Yesterday our own nerd extraordinaire Samantha Cross posted a rather lengthy (although excellent) article chiding the overly generic use of the term, “strong, female characters” in film, comics, and other media as code for “scantily clad women toting weapons without a lick of personality and/or character development.” She regards the term as a myth, a series of pop culture buzz words that fail to accurately define female roles in stories.
It’s certainly a term that now carries sexist overtones, especially when fans and critics alike classify Milla Jovovich decked out in black latex fetish survival gear, hair and makeup all in place, kicking zombie ass as a “strong, female character.”
However, this term is more of a lazy generalization for those who can’t be bothered to define their characters beyond a stereotype than it is a myth. A moratorium on this term may be a bit premature, for it still applies to a wide range of female characters who have never once wielded a rocket launcher in their panties. Here are three cinematic examples:
LINDA HAMILTON – TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY (1991)
Hamilton’s 180 degree performance from The Terminator is one of the reasons we have the term “strong, female character” at all. While it’s true that Sigourney Weaver’s alien busting Ellen Ripley predates Hamilton’s T2 performance, Sarah Connor’s stark return in James Cameron’s sequel is an unforgettable take on a mother’s single minded purpose to protect her only son from the dangers that surround them.
Hamilton created a tough-as-nails exterior with her iconic biceps and sunglasses, but it’s the interior state of mind where her strength truly shines. This is a broken woman with only ONE single goal left in her life. She’s forsaken everything else (including love) in an effort to keep her son safe. Her haunted, vacant gaze and relentless motivation is anything but sexy. She’s handy with a firearm, but you never see her parading around half naked with it.
MARY ELIZABETH MASTRANTONIO – THE ABYSS (1989)
This one is often overlooked in many “tough chicks of cinema” lists, but Mastrantonio’s cold-as-ice turn as architect/engineer Lindsey Brigman stands tall alongside Hamilton’s Sarah Connor, and it’s no surprise that both of these “strong, female characters” were created by Cameron. He has a knack for taking an internal struggle and wrapping it around a hard, exterior shell.
Lindsey finds herself thrust into an impossible situation with the one man she’s about to become divorced from at the films onset, and from that point forward the layers of her shell (as do her clothes, but in a completely different context) peel back as the situation becomes more and more dire. At one point she even volunteers to die onscreen in an effort to save herself AND her alpha male estranged husband! How’s that for “strong?”
When Lindsey is finally “exposed” in a scene that grinds the film to a complete standstill (yet defines everything we love about the movies) she is seen in the most non sexual way imaginable. It’s a clever reversal of the “strong, female character” stereotype.
CLAUDE PERRON – THE HORDE (2009)
In my recent review over at The Film Warriors upon finding this little French, zombie gem, I cited Perron’s performance as not having seen a woman this tough since Hamilton’s performance in T2, and boy is that ever true!
Claude Perron stars as Aurore, the sole female in a group of cops who raid a condemned apartment building as an act of revenge against some gangsters, only to become trapped with them when a Zombie Apocalypse breaks out across the city. Aurore remains in the background for the first third of the film (allowing the “strong, male characters” to beat their chests), but when she finally does comes forward, it’s with a cinematic vengeance.
Here’s another soulless, broken female who fights tooth and nail to protect her only remaining connection to humanity. She takes on a fast moving, female zombie in hand to hand combat with such fierce gusto that it actually took my breath away. She’s uncompromising and brutal, all performed with a minimal amount of dialogue, and without one single, gun toting, sexy pose.
Comics writer Greg Rucka penned a great (and also lengthy) article for I09 on why he writes “strong, female characters,” and essentially states that he just writes characters (some whom happen to be female), and does so with consideration, honesty, and respect. We don’t need a moratorium on this overused term so long as we remember to look under the broad canvas for the finer details.
As Linsey Brigman once said in The Abyss, “We all see what we want to see. You have to look with better eyes than that!”