As I write this, I keep peeking at the #YesAllWomen Twitter conversation, where women are explaining what it’s like to live with the constant threat of male violence thanks to misogynistic attitudes that caused a young man to kill seven people and injure several others at UC Santa Barbara. He was angry that women wouldn’t sleep with him. See, we never know if this guy is lurking inside the dude who harasses us on the street or sidles up to us at the bar, so we say, “I have a boyfriend” and grip our keys between our knuckles.
Recently, on a late-night walk with my partner, I thought we’d walked enough and wanted to go home and sleep, but he wasn’t done. He said he could just meet me at home. I said, “Uh, it’s a forty minute walk back on dark streets where no one walks, and I don’t even have my phone or ID. You think I’m walking that by myself?” He does it all the time, so he didn’t think twice about it. Must be nice, I thought, to not live with the kind of fear women live with for good reason.
This isn’t what I want to talk about this week, but I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s constantly under the surface as I do other things. I’m so relieved that people are having this conversation instead of ignoring the reason this guy plainly gave for his actions and the reason women die at the hands of men every day around the world.
But what I want to talk about isn’t totally unrelated.
My subject today is “strong women.” Please, can we stop saying it? Screenwriters and directors who care about female characters just a little more than the average filmmaker use this term a lot. So do the people who interview them, stunned that someone might see women in complex ways. And so do people who want to see more of these women on screen. It’s become shorthand for fully drawn female characters or female-driven stories. I was going to give you a few examples, but there are just so many and if you haven’t come across this term a hundred times in the last year, then you probably don’t have a TV anyway.
It isn’t that I don’t appreciate the sentiment. I get what these people are saying and appreciate what they are doing.
The problem, however, is that the still fairly new idea of making movies with “strong women” implies that such women are a rarity. That there are loads of women out there who are little weaklings just floating around waiting for a big, strong man to reel them in and protect them from all the harsh difficulties of real life. That most women don’t know how to handle life on their own.
What is the male corollary of the strong woman? In film or fiction, it’s just…a man. No one says, “Gee, I love that this director focuses on strong male characters” because that wouldn’t make sense. Men get to be who they are and women, if they are lucky, get to be strong women. I asked my partner to tell me the first thought that came to him when I said “strong man.” He said, “A man in a striped, old-timey bathing suit with a waxed mustache and a heavy barbell.”
Need I say more?
Honestly, I don’t know any women who aren’t strong. Do you? Every woman I can think of–whether family, friend, colleague, or acquaintance–is strong in her own way. I used to work for a nonprofit that housed women who had faced intimate partner violence, sexual assault, addiction, prison and other problems that totally disrupted their lives. Some of them had worked or lived on the streets. Many had lost their children. Nearly all had faced sexual abuse when they were young. You might assume that these were weak women. That might be what you associate with drugs and domestic violence and prison and sex work. But they were the strongest people I’d ever met in my life. Each one was working to overcome a series of debilitating problems that all began when someone they trusted had hurt them in ways many of us couldn’t imagine. They had reached rock bottom and gotten back up. I’d say that’s as strong as it gets.
You don’t have to kick someone’s ass to be strong.
What we really mean when we say a film or TV show has strong women characters is that we’ve been shown a more comprehensive view of those characters’ lives. Someone has taken the girlfriend of the hero and shown us other parts of her life. We can see that every minute of her life does not revolve around the hero, that she has agency, her own concerns and interests and desires. By showing us other sides of the usual narrative, we can see her as the hero of her own life. This isn’t anything special. It’s every day for more than half the world.
We live with the threat of violence every day. And we go about our business anyway. You think we’re not all strong?
A few months ago, I wrote about the importance of reading literature by people who do not identify as men. I should add to that: people who do not identify as straight white men. We get straight white male perspectives through literature, film, TV, music, news, and other media so pervasively that we often fail to recognize the norms we’ve been subjected to over the years and how these norms have affected our lives and our world views.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much diversity to convince us that things have gone too far in the other direction. Studies show that when women and girls are given more time than usual (though still less time than men and boys) to speak, the perception is that they are monopolizing the speaking time. Australian scholar Dale Spender notes, “The talkativeness of women has been gauged in comparison not with men but with silence. Women have not been judged on the grounds of whether they talk more than men, but of whether they talk more than silent women.”
NPR’s All Things Considered recently explored the issue of how we perceive “enough” diversity in Hollywood. Here’s a critical part of Jackie Lyden’s interview with Geena Davis, who founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media in 2004:
DAVIS: We just heard a fascinating and disturbing study, where they looked at the ratio of men and women in groups. And they found that if there’s 17 percent women, the men in the group think it’s 50-50. And if there’s 33 percent women, the men perceive that as there being more women in the room than men.
LYDEN: Oh, my goodness.
DAVIS: So is it possible that 17 percent women has become so comfortable, and so normal, that that’s just sort of unconsciously expected?
LYDEN: Why else, Geena Davis, do these kinds of disparities matter?
DAVIS: What we’re, in effect, doing is training children to see that women and girls are less important than men and boys. We’re training them to perceive that women take up only 17 percent of the space in the world. And if you add on top of that, that so many female characters are sexualized – even in things that are aimed at little kids – that’s having an enormous impact as well.
These figures should make us stop and rethink our assumptions about what we’re seeing, hearing, and reading. As Davis rightly points out, what’s even more disturbing is that the women we typically see taking 17 percent of the space are sexualized, airbrushed, false-eyelashed (What’s with all the spider eyelashes worn by every single woman on screen lately?), etc. They frequently serve as the girlfriend of the main character, a byproduct of his story, a character with no agency of her own.
In 1929, Virginia Woolf wrote about this problem in fiction: “[A]lmost without exception [women] are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen‘s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that.”
Alison Bechdel, the author of the magnificent graphic memoir Fun Home (a must-read that will change the way you see graphic work), devised what is known as the Bechdel Test. A film or TV show passes the test if it contains at least two female characters who talk to each other about something other than men. You can also do a version of this test to watch for people of color talking about something other than white people. It’s certainly lower than the standard we work towards, but it gives us a basic way of determining succinctly whether marginalized people are remotely represented as actual people or simply as resources for straight white men.
One way we can change this is to support movies that bust the norm. Hollywood studios usually balk at spending money on women-driven movies, and even the success of Bridesmaids and The Hunger Games didn’t change that. But The Heat, a buddy cop movie starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, crushed White House Down and opened at $40 million, enough to greenlight a sequel. If we keep supporting movies with strong, funny, determined women, we just might get more of them. And if the percentage of women in movies increases, that might have ripple effects. If women make up higher percentages of people on screen, we might notice where they are missing in our institutions.