Monday, 19 August 2013

When not to forget about Buffy the Vampire Slayer

This post is a response to this brilliant, BRILLIANT article in the New Statesman about Strong Female Characters. I agree with every word in that article, but I also have problems with large sections of it.

To summarise, the author of the New Statesman piece points out that many female characters these days are apparently “strong”, in that they know kung fu and don't need to be rescued that often, but are nevertheless much more simple, one-dimensional and boring than their male lead character counterparts. Moreover, there are still many fewer female characters of all kinds, including lead characters, villains and smaller parts, and they tend to represent a much smaller segment of possible character traits and are generally less interesting overall. Just having a few token “strong” characters is no substitute for proper equality. Plus, to even establish their “strength” in the first place, they often have to do crazy stuff that a man would never have to do (a point made with reference to the Captain America movie).

I couldn't agree more. It's so frustrating to watch film after film where the token love interest has a scene at the start where she beats up a few bad guys to establish her “strength” and then does nothing else for the rest of the film other than serve the plot requirements of a story entirely about the male lead. Take the new Wolverine film, where that happens with both the female leads. Or Pacific Rim. Or Despicable Me 2. Or Now You See Me. Or the latest Star Trek. I'm literally just naming the last films I've seen in the cinema (other than Alpha Papa and The World's End, which are both about men), and they all fit that mould.

Still, I couldn't help feeling like the New Statesman article was aimed at these mainstream films more than at pop culture spheres where anyone actually cares about concepts like Strong Female Characters. The SFC term itself is most closely associated – at least in my mind – with the works of a certain J Whedon, who has created dozens of brilliant and multi-dimensional women characters. It was a little irksome, truth be told, that the New Statesman piece used one of them – Buffy Summers – as its accompanying image, when it could easily have chosen a much more apt faux-strong character. Buffy is genuinely strong - not just in that she knows kung-fu and has super-strength. She's also strong in every other aspect of her character, including in her weaknesses and vulnerabilities, which are manifold. She's a cult hero not because she kicks ass, but because her fans have followed her for seven series (nine if you read the comics) and are deeply invested in her epic and fascinating character development and story arc. Unlike the useless kung-fu princesses of the big screen, Buffy is the main character in her show – she defines the world she lives in rather than vice versa.

My point is not to disprove the rule with a rare exception, but rather to suggest that the New Statesman piece has perhaps redefined the Strong Female Character concept in order to make a different – if completely valid and useful – point. The redefinition is useful for making this point, but it's perhaps unintentionally counterproductive in other regards. “Strong Female Character” was a term that Whedon fans adopted in order to rave about Buffy Summers (and Willow. And Cordelia. And Fred, Zoe, River, Echo and everyone else from the Whedonverse) – it was a term used to express the radical and exciting idea that female characters could be just as awesome and amenable to fan-obsession as male ones. It was never supposed to be used to praise the simple, one-dimensional "strength" discussed in the New Statesman.

And this Buffy-inspired SFC idea has had a lot of success. In the geek circles in which it has currency, it has had a huge amount of influence. Writers inspired by Buffy and similar characters have gone on to create a proliferation of *real* SFCs – each as wonderful as Buffy. Take comic books. To read post-Whedon X-men comics, for example, is to dive into a magical utopian parallel universe where character gender parity has been utterly achieved. Leads, supports, minor characters, villains and everything in between are just as likely to be female as male. The current cast includes heroes such as Storm, Kitty Pryde, Rogue, Husk, Psyloche, Emma Frost, Danger, Danni Moonstar, Magma, Wolfsbane, Karma, Magik, Jubilee, Polaris, Domino, Armour, X-23, Mercury, Dust, Surge, Hope and Rachel Summers and more (to just scratch the surface) – every one of whom represents an extremely well-developed and unique SFC who fits into an important part of the X-men story. Together they cover the whole spectrum of possible character traits. Christ, there's even one X-men title that's an entirely female line-up, and it doesn't feel weird at all!

Proper SFCs have appeared in all kinds of (mostly nerdy) media, from TV to webseries to videogames to novels, and they are beloved by fans at comic cons across the world. The problem is not that SFCs don't work, or that they inherently represent inequality. The problem, as the New Statesman piece shows, is that they aren't yet in Hollywood. Marvel's cinematic universe is still completely SFC-free, which is insane considering the range of characters it could draw on. DC almost made it with Anne Hathaway's Cat Woman, but lost it again with a rubbish Lois Lane.

What's needed is not a dismissal of or hatred towards SFCs, but a call for mainstream films to embrace them  and to properly understand what they entail. Yes, we must hammer home the point that knowledge of kung fu alone does not qualify. “Strength” in a female (or any) character was never about physical power, it was always about the depth of a character and how much the film made us care about them. It's time to take the Buffy revolution to a wider audience.