The Mystery of the Missing Female Protagonist

A while ago, director Elena Rossini had an interesting guest post over at The Beheld about women in movies and how their characters so often relate to their relationships instead of their individual accomplishments.  She challenged herself and her readers to find a character who met all of these criteria:

  • Protagonist of the TV show/film
  • Over the age of 30
  • Holds an important job and is successful at it
  • Liked/likeable
  • Her physical appearance is peripheral to the story (and she can’t use her sex appeal to get what she wants)
  • Her romantic/personal relationships are peripheral to the story
  • The TV show/film takes place in “the real world” (not a sci-fi universe)
  • She has to be alive by the end of the film

It was, sadly, a difficult challenge.  I fully support her inclusion of CJ from “The West Wing,” though, and this is one of the reasons why:

Commenters brought up lots of interesting ideas, like which formats allow for more rounded female protagonists (ie. plot-driven shows like “Fringe”) and the subjectivity over the role a female character’s relationship plays in her life.  The age of the actress may come into play – I would guess that the list of Maggie Smith’s qualifying roles would probably be longer than Reese Witherspoon’s or Sandra Bullock’s.  But the fact is women have more to do in life than fall in love with a guy (see: every romantic comedy) or be there for him as his muse or inspiration (see: every Zooey Deschanel role).  When you have to sift through years of film to find female roles to meet those qualifications – which male characters fulfill every day – you know you have a problem.

I have to admit that since I don’t watch a lot of TV, it was hard to me to come up with my own additions.  Possibly Tina Fey’s character from “30 Rock,” or Amy Poehler’s in “Parks & Rec.”  Ziva on “NCIS” fit the bill for a while, although being a secret agent occasionally requires use of sex appeal, and I think more recent seasons have delved into her relationship with Tony.  Same story with Kate Beckett on “Castle,” and probably several other women on crime procedurals.

In movies, there’s Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth in “The Queen;” Cate Blanchett in “Missing” (of course it doesn’t really help that they murdered her boyfriend in the first ten minutes); Glenn Close as the Vice President in “Air Force One;” Gina Carano in “Haywire;” and Laura Dern as Ellie Sattler from “Jurassic Park,” although she’s not quite a main character.  Plus, by the third movie (did anyone else even see that?) she’s married with a child and presumably she’s left her archaeology career behind. But she talks to Sam Neill about dinosaurs, not boys, so at least that requirement is met.

The gals at Beauty Redefined have a related post in which Geena Davis talks about research she’s supporting regarding the way women are portrayed in G-rated films and impact of that portrayal on young girls.  Some of the figures are pretty scary, like the fact that for every female character in a G-rated movie, there are three male characters.  Pixar has just now released its first film with a female protagonist, “Brave.”  (Which, now that I think about it, has three brothers to one sister.  Hmm.)  The story focuses primarily on the mother/daughter relationship, and I was pleased that (slight spoiler) they didn’t throw in a last-minute obligatory cute guy for her to crush on in the sequel.  Merida and her redonkulous hair put family over both personal fulfillment and boys, which is a mighty achievement for an often boy-crazy and self-centered demographic.

Who else can you guys think of to meet Rossini’s criteria? And what’s the deal with women in kid’s movies/shows? Is their portrayal as damaging as everyone says, and if so, how can we reverse it?

(originally posted on Average Fantastic August 17, 2011)

2 thoughts on “The Mystery of the Missing Female Protagonist

  1. There are two characters I can think of right now, although they do bend the rules a little bit–Alison and Jo from Eureka. They’re both important characters in the ensemble cast, and although for both of them the romantic stuff is more than peripheral, they’re both women shown as being good at their jobs, smart, resourceful, nuanced, etc. etc. (And okay, the actress playing Jo was a bit younger than 30 for most of the filming, but whatever.) Plus, even though the show has many sci-fi elements, it’s intended to be the real world (if something of an AU).

    I think Eureka in general does a great job of having a diverse cast that has very human characters (although it does subscribe to gender-essentialism sometimes–and yeah, the true main character of the show is a white guy, sigh).

    Also, Helen Mirren has another role that fits most of these requirements in the show Prime Suspect (although I can’t promise she doesn’t die at the end, since I haven’t seen the first series).

    • I’ve never seen Eureka but it sounds like I should give it a try! And I’ve heard Prime Suspect is brilliant – didn’t Americans attempt a remake recently and it was atrocious?

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