Femininity, Masculinity, and the Strong Female Lead

Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, holding a stakeDebbie says:

Brit Marling’s opinion piece in the New York Times,I Don’t Want to Be the Strong Female Lead,” relies on gender essentialism:

It would be hard to deny that there is nutrition to be drawn from any narrative that gives women agency and voice in a world where they are most often without both. But the more I acted the Strong Female Lead, the more I became aware of the narrow specificity of the characters’ strengths — physical prowess, linear ambition, focused rationality. Masculine modalities of power. …

It’s difficult for us to imagine femininity itself — empathy, vulnerability, listening — as strong. When I look at the world our stories have helped us envision and then erect, these are the very qualities that have been vanquished in favor of an overwrought masculinity.

Simply by coding physical prowess and focused rationality as masculine and empathy and vulnerability as feminine, Marling is replicating the exact binary simplification she wants to move past.  So she’s eliding trans and nonbinary people, as well as human (and character) complexity even in a simple, unreal bigendered world. She comes by that simplification honestly: the polarized division so often controls how we think about men and women (from Mars/from Venus) and certainly determines what we see in movies, television, and other pop culture images.

I emerged from [a success with her microbudget films at] the Sundance Film Festival with offers to act in projects I would never have been allowed to read for a week prior. Most of those roles were still girlfriend, mistress, mother. But there was a new character on offer to me as well, one that survived the story.

Enter, stage right: the Strong Female Lead.

She’s an assassin, a spy, a soldier, a superhero, a C.E.O. She can make a wound compress out of a maxi pad while on the lam. She’s got MacGyver’s resourcefulness but looks better in a tank top.

Here’s the real insight: the Strong Female Lead is a new way to kill women in stories. The old way isn’t used up–the “woman in the refrigerator” trope is hardly dead. But I hadn’t thought about the ways in which stories about kick-ass women can function to make female-identified qualities disappear:

I began to see something deeper and more insidious behind all those images of dead and dying women.

When we kill women in our stories, we aren’t just annihilating female gendered bodies. We are annihilating the feminine as a force wherever it resides — in women, in men, of the natural world. Because what we really mean when we say we want strong female leads is: “Give me a man but in the body of a woman I still want to see naked.”

Here’s a telling story from Marling’s time in an investment bank:

The lone female V.P. on my floor and my mentor at the time gave me the following advice when she left to partner at a hedge fund: Once a week, open the door to your office when they finally give you one, and place a phone call where you shout a string of expletives in a threatening voice.

She added that there doesn’t actually need to be someone on the other end of the line.

My first reaction to Marling’s story was to think of foul-mouthed Chrisjen Avasarala (played on TV by Shohreh Aghdashloo), UN Secretary General  in The Expanse, a terrific example of a woman outside of the stereotypes Marling describes. It’s easy to imagine her getting that advice from a mentor when she was young.  Marling — both on screen and off — is being coerced into performing stereotypical masculinity so she can inhabit a space where she is — sort of — female, but coded male enough to keep men confident that they know how to deal with her, and that it’s fine to imagine her naked.

Marling then goes close to my heart and my history, evoking Octavia E. Butler and her heroine Lauren Olamina, as well as mentioning the work of Ursula K. Le Guin, Toni Morrison, and Margaret Atwood. Lauren Olamina, protagonist of Butler’s Parable of the Sower, is a much more complex character than Marling gives her credit for. Yes, Lauren

has “hyperempathy” — she feels, quite literally, other people’s pain. This feminine gift and curse uniquely prepares her to survive the violent attack on her community in Los Angeles and successfully encourage a small tribe north to begin again from seeds she has saved from her family’s garden.

This is where essentialism falls down. To keep her thesis, Marling can’t say that Lauren is also tough-minded, ready to fight, willing to draw a gun on an enemy, and could easily be filmed as a Strong Female Lead (whom male viewers would love to see naked) while keeping the hyperempathic aspect of her character. Buffy Summers (played by Sarah Michelle Gellar) was one of the early super-popular Strong Female Leads, and she also has schoolgirl crushes, makes stupid decisions to keep men happy, gets entrapped in high-school rivalries … and dies not once but twice in the course of the series.

Avasarala directs the U.N. with an iron hand, never misses a chance to say “fuck,” and is putty in the hands of her extremely sweet husband, the male mirror to her masculine toughness.

Conversely, Luke Cage, the invulnerable African-American Marvel comics hero played on TV by Mike Colter, wants nothing more than to go unnoticed and unchallenged through ordinary days in Harlem. SImply delighting in his invulnerability would make him boring.

So it’s far more complicated, even on the screen, than Marling acknowledges. And yet, she couldn’t be more right about how the stereotypes work, all too often:

Sometimes I get a feeling of what [my nascent woman character] could be like. A truly free woman. But when I try to fit her into the hero’s journey she recedes from the picture like a mirage. She says to me: Brit, the hero’s journey is centuries of narrative precedent written by men to mythologize men. Its pattern is inciting incident, rising tension, explosive climax and denouement. What does that remind you of?

And I say, a male orgasm.

Thanks to Guy W. Thomas for the pointer to the article. Follow me on Twitter.