When I was a child, female puppets on Sesame Street, dressed as astronauts, doctors, and other professionals, used to sing a little ditty called “There’s Nothing We Women Can’t Do.” Judging by the status of women in movies and on TV these days, they were right. We’ve never had so many films in which women rescue men, so many self-sufficient Disney princesses, or so many heroines with impressive job titles.
But here’s a paradox: At the same time female characters are becoming more ambitious, driven, and successful, they’re also becoming weaker and one-dimensional. Movies and TV shows are full of women who are strong physically, and often intellectually as well. But, more often than not, emotionally, morally, and spiritually, they’re wrecks.
Consider HBO’s Girls, nominated for four awards in this past weekend’s Emmy ceremony for its portrayal of a group of outspoken but hapless and confused young women. Before the women of Girls, there were the similarly hapless and confused women of Sex and the City, and before them, the women of Ally McBeal. Nearly all the women who have been considered the voice of my generation since I reached adulthood have been hapless and confused. (The Sesame Street puppets, I suspect, would be appalled.)
Or consider action heroines and Bond girls who are ostensibly scientific geniuses but are really just there to show off their highly toned bodies. Think of nearly everything Aaron Sorkin’s ever written. If you want a good laugh, read some of the pieces by cultural commentators who are forever puzzling over the fact that Sorkin, a true-blue liberal, keeps writing supposedly accomplished women as incompetent ditzes. It almost looks as if being liberal might not be a guarantee that one is pro-woman.
The harder we try to remedy the situation, the more backward things get. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Bechdel Test, frequently referred to by film critics and entertainment bloggers. The test is designed to help a viewer evaluate the portrayal of female characters in a film or show. It’s a simple enough test; to pass it, a movie “has to have two women in it, who talk to each other, about something besides a man.”
In a way, the test is a very narrow way of judging a work of art: many good films and shows don’t pass it, and many poor ones do. Still, it can serve as a handy tool for helping us evaluate our culture’s portrayals of girls and women. Yet even in the era of the Bechdel Test, we’ve never had so many vapid, insipid female characters who are totally at the mercy of their hormones. If you doubt it, head over to Turner Classic Movies or Netflix and watch some old films starring the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, and Barbara Stanwyck. Then try watching Girls or Sorkin’s The Newsroom.
The decline is enough to make a grown woman cry.
I call it the Buffy Syndrome, after a character created by another feminist liberal, Joss Whedon, in his much-loved show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Whedon has made a name for himself writing strong women like Buffy, a slender blonde teenager saddled with the responsibility of saving the world from various evil creatures. Buffy was physically strong, and as quick with a quip as she was with a stake. At the same time, she got into some of the most ill-advised sexual relationships of all time, with some of the very creatures she was meant to be destroying — creatures who (surprise!) treated her very badly indeed.
The young woman who simultaneously fought evil and slept with it is emblematic of our era: Buffy was out to change the world, with no clear idea of what she was fighting against, or what she was fighting for, or why she was fighting at all. In discarding a clear understanding of morality, Buffy, the favorite “strong woman” of many young girls, was ironically and sadly weakened.
There’s more than one disadvantage to these portrayals of women. Not only are they silly, shallow, and degrading, they also reveal that our culture places a higher value on physical strength than moral strength. The woman who doesn’t go charging full speed ahead into a physical confrontation — in sky-high heels, no less — gets raked over the coals for being passive and weak, even if she’s a good and admirable person in other respects. Even worse, it’s sometimes implied that she deserves to be victimized. A case in point: Aurora on ABC’s Emmy-nominated Once Upon a Time, one of the few female characters on that show who doesn’t have mad fighting skills, got dumped on by viewers and critics alike for it.
While I’m all in favor of a woman being able to defend herself (just ask my instructors at the NRA range), I find this tendency more than a little disturbing.
The Bechdel Test has its uses, but they’re limited. Rather than following movie characters around with tests and checklists, it seems to me, we’d do better to try to change our culture’s mentality about what a strong woman really looks like. And we could start by acknowledging that she doesn’t have to look like a Marvel action heroine. She can be kind and giving and self-respecting and caring and mature. Those qualities may be scorned as too passive or too stereotypically feminine by our cultural establishment, but that only means that they’re overlooking the very tools they need to start bringing their emotionally brittle heroines to life.