Monday, 30 December 2013

Wish They All Could Be Strong Female Characters

Last week I went and saw the second Hobbit film, The Desolation of Smaug, with my family. After my previous post here, I found I'd correctly guessed the endpoint of this second movie, but I was impressed (not favorably) with how Peter Jackson has managed to make a movie that's boring even when stuff's happening on screen.

Partly that's a result of really uneven pacing - as an example, the scene in the dwarves' treasure room, where they're being chased around by Smaug, just went on and on, without adding anything to the story. But Jackson also crammed a bunch of stuff in to pad the movie out to three hours: for example, Gandalf rides out to the Necromancer's fortress in Dol Guldur, an event that's mentioned in the book, but doesn't actually appear on-page. And he added a love triangle.

Tolkien's two best-known works were pretty low on romantic subplots and, frankly, women in general, which is why Peter Jackson expanded Arwen's role a bit for his movies. The Hobbit, being a children's book, has even less romance (and ladies), so Jackson added a new Elvish character, Tauriel, to be badass and cute and play the romantic foil for Orlando Bloom's Legolas and Kili, one of the dwarves.

Tauriel is played by Evangeline Lilly, who just looks right as an elf, just as much as Liv Tyler did when she played Arwen a decade ago. As one of the wood elves, Tauriel is also pretty expert with a bow and with a knife, and spends the movie hopping around the trees and looking out for her menfolk.

When she first appeared onscreen, I was excited - she was fighting, and it was awesome! She was a strong female character, clearly. And then I stopped and found myself wondering why she had to be strong on the same terms as the male characters around her.

As this article from the New Statesman puts it, all the princesses know kung fu these days. I guess it's kind of a prerequisite for summer (or Christmas) action movies - if all your main characters are superheroes who are beating up aliens, then I guess you can't have a character who slows down the plot to talk about feelings and crap like that. But it's still kind of a gesture toward equality, without the screen time or plot importance actually being equal.

This is an area where I feel George RR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire is due some recognition. As problematic as some of it is (I remember reading a comment from someone who gave up on the book version of Game of Thrones because of all the rapes), he actually does a good job of showing strong female characters who don't wield swords or kill people. The character I'm thinking of specifically here is Catelyn, who demonstrates agency by effectively kicking off the war between the Lannisters and the Starks. If I recall correctly, she wields a knife as a weapon exactly once; but she's one of the more interesting characters, precisely because she makes mistakes and bad decisions, just the same as the other POV characters.

That's not to say that I don't like female warriors in fantasy fiction. If they make sense within the story, then they should be there - which is just as applicable to male characters. But I agree with Chuck Wendig, as quoted in the Sophia McDougall above, that "strong" shouldn't have to equate with physical strength, but with being strongly written. McDougall notes that many writers and readers are probably not thinking in those terms, and she's right - but I'm sure she'd agree that it's an idea worth disseminating.

After all, what made Buffy the Vampire Slayer a strong female character was that she was a strongly written character who happened to be female. And happened to be surrounded by other strongly written female characters.