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?
Do you watch television? I’m sure many of you don’t, and I get that. We don’t have cable because we’re not interested in being sucked into TV all the time, but we do watch some. We catch the big cable shows later on Netflix or DVD, and I watch a few network shows in addition to PBS. I often like to follow a good story and compelling characters while I’m knitting a scarf or folding my laundry or painting shutters (which we have too many of), so I don’t care so much about whether the medium is film or TV. Plus, television is a great place for women these days, far better than film.
I’m not going to pretend that these shows are ideal. Or that even their feminism is ideal. But I appreciate the changes I’ve noticed in television the past couple of years, especially the increased focus on narratives of women of color. It’s not just women actors who are benefitting from these changes. I’m also noticing more women writers and directors. Yes, women directed some of your favorite episodes of Breaking Bad and Mad Men. One of my favorites is Agnieszka Holland, who directed episodes of The Wire, Treme, and The Killing. Then there’s Deadwood, the filthy, brilliant western, with an unusually high number of shows written by women. Even if the popular cable epics aren’t strong on complex women characters–where’s our female Walter White, Don Draper, or Tony Soprano?–women are increasingly making decisions behind the scenes.
Here are a few of the shows I’m watching because they feature fantastic women characters, especially women of color, and they’re entertaining.
If you watch TV, how have you not become one of Olivia’s gladiators? It’s such a relief to see a strong black woman as the center of a show. Olivia Pope is a game changer for women in TV, a sharp, sophisticated political genius who fixes every problem Washington, D.C. throws at her. Her team will do anything for her, and men keep risking their careers to be with her. I tire of Olivia’s star-crossed love with Fitz (aka, Mr. President) because it occasionally turns her into a wobbly pool of jello, but all the other scenes make up for it. Plus, Olivia Pope, the fixer, is based on a real black woman, Judy Smith, America’s #1 Crisis Management Expert.
Have I told you how much I love Kerry Washington? She proudly identifies as a feminist and womanist, actively engages in politics, and talks wisely about important issues in interviews. And this season’s addition of Lisa Kudrow as Fitz’s opponent in the upcoming election is divine. As Congressperson Josie Marcus, Kudrow recently got to deliver a whopping, off-the-cuff feminist speech that shames the sexism of her opponents and the media so deliciously that it must be right out of Hillary Clinton’s fantasy world. It doesn’t hurt that the show was created by Shonda Rhimes, herself a black woman who happens to be one of the most successful show runners in the business.
Mindy Kaling didn’t just play Kelly Kapoor on The Office; she was also one of the writers and directors. Then she published Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns). And then she created The Mindy Project: she produces, directs, writes, and stars in this sitcom about Mindy Lahiri, a successful OB/GYN trying to figure it all out in New York. She’s the very first South Asian-American woman to have her own show. Her character is confident about her work, loves her body, and says what she thinks. And she’s Hindu. And she’s sex-positive.
Kaling and the show have had to deal with some backlash, and there have been some weird moments. But I’m holding on because there are many more smart moments and her character is really new and fresh. The show’s heavy on the cameos, but some of the best episodes involve Anders Holm, of Workaholics, as Mindy’s boyfriend. The two have great chemistry, and their tent scene in “Take Me With You” of Season 1 had me giggling for days. The Mindy Project also rescued Adam Pally, whom I’d been missing since Happy Endings was canceled.
Additionally, I love how Kaling has been calling out the sexist, racist, and image-obsessed media lately. She’s tired of being asked about her weight and her ethnicity instead of her work. If you need more of a reason to like her, check out Lena Dunham’s interview with Kaling for Tavi Gevinson‘s Yearbook 2.
This show is a total guilty pleasure. My sister and I text each other in the midst of it: “Did she really do that?” “But how is he alive?” “Noooooooo!” Like Scandal‘s over-the-top plot lines, Revenge is designed to be somewhat absurd. That’s what makes it fun, especially when Emily Thorne (Emily VanCamp) comes face to face with her nemesis, Victoria Grayson (Madeleine Stowe, who is active in women’s rights, by the way).
Emily is secretly destroying virtually every evil rich person in the Hamptons, and I love it when the girl next door kicks ass (see Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Now, I don’t normally like revenge stories because I think revenge is a useless concept, but this is basically an evening soap opera. And we frequently see the downside of vengeance with deaths and broken friendships. Emily comes complete with ninja skills, a mentor who trained her at a revenge school(!) in Japan, a British revenge companion, and an endless supply of complicated emotions.
One of the best parts of this show, however, is Nolan, Amanda’s closest friend, confidante, and partner in crime, played by Gabriel Mann. A tech genius and hacker, Nolan is equally sweet and sly, and he’s bisexual. Those around him treat his sexuality as completely normal, not batting an eye when he goes from pining over Padma to falling hard for Patrick. Yes, television, you can have characters with diverse sexualities and not make their stories all about said sexualities.
So what would you add to this list? Or remove?