The Rare Quality Female Protagonist

A long time ago in a recently-post-college world far far away, my friend Jessica and I endeavored to write a body-image blog. We didn’t have time to keep it up, so it’s been closed, but I realized a lot of good material got hidden away when we did that. Here’s one of those pieces, with some updates.

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.  Some great characters, like Captain Janeway from “Voyager” and Rita Vrataski from “Edge of Tomorrow,” don’t count because their shows/movies are sci-fi. There’s “Alphas,” which has two well-developed female characters whose relationships are side plots, but neither of them are over 30 and their jobs are not very clearly defined. And there’s Donna Noble – over 30, likeable (usually), with minimal romance and an unconventional physical appearance – but who doesn’t have an important job, isn’t the protagonist, and (spoilers?) basically dies. Oh, and sci-fi.

I fully support her inclusion of CJ from “The West Wing,” though, for obvious reasons:

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.  Some viewers may think a character values a relationship more highly that other viewers do, and it all depends on their own personal experience.

Also? I have a major problem with her exclusion of sci-fi. Science fiction has always served as a commentary on our culture, whether it’s to criticize it or show it where it could go. Does that make Uhura, Zoe from “Firefly,” Ripley, or Sarah-Jane Smith from all eras of “Doctor Who” any less valid or inspiring?

With that in mind, I’m adding Ellie Sattler from “Jurassic Park.”  She’s a talented grad student personally invited to give her scientific opinion on the very science-fictiony park. By the third movie (did anyone else even see that? because I kind of love it), she’s reduced to the background, married with a child and presumably through with her archaeology career. But she talks to Sam Neill about dinosaurs, not boys, so at least that holds up.

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 its impact on young girls.  Some of the figures are pretty scary, like the fact that for every female character, there are three male characters. There’s been progress, like Pixar’s first female-led movie (“Brave”), groundbreaking comedies like “Bridesmaids,” and the upcoming all-female remake of “Ghostbusters,” but all it takes is a quick scan of upcoming trailers to know that there’s still much work to be done.

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 do we reverse it?

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8 thoughts on “The Rare Quality Female Protagonist

  1. I don’t really watch kids’ shows, so no comment there (and I’m sure I’d be horrified).

    But. I wonder if In Plain Sight would count? YES, a lot of that show is about interpersonal relationships, mostly the partnership between Mary and Marshall. If you discount the last season, though, it’s mostly about a kind of awesome sarcastic woman who is great at her job and not so great at personal relationships. (It’s the sarcasm that gets me. It makes me so happy.)

    As much as I love sci-fi, I do think it’s interesting, as an exercise, to exclude it for this discussion. What does it say that 90% of the characters that come to mind are sci-fi? And then I realize that they aren’t the protagonists, anyway, but secondary, if important, characters?

    (Also, related but again, sci-fi, I really love Continuum, even if season 3 is confusing the heck out of me.)

    • I haven’t seen either of those shows, but I hear good things about Continuum! I do find it disappointing that so few real-world examples exist. I guess How To Get Away With Murder might meet most of those requirements! But, again, haven’t seen it…been too busy with “West Wing” on Netflix. 😉

      • I finished WW last spring. It’s excellent. Also? What about Sleepy Hollow? Abby is very good at her job and it’s not about her relationships. She might not be 30, though. Also, totally fantasy.

          • Leverage! I’d totally forgotten this, but it’s an ensemble — 2 women, 3 men. Their “jobs” are criminal, sort of, but they are excellent at them. One is over 30. There are bits of romance storylines, but they aren’t the main stories. And not sci-fi or fantasy (not genre, at least).

  2. I have two! Both TV crime dramas. I was super excited about “The Fall”, which stars Gillian Anderson as a bold, kicks-ass-and-takes-names lead detective (at 56 now) pursuing a young serial killer. The bonus is, thus far, she doesn’t even have a co-leading male sidekick 🙂 They are just releasing the second season.

    The second is Mireille Enos as the lead detective in “The Killing”. That is a neat show because they follow a single crime through two seasons, so you see a lot more character development than your average CSI/Law and Order thingo.

    Oh, and I’m going to vote for Francis McDormand in Fargo. It’s more of an ensemble cast, but the fact that she’s a female lead with an important job who saves the day WHILE HUMONGOUSLY PREGNANT is pretty much THE best thing ever.

    • “The Fall” is waiting patiently in our queue! I love Gillian Anderson and it sounds like a really interesting character for her.

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