the CW network in its second season, follows the adventures of Superman’s cousin, Kara Zor-El. Like her famous relative, Kara also escaped the destruction of her home planet, Krypton, landed on earth and was adopted by a human family.

Some content issues notwithstanding, Supergirl is one of the more lighthearted superhero shows to appear on TV. It offers a refreshing counterpoint to the dark, gritty atmosphere that often marks the genre. By contrast, Kara is a bright, optimistic twentysomething who’s looking to find her place in the world, and as a hero who wants to help people.

The series is primarily aimed at a younger female audience. As such, it tends to wear its message of girl power on its sleeve, especially in the early episodes. This has prompted eye rolls from certain (male) fans of the comics, impatient with what they see as Supergirl’s “heavy-handed feminism.” Apparently there’s only room in this genre for vigilantes and anti-heroes, not a happy young woman finding her wings.

Rey (Star Wars: The Force Awakens)

One of the biggest entertainment stories of 2015 was the return of Star Wars to the big screen with Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Fans and critics praised the movie as a fresh, affectionate take on what made the original trilogy great. The Force Awakens became the highest-grossing film ever in North America, and near the top of the list worldwide.

This new chapter of the saga centres on Rey, a young woman abandoned as a child on a harsh desert planet. Rey ekes out a lonely existence as a scavenger, whilst living in hope that her family will one day come back for her. In due course, she finds abilities she never knew she had, and discovers she’s cut out for far greater things than she’d ever dared imagine.

Rey’s story is a feel-good epic in the best classic sense, thrilling and well told. And yet it was not without its detractors. A segment of disappointed fans saw the film as little more than a checklist for political correctness: Spunky female protagonist? Check. Sensitive black male sidekick? Check. One critic of the film actually described it in those terms.

It’s a shocking attitude, and it practically pleads for the question: At what point will having a pair of likeable heroes, one a woman and the other black, not be an occasion for remark? At what point will audiences cease to assume that the heroes in these stories should be white and male by default?

Why keep writing stories about strong female characters? Because people are still asking that question.

What do we mean by “strong female character”?

A wounded warrior, a sunny superhero, and a daughter of destiny: Three fictional women as different as can be, inhabiting stories that are equally diverse. And yet, all three have been dismissed, by a small but vocal portion of their audience, as nods to political correctness.

Naturally, nobody is immune to smuggling their own assumptions into a given story. That’s as true of audience members as it is of creators. When the latter do so, sacrificing creative integrity for an agenda, the result ceases to be art and becomes propaganda. And when that occurs, “strong female character” gets reduced to a buzzword, a shorthand for pandering to cultural expectations.

The danger lies in assuming this is always the case. It lies in forgetting that “strong female character” most often means what it sounds like: a complex, fully developed character who happens to be a woman, one with whom the audience, both male and female, can identify.

The Bechdel test

Back in 1985, a cartoonist named Alison Bechdel proposed a test that could be applied to all works of fiction to gauge the active presence of women in their stories. The test took the form of three questions: Does the story contain at least two named women? Do these women ever talk to each other during the story? Is their conversation about something other than a man?

The test wasn’t meant to be a rigorous critique of any particular work of fiction. In fact, many great stories don’t pass the test, whereas many poor ones do. Nor does the test speak to the depth or quality of characterization within a given story.

But it does provide an instructive baseline from which to consider these factors. This is especially so in light of the persistent negative reactions, at least among some segments of the culture, to the very idea of a woman taking centre stage in a work of fiction.

Male and female he created them

According to Genesis, God created both men and women equally in his own image. Indeed, the equal yet complementary nature of male and female is an intrinsic part of humanity’s role as God’s image bearers. To neglect or misrepresent either women or men in our stories is not only a disservice to our culture. It’s also a distortion of the divine likeness we were designed to reflect.

Although an atheist, Joss Whedon was making a similar point:

“So, why do you write these strong women characters?”

“Because equality is not a concept. It’s not something we should be striving for. It’s a necessity. Equality is like gravity, we need it to stand on this earth as men and women, and the misogyny that is in every culture is not a true part of the human condition. It is life out of balance and that imbalance is sucking something out of the soul of every man and woman who’s confronted with it. We need equality, kinda now.”

The quotes from Whedon are taken from his Equality Now tribute address, delivered on May 15, 2006. A video and transcript are available at the American Rhetoric Online Speech Bank.

[Note: this article does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family Canada of the movies and TV shows discussed herein. Consult the full reviews available at Plugged In to help you determine whether these movies or TV shows are appropriate for you or your family.]

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2016 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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