I just finished watching the series finale of Ally McBeal. I watched the first couple of seasons back when it first aired but then lost interest. For some reason, I had a hankering to watch it again. It was interesting to see how differently I viewed the show–and the issues it raised–after 20 more years under my belt.
Some questionable transitions from Season 4 to Season 5 had me googling for answers, which steered me toward one of the major controversies of the show… whether Ally McBeal helped or hurt women and feminism. A well-known Time article depicts her on the cover with famous feminist figures and asks, “Is Feminism Dead?”
As a film lover and science fiction author who loves a good female protagonist, I have thought a lot about what it means to be a good female character. Historically, Hollywood has produced films and TV shows that have typically had males in lead roles (and largely male casts), with women playing smaller roles that often fit into female stereotypes such as supportive wife, mother, or sex object. Many have begun voicing a desire for women in more substantial roles, and now we’re seeing more and more of them. Unfortunately, this change has generated a lot of nitpicking about what these roles should look like.
The Strong Female Character
The desire for substantial roles for women has been distilled into the a phrase that most of us have heard: the “strong female character.” I have heard and read many opinions on what it means to be a strong female character (or a strong female, period). Here are some of them:
- She plays a lead role in the film or TV show
- She plays roles requiring skills typically attributed to males: fighting, weapon use, protecting others, risking her life, thrill-seeking, etc.
- She passes the Bechdel Test — i.e. she talks to another woman about something other than a man.
- Her role in the production is more than stereotypical female one (e.g. mom, wife, homemaker, secretary, caretaker, etc.).
- She has a career that isn’t associated with “typical” female jobs, e.g. scientist, engineer, military, detective…
- She shows traits associated with strength or masculinity: assertiveness, argumentativeness, directness, leadership ability, intellectualism, sexual assertiveness, etc.
- She does NOT show traits or behaviors that are stereotypically feminine: crying, emotional lability, submission to males, prudishness, a desire to marry/reproduce/stay home with kids.
- She’s not put in victim roles, to be perpetrated on or rescued by men.
I’m not saying I agree with any of these. I’m just listing them to illustrate that everyone has a different idea of what a strong female character is, and if you violate their ideas, they will cry out.
What a Strong Female is NOT
Now, with the increase of females in lead roles, I’m seeing a rash of people complaining about these roles. For example, I recently read a blog article written by a friend of a writer friend. She criticized the idea of a female character taking on “masculine” traits instead of showing a softer, more feminine strength. A well-known male writer in my genre (science fiction) — his name escapes me — wrote an absurdly long missive criticizing “strong” female characters across the board, believing that they’re merely commandeering masculine roles instead of roles that exemplify the subtler, gentler female strengths.
Others have complained about film/TV/books putting women in roles that are unrealistic, where they’re merely inserting a woman into a role that a man could just as easily fill.
The Time article criticized Ally McBeal for her emotional instability, her flightiness, her short skirts. Her thinness became a media issue as well, and some feminists and other thinkers felt chagrin that a lead in a major show wasn’t a good role model for women.
When I read Roger Ebert’s review of The Matrix (one of my Top 3 favorite sci-fi films), he was floored by the astounding opening scene with Trinity, but then felt chagrin that the film shuttled her to the role of supporting female while Neo took center stage. On the other hand, one of the writers I mentioned above criticized Trinity’s character as exemplifying the overly masculine/unrealistic strong female.
In other words, a female character can’t have any (supposedly) “male” traits, but she shouldn’t display any “female” weaknesses, either. Apparently, the spectrum of acceptable traits for female roles still remains a bit narrow.
For myself, I care little about whether a female character’s traits are “realistic” or fit into some idea of what femininity is. Why? Because my background in psychology has afforded me a complex and broader way of thinking about human behavior… and traditional ideas about gender have never made sense to me, even as a child. Instead, when examining a female character, I ask myself these questions:
- Is she in a substantial role, or is she merely a side character, in which I can focus on the male characters?
- Is she interesting and unique, or does she feel underdeveloped, unidimensional, and like we’ve seen her a million times?
- Is she human, with strengths and flaws, or does she seem too perfect, whether to a modern ideal or a traditional one?
There’s little that pisses me off more than listening to people force their notions of masculinity and femininity on others. I’ve met real human women who are inordinately bossy or pushy, who love cars or thrill-seeking sports, who were born to lead others. I’ve met real human men who are passive, extraordinarily empathic, and love to take care of others. Even if they don’t represent the majority of their gender, they exist. Moreover, a bossy or alpha woman isn’t “masculine” — her way of being bossy won’t be like a man’s. Likewise, a caretaking or passive man isn’t feminine… he’s still a man and cares in his unique way. It’s only outdated ideas of gender that make people think in restrictive terms.
Also, a lot of griping goes on about a character being “realistic.” Since when is fiction about reality? Sure, you want a character to be believable, but you also her/him to be memorable. Take Good Will Hunting: there is NOTHING realistic or probable about a guy with that level of intellectual giftedness being a thug who picks fights with other thugs. Yet, we totally bought it and it was an extraordinary film. Is Superman realistic? James Bond? No. We don’t question when men play unrealistic roles. But when women do, suddenly the author or filmmaker goes under fire for doing harm to womankind.
When I look at Ally McBeal, I see a show that did what no other show has done. It was unique, quirky, and it raised a lot of important issues about gender roles and male-female relations. And Ally — yes, she was needy, dying for love, emotionally labile, and very skinny… but she always challenged Richard’s sexist remarks, she lambasted Billy during his chauvinist pig phase, she trusted her instincts, and she never failed to speak her mind and stick by her beliefs, no matter what kind of trouble it brought her. That’s strength, people.
The flaws? They made her real. They made her funny. They made her memorable. People have flaws and insecurities, and when we despise a female character for also having them, it’s because the character reminds us of buried flaws we haven’t yet come to terms with.
And that’s what this is all about. All this discussion and criticism over what makes a good female character reflects a continuing shift in our society about what it means to be female (including a strong female). I hear women occasionally say, “I’m a proud feminist, BUT…” What comes after is something like “I sought my husband’s opinion” or “I want to stay home to raise my kids.” Why the qualification? Women, like men, should be free to be who they are. And likewise, a female character should be whoever she is, with whatever strengths and flaws make her unique, and with the understanding that not everyone will like her.
I think there’s a specific brand of feminism you’re referring to, and it’s a bit of a dinosaur that still rears its head from time to time. It’s an earlier form of feminism that dictates a male substitute role as the only acceptable one – in fact, even in that substitution is sometimes unacceptable.
I took an action film class in college with a feminist teacher. One of the books for the class looked at the female action/sci-fi hero, examining characters such as Captain Janeway, Ripley from Alien, Sarah Connor from Terminator, etc. Each failed the author’s feminism test because they displayed traits that could be said to be feminine. In Aliens, Ripley protects a young girl; Sarah Connor at the end of the day is a mother protecting her son.
I remember reading it and thinking “so what?” Sure, in Terminator II, Sarah is protecting her son, but so is the Terminator. Is he a weak character? No one would argue that – yet this author thought Sarah was weak because of it. The only character that passed the author’s test was this movie about this woman who runs around killing everyone with no remorse, who isn’t protecting anyone. In other words, a completely unsympathetic character.
To me, that attitude itself is un-feminist – it seeks to codify the behavior of women. Isn’t feminism supposed to be about choice? When someone says, “I’m a feminist but I want to stay home and raise kids,” that’s a reaction to that outdated feminist mindset. The point isn’t what you choose, it’s about having the choice in the first place.
That comes up in criticism of Ally McBeal (a show I myself enjoyed back in the day). My first thought was “how feminist is it to shame McBeal’s body?” I think the show is great, and that Ally is definitely a role model – she wouldn’t be much of a sympathetic character if she weren’t flawed. Male characters are usually flawed in some way too – why should female characters need to cross a higher bar?
I think you summed it up best here: “Women, like men, should be free to be who they are.”
Thanks for the great perspective. That’s pretty shocking about your teacher. As if any character (male or female) wouldn’t protect a child! I loved when you said, “The point isn’t what you choose, it’s about having the choice in the first place.” Exactly. It amazes me how much time people spend defining what it is to be female or male; it’s like they aren’t comfortable with their own masculinity or femininity.
The perspective on Ripley in Aliens dates back to an article in Film Quarterly from the 1987, I think. It was in an interesting analysis of the film but the author’s thesis was, much as Mr. Kowalski describes. Basically that the symbolic nature of Ripley was defending the existing political framework. That in being traditionally maternal she could not be a symbol of feminism. Please understand that I read this article almost 3 decades ago. But, that is a very common logic applied by academic feminists.
In their defense (I hope that you are sitting down, Christie) though I do NOT agree with the interpretation the basic point is symbolism. It is common for film and literature to portray women (and an endless list of other groups) in a reductive manner. In many cases they are reduced to a fairly uncomplimentary archetype or at a minimum set’s “limits” for them. See Frank Capra’s beloved “It’s a Wonderful Life” for a good does of this.
A couple other good film examples are “Disclosure” where the woman who is attempting to do what men do (albeit in a personally ruthless manner) is done in by a very maternal woman. Susan Faludi makes a similar issue out of people’s reaction to Glenn Close’s character in “Fatal Attraction” (in one of her 90s books) on violence against women. Faludi describes how the audience was screaming for Close’s character to be killed. She eventually is by Annie Archer, the soft and beautiful mother.
Personally, I think that this viewpoint is facile, at best, and is undone by examining the characters’ actions within the actual context of the story. You both have essentially point out this fallacy in the argument. It is however a legitimate discussion point. Films, in particular commercial films, often have a variety of viewpoints that play out because there are so many different people with input into the story and characters.
In this case I, like both of you, find the argument that Ripley in being maternal and protecting her “child” and her “family” is no less feminist than a female CEO.
I believe This is the article from Film Quarterly but I would have to go digging through my old boxes to confirm it. I could not find a copy of this article on line.
Bundtzen, Lynda K. “Monstrous Mother: Medusa, Grendel, and now Alien,” Film Quarterly 40.3 (1987).
Very interesting to your film professor side here, Nick! This topic seems to have a long history, with much thought and discourse devoted to it.