Framing the Conversation Around Women Heroes

It’s been a while, but I’m still kind of angry about this post.

It isn’t the premise of the post that upsets me. Absolutely, Furiosa is a unique breed of action heroine who manages to do a lot of new and really exciting things, just as Mad Max: Fury Road is an action movie that managed to prove that the objectification of women is not integral to a good action movie. (We are not things, indeed.) However, where the post and I run into problems is the way it chose to talk about that innovation, specifically in relation to other female heroes – and how that choice feeds into an existing and extremely insidious dialogue about heroines in our culture.

That dialogue goes something like this: “That heroine is not good enough and insufficiently feminist because she is too sexy, or too frigid, or too young.” It is the kind of discourse that seems to propose one “correct” kind of female hero, instead of a multiplicity of diverse types. Others have written about the ways that female characters are made to bear an incredible amount of weight in terms of the role they play and the expectations placed on them (for instance, see this article on the portrayal of Black Widow in Age of Ultron). There is also a history of reception that is much harder on female characters than on male characters. Male characters are allowed to be unlikeable, for instance, in a way that female characters seldom are. Essentially, much as real life women are expected to be everything at once (smart, pretty, accomplished, sexy, but none of these in excess), we put the same expectation on our fictional women.

The linked post categorizes female heroes into three discrete categories: The Sexpot, the Ice Queen, and the Girl Hero. While this division could be meant to reflect the limited roles that women are allotted within media, it also, unfortunately, does so by playing into a critique of media disguised as feminism that in reality just ends up limiting the field of “acceptable” roles for women to play. The post also ignores the complexity of the characters that it is comparing to Furiosa, reducing them to simplistic narrative positions with, frankly, sexist language. Thus Black Widow by virtue of being the only woman on the Avengers is a sexpot (calling to mind the numerous, mostly male reviewers whose sole comment on Scarlett Johansson’s performance was to note that she wore a catsuit) and Katniss, the impoverished and starving daughter of a coal miner, is a Teenage Waif. The complexity of both characters – and the importance of the ways in which they, too, challenge gender roles – is ignored in order to serve the point that Furiosa is new, fresh, different, and (implicitly) better. The writer claims that “the point is not that these tropes, in and of themselves, are wrong. It’s that they’re often all there is” but the use of terms like “Sexpot” and “Ice Queen” suggest otherwise.

When I first saw the post, it reminded me of nothing so much as the conversation around the push for a Black Widow movie that claimed that she was a bad candidate for a movie because she’s a weak character, or anti-feminist, or a bad role model. The people making this argument tended to claim that they were making it in the name of feminism, even holding up an alternate heroine: Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel. This in spite of the fact that most of the people campaigning for a Black Widow movie would be delighted to have a Captain Marvel movie as well, because the MCU shouldn’t be limited to one female-led movie to twenty male-led films.

The point isn’t that Furiosa isn’t an awesome heroine, or that I’m not excited to see a heroine that breaks the mold in the important ways detailed by the post. The point is that when we set female characters in opposition to each other, seeking to find the “right kind” that is a flawless feminist role model, everybody loses. No one female character should be expected to bear all the hopes and expectations of a broad swath of the population. Representation doesn’t just mean having one or two “model” female heroines and creating a new model from them. It means variety. It means expanding the definition of what a female hero can look like.

And above all, it means not buying into the dismissive categorization of women as Sexpots, Ice Queens, or Waifs. The roles of women in Hollywood are limited, true – but denigrating the heroines we have achieves very little, while giving permission for sexism to creep back into media criticism, this time under the guise of feminism.

I don’t want that. I suspect the original writer of the linked post doesn’t want that either.

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