Real Women in a Round World, or Why the Strong Female Protagonist Needs to Die
It’s been a month since the Oscars, and Cate Blanchett’s Best Actress acceptance speech for Blue Jasmine still remains the feminist rant heard ‘round the world. Using her time on the podium to call out those in the entertainment industry who “are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences," Blanchett’s insistence that “the world is round, people!” has been hailed by the masses as the feminist wake-up call that Hollywood sorely needs. Sadly, the masses are only half right. Or rather, Blanchett only told half the story. Hollywood doesn’t just believe that films about women are niche experiences; they believe that films depicting real women are niche experiences – a belief that must be challenged.
In her article for Psychology Today, “Do Fictional Characters Affect Real Life?” Dr. Thalia Goldstein discusses the phenomenon of what she dubs the “alief system,” or the unconscious process that leads us to have emotional responses to the actions of fictional characters. The alief system is why we can relate to Blanchett’s Jasmine and her fictional troubles, or why a self-proclaimed “badass” like my teenage brother would cry real tears over Saving Private Ryan. Goldstein goes on to explain that our alief system allows our perception of reality to become skewed, as it causes us to empathize with fictional events to the point where we begin to have trouble dissociating fiction from reality.
By that logic, our inability to separate fictional reality from actual reality can be manipulated by the discerning screenwriter for the greater good, or so Dr. Jonathan Gotschall posits in his article, “The Power of Fake Gay (and Black) Friends.” According to Gotschall, “when we are absorbed in fiction, we form judgments about the characters exactly as we do with real people, and extend those judgments to the generalizations we make about groups.” He even uses Vice-President Biden’s appearance on Meet the Press as an example of the effects of the average person’s illusory friendships and relationships with fictional characters. Not only did Biden endorse gay marriage, but he also attributed historic changes in American views of homosexuality to the sitcom Will and Grace.
This is why women’s depiction in popular media is both so important and so, so devastating. When we are constantly bombarded with one impossible mold that Hollywood claims all women must fit, we begin to believe it. For better or worse, we take the judgments made upon seeing characters like Cinderella or Mary Poppins for the first time and apply them as generalizations to women as a group. We begin to believe that this unattainable ideal is the way women should look and act and feel, and equate our failure to do so with failure at being a woman. Of course, there are those in the industry who will cry foul. “But we are adding so much diversity now,” they will protest. “We stopped enforcing the princess ideal, don’t you see all the awesome leather-clad heroines we’ve introduced? Look at our new Strong Female Protagonist line-up: look at Divergent, look at The Hunger Games, look at the possible Black Widow movie! Look at how much our depictions of women have changed.” These Hollywood execs wouldn’t be lying either. Over the past ten years, there has been an influx of leather-clad warrior-babe types who can outshoot any man, who care not for trivialities like boyfriends and makeup, and who would rather be caught dead than wearing pink.
However, this is not the massive step forward that Hollywood claims it is. All Hollywood has done is exchange one unrealistic trope for another, trading in the flawlessly feminine, husband-chasing protagonist of the past for the tough as nails, fem-bot in leathers protagonist of the present. Perhaps this is because, as Blanchett observed, Hollywood fears that realism would only appeal to a niche audience. But as she proved in Blue Jasmine, real women sell films. So don’t show me a Strong Female Protagonist – show me a woman. Show me a woman who gets scared, who gets self-conscious, who cries. Show me a woman who might not need a spouse, but sure as hell wants one. Show me a woman with feelings beyond “I am woman, hear me roar.” Show me a woman like my mother, like my friends, like my neighbors, like me. It’s time to take up the cry and publicize the challenge, time to show Hollywood that a movie about women will not be a niche experience. The world is round, people.