Erin Wilhelm writes:
On Sunday, the last day of San Diego Comic-Con 2017, I attended one of the last panels of the con: Moving Beyond the “Strong Female Character”. As a woman and mother of a daughter, I found it an excellent way to wrap up my SDCC experience.
Panelists were women artists, authors, entertainment journalists, and actors, including Sam Maggs (Wonder Women), Amy S. Foster (The Rift: Uprising), Bree Turner (Grimm), Danielle Paige (Dorothy Must Die), Jody Houser (Faith), Jen Bartel (Jem and the Holograms), Alicia Lutes (Nerdist), and Amy Chu (Poison Ivy, Red Sonja).
Each panelist started with introducing themselves and discussing their favorite female characters, some choosing current blockbuster success Wonder Woman, others more classic characters such as Ripley from Alien. One thing all of the characters had in common, though, is that they were portrayed as “strong” or “brave”.
The women of the panel quickly pointed out, however, that portraying female protagonists as always tough, always brave, and always strong is just as one-sided as portraying them as weak and dependent on a man to save them. Multiple women talked about the pressure you encounter when your main character is a member of a marginalized group. There is this feeling that because that group is so rarely represented, any representation must be perfect. That one character must be the perfect representation of the whole group, because you never know when that group will get to be represented again. But, panelists explained, the fallacy of this is that fleshed-out, complicated, interesting characters are rarely perfect. By making characters “perfect” and “representative” of a marginalized group, you take away their humanity; you make them one-dimensional and possibly less interesting to audiences.
Naturally, next the panelists discussed how to fight the urge to make your character perfect. Amy Chu discussed how she likes to think about what audiences expect for her characters Poison Ivy and Red Sonya and then turn the concept on its head, or add a little twist. One example she gave was in a story where Red Sonya finds herself in modern-day New York, instead of being a “fish out of water,” she just adapts and goes about her business like you would expect of any well-traveled character.
A common trope in comics and superhero television shows and films is the female victim. How many comics, television episodes, or movies start out with the completely brutalized damsel in distress? Or the murdered family? Or the threat or depiction of sexual assault? The moderator asked panelists why they think audiences have an appetite for this type of story, and could/should it be done responsibly. Foster brought up Big Little Lies, and how it was filmed without the actors really knowing what was coming next, resulting in real discomfort and fear on the part of the actors. Lutes discussed Game of Thrones, and how the victimization of women appears to be used to further the storyline without showing realistic fallout or trauma from the experience.
Panelists differed on whether or not the depiction of female victims is necessary to storytelling, or who is entitled to tell such stories. Amy Chu refuses to use the victimization of women in her stories, claiming it isn’t necessary. Danielle Paige thought it depends on the way the story is told and whether or not you see the fallout or the negative reaction — anything less would just be using it as a plot device to move the story along. Some panelists claimed it is not okay to tell other people’s stories, while others thought that allies, especially the white men who write a majority of the media we consume, are important.
So what comes next? How do consumers, artists, writers, and marginalized groups increase representation and advocate for the building of complex, whole characters that happen to be female, LGBTQ+, differently abled, and/or persons of color? Alicia Lutes from Nerdist had a twofold answer to this. First, everyone has a responsibility to point out instances in media where people may be “writing someone else’s story”, and in response, advocate for those who may be better qualified to write a story or work on a project. She talked of putting names forward and calling out studios and executives that claim they are using white writers or directors or actors because they “couldn’t find anyone else who was qualified.” But she also made the point that we must not be afraid to criticize works when they do not go far enough. For example, she talked about her review of the movie Wonder Woman and how she took a lot of criticism for only giving it 3.5/5 stars, and the pressure to advocate for something because it is “our one chance.”
This brought up a really important point that everyone on the panel emphasized. When you are a woman, LGBTQ+, a person of color, or differently abled (or producing media about someone who is), the stakes are higher. If your project fails, it is seen as a fail for all artists or characters from that particular group. This adds to the pressure to make your character “perfect,” because you might not get another chance.
For example, male directors that have never released a feature-length film are often given tens of millions of dollars in budget and if the film fails, other male directors aren’t judged for it. However, for women directors such as Wonder Woman‘s Patty Jenkins, even having directed an Oscar-winning film, they’re still seen as “a risk”. If the film had been poorly received, it would have been interpreted as a fail for women directors.
At the end of a four-day marathon of geek culture, movie and television announcements, surprise screenings, and rampant merchandising, this panel was a reality check. We as consumers have a responsibility to both support projects featuring marginalized groups, but also call out studios, executives, writers, producers, and publishers when they don’t go far enough. We can be super excited for the Captain Marvel film, but also be pissed that it took 19 films featuring men before Marvel made one featuring a female lead. We can love Wonder Woman but also point out, as one panelist did, that Diana’s only conversation with a woman outside of Themyscira was about clothing. And we can like Game of Thrones, but as panelist Lutes pointed out, also realize that the Khaleesi “had dragon eggs given to her and flew off on her white privilege.” As consumers of geek culture, we deserve better, and we should advocate for it.