The trailer for the latest Star Wars movie, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, was released last week. Following the success of the revival of the franchise in last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, anticipation is unsurprisingly at a fever pitch. As in the case of The Force Awakens, much of the pre-release speculation and comment has been preoccupied with the question of the representation of women and minorities within it. Despite concerns about a male-heavy cast early in the film’s development, the character of Rey in The Force Awakens met with a rapturous reception when it hit the cinemas. Along with the characters of Finn and Poe Dameron, many believe that her character marks a decisive movement towards a more egalitarian and inclusive vision of Star Wars, one no longer so dominated by white male protagonists.
Jyn Erso, the heroine of Rogue One, promises more of the same. Aggressive, rebellious, reckless, and gifted in combat, she seems to be another stereotype-breaking character, destined to be welcomed as a feminist-approved role model for young girls and a welcome lesson for young Star Wars-obsessed boys about the power of women and their rightful place and prominence in a world they once considered theirs. The scatteredgrumblings among unreconstructed fanboys have been met with derision and dismissive pooh-poohing. The only minor disappointment is that she is not a woman of color, but people are increasingly confident that the franchise will get around to rectifying that failure of representation, much as J.J. Abrams has said that there will be openly LGBTQ characters in future installments.
Popular culture is the focus of some of the most determined attempts to shift attitudes on a host of issues within society at large, and such forms of representation are an important dimension of this. While popular media and the various ‘messages’ within it may often appear innocuous, they are frequently anything but. Behind them lie concerted efforts to change the public’s thinking and perception on key matters and some carefully calculated agendas. The supposed shallowness of pop culture is deceptive: It is a realm where brilliant and talented people go to try to shape minds at their most unguarded and impressionable. It is on the ground of entertainment media that the so-called culture wars have largely been lost.
The power of such media exists in no small measure because they are the culture that mediates our social relations and perceptions (Guy Debord: “passive identification with the spectacle supplants genuine activity”). Each of us typically produces little culture of our own, but we consume a great deal and it is in our common cultural consumption that we find our togetherness. Entertainment media provide us with the spectacle that increasingly mediates and intermediates our relations to each other, to the world, to society as a whole, and even to ourselves. We understand ourselves and reality within the terms it provides us, within the images and cultural products with which we identify.
Further to this, the internet has made possible a revolution in social viewing and consumption of entertainment media. The phenomenon of the ‘second screen’ increasingly frames our enjoyment of such media, as we discuss and form communities around our favorite movies, TV shows, books, and games. Such communities and discussions existed previously, of course, but the internet has made it possible for them to swell to previously unprecedented proportions and achieve a far greater degree of visibility. There have been many positive results of this development. It has catalyzed a proliferation of close analysis and creative engagement with entertainment media, created more demanding and critically literate audiences, and has greatly raised the power of fanbases.
It also involves a new stage in and an intensification of our identification with the spectacle. We now project an image of ourselves into the shared spectacle of the internet, of which the ‘second screen’ is a part (a good example of this is the burgeoning genre of the ‘reaction video’). This shared spectacle redoubles the mediation of ourselves and our worlds and it also involves a new development in the manner in which the older forms of the spectacle function. A formerly more passive form of identification with the consumed spectacle is now replaced by the projection of our consumption itself as its own spectacle and the spectators’ remixing of the original spectacle as a means of public self-expression. This makes our identification with the spectacle even more profound.
Popular culture producers have, for their part, become increasingly responsive to the novel phenomenon of the highly visible and connected audience, to the audience that has itself become a spectacle. They know that everything they produce will become fodder for close analysis and speculation, inspire vast works of fan fiction, encourage obsessive identification with and levels of emotional investment in characters and worlds (seen in phenomena such as ‘shipping’), and produce countless real-time reactions to and GIFs of discrete moments that serve a broader online community and establish part of its emotional currency. The much greater and closer interaction between pop culture producers and their audiences has changed the dynamic of creation, encouraging such phenomena as the undeath of the author (here’s looking at you, J.K. Rowling…).
In some cases, pop culture producers play very directly to the ‘second screen’ and the social and political concerns and values of a connected audience. Doctor Who—a science fiction series aimed predominantly at children, but with an extensive and obsessive adult audience—is an example of a TV show whose writers are frequently winking through the window of the fourth wall. Episodes of Doctor Who over the last few years have contained numerous pointed and typically gratuitous references to contemporary socially progressive concerns such as same-sex marriage, queer sexuality, transsexualism, and various feminist themes. These references usually serve no ostensive plot purpose: They are incongruous and odd, violating Chekov’s gun principle. They draw attention to themselves in a way that often seems intentional and preachy, seemingly calling for us to attend, while simultaneously chiding us for paying attention to that which should be treated as entirely natural and unexceptional. However inauthentic they may appear on the ‘first screen’, though, they play very well on the second. The intensification of the messages of such media has much to do with the development of the spectacle they offer into a means of self-signalling in the age of the internet, as audiences become more visible to themselves within a spectacle of their own.
The Economics of Strong Female Characters
Supporting progressive values is good business too, and this might well be the most critical factor in their spread in popular media. Women and minorities are a huge market and attracting them to franchises that were previously dominated by straight white males can prove extremely lucrative. Egalitarian individualism is the logical ideology of the contemporary marketplace, for which all natural or structural differences between persons are to be dissolved into the business-empowering universalism of self-expressive consumerism. To the extent that the social justice movement aligns with these values, business will naturally support it. Besides, as the social justice movement in its various guises is the heir apparent of post-Christian society’s religious loyalties, people seeking to sell pop culture to us are increasingly alert to the payoffs from—frequently opportunistic—gestures towards its ideology. As Rory Ellwood observes, backing the winning team doesn’t hurt the bottom line.
Spurred in part by the new visibility and power of pop culture audiences, ascendant social progressivism has heightened concerns about inclusion and representation. Fans have always intensely identified with characters and their worlds. However, I suspect that a deepening sense of the social functions of entertainment has been one of the effects of the rise of progressive ideology among the young and of the increasing visibility of ‘fandoms’ to themselves and to pop culture producers. Providing identifiable characters for the various different constituencies of a fandom and ensuring that narratives do not overly advantage socially privileged groups in the ownership of and representation within imaginary worlds are concerns that are elevated by this sense.
Representation has been a prominent concern of the socially progressive ‘social justice’ movement, whether in its more theoretical or in its more popular incarnations. Every new popular culture product will spark thousands of hot takes and Tumblr posts closely examining how women, LGBTQ persons, persons of color, and various other minority demographics are portrayed and represented within it. The intense demands placed upon popular culture to represent demographics in an extensive, positive, affirming, and empowering manner, to provide relatable characters, and to push against stereotypes of less privileged groups encourages a situation where popular culture products are assessed as much for their alignment with progressive social and political concerns as they are for their more narrowly defined artistic merits.
Few such works can please everyone or sustain the ideological demands placed upon them and, as the Tumblr Everything’s A Problem catalogues, even works that make significant steps to please a socially progressive audience can still come under fire on various counts for their failure to conform their works sufficiently to the ideology (the new Ghostbusters fails because, although all of the ghostbusters are now women—yay!—the black woman isn’t a scientist—boo!). Receiving the nihil obstat and imprimatur of the social justice priesthood is not an easy feat.
Pop culture producers have long sought to shape society and its values, rather than just to replicate or perpetuate them or to provide escapist entertainment that leaves them untroubled. Media that were previously used to catechize the public in such things as anti-communist values are now explicitly employed to inculcate progressive ideology and explore its favored issues. Considering how explicit much popular culture has become in pursuing ideological ends and tackling prominent ideological issues, it is neither surprising nor inappropriate that people should subject its social effects and agenda to considerable scrutiny, much as Christian films and novels, which are typically deeply—and often excruciatingly—ideologically driven, demand such engagement.
For instance, The Powerpuff Girls, which was just rebooted last week, sought to engage with the issue of transsexual identity in one episode which has received a mauling for its clumsy handling of the matter from social justice advocates on Tumblr. Such social and ideological engagement is not exclusive to social progressives, of course: The recent series of South Park was an extended contrarian engagement with and lampooning of progressive issues such as political correctness, safe spaces, and white liberal culture.
This pedagogy is not merely a matter of occasional ‘Very Special Episodes’ dealing with topical social issues (although one could argue that Glee was a show frequently based around Very Special Episodes, with all of the awkward earnestness and preachiness that can come with that). It powerfully shapes narratives and characterization, as characters are favorably or unfavorably represented for ideological ends or as narratives and worlds are crafted in order to make clear points about the real world (although, as the spectacle—the ‘representation’—so often takes the place of directly lived life, the ‘real world’ features less prominently in our consciousness). Once again, such a phenomenon is not exclusive to socially progressive pop culture creators: The recent God’s Not Dead, an egregious trainwreck of a movie, is an example of a Christian film whose plot and characterization seemed to be primarily ideological contrivance.
The Ideological Colonization of Pop Culture
There has been an ideological colonization of pop culture, where old works criticized for their unexamined biases and failures of representation are replaced by new works that are quite explicitly progressive in their ideology and pointedly subversive of traditional values in their ends. Disney princesses, on account of their appeal with an impressionable demographic of young girls and their supposed role in conforming them to patriarchy, have received a particularly large degree of attention from feminists and provide some good examples of the phenomena I am discussing here.
Beginning in the mid-nineties, the more traditional Disney princesses—Snow White, Cinderella, etc.—have been replaced by a new breed of badass princesses, who explicitly resist gender norms and are more racially inclusive—Pocahontas, Mulan, Megara, Tiana, Rapunzel, Merida, Elsa, etc. (Kenneth Branagh’s recent live action reboot of Cinderella is a notable exception from the general trends here, and has been widely criticized accordingly). The ideological subtext is seldom far from the surface as these princesses demonstrate their female independence and strength through sarcasm, fighting, feistiness, rejection of their parents’ values and expectations, refusal of the traditional princess role, rejection of marriage and love at first sight, and the celebration of sisterhood.
Along the way, traditional masculinity is subtly and sometimes not so subtly satirized. For instance, against the background of the song I’ll Make A Man Out of You, Mulan, a woman disguised as a man, proves herself more competent than her male peers as they train for combat. The male characters can serve as pathetic foils or narrativepunching bags against which the women can demonstrate their superior strength, virtue, independence, intelligence, wit, skill, and sassiness. Of course, the literally cartoonish over-performance of strength and independence such ideologization of the Disney princess occasionally produces betrays some profound insecurities about women’s agency and an inability to cope well with the existence of male strength, agency, intelligence, and competence.
Like many other such characters, these new Disney princesses remain quite recognizably female, and indeed feminine, in most other respects, generally exemplifying healthy relationships with men, and are often well-rounded and well-characterized protagonists. In many regards, they are a considerable improvement upon past princesses, as they exhibit more pronounced agency and interiority. They are also very far from the gender-switched scantily clad warriors with large breasts that have been the result of some embarrassing attempts by men to ‘empower’ women in heavily masculine pop culture contexts (gaming providing some of the most prominent examples here).
Yet, despite their likeableness and roundedness as characters, these new princesses betray some concerning anxieties about women’s place and agency within the world. Within the kickass princess trope lurks the implication that, to prove equality of dignity, worth, agency, and significance as a character, all of a woman’s resolve, wisdom, courage, love, kindness, self-sacrifice, and other traits simply aren’t enough—she must be capable of putting men in their place by outmatching them in endeavors and strengths that naturally favor them, or otherwise making them look weak or foolish.
Herein lies a tragic failure of imagination that weakens both men and women. Women are measured according to an unfair standard that encourages frustration and resentment, as they are pressed to play to their relative weaknesses; men, on the other hand, are ill-served as their strengths must be either pathologized, stifled, or dissembled in order to make women appear equal or stronger. Kickass princesses are an invitation to young girls to pursue their strength in a zero-sum gender game.
The rewards for a social justice-approved character can be considerable. Such a character isn’t just likeable, but represents The Cause. People can fiercely champion such figures, identifying with them on a deep and visceral level, and treating them as icons of their ideology. They are aspirational representations of the agency and place in society that people desire for themselves, affording catharsis as they resist and overcome forces that people experience as holding them back. Imperator Furiosa from Mad Max and Jessica Jones are two recent examples of characters who have received a warm reception in many feminist circles, for instance.
This concern with representation in pop culture is perhaps the most prominent social justice concern for many young people. Changing representations and breaking down stereotypes in popular media is important for many because these media play such a huge role in shaping their feelings, values, imaginations, and identities and those of their peers. Indeed, as I have suggested, such spectacles and the derivative spectacle of our spectation that they spawn are increasingly constitutive of our reality. Human beings, especially in the impressionable years of youth, are naturally imitative and form identities through emulating exemplars and through identification with others. For many, especially young people, the figures they see on their screens and encounter in their literature shape, for better or worse, their sense of themselves and of their place in the world. These fictional characters are means through which many young people form identities within an entertainment society.
Writers have long been alert to the importance of such identification, and often craft their protagonists accordingly, often forfeiting verisimilitude for the sake of facilitating easy identification. The character of Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars is a classic example of an everyman hero: The young viewer can relate to Luke and identifies with his journey. The recent rash of formulaic young adult movies featuring dystopian governments and docile populations, with an easily relatable, conventionally attractive teenager who sees through the façade, resists, forms a team, and leads others to overcome their oppression—The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Giver, etc.—all play into teenagers’ felt need to make a break with realms defined by the values of parents and teachers and to find their own place and identities in the world. Recent films have also sought to provide some everywoman heroines to complement or replace the traditional male ones—Katniss Everdeen, Tris Prior, Bella Swan, Rey, etc. Not every action heroine exists for the purposes of identification; some are primarily objects of admiration or other forms of appreciation instead. However, the desire for characters with whom girls and women can identify is one of the chief reasons why so much of an emphasis is placed upon representation.
The Rise of the Action Heroine
Partly as a result of this everywoman heroine trend, partly in order to be more inclusive in traditionally male dominated genres, partly in order to push back against stereotypes, partly in order to legitimate eye candy for male audiences, partly in response to powerful lobby groups behind the scenes, and perhaps mostly in order to increase sales, the last couple of decades have seen a meteoric rise in the number of action heroines—Xena, Buffy Summers, Trinity, Sydney Bristow, River Tam, Lara Croft, Kara Thrace, Katniss Everdeen, Michonne, Black Widow, Daisy Johnson, Peggy Carter, Imperator Furiosa, Jessica Jones, Rey, etc., etc. Women, we are assured, can fight just like men. These characters are highly confident characters who routinely outclass men in combat, despite their typically short, thin, and conventionally attractive frames (Brienne of Tarth is a marked exception here, who approaches somewhat closer to realism). Even the modern princess can be a martial artist who can prove her strength and equality to men through violence, whether physical or magical.
There is no shortage of well-rounded characters within this category, although others are lazy ‘Mary Sue’ tropes. What is perhaps most noteworthy about most of them is how much their supposed ‘strength’ and independence and their narrative importance often depends upon their capacity to match up to men in combat, requires the foil of male incompetence, villainy, and weakness, or involves the exhibition of traits and behaviors that are far more pronounced in men. Cathartic though it may be for many women to see such female characters demonstrating their equality of agency and personhood on their screens, the ways in which they typically have to do this reveal deep problems with prevailing egalitarian visions of female identity and of relations between the sexes.
In their various ways, these characters almost all represent resistance to the fact that women are, not only in the teaching of Scripture, but according to the ample evidence of reality, the ‘weaker vessel’. This relative weakness—primarily physical, but also societal—is especially pronounced in the area of physical strength and in fittingness for and orientation towards combat. The sexual difference can be exceedingly large here and, although some more exceptional women could outmatch the average man in particular feats, when we are dealing with the extremes of strength and performance, women simply cannot compete:
Men have about 90% greater upper-body strength, a difference of approximately three standard deviations (Abe et al., 2003; Lassek & Gaulin, 2009). The average man is stronger than 99.9% of women (Lassek & Gaulin, 2009). Men also have about 65% greater lower body strength (Lassek & Gaulin, 2009; Mayhew & Salm, 1990), over 45% higher vertical leap, and over 22% faster sprint times (Mayhew & Salm, 1990)…
The suspension of disbelief required of audiences watching many female action heroines is considerable. The breaking of stereotypes may open new imaginative possibilities for women’s identities, but it tends to do so at the expense of reckoning with both the physical limitations and natural inclinations of most women relative to men and the framing realities of their lives.
Of course, to some extent this is true of almost any hero in pop culture. The teenage boy who identifies with Luke Skywalker is rather hamstrung by a poor midi-chlorian count—I know, I know—relative to his hero and may well never escape his personal Tatooine. However, Luke’s journey is a recognizably male one, emphasizing common masculine traits, interests, and concerns throughout: It involves an orientation towards combat, an exceptional interest in and aptitude with technology, a concern to protect women and deliver them from harm, and the existential importance of the male mentor and of the young man’s identification with his father.
The Male Path of Strong Female Characters
The female action heroines may have many relatable personal traits, interests, and concerns for the typical girl or woman—as I have already noted, few of these heroines are merely clumsy gender-switches of male characters. However, all too often, their prominence and the recognition of their importance in the narrative rests almost entirely upon the fact that they have in some crucial respects followed a typically male path, or that they exhibit relatively male tendencies, interests, and aptitudes in key areas. Their claim to strength and the stature of their personhood lies, less in the confident development and pursuit of determined and unapologetically womanly character—with the considerable scope that provides for resisting flat stereotypes—than in their capacity to prove themselves on men’s terms, as fighters who can excel at typical male interests and activities.
Were such characters rare or occasional exceptions, it could fairly be claimed that they serve to resist the closure of certain possibilities to women—a worthwhile end indeed. However, when they increasingly represent a norm among the most prominent female characters in popular culture, they cease to be a message of empowerment and become something closer to an indictment upon the natural strengths and tendencies of women relative to men as a sex.
The concerns of inclusion, equality, and empowering representation, driven by social justice concerns for progressives, and by sales maximization for pop culture producers, have been particularly strongly addressed to genres and pop culture franchises that have traditionally catered primarily for males. Effective representation of women in such contexts can be especially complicated. When narratives are structured around combat, action, and physical struggle—as many of the most popular genres and franchises are—male agency will naturally tend to assume prominence and women will often find themselves on the narrative fringes. Though such stories only explore a few dimensions of human action, they are dimensions of human action within which exceptional males overwhelmingly predominate, and they are the stories that often dominate upon our screens.
For instance, when adapting The Hobbit for the big screen—a book whose main cast is entirely male—Peter Jackson created the character of Tauriel, a badass non-conformist she-elf, who is the head of the Mirkwood Elven guard. The inclusion of Tauriel was just one of many ways Jackson altered Tolkien’s novel by retailoring it to appeal to as broad an audience as possible and to play to their supposed desire for extreme spectacle and conflict on the scale of his previous Lord of the Rings trilogy. The inclusion of Tauriel doesn’t really represent an improvement upon Tolkien’s original tale. However, it was a gesture towards inclusivity and equality. It was probably an attempt to connect more with women in audiences by adding a character they could identify with and including a romantic dimension to the plot.
The characterization of Tauriel, like many other such characters, suffers as she is burdened with a task of representation that is too large for any single character’s shoulders. As the token woman, the interests that Tauriel exists to serve are less those internal to the world and narrative of Tolkien’s work and are primarily those of film executives and social progressives. For the latter, it is almost a matter of course that she must be a kickass fighter, as this is how women demonstrate that they are strong within such narrative worlds.
Because she must single-handedly represent ideological commitment to women’s inclusion and equality to men, there are considerable constraints upon the development of her character. Cultural insecurities about the precariousness of women’s position in a male world prevent her from being a truly interesting character. She may be ‘strong’, but she is a weak character because she has to be ‘strong’ lest the wrong message be sent (male characters don’t generally suffer such an encumbrance and can be more interesting as a result). The films would have been much better had Jackson resisted the lure of representation and inclusion—forces that often pull characters out from a healthy narrative orbit—and just focused on telling a good story.
The Trouble with Acting as if Men and Women are Interchangeable
The recurring characterization problems with such Strong Female Characters arise in no small measure from the struggle to show that men and women are interchangeable and can compete and cooperate with each other on the same terms. As I have already noted, this falsehood serves no one. It sets women up for frustration and failure as they have to justify their agency on men’s terms and it produces an embarrassment about male strengths that should be celebrated rather than stifled. It reflects a drive towards intense gender integration and de-differentiation in the wider world.
The traditional world of women—typically a different existential and intersubjective mapping of spaces that were shared with men—has been reduced through the migration of work away from the home, the expanding social role of the state and its agencies, the shrinking and contracting of families, the thinning out of neighborhoods, and the removal of much of the burden of domestic labour through technology. One’s value in society has also become increasingly contingent upon advanced educational attainment, career, wealth, and consumption. Within this new situation, women have had to forge new identities within worlds created by men and which play to male strengths. Shrunk to a sentimental reservation of domesticity, there is relatively little dignity to be found in what remains of traditional female worlds in most Western societies.
Often natural differences in tendencies and aptitudes between the sexes (as groups, there is plenty of individual variation and departure from the norm) replicate themselves in the wider economic world. Women are frustrated as their desire to have children and raise families prevents them from earning as much as their male counterparts, or enjoying the same social prominence. Women’s greater natural orientation towards relational and caring activities leads to their underrepresentation within the more lucrative and powerful professions. Women are drawn to subjects and occupations that are more personal, artistic, and relational, while men to those that are more realistic, investigative, and thing-based. Despite the expense of considerable money and effort to change male and female preferences, they are surprisingly resistant to change in many respects.
On men’s part, male dominance in realms of high achievement is frequently and often instinctively characterized as pathological. There is a zero-sum social game being played between the sexes and male privilege is a sign of a great injustice, something about which men should feel guilty. The possibility that men dominate because the realms in which they dominate play to their various strengths as a group or involve areas where they produce the most exceptional performers is not an idea that can be entertained in many quarters.
The push for ‘diversification’ and ‘inclusion’ can be a threat to many male groups because their natural rougher socializing tendencies are stigmatized, they are no longer permitted to play to their strengths, and their shared cultures and cultural products are jeopardized by a sort of gender gentrification imposed upon them. The existence of extreme misogyny in many of their reactions to such developments should not be allowed to disguise the presence of understandable concerns (and definitely vice versa too), even where the appropriate response to these concerns may not be that of wholly rejecting the diversification.
We have moved from a situation with distinct worlds of gendered activity—albeit typically deeply interwoven and involving extensively overlapping spaces—to one in which men and women are being pressed into a single intersubjective and existential world, one that was traditionally male. The result is a stifling of men, as manliness becomes a social threat and male strength a problem to be solved. Male strengths have to be discouraged to give women more scope for expression and achievement. Women, on the other hand, are caught in a world that seems rigged against them. The Strong Female Character is one way in which the anxieties, insecurities, resentments, and embarrassments produced by such a situation register in our imaginary worlds.
It is also a revelation of a failure of imagination. Fictional worlds are places in which we can explore possibilities for identity and agency. The fact that women’s stature as full agents is so consistently treated as contingent upon such things as their physical strength and combat skills, or upon the exaggerated weakness or their one-upping of the men that surround them, is a sign that, even though men may be increasingly stifled within it, women are operating in a realm that plays by men’s rules. The possibility of a world in which women are the weaker sex, yet can still attain to the stature and dignity of full agents and persons—the true counterparts and equals of men—seems to be, for the most part, beyond people’s imaginative grasp. This is a limitation of imagination with painful consequences for the real world, and is one of the causes of the high degree of ressentiment within the feminist movement.
Heroic Women and Good Story Telling
The Bechdel Test originally appeared within the comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For. It is an informal test to determine whether or not a film passes the lowest bars for the portrayal of women: 1. Does it have at least two women in it? 2. Do the women talk to each other? 3. Do they talk about something other than a man? It is a helpful heuristic tool for alerting people to the degree to which women and their intersubjective worlds fail to appear within the frame of so many movies and works of fiction. It is far from scientific, nor is it an accurate tool for determining the existence of stunted portrayal of women more generally, but it does often provide an initial indication of limitations or problems.
One of its limitations might be in its tendency to focus our attention too narrowly upon individual movies, and less upon the world as represented in movies more generally. Few films offer anything like a comprehensive vision of the worlds their narratives operate within. The expectation of strong female representation in every film would be, in part, a failure to grant the legitimacy of realms that peculiarly play to the interests and aptitudes of one sex or the other.
The fact that men and women as groups typically have different foci of interest, activity, and identity is so frequently treated as if it were a problem, but there is no reason why it needs to be. The existence of films that focus upon male characters and contain few female ones is not a bad thing: Homosociality has always been a hugely significant element of male identity and formation and characterizes many areas of men’s activity. The problem lies with the lack of corresponding films for women, especially films that explore what it means to be a woman who achieves full agency playing to female strengths and according to women’s rules. The problem also lies with the lack of female characters that teach men to respect women as women, not only to the extent that they can play to male strengths. Without denying that some women can and do effectively play to male strengths, they should not have to do so in order to be valued as full agents.
There are some film-makers who have recognized this. Hayao Miyazaki, the great Japanese animation director, is one example. Miyazaki has produced several children’s films that have robustly characterized female lead protagonists, whose centrality is made possible, not by the narrative choice to give them exceptional martial abilities, but by the greater scope of his imagination and his desire to explore and celebrate more feminine forms of subjectivity and agency. Such films are typically a delight to watch, not least because, although they are championing a deep appreciation of women’s agency, (inter)subjectivity, and strength, Miyazaki largely resists the urge to play a zero-sum game, or to suggest that men and women are interchangeable. He sees the strength and dignity of women to lie, in no small measure in the fact that they are different from men.
And this enables him to tell far more interesting stories. Miyazaki has spoken of the fact that he prefers female characters precisely because they make it easier to break out of the male narrative model of the hero gaining independence and violently defeating an evil opponent:
When I think about making a male a lead, it gets really intricate. The problem isn’t simple. I mean, if it’s a story like, “everything will be fine once we defeat him,” it’s better to have a male as a lead. But, if we try to make an adventure story with a male lead, we have no choice other than doing Indiana Jones. With a Nazi, or someone else who is a villain in anyone’s eyes.
Miyazaki’s preference for female protagonists liberates him to tell stories where the heroine often achieves her ‘victory’ through reconciliation, understanding, or feeling and to create worlds whose characters aren’t simply morally black and white, as they tend to be within the narrative arcs encouraged by more typically male modes of agency. His characters are very often far from stereotypes, but nor are they driven by some need to break them. They are marked by such things as curiosity, desire for knowledge, concern for others, love for family, pacifism, longing for adventure, etc. They are not all conventionally attractive, unmarried and childless highly able-bodied young women: although some possess remarkable physical powers, many others are young girls or older ladies, others are wives and mothers.
The Strong Female Character, by contrast, is in large part sustained by the unimaginative and stunting scope of the story-telling in many Western movies; rejecting this trope in favor of characters that are more attentive to women’s actual strengths may be part of the solution to it.
The Heroism of Lady Wisdom
In this article, I have argued against our overdependence upon the Strong Female Character trope. This trope, I have argued, arises from the anxieties and concerns of a society where the insistent differences between the sexes are an obstacle that must be resisted or overcome in order to form a gender neutral world. Our concerns about ‘representation’ in fictional media are also elevated by the degree to which the spectacle—and the spectacle of our spectation—has come to constitute our reality.
In concluding, however, I want to alert us to the fact that the constraining power of the Strong Female Character trope upon our imagination has led us to miss the profound strength of many real women, a strength that takes a very different form from the stereotype-attacking heroines of the screen.
This can be seen, among other places, in our reading of Scripture. The assumption that the strength and agency of women is to be found primarily in the breaking of gender norms and in measuring up to or competing with men in realms in which they dominate has often led to a profoundly constrained appreciation of the female characters in Scripture. Characters like Deborah and Jael—a judge who was involved in warfare and a woman who killed a man with a tent-peg while he slept—receive great appreciation, while other characters can be neglected.
It is interesting to notice, for instance, how much attention the biblical text gives to the most uniquely female activity of all—the bearing of children—and to the other womanly activities that surround that. In the stories of Sarah, of Rebekah, of Rachel and Leah, of the Hebrew midwives, Jochebed, Miriam, and Pharaoh’s daughter, of Ruth, or of Mary and Elizabeth we see that the bearing of children isn’t just a passive activity, but is one of the most powerful, prominent, and pivotal activities of all.
Scripture celebrates the strength of women. Proverbs 31:10-31 is a striking example here. In twenty-two statements concerning the ‘valorous woman’ (v.10), the writer extols the virtues of the wise wife. These statements are an alphabetical acrostic, in which the entire book is summed up in the complete woman, who covers all of the bases from aleph to tav. The placement of this passage at the end of the book is not accidental, some awkward appending of excess material to the conclusion of the collection. Rather, it brings the underlying themes of the book to full and true resolution. It is the capstone of the book.
Here the book’s interwoven themes of the young man’s quest for love and the search for wisdom arrive at a poetic resolution in a climactic statement that unites them. The figure of Lady Wisdom, by whom God created the world, is incarnated in the virtuous wife. Peter Leithart observes:
The portrait reaches back to the beginning of Proverbs and the portrait of wisdom. Like Lady Wisdom, the excellent wife’s value is far above jewels (v. 10; cf. 3:15; 8:11). Like Lady Wisdom, the excellent wife offers food (31:15; cf. 9:2, 5). The excellent wife brings gain (31:11), like Wisdom (cf. 3:14). Wisdom begins from the fear of Yahweh, which is precisely what animates the excellent wife (31:30).
This woman is described in striking language. ‘Virtuous wife’ literally means ‘woman of valor’. She is characterized by strength (vv.17, 25). She gets ‘plunder’ (v.11) and ‘prey’ (v.15) for her family. She girds herself with strength (v.17), like a warrior heading out to battle. She rejoices and is celebrated like a hero returning from a great victory. She is the powerful wise woman, who through the prudent ruling of her household, brings prosperity and joy to her husband and family, and is honoured by all who know her. Beauty and charm are deceitful and fleeting, yet this woman is marked out by enduring faithfulness and determined action.
The manner and the content of this characterization are instructive for us in considering the true strength of women as recognized and celebrated by Scripture. It is a portrait that explicitly resists the reduction of women to the passivity of beauty (v.30), focusing rather upon the prudence, economy, wisdom, providence, faith, productivity, and industry of their activity. More striking still,
…the woman’s work is domestic, economic, craft-work, and yet the poem celebrates it in heroic terms. A heroic poem for someone engaged in domestic labor is remarkable in the ancient world, and shows something of how God regards the work of women. The great battle of the world is between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman—not the seed of the man! In their care for their households, wise women are on the front lines of God’s holy war.
Our failure to see the heroism and the strength of such a diligent and active woman is a failure to see the world as God does. The strength of such a woman is not that of conformity to more typically male forms of strength, but rather of the reflection of the work of the master creator, Lady Wisdom, within her own world of activity.
As we start to perceive the problems with the Strong Female Character and the prevailing ‘empowering’ representations of women within much of our entertainment media—representations that substitute for and dissemble, yet arise from the anxieties of, real world weaknesses—a new way of seeing may be opened up to us. Without ever needing to deny the truth that women are in some important senses the ‘weaker vessel’, or to downplay or resist the strengths of men, we can arrive at a position from which we can see profound strength in places and persons we never thought to look for it in. Rather than trying to craft new stereotype-assaulting representations, we may find that God’s representation of women thoroughly eludes such strictures, without obsessively rebelling against them. Here new possibilities emerge—representation without ressentiment, celebration without competition, differentiation without diminishment.