This really is a problem*. Lots of movies have trouble coming up with a strong female character who isn’t just a short man with no personality. The example cited in the post was that of Abigail Whistler in the third Blade movie. She’s my favorite example of a hackneyed “strong female character” who emphasizes “strong” at the expense of “female” and “character”.
She’s a slender teenage girl who fights Vampires in hand-to-hand combat. Her character has no personality to speak of, and she never has anything clever or interesting to say. The lines with power and gravity go to Blade. The witty ones go to her teammate Hannibal. The intelligent ones… Well, I don’t remember any, but if there were they wouldn’t have come out of Abigail’s mouth. All she does is fight. That is, she does the job already being done by the lead character. She can’t upstage him, of course, so she must play the Robin to Blade’s Batman. This still has the effect of neutering his strength, since he’s a huge musclebound vampire and she’s a regular teenage human about 100lbs out of his weight class, yet she’s nearly as tough as he is. You can’t win with a setup like that. Make her too strong, and Blade becomes a joke. Make her too weak, and her character has the opposite of the intended effect – she becomes a sad wannabe who follows Blade around and imitates him as best she can. Either way the character is a liability to the story.
A character like her could work, but she would need to be endearing to the audience. She would need her own arc, (as much-more-interesting Hannibal had) but she can’t because she doesn’t have any depth. She just broods and fights, and Blade already occupies that character archetype. Give her something clever to say. Have her use wacky or devious gadgets instead of mixing it up toe-to-toe. Give her some other angle that makes her unique. Heck, anything, man. Just give her something more than “listens to official Blade soundtrack available at record stores everywhere on iPod while kicking Vampire Butt”. That’s not a personality. That’s something your scrawl in the margins while you’re coming up with her personality. (And then, maybe cross out later. If you’re smart.)
But there are great strong female characters out there. Here are a few of my favorites:
Hermione Granger from Harry Potter
Full disclosure: I’ve only just recently read the first of these books, just to see what the fuss is about. Still, based on the movies Ms. Granger stands out as an excellent character. She’s never a helpless damsel just waiting to be rescued. She’s smart (probably smarter than Ron and Harry) and quick-witted. She stands on her own and never feels like a sidekick. I’ve never seen her used just to make Harry look good.
Kino from Kino’s Journey
Kino is a character who is quiet, thoughtful, and will kick your butt from here til Tuesday if she needs to. I’ve written about her before.
Ripley from Aliens
She is a little uneven as we go from one movie to another, a side-effect of the way the series has been passed around. Each iteration of Ripley is a little different than the one before, but she’s a woman facing one of moviedom’s most fearsome monsters without becoming a helpless screaming woman who needs a man to bail her out. She manages to show fear without seeming weak, and to show courage without breaking character.
Sarah Conner in Terminator
In the second movie she lost a good bit of her depth, but that was understandable given what she’d endured. I liked the take on Sarah in both movies, and thought they formed a great arc of a normal woman pushed to extraordinary lengths. She managed to preserve her motherly nature towards her son, while at the same time nearly losing herself in her quest to stop the machines.
Ha ha. Only kidding. No, the original Catwoman was weak to begin with, and by all reports the movie reduced her to a joke with no punchline. The same probably also applies to Elektra, Aeon Flux, and other similarly dressed female protagonists. Maybe I’m wrong and Elektra was a fount of insight and wisdom and a complex character that challenged the way women view themselves in heroic situations, but odds are low in my estimation. I’m sure you’ll enlighten me if I’m wrong.
(I was going to cite Trinity as another woman who was all spin kicks and no depth, but really everyone in the Matrix trillogy is like that, and it’s part of the style of the movie.)
There are other worthy examples, but “Strongwomen” vastly outnumber “Strong women” in movies and I think it’s a shame. Characters may have great physical prowess or none at all, but they should always be interesting and human. Otherwise it’s just an excuse to see a woman do backflips in leather pants**.
UPDATE: As Woerlan points out below – Yes, I’m talking about a shortage in sci-fi & fantasy, particularly in film.
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