A Call for Female Heroes in Film
Female lead characters on screen have been around for a long time, possibly since the beginning of film history, but what I am concerned with here is the portrayal of those females as heroic: strong, mobile, and most importantly agents of their own destiny. Too often, female characters are reduced to love interests for male main characters, or to victims of unfortunate circumstances outside of their control. This is especially true of mainstream American films, where even the ‘heroic’ woman’s major purpose is to be a sexualized object of the male gaze. (Note: The male gaze is not necessarily male, but actively desiring, not identifying with, the visual image. See Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.)
A prime example would be Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001). We’ve all seen characters like Lara (Angelina Jolie) before—the tight clothes wearing, gigantic breasted, pistol wielding, flying kicking female action hero who is absolutely a badass in her own right, I don’t deny it, but she is also shallow. Her character exists primarily as a visual spectacle, and secondarily as what we normally think of as ‘character’: emotionally on a level we can relate to. Lara’s physical traits preside over any others she might have, and this sets up unrealistic and misguided expectations for girls looking to grow up to be her. Though this film has come a long way from the days of the silent and immobile or treacherous and seductive females of the past, it still has a long way to go before it can truly present a role model for females (the sequel didn’t really take it much farther).
Other recent movies of this type:
Underworld (2003) and Underworld: Evolution (2006)
Æon Flux (2005)
There is no such thing as a perfect role model, but I have definitely seen better. V for Vendetta (2005) provides one of my favorite female protagonists in Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman), a young woman who, after being orphaned at a young age, manages to make it on her own working at a TV station in a dystopian, borderline fascist England. She is strong, intelligent, and self-sufficient, but most importantly we identify with her throughout the story. Her feelings are very real to us, and quickly become far superior to her image on screen. It was surprising to me, when I read the graphic novel that the film is adapted from, to learn that Evey’s character was originally a prostitute, barely making her way on the streets before V comes to her rescue. Not to insult Alan Moore, who is an absolutely genius writer of graphic novels, but I found the gender dynamics of the film to be much more acceptable, with Evey and V at more equitable levels.
Contemporary American films with strong, deep female lead characters in genres other than the romance are hard to come by, but foreign films tend to get outside of Hollywood formulas and provide truly interesting female heroes. My personal favorite female is Lola (Franka Potente) from Run, Lola, Run (1998). This film, in my opinion, is a revolution in gender politics as well as so many other things, and if you take one thing away from this article I would hope that it would be a desire to see it. A close second would be Amélie (Audrey Tatou) from Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain. All of the characters in this wonderful film are brilliantly quirky, and Amélie is no exception.
As a closing note I’d just like to take a moment to point out that I am not a feminist (though Laura Mulvey certainly was, and some of this was her idea), but I do believe that female characters deserve to be represented as just as strong, interesting, or deep as male characters, because all characters deserve to be well written. I once wrote an essay on an exam about how I thought The Matrix (1999) should have had a female lead. Next time you see a film with a male hero, ask yourself, why couldn’t it have been a girl?