Sophia McDougall’s article in the New Statesman is a fascinating analysis of the representation of women in media and literature and yet I baulk at her objection to the characterisation of strong female characters. True, she might have played
to my prejudices a bit but quoting Jane Eyre, personally I think Jane Eyre was a wimp of a woman who should have got herself a fire extinguisher and quit her whinging, Katherine Earnshaw, on the other hand ….. at least she had a bit of go, even if she did make bad choices when it came to men. Katherine Earnshaw was to me a strong female character her was that she was a tomboy, she could match the men, run barefoot across the moors, ride a horse, pack a punch and because of her tomboy tendencies her man-like challenges, she had to be tamed. Finally it was her function as a woman, childbirth, that killed her. Setting aside the raging debate on relative merits of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre I do want to challenge Sophia McDougall on a point or two.
Her analysis on how women are represented today is cogent and effective, she makes strong points particularly with reference to the cartoon and the comic style representations. “Just look at the cast list of 2010’s Salt, say. Angelina Jolie plus dudes.” and it is the role of that character, and others like her and she must represent her gender all in one. However whilst it might be unrealistic to expect such performances to wrangle the representation of all strong women, the reality is that women make up only 17.5% of our executive boardrooms, so that is what life is like – one woman plus a load of dudes.
The definition of strength when it comes to characters from comic books is literal for both male and female, but setting aside Marvel and DC it is in the more subtle representations in media and literature that the strong female character may need a bit of support. SM is not convinced by Kung Fu princesses, or sharp shooting sidekicks to comic book heroes, but I would argue that these are not strong female characters
Sophia McDougall offers a list of the way women should be represented, which does not define them as weak and does not constrain them into being two dimensionally strong and yet I see no contradiction between her description of the women characters she wants to see represented and strong female characters, what I see is the need for many more such representations. The recent controversial television series The Fall featured both woman as victim and woman as strong. The element of the series that featured the murderer disposing of women in their own homes, was disturbing and controversial, some dubbed it “murder porn”, the murderer’s ritual, his contempt, his need and his violence were painstakingly revealed, while women, who would not be considered particularly vulnerable were destroyed by him. Gillian’s Anderson’s detective enters the scene, once again almost the only woman amongst a set of dudes (again likely to be a realistic portrayal, like Jane Tennison before her). She is efficient, sexually active and assertive and she is in charge. She is independent, private and not prone to tears, because any woman in that situation cannot afford to be anything but calm, after all a tearful woman is hysterical, an assertive woman aggressive, an ambitious woman is pushy. That is not so true of another female TV cop, directed by Jane Campion, Elisabeth Moss’s cop in Top of the Lake, does weep, does express herself, is weak, does need help, in fact she ticks every box on Sophia McDougall’s list, but how does that prevent her from being a strong female character. Anyone who is watching the series will know that women in all their forms feature prominently. Victim hood features strongly and it remains to be seen whether the strong female character will resolve the situation in the series both for herself and for the community and victim hood is precisely why we need strong female characters.
The dominate representation of women in current media and literature is one of victim hood. The controlling ideology still projects women as subjugated to men often in appalling ways. Even advertising, despite the fact that 31% of women in the UK are now the bread winners, addresses men about their savings and spending and represents women as those who spend and don’t earn. The formulaic horror film works it’s way through women, the sexually questionable first, followed by the final girl, who may be a bit more feisty, but must nevertheless face suffering and victim hood before success: Ripley (Alien) or more recently Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games).
Perhaps we are interpreting “strong female character” a little too literally. A woman character does not have to be strong physically or mentally, she does not have to be right necessarily, but memorable – possibly? After all, once seen, who can forget Ruth Wilson’s mischievous murderess in Idris Elba’s Luther, she is, no doubt a strong female character because crying and asking for help are not in her repertoire unless it is to manipulate and she certainly gets one in against female victim hood and that, for me, is why we need more strong female characters, of whatever kind, not less. The ideology of woman as victim is so powerful that we need a lot more Salt in our diet to start to chip away at the idea that a woman is an easy target.