About 18 minutes into the following Nerd HQ* panel, a woman in the audience asks “I want to know how all of you feel about the trope of the ‘Strong Female Character’ and what parts of it that you try to celebrate with your work, and what parts you try to subvert?”
This “Badass Women” panel features Yvonne Strahovski (Chuck), Retta (Parks and Recreation), Missy Peregrym (Stick It), Jennifer Morrison (Once Upon a Time), Ming-Na Wen (Marvel: Agents of Shield and Mulan), and Sophie Turner (Game of Thrones). These ladies are great choices for such a panel, and I love it that they include Retta, whose character on Parks and Rec does not kick ass in the same way that Chuck‘s Sarah or Agents of Shield‘s Melinda May might. But I think that they miss the point of the audience member’s question (or at least, my interpretation of it). They address some important questions–Retta discusses the misconception that audiences don’t like strong, assertive women–but I felt unsatisfied when they moved on to the next question. It made me wonder how audiences may not realize just how problematic the “Strong Female Character” trope, and other supposedly “progressive” tropes regarding women in media, can be.
There are so many tropes and tests that exist in the world of critiquing portrayals of women in media. There’s obviously the Bechdel Test, which most readers are probably familiar with. It’s a pretty simple test, inspired by a comic of Alison Bechdel’s.** The comic made a joke that it was impossible for a character to see movies anymore, because none passed her “test”:
1. The film must feature at least two named female characters.
2. Those two female characters must talk to each other at some point.
3. They must talk about something other than a man.
Some have argued that the test is too simplistic, but that’s kind of the point. You would think it would be easier for films to pass this test considering its simplicity. Many big budget films do not pass, but there is hope. Here’s a nifty infographic on The Bechdel Test’s usefulness in showing what audiences are actually interested in seeing (ie; representations of realistic female relationships, in addition to explosions):
Beyond this well-known test, there’s the Sexy Lamp Test***, The Smurfette Principle, and Trinity Syndrome. The Smurfette Principle is defined by TV Tropes and Feminist Frequency as “The tendency for works of fiction to have exactly one female amongst an ensemble of male characters, in spite of the fact that roughly half of the human race is female.” The principle applies to an unfortunate number of kids movies, but is also a problem in more adult films:
The Bechdel Test and the Smurfette Principle are important things to keep in mind when watching movies, but it’s Trinity Syndrome that I think is the most relevant to the Nerd HQ panel. Trinity Syndrome is particularly sneaky, and it addresses my issues with the “Strong Female Character” trope head-on. As far as I can tell, Trinity Syndrome was coined in the article “We’re Losing All Our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome.” Stop reading my blog and go read this article now.
Seriously. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Okay. You read it? No? *sigh* I’ll explain. In the article, Tasha Robinson discusses How to Train Your Dragon 2 at length, and how Hiccup’s mother Valka is a victim of Trinity Syndrome. Now, I love How to Train Your Dragon (I’m a sucker for kids’ movies that aren’t afraid to deal with dark themes), and overall I thought the sequel was great. But Robinson makes an excellent point in her article: Where did Valka’s plot go? She was built up as this really interesting character, and a powerful woman with a deep understanding of dragons. She’s vastly different from a typical mother figure–it’s stunning to watch her bond with Hiccup in a way traditionally reserved for fathers in kids’ movies. And then…nothing. Valka comes down with a bad case of Trinity Syndrome. Hiccup’s plot and character growth moves forward, and Valka is left behind. She has little do to in the final battle scene, other than to get rescued by the men folk. Robinson also talks a lot about Wyldstyle from The LEGO Movie (who also fits into the Smurfette Principle), Tauriel in The Hobbit, and many more allegedly “Strong” female characters.
So what does this have to do with The Matrix‘s Trinity? Well… Name one character trait of Trinity’s that is not “BAMF,” “Good at martial arts,” “Good with guns,” or “In love with Neo.” Go ahead, I dare you. All of her personality traits boil down to looking sexy while kicking ass and pushing Neo’s plot forward. Yet, the audience is supposed to see her as a “Strong Female Character,” someone who positively represents women in film. Hollywood promotes films featuring “strong” female characters on the cover, smugly thinking to themselves “Now those crazy feminists have nothing to complain about. See? We’re writing powerful women.”
But to me, a “powerful” woman is someone who has more depth to her than revenge and leather. In another great article on this trope, Sophia McDougal points out that male characters are held to higher standards, using Sherlock Holmes as a primary example. Sure, Holmes, especially in his Robert Downey Jr. phase, is a physically strong character. But he’s much more than that. If you were asked to assign character traits to Mr. Holmes, you’d probably come up with “genius,” “rude,” or “awkward” if you’re using the Benedict Cumberbatch model, before you’d hit “strong.” McDougal writes about trying to fit male characters into a “Strong Male Character” box like we do with women, and says “The ones that fit in the most neatly–are usually the most boring.” The same applies to women. A “Strong Female Character” can be a bad ass, but she has to be more than that. Otherwise, she is just another “Superfluous, Flimsy Character disguised as a Strong Female Character,” to use Robinson’s words.
I do strongly recommend watching the “Badass Women” Nerd HQ panel–it’s really good, and the actresses involved were great choices.**** But I can’t resist putting together a dream panel on the same topic–ideally one that spends more time on the “Strong Female Character” question:
Stana Katic (Castle), Jewel Staite (Firefly), Samira Wiley (Orange is the New Black), Laverne Cox (Orange is the New Black), Kristen Stewart (Seriously, read her interviews and watch her films that aren’t Twilight, in particular Speak and Camp X-Ray), and I’m keeping Ming-Na Wen. She may or may not have made me cry here. Bonus panelist: Sandra Oh (Grey’s Anatomy).
Any ideas on your own dream panel of super interesting, badass ladies? Disagree with mine? Let me know in the comments!
*Nerd HQ is a series of panel events held at San Diego Comic Con every year by Zach Levi’s nerdiness-spreading organization The Nerd Machine. All proceeds from ticket sales at Nerd HQ events are sent to Operation Smile.
**I say inspired by because she has little to do with the test today. I would highly recommend her memoirs, Fun Home and Are You My Mother?
***Kind of self-explanatory–can your female characters be replaced with a sexy lamp and still serve the story? Yes? Maybe you should go back to the drawing board.
****Though, Sarah from Chuck comes dangerously close to being an example of Trinity Syndrome.