Saturday, June 21, 2014

What I'd Like to See from Hollywood

This week I came across an interesting article, We're Losing All Our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome.  The author, Tasha Robinson, names this Hollywood phenomenon after the female character "Trinity" in The Matrix:

[T]he Strong Female Character With Nothing To Do [like Valka in DreamWorks’ How To Train Your Dragon 2is becoming more and more common. The Lego Movie is the year’s other most egregious and frustrating example. It introduces its female lead, Elizabeth Banks’ Wyldstyle, as a beautiful, super-powered, super-smart, ultra-confident heroine who’s appalled by how dumb and hapless protagonist Emmet is. Then the rest of the movie laughs at her and marginalizes her as she turns into a sullen, disapproving nag and a wet blanket. .  . Her only post-introduction story purpose is to be rescued, repeatedly, and to eventually confer the cool-girl approval that seals Emmet’s transformation from loser to winner. . . This is Trinity Syndrome à la The Matrix: the hugely capable woman who never once becomes as independent, significant, and exciting as she is in her introductory scene. 
From there, of course, I had to read the link to an August 2013 New Statesman Article called "I Hate Strong Female Characters" by Sophia McDougall, which defines "strong female characters" and identifies the real problem with their ubiquitous appearance in modern Hollywood films:
They're still love interests, still the one girl in a team of five boys, and they’re all kind of the same. They march on screen, punch someone to show how they don’t take no shit, throw around a couple of one-liners or forcibly kiss someone because getting consent is for wimps, and then with ladylike discretion they back out of the narrative’s way. . . What do I want instead of a Strong Female Character? I want a male:female character ratio of 1:1 instead of 3:1 on our screens. I want a wealth of complex female protagonists who can be either strong or weak or both or neither, because they are more than strength or weakness.
All of this got me to thinking.  There is a lot more of this kind of thing going on in Hollywood films than just strong female characters, with or without Trinity syndrome.  And by "this kind of thing" I mean unoriginal, uninventive, follow-what-everyone-else-is-doing plots, characterizations and inter-relationships that I'm getting a little tired of.  I would say it's all about the tyranny of "what will sell," but I think it's even worse than that. It's the tyranny of "what we have seen sell already, and we're afraid to risk trying anything different."

So here's my list of what I wish Hollywood would try.  Maybe they'd lose some money on some of these efforts, but the fact is that lots of films lose money anyway despite sticking with "what we have seen sell already."  Part of what sells really is inventiveness, and I know Hollywood knows that.  So maybe it would be more worthwhile to take bigger risks, than to keep churning out the same sort of thing over and over.

A few disclaimers before I start:

A.  I know there are exceptions.  I know there have been one or two examples of some of these kinds of movies that actually have been made, some of which have done very well with moviegoers. But they've been very rare.

B. I know I'm not a professional or an expert, and maybe it's a little presumptuous of me to tell Hollywood moguls how to do their jobs.  But I have been a member of the moviegoing public all my life, and thus one of their target audience in the various demographics I have belonged to over the years, right?  So maybe my opinion does count for something. . .

C.  I am a white, middle-class, heterosexual, cisgender, Christian married person with kids.  I understand that I'm privileged in many ways, and that a great many more Hollywood movies are made with people like me and my family as the target audience than many people could ever hope to expect.  But that's part of why I do want to see some of the things on this list-- because I don't think only the privileged should have movies made that aim to please them, and the very fact that so many of them are aimed at people like me seems to be contributing to their sameness.

So with all that said, here's my list.

I'd Like to See a Movie About:

1.  A smart, adventurous young man who is black, and his best friend and sidekick, who is white.

2.  A group of kids having an adventure, in which the leader and her best friend are girls and there's one, and only one, boy in the group who is pretty much just along for the ride.  Bonus points if the girls are black, Hispanic or Asian and the boy is white.

3.  A woman over 35 who is not portrayed as someone's mother, but who gets to be in love with a male character her own age.  Bonus points if she's got some extra pounds on her.  Extra bonus points if she's the main character.

4.  An "ugly" female character in a movie on the theme of beauty, who is not actually a gorgeous woman wearing thick glasses.  Bonus points if the film doesn't end with her taking off the glasses, letting down her hair and putting on some makeup to show the audience that she's a real woman after all.

5.  A senior woman who is not portraying someone's grandmother.  Or Miss Marple.

6.  A senior, man or woman, who is the main character in a movie that is not about being old.  Bonus points if he or she is a person of color in a movie that's not about prejudice.

7.  A superhero movie where the main super-protagonist is female, and of color.  Bonus points if she's the leader of a group of superheroes.

8. Any nerdy character who doesn't have to stop being nerdy by the end of the film, either by getting the "cool" makeover or by winning the "cool" date.

9.  An Asian character (in an American-made film) who is not super-smart and super-good at school, but has other traits that render him or her a fully developed character.  Bonus points if he or she is the main protagonist and leader.

10.  A female character who is not, and does not end up, in a relationship.

11. A retelling of a myth or fairy tale that does not come from the Western European tradition.

12.  Gay, lesbian and/or transgender character(s) in a movie that is not about being gay, lesbian or transgender.

13. Person(s) with disabilities in a movie that is not about overcoming disabilities.

14.  Last but definitely not least, an Elfquest movie.  That is, a movie based on a comic book series that isn't about superheroes and which is written and drawn by a woman.

So there's my list. Would anyone like to add anything of their own?


Tigs said...

"1. A smart, adventurous young man who is black, and his best friend and sidekick, who is white"

I was thinking about this the other day! Due to how much The Winter Soldier annoyed me.

MrsGrizzley said...

#10 Frozen. Queen Elsa not only does not want a relationship, from what I hear (at least a romantic one), she doesn't end up in one simply for a plot.

#11 Mulan

#12 From what I hear, there's one in How to Train Your Dragon 2... but I don't know if it's JUST a subtext sort of thing or if they're actually running with it.


Some of these others I might see if I can get around to writing... but a story isn't a movie and I dunno if I'll ever be in a position to influence that part of it.

Suzanne said...

I would watch all of those movies. I want to see them, too!

Kristen said...

Thanks, everyone!

Mrs. Grizzley, those are actually some of the exceptions I had in mind when I wrote disclaimer "C". It's kind of fun to think of exceptions. For instance, Catwoman is an exception to #7, although it was also a pretty bad movie. And Maleficent is an exception to #10 as well (though there is a love interest in the movie, she does not end up in a relationship), and it's really good.

Any other exceptions that anyone has noticed?

the Old Adam said...

I'd like to see all the movies they made before 1965.

TCM has them. So many are terrific.

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

I knew, the moment I saw the title, that Elf Quest would come up!

5. A senior woman who is not portraying someone's grandmother. Or Miss Marple.

Helen Mirren is my favorite part of both R.E.D. movies. Maggie Smith is amazing in the Harry Potter films!

Anonymous said...

Some women are thin. Even after kids. Even after 35. Even without dieting.

Kristen said...

Anonymous, Yes- some women are thin, and those are the ones we see in movies. Women who are not thin almost never get movie parts, no matter what their age, so I'm not sure-- how does your comment apply to the topic?

Unknown said...

I'll admit that I really like some of these ideas- 1, 8, 11, and 12 in particular- but I would like to raise a comment. I'm an aspiring author, myself, and I've found that there are really three things you need to make a successful creative work. (And let's be honest, if it's not successful at least in monetary terms, then you're going to be in a rough patch, especially for movies!)

First, the story has to resonate with you. As Christians, we know that it's out of the treasures of our hearts that we speak, and if we don't have the raw material, we can't make a good story. Second, the story has to resonate with the audience. Sometimes you manage to strike a chord that no one could have predicted, but by and large, the story has to be approachable enough that people want to go for it. And lastly... well, the story has to be compelling.

Why do I say all of this? Well, for a lot of the above points you make, the reason they appear so often is because they work. Storytelling is often about using well-known symbols or plots and weaving a narrative around it. If you're not going to do that, you have a much harder road to travel, and if you don't have the material to work with yourself? That's a nightmare.

To give an idea, I'm a gay Christian, who loves mythology and am pretty much the biggest geek ever. So I could make some great stories from 12, 11, or 8. But if you were to ask me to make a story for 13, or indeed any of the female stories? That'd be a much harder task. I can't relate to it as easily, and whatever I wrote would be from an 'outside' perspective.

...and, of course, there's also the strong negative of, if you try and fail, you will get a lot more negative attention than if you're just a part of the herd. So that makes it a much dicier proposition to go for.

Not saying that it shouldn't be done, or that it isn't- I'm encountering a fair few authors on Twitter who are working on bringing a broader range of characters and symbols into being- but it is a slow process, and still in its nascent phases.

So... be patient with us creative types as we muddle through the messy process of creation, yeah? And especially be kind if we try and fail. That said, I think you'll start seeing more of this as time goes on. At the least, from folks like me who fit into more than one of those categories, I think you'll start seeing some more differentiation. Just, again, it's a slow process, mm? :)

Kristen said...

Benjamin, thanks for the input! And I think you're quite right. But the problem is not so much that there are no authors out there who can write from these other perspectives. The problem is that those who can, are being marginalized. As for people connecting to the stories-- well, the movie industry needs to stop acting like the only audiences worth reaching (or who will pay) are white, straight, and middle class.

Unknown said...

Likewise, thank you for the response. Just recently discovered your blog, and finding it very thought-provoking. :)

I will admit that there is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem there. Pardon me shifting creative fields here, but I'm also a gamer (I know, I know, I'm sorry! *laughs*) and you do see largely the same problem in that field too. If I may link to an article that discusses it a bit (, you can kind of see why the bigger players in any such industry are a bit afraid to move. It's not just risky, stats right now are that their concerns are actually valid.

Which means that big players aren't going to move until it's proven that it's a move with a strong possibility of an upside... which they won't do until somebody moves. Frustrating, mm?

I guess I'm saying these points, in an odd way, to be optimistic. Society tends to make small moves until suddenly there's a seismic shift and things change. Right now, I think we're seeing the small moves- bit characters to safely explore the above categories, smaller players taking more risks with them, and so on- and before too long... I think we will start seeing more such stories on big screens/big books/etc.

Or to put it another way... you keep calling for these stories, we'll keep making them, and I think we'll both be surprised by how quickly it all changes. (After all, you yourself prove that white/straight/middle class people want other kinds of stories, so it's not like demographics are a ball and chain! :) ) Of that, I'm firmly convinced, even if it's frustrating to see how it's slowed down at the moment.

Kristen said...

That's a very interesting article, Benjamin! And you make good points. I'm a geek myself (bookworm and Elfquest fan, though not a gamer). I might point out,though, that while gaming, like comic books, is a niche market that might have some justification for being afraid to open itself to new audiences which still might not start using the product even if it's marketed explicitly to them, the movie industry really doesn't have this excuse. They've got much less reason not to make movies for other demographics than middle-class whites who are mostly male.

Unknown said...

Hm, that is a good point, I suppose. Movies are ubiquitous, moreso than games or comics, and so those points might not be quite as applicable. Certainly, we do see a lot more minority main characters nowadays than we used to, with no corresponding decrease in sales, so...

I admit I hadn't really considered that point fully. Definitely in agreement that movies have less of an excuse.

Kristen said...

I've noticed a couple of movies this year have answered a couple of points on my wish list. "Earth to Echo" is about three boys in a sci-fi adventure-- and the leader is a black boy. "Book of the Dead" is a fairy tale movie about the Mexican Day of the Dead, and thus is not from a traditional Western European story.

Has anyone else noticed any new movies that answer my list?