A Friend’s Request

One thing all my friends know about me is how invested I am in seeing high-quality female representation in geek media, so from time to time they seek my opinion on the issue or ask my opinion on others’ statements about it. This past week, a friend of mine sent me a link that a friend of his had shared with him, that he thought I might find interesting or provoking — a YouTube video entitled “Everything Wrong with Woke Culture (and its impact on feminism.” The title alone, or really any instance when the term “woke” is used in a dismissive or even contemptuous way, was enough to put me on the defensive. But I watched it for my friend’s sake, and he asked my opinion, and so here it is.

I wish I could simply say, “It’s nonsense,” and move on, but I can’t. At times it feels as if the vlogger and I are on, maybe not exactly the same page, but at least within three pages of each other. She makes sure to let us know she thinks more female representation in movies and TV is a good thing, which I appreciate. The problem, she says, is the kind of representation we’re seeing, and again, I don’t entirely disagree. I’m no more fond of the humorless, one-dimensional, too-perfect “girl power” protagonist, the woman who wins every battle and never makes a mistake she needs to learn from, any more than this vlogger is. The too frequent insubstantiality of the “strong female character” has also been covered in Sophia McDougall’s famous provocatively titled essay “I Hate Strong Female Characters,” which laments the lack of complexity and fallibility that would make these characters as interesting and as indelible as, say, Sherlock Holmes. Both McDougall and the vlogger note the damage done when female characters are called upon to represent an entire gender, something almost never asked of male characters. And again, I agree.

Something else the vlogger and I can agree on: we both love 2017’s Wonder Woman. Some of the most inspiring scenes involve Diana undergoing rigorous training, so that her badassery feels believable and her eventual victory feels earned rather than handed to her on a platter as something she’s entitled to. Would I love to see more screen heroines needing to train hard, even if they are blessed with some supernatural abilities? Certainly. Would I love to see them lose bouts on occasion? Sure. Would I like to see them make mistakes and even (gasp) need help on occasion? Of course. All I ask is that they stick the landing. Few things frustrate me more than seeing a female character act tough and kick butt throughout a story only to be sidelined or rendered helpless when crunch time comes. The writers of such stories have it backwards. What we want is to see the heroines making mistakes, needing help, and working hard in the course of their journey, so that they can shine in all their badass glory at the climax.

On those assertions the vlogger and I can agree. Yet I have some crucial differences with her.

First, she states that “everyone” hates the new female characters that have risen to prominence in previously male-dominated franchises like Star Wars and Doctor Who. Uh, no. The haters have shouted so loudly and disseminated their opinions so widely that it might lead to the illusion their disdain is universal, but it isn’t. I still remember how good I felt after the first time I watched The Force Awakens, and I wasn’t the only one. Likewise, I find Jodie Whitaker’s performance as the Doctor quite charming. Too many of the episodes under showrunner Chris Chibnall’s tenure have suffered from lackluster writing, which the fans have rightly called out, but Whitaker persists in giving it her all, and quite a few fans like her. That use of “everyone” suggests a little too much that if I don’t agree, I’m not only alone in my opinion but categorically wrong.

Second, I can’t help noticing something about the strong women in movies and TV this vlogger actually likes: Wonder Woman, Black Widow, Rita from Edge of Tomorrow, Zoe Washburne from Firefly, and Eowyn from Lord of the Rings. These are all excellent characters, and I admire them — but of all of them, only Wonder Woman occupies the center of the narrative. The others are members of an ensemble (Zoe, Black Widow), or supporting players in a larger male-dominated story (Eowyn),or so-close-but-not-quite-the-protagonist (Rita). I would have loved to hear more about some honest-to-God female leads the vlogger likes…

But apparently they’re a few decades in the past. Third, the vlogger suggests that “woke feminists” are too inclined to ignore or disregard the strides made by characters like Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor. Really? I’m old enough to remember when these iconic heroines made their debut, and I haven’t noticed future generations forgetting them. Sarah Connor had her own television series a few years back and returned to the big screen in 2019; she doesn’t seem to have slipped anyone’s mind. And Ripley — honestly, who doesn’t love Ripley? I’ve never heard anyone claim she’s anything less than awesome, and as far as I’ve been able to observe, creators of more recent SFF heroines are more than willing to acknowledge their debt to her.

We who lived through the 1980s haven’t forgotten Ripley or Sarah. But we also remember that they were rare. Aside from these two characters, Natty Gann on her journey, Sarah in Labyrinth, and Joan Wilder in Romancing the Stone, I’m hard pressed to think of a single female character in the 1980s iconic films of geek culture who was the heroine of her own story. Even when 1980s geek-media heroines were somewhat active and interesting (e.g. Kira from The Dark Crystal, Valerian from Dragonslayer, Isabeau from Ladyhawke, and, of course, Leia from The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi), they were nearly always sidekicks and/or love interests in male-led stories. Ripley and Sarah were so sadly outnumbered by the Indiana Joneses, the Marty McFlys, the Conans, the Rick Deckards, the Alex Rogans, the Atreyus, the Bastians, etc. that girls might be forgiven for getting the message that women couldn’t really be heroes in sci-fi, fantasy, or adventure movies. Yet we went to see the Indys and the Martys anyway, identifying with the male heroes and relishing their adventures. Because, although it’s taken Hollywood a while to figure this out, women are geeks. We’re interested in geek culture. But maybe, just maybe, we’d like to see ourselves playing bigger parts in it.

The beginning of the 1990s gave us another iconic heroine of geek culture: Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. But despite this promising start, where the big screen was concerned the 1990s weren’t much better than the 1980s, the resurgence of the ripped, tough Sarah Connor of Terminator 2 and the appearance of Disney warrior Mulan notwithstanding. But change was afoot, and it was television that led the way, with shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena: Warrior Princess, an increased female presence in TV science fiction franchises like Star Trek, and dynamic women characters in new science fiction TV shows like Babylon 5 and Farscape. Hollywood creative types were finally starting to come around to the fact that female geeks exist, and that we might like to see ourselves saving the day, rather than simply helping or hindering or comforting the man who saves the day. Now, at last, the big screen seems to be catching up. Where in the past we could count ourselves lucky if we saw one female protagonist in a high-quality adventure, thriller, or SF movie in a given year, nowadays we might see three or four. The year 2016 stands out in my mind as especially good for geek heroines, giving us Zootopia, Finding Dory, Queen of Katwe, Moana, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and perhaps the best of all, Arrival — all heroine-centered, yet not a one afflicted with the stereotypical infallible, invincible paragon-of-perfection “strong female character” the vlogger sees as epidemic.

Where the vlogger sees a ruinous “woke feminism” that came out of nowhere in the 2010s, I see a steady progression from the 1980s, a gradual embrace of the Geek Woman. Can we still do better? Absolutely. We do need more flawed, complex heroines who make mistakes and learn from them, whose victories are inspiring precisely because they are hard earned. But I think we’re headed in that direction. A good direction. Just think of whip-smart, wild, obstreperous, imperfect Webby Vanderquack of the 2017 DuckTales reboot and smile at the thought of what might lie ahead.

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