I have to be honest with myself. I know I drive my hubby, my family, and my friends crazy with my perpetual complaints about depictions of women on the Silver Screen and the increasing (it seems to me) scarcity of decent movies with female protagonists. They tell me to stop beating a horse that's long dead, buried, and decomposed. I have to tell them with a sigh: I wish I could. I would dearly love never to utter a word of dissatisfaction about the portrayals of women in the movies again. And on occasion, I resolve firmly to do just that, to convince myself that when all is said and done, fictional characters don't matter. But my resolve never sticks, because mainstream Hollywood keeps supplying ample grounds for my ineffectual protests.
This summer, for instance. Mainstream Hollywood has given us a child's handful of movies with female protagonists, but they've been losers with critics (e.g. Salt, Sex and the City 2, Killers) or at the box office (Ramona and Beezus). Where's this year's Mamma Mia? some might cry. Hopefully, nowhere -- since that movie's box-office triumph didn't stop it from being a painfully bad film.
I've just read James Berardinelli of ReelViews' take on the latest "women-will-flock-to-see-it-because-we're-too-stupid-to-tell-the-difference-between-a-good-movie-and-a-bad-one" schlockfest Eat, Pray, Love. Apparently this story makes every effort to turn a shallow, selfish woman who breaks her unoffending husband's heart into a "heroine" worth admiring and even emulating. I put that together with what I know of the other female protagonists we've seen this summer -- the neurotically passive Bella Swan of Twilight: Eclipse; the shrill, screaming harpy-ditz of Killers; the fashionistas of Sex and the City 2; the butt-kicking but inscrutable and painfully fetishized Salt -- and I can't help thinking that mainstream Hollywood has been taken over by screenwriters, male and female, who construct their female protagonists after the pattern of Jack Nicholson's cynical writer in As Good As It Gets: "I think of a man, and then I take away reason and integrity."
I have never cared much for As Good As It Gets, but that line has stayed with me. Reason and integrity -- two very basic human virtues. It's difficult to admire or even care about a character who lacks either quality, let alone both. So they are now my watchwords when it comes to any fictional female I encounter. She doesn't have to kick butt. She doesn't have to save the world. She doesn't even have to have much education. But at significant points in the story, she must display reason and integrity.
My own writing must follow this principle; if it doesn't, I've done very badly indeed. In my story Atterwald, my heroine is asked to choose between saving the man she loves and saving the village where she grew up. She rejects this choice and resolves to try to save both. (To know whether she succeeds, you'll have to check out the novel when it's published; hopefully it will be, before I reach that point in my "Fiction Wing" posts.) Of course she's motivated by emotions, her love for her sweetheart and for the family who raised her. But she understands instinctively that to choose one over the other would seriously compromise her integrity.
The female characters in this summer's mainstream films have not been completely without reason and/or integrity. Both Barbie and Jessie display it in Toy Story 3, as does the smart, courageous character played by Ellen Page in Inception. But in neither film is the female the protagonist. These worthy ladies are supporting players in stories that center on males. Nothing wrong with that -- except that the female protagonists we do see are so irksomely lacking in those important qualities that often we may find ourselves sympathizing more with a supporting (male) character: the put-upon assassin husband in Killers, the forsaken husband in Eat, Pray, Love, and just about every poor soul who has the misfortune to get involved with drama queen Bella Swan.
Frankly, I've had it with these women, and I've had it with the Hollywood that keeps feeding us these bimboes and expecting us to like them. It's enough to make me boycott Hollywood product altogether until the mainstream Big Screen gives us a good movie with a decent female protagonist. The trouble is I'd have to wait so long for such a film that I might miss the next Pixar movie. I'm not sure I can risk that.
I guess I'll have to content myself with complaining -- and many apologies, in advance, to those who love and care for me who have to put up with it.
(NOTE: I have frequently used the word "mainstream" because limited-release, independent films have been known to invest their female characters with reason and integrity. Winter's Bone, by all accounts, is a very fine female-centric story. Foreign films are also off the hook; some of the best female characters of the past decade have come from films with subtitles.)