Cinematic Discussion: What Makes a Great Female Role Model?
by Brandon Lee Tenney
October 1, 2009
Note: As this cinematic discussion is meant for contemporary audiences, these examples will be equally contemporary. Just as women and men are different, we've all evolved with the times. And one's role model, for the most part, often represents one's contemporary outlook for their future self.
Believe it or not, a man can discuss and write about issues of feminism. While some may be woefully ignorant or just banefully uninterested, take notice, guys, you shouldn't be. And not all of us are -- completely, anyway. So, with that in mind, there's one particular issue of feminism, of the representation of females, that I want to discuss at the moment: What makes a great female role model? (Of course, as localized to the medium of film.) What are the elements of a female character that should be most sought after by writers hoping to create strong, relatable, fleshed-out characters? What makes the characters who imbue those elements great role models? And what are some of the best female role models in film?
Now, over the course of this discussion, you may question some of my choices and definitions -- especially when I begin to list what I think to be some of the best contemporary representations of female role models. So, let's address this impasse immediately: You won't find The Bride or Alice on the list. They're both tough, strong, independent women -- but they're not role models. They're female action heroines, which is fine, but irrelevant to this discussion. It's not that I'm dismissing action heroines outright, as Genevieve so graciously pointed out to me:
"Female action heroines [can be] good female role models. They are (except for cases where they are overly sexualized for the male gaze) heroines not defined by their sex but by their goals and motivations. Trinity and Lara Croft are focused on action and are on missions for their own reasons. Any action hero, because of the nature of the character, are interchangeable between the sexes. The very definition of the story and character are focused on morality/justice/higher ideals, not the petty everyday humdrum of relationships that would lend itself to binary sexual identification of characters."
The above is a great defense of the action heroine as a female role model. And I agree with Genevieve's points. The action hero is usually a masculine role (even Ripley was once written to be a man), but it's something females can fulfill as well. And that, for sure, is worthy of being called a role model. Though, their inclusion will cease henceforth.
A role model, as I'll be using the term, is someone whose behavior, attitude, or success should be emulated, especially by those younger than she. Do I want my daughter to look up to The Bride or emulate Trinity or long to be Lara Croft? No. All three of them are feminine forces to be reckoned with, for sure, but they're forces meant to be, for the most part, relatable to the men rather than the women in the audience. I suppose the best way to begin to define just what makes a great female role model on film is to first define what does not.
So, firstly, I'd say if the role is an object and/or more relatable to men than women, that's not a great role model. The very conceit of populating a film with a female roles that are objects of desire (for both the men on screen and off) undermines the characters ability to connect on any level deeper than the unfortunately usual thought that women are for men to chase. Second, if a female character is, herself, chasing after a man throughout most of the film and that's the direct reason for most of her actions throughout the film, a role model she is not. If a female character is only there to be chased after by a man and though she may resist at first, but then realizes that he's what she's wanted all along -- not a role model. If a female character could easily be changed into a male character, she's definitely not a role model. We're different after all, women and men. So, during the development process of a script, if the words "that character there could be a girl" are ever uttered, what is actually being said is "we need more boobs." And that's not something to be proud of.
The above are just the main tell-tale signs of superficial female roles. And, for the most part, the female roles in rom-coms and action movies and sappy romances usually fall into one of the above categories. They also have something else in common: for the most part, these roles can be found in movies that are rated R or are at least intended for adults. On one hand, this makes sense as role models are most necessary for younger, more impressionable audiences. But on the other, doesn't everyone, always, no matter their age need a role model? Though, that's a discussion for another time. So, when looking at some of the most well written, best female role models, I was drawn to characters that are accessible to a younger demographic. And my criteria, if it were to be boiled down to its nucleus, is the question, "Would I want my daughter to follow in her footsteps?"
Hitting theaters on October 2nd of this year, Drew Barrymore's directorial debut Whip It has a couple stellar examples of what makes a great female role model, but it's the main character who is most representative. Bliss is at the perfect age to explore her self-agency and growth beyond the insular family unit. The internal struggle between what has always been expected versus who she's becoming, wants to become -- basically the movement from child to adult. Over the course of the film, Bliss enacts more and more control over herself and struggles with how she's always been perceived versus how she wants to be. Though not all of her actions are admirable, it's her imperfections that make her worthy of emulation. Striving to become one's own person, succeeding at and following through with one's goals, and focusing on what makes her, specifically, happy -- these are all elements of great weight. Choosing one's own path, following one's dreams is an admirable trait and Bliss is very much a great role model.
For many of same reasons as above, Coraline, the titular character from Henry Selick's stop-motion film, is also a great example. Struggling to relate to her new surroundings and her family while attempting to venture out on her own, she's a character who's rich with merit.
My next example is the character Evelyn Carnahan (played by Rachel Weisz) from The Mummy. Though The Mummy is ostensibly an action film and Carnahan is an action heroine, she's strong and intelligent and a great female role model in ways that most other action heroines are not. She's fun and ambitious and is usually the one in control. Her brains are what allow her to succeed, not her brawn, and she's able to embark on a relationship without losing herself to her significant other. In The Mummy Returns she's an excellent mother and an equal to her spouse; challenging and adventurous and understanding. A great role model, and a rare representation of a character that is able to connect with all ages.
This next film's characters are not only good role models, but also stand pretty much alone amidst a group of mostly male characters over this company's entire filmography. Pixar has been chastised in the past for their lack of female characters, and rightfully so, but with The Incredibles the company at least attempted and to some degree succeeded in creating a couple memorable female role models. Again, for many of the same relatable reasons as Bliss and Coraline, Violet is a great (though less deep) character. Her struggle with her self-confidence and embracing her talents and what makes her unique is an issue that I was happy to see explored. The equitable relationship between Helen and Bob Parr (Elastigirl and Mr. Incredible) is equally refreshing. Especially Helen's struggle with finding the courage to reclaim the woman she once was before her family and the confidence she gained from doing so. Though these issues are definitely not at the forefront of the film, both of these female roles are memorable and worthy of discussion.
The last example I'll provide is somewhat disputed. Hermione Granger of the Harry Potter films has elements that are certainly fit for emulation. Her ambition and intelligence and focus are all great traits. Her confidence amidst her peers is as well. In the most recent film, Half-Blood Prince, the conflict and representation of her character's burgeoning love life is honest and heartfelt and rings true. But, as David Ehrlich pointed out via Twitter, "Her blind ascription to a mirthless set of values shows a weak personality and suffocates any sort of fun out of her." And he's right. She's unwavering and most often unyielding. The rules and ambitions she abides show no flexibility and are, for the most part, her personality. There are glimpses of something more in Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince (and, having read the books, she cements herself as a definite role model at the series conclusion), but there are only pieces of her that qualify thus far.
More representative of a great female role model in the Harry Potter series is Ginny Weasley (seen in the top photo). She's shown taking full agency over her own sexuality, she's athletic and strong, she's accomplished and smart and driven, she's fearless and resolved, but flexible. Though her presence is somewhat lacking in the films, she remains a great role model.
The above are just a few of my contemporary examples. Examples of strength and ambition, self-confidence and sexual agency, determination and intelligence, able to define one's self without the presence of a male counterpart and engage in equitable relationships without losing one's self in the process. Which characters that are not mentioned fit this criteria? Which characters would you most readily show your daughters? Princess Leia? Dana Scully? Ellen Ripley? Sarah Connor? Or is my definition of a great female role model in need of revision? It's your turn. And please, leave your misogyny and chauvinism out of the text box.