Strong? Weak? How About Women With Agency

feminist1Let’s start off this article with a disclaimer: I’m a feminist. No big surprise there if you’ve been reading my blog, or if you speak to me for anything longer than five minutes. Yet recently being labeled a feminist has meant a great lot of discussion about just what a feminist wants out of their media. Specifically: how do we judge female characters in media and whether or not they should be considered ‘feminist’. Putting aside the difficulty of labeling any work feminist, let’s look at the question at hand without whatever stigma might come with the label feminist. That set? Good, let’s do this.

Articles have been popping up questioning the Bechdel Test as a standard for judging female interactions in a piece of media (be it a book or movie or whatnot). For those that are unfamiliar, the Bechdel Test is a test you can apply to any piece of fiction. To pass the Bedchel Test, a piece of fiction must have:

  1. At least two female characters in it
  2. Who talk to one another…
  3. About something other than men.

Now if this sounds like the bare minimum for acceptable representation of women in fiction – you’re right! Yet so many pieces of fiction, especially blockbusters in film, fail the Bechdel test on a regular basis. Check out this list of 10 Famous Movies that fail spectacularly if you don’t believe me. However now, articles are discussing whether or not the Bechdel Test is honestly enough. One article in question on the Daily Dot counter-supposed that, instead of using the Bechdel Test, we should consider something that has been dubbed the Mako Mori Test, after the character from Pacific Rim. This test states that a film passes the Mako Mori test when:

  1. mako_mori___pacific_rim_by_rhezm-d6eaxhqThe film has at least one female character
  2. Who gets her own narrative arc
  3. That is not about supporting a man’s story.

Now, while I like the idea of this test’s idea, I will counter-point that I believe the character of Mako has her own problems as a female character that are outside of the above test parameters. Fact is, Mako does have her own arc BUT the character is utterly gate-kept in the story by male characters. She plays out the typical patriarchal storyarch with her father figure Pentecost and then is allowed to advance only by the will of the male characters. That is a problem all its own, forgetting the failure of the Bechdel. Still, the above example of this new Mako Mori Test shows that people are looking desperately for a way to expand the discussion about what women have to do in films and how they’re represented.

Enter an article over at The New Statesmen entitled I Hate Strong Female Characters. In it, the author discusses the fact that while male characters are discussed as multi-faceted (using plenty of descriptive adjectives), women are only considered acceptable these days if they can be labeled with the term ‘strong’. Now while its a term I’ve used a lot of times in talking about female characters, I think this article points out a glaring problem: female character portrayals have gone from one kind of flat to another. They’ve gone from being flat damsels who are placed in fiction to perpetuate the male narrative to ‘strong’ women who are flat because they’re not allowed to be anything except strong. I think this argument has its own generalizations, of course – I think a lot of those self-same ‘strong’ characters referenced (Buffy for example, in the top of the article) had their own complexities which are often glossed over by the very audience that proclaims them as flat. However I think it points to the heart of an issue we’re having in feminist discourse: what makes a fictional female acceptable?

I’ve got one word as an answer: agency.

Or, to be more direct: CHOICE.

At the very core of discussions about empowerment for women, we speak about equality, sure. But we also speak about the right to choose. Women want the right to choose their own destinies, to make meaningful choices that are not qualified by the actions of men around them or by the expectations put upon them by society. But inherent to that argument is the notion that women have the right to choose to be whatever they want to be, whether that is classified as what modern society would consider a ‘strong woman’ or not.

This conversation is one I’ve heard echoed in the talks about whether a woman should go out and seek employment over being a full-time mother. Or whether or not women who wear provocative clothing are just perpetuating the stereotype of women as sexual objects for the male gaze. Yet at the heart of these discussions is the fact that women have been fighting for years for the right to make their own choices – so when did it become okay to say that other women could regulate those choices, even if they might be considered by some the ‘wrong’ ones?

It is that fundamental choice that is inherent to the feminist dialogue that is what sets apart a female character from both the two-dimensional ‘strong only’ modern heroines that the above article complains about and the damsels in distress of the past. A female character with choice is fundamentally the inheritor of her own narrative arc because she makes the choices (or is made to choose by her creator). She is empowered to make both good and bad choices and therefore carries her own story. Now whether that story is tied to a male character or not, at least the character is choosing to act towards the male’s interests, as opposed to being just an accessory. If that choice is explicit in the fiction, that is a woman given the opportunity to act and impact, and that sets her apart from the two-dimensionality of the previous examples. That is, in my opinion, a female character I can be proud of.

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