strong female roles

The Distortion of “Strong Female Roles” in the Media

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Kate Harveston

Not your typical liberal millennial.

When a societal movement works toward change, accurate representation can be key in helping to make that change happen. The modern feminist movement, in part, is working to change how women are represented in the media in the creation of “strong female roles.” This goes beyond wanting to have equally dynamic roles in TV and movies. Attitudes toward women become ingrained in young people based on what they see on TV.

The goal of better representation would be for women everywhere to be able to identify with who they see on screen and not subconsciously set inaccurate standards for themselves. What women see when they watch TV or sit down in a movie theater should show them that they have potential beyond a boxed-in set of standards, narrowly defined by their gender, race, or sexuality.

Unfortunately, the current state of the television and movie industry would tell these young girls otherwise. The amount of strong female representation in TV and movies is already low—and by “strong representation,” I mean movies and shows that meet the Bechdel Test. To pass the Bechdel Test, a movie must meet three simple criteria: 1) it must have at least two female characters, 2) they must talk to each other, and 3) they must talk about something besides a man. Seems simple enough; yet, only 7,513 movies currently meet these very simple standards out of the thousands upon thousands of movies in existence.

Going beyond this, we see that many of the media representations of women that are passed off as “strong” are actually just continuing to play to harmful stereotypes. What is defined as a “strong female” in movies and television is often undercut, especially when the experience of being a woman intersects with other identities.

LGBTQ Women Are Labeled

The media, to varying degrees, has depicted women in the LGBTQ community as either feminine or butch. In reality, there are LGBTQ women who dress and act more masculine, and those who don’t, and that doesn’t automatically say anything about who they are as people.

However, only the women portrayed as butch are seen as strong. This relates back to the common myth that women have to take on male personality traits to be viewed as strong (which I’ll discuss more), and it’s actually really damaging to the LGBTQ community.

Think of the contrast between Boo and Soso in Orange is the New Black. This show has been heralded as a feminist sensation, but it actually includes quite a few damaging female character stereotypes. Boo is what one might classically describe as a “butch lesbian,” and she’s depicted as strong and capable. Soso, on the other hand, is definitely somewhere on the LGBTQ spectrum, but she’s much more feminine than Boo, much less able-bodied, and accordingly, is depicted as weak and air-headed.

Additionally, beyond being underrepresented to begin with, transgender women are also severely misrepresented onscreen. Similar to the butch vs. weak trope, transgender women are usually either depicted as villains or victims in television and movies. One study found that transgender characters were cast in a victim role at least 40% of the time, and as villains or killers in at least 21% of the story lines. Additionally, the common profession they are depicted in is that of sex work. I don’t think I need to explain how degrading that is to a group of individuals that is incredibly diverse and multi-faceted, and should be accurately portrayed as such.

White Women Have to Be Tough

No matter their skin color, all women have the capability to be tough. But in the TV and movies, strong white female characters tend to have to be portrayed as almost masculine in order to be characterized as a “strong female role.” They are generally physically able-bodied — maybe they have some kind of “badass” hobby like martial arts, skateboarding, or an interest in guns.

They also tend to use foul language and do things that reject the typical notions of femininity—such as an avoidance of dresses, pink clothes, makeup, and nail polish. The more like a man a female character is, the more she’s characterized as a strong and independent role model.

Picture Mad Max from Stranger Things 2. She wears boy-like clothes, doesn’t wear make-up or do her hair, skateboards and plays video games, and generally puts up a front of indifference and what we’re supposed to perceive as badassery. She blends in with the male characters around her, and is presented as the girl that all the guys think are cool, but only because she acts like a boy. Many feminist critics believe that Eleven’s character is not much better in this season—she looks strangely boy-like, prefers to spend time with boys, and Season 2 shifts her attire into a more male-driven vibe. These characters are good examples of the stereotypical “strong” white female characters because they’re so much like the boys. By taking away all of these characters’ femininity, they automatically are perceived to have more value.

This is a dangerous trope to continue perpetuating, especially for young girls who will grow up watching a show like this and thinking that in order to be respected by their male peers, they have to give up or hide any of their traits that may be viewed as traditionally “feminine.”

Badass women can wear dresses. Badass women can wear pink. Badass women can cry. Badass women are badass women because, for starters, we’re out here, every day, dealing with the damn patriarchy. And that’s pretty badass in and of itself. But beyond that, women should be depicted as having enough valuable core qualities to carry their characters, beyond just being “tough” and emotionless.

Black Women Always Help White Women

Black women appear to face two common stereotypes attached to their “strong female” media representation — that of the loud and sassy woman who says what she wants, and that of the all-knowing, wise fairy godmother to a white woman.

We’ve all seen the sassy black woman trope. The “independent-black-woman-who-don’t-need-no-man” jokes. Many will laugh it off, but the sassy, funny black woman trope is essentially commodifying an entire race — as well as some of their cultural mannerisms — for laughs, and that’s totally messed up. Think of the “Helen” character on the Nickelodeon hit, Drake and Josh. Her character, a source of frequent comedy on the show, provides us with sassy, punchy one-liners, but she’s not central to the plot at all.

It’s also common that black women are placed in a show or movie specifically to help transform another character’s life. They’re depicted as the advice-giving friends or supporting roles to a central white character. Producers might think they’re portraying black women as smart and full of wisdom — but why can’t they be this, but as leading roles? Why are they consistently reduced to being stuck in a sidekick role?

A good example of this is Nicki Minaj’s sassy assistant character in The Other Woman. Minaj portrays both the sassy trope and the advice-giving black woman trope—but she’s nothing more than a sidekick to Cameron Diaz’s character. Minaj had a chance to break into the movie industry, and, sadly, this director essentially let her down.

Hollywood is essentially commodifying an entire culture, and in America, you can bet this commodification has everything to do with pandering to white audiences. This pandering inadvertently limits a character in a demeaning and incredibly offensive way. Characters shouldn’t have to prove themselves useful to another character to be seen as worthy of an audience’s adoration — a character’s dynamic and intrinsic qualities should be enough to garner the audience’s support and attention.

Latina Women Are Either “Spicy” or “Hood”

Latina women are not left out of the stereotypes that follow supposedly strong female characters. They’re often boxed in as being spicy, which means they always have a punchy one-liner to add to a conversation and don’t like to follow the rules. It’s similar to the sassy black woman trope.

A character who follows this is Gloria Delgado-Pritchett from the TV show Modern Family. She is known for her comedic one-liners and for causing conversational trouble because of her accent. Her character is seen by the general public as strong because she’s funny and likable, but she is really just a rehashing of old Latina stereotypes that undercut any strength her character possesses.

Language and culture should not be used as a ploy for laughs. Again, it’s a shameful commodification of an entire ethnicity, and it comes back to pandering to white audiences.

Another common trope for “strong” Latina characters is that they’re portrayed as “hood.” It’s vaguely similar to the “white women have to be tough” trope, but with a specifically racial aspect attached. They’re seen as strong because they curse and fight and they can hold their own in a man’s world.

For the sake of argument, think of the “Spanish Harlem” in Orange is the New Black. This show has been heavily criticized for poorly representing all their Latina characters as being from the “hood” or “ghetto,” and specifically stereotyping Dominicans.

We Have to Keep Working

Stereotypes are negative across all races, sexualities, and genders, because no one fits perfectly into a box. We are dynamic creatures, and television and movies still have so much work to do where stereotyping is concerned, especially when it comes to minority groups.

It is important that women grow up knowing that they can be strong without conforming to a narrow role that has been predefined for them. What men and the patriarchy behind our media do has no place in defining how strong women can be. Being a woman can mean so many things, and our gender should not limit us. It’s incredibly sad that we are denying actresses the chance to portray fulfilling and impactful roles.

Even worse is the fact that young women are taking in the stereotypes perpetuated onscreen and assuming that they are correct. These stereotypes couldn’t be more inaccurate and disappointing, and Hollywood needs to make serious changes. But until they do, we can write and talk about these issues in the hopes that our young girls will have a chance at growing up understanding what it truly looks like to be a strong woman.

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