Barnard College's Monthly Magazine
By Chana Tolchin
When The Help came out this past summer, my mom and I practically had to drag my dad and brothers to the theater. It was a girls’ movie; why on Earth did we think they would like it? Everyone in my family gave the movie an equally excellent review once it was over, but my dad and brothers weren’t wrong to bring certain associations along to a movie that features four females in dresses on its poster.
Meryl Streep, who was recently awarded an Academy Award for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, spoke about this exact issue when she gave the Commencement Address to the Barnard Class of 2010. Streep asserted: “The hardest thing in the world is to persuade a straight male audience to identify with a woman character. It’s easier for women because we were brought up identifying with male characters in literature. It’s hard for straight boys to identify with Juliet or Wendy in Peter Pan, whereas girls identify with Romeo and with Peter Pan – I remember holding that sword up to Hook – I felt like him.”
Recently, Terry Gross broadcasted an interview with Streep on her NPR program Fresh Air and revisited Streep’s comments in her Barnard address. Streep explained her statement further: “You know, you feel what he feels when he jumps, when he leaps, when he wins, when he loses. And I think I just took it for granted that, you know, we can all do that. But it became obvious to me that men don’t live through the female characters.”
Reading into Streep’s words more deeply, it all goes back to the messages you’ll learn in any Women’s Studies class: the notion of who counts as the “norm” (white, male) and who represents “deviations” (everyone else) in the mind of society is something that scholars and activists work to combat every day. It’s exactly what Bridesmaids, last year’s female-driven comedy, proved by dressing traditionally male humor in poofs of crinoline. It’s the same problem that defined George Lucas’s struggle to get financial backing for Red Tails because of the race of its characters – even with past credentials like Star Wars and Indiana Jones to his name. But Streep’s claim indicates that, at least in the gender department, our deliberately inclusive efforts have either not been enough of a success or may never prove fruitful at all.
Even while Law and Order SVU’s quick-witted Olivia Benson rocks the courtroom, a critically acclaimed actress like Streep still notices a problem. Maybe part of the issue lies in the fact that – Olivia Benson aside – many female protagonists tend to crop up primarily in books, movies, and TV shows that are geared specifically toward women. For that reason, it’s hard to find a female lead facing experiences that are equally relatable to both males and females.
On a list on GoodReads.com called “Best Female Lead Characters (1276 Books),” a quick glance at the top 10 – Pride and Prejudice, Gone With the Wind, Little Women – is enough to show that many novels with the best female leads are also distinctly feminine in quality. The notable exceptions on the list are To Kill a Mockingbird, whose main character is a child, and The Diary of Anne Frank, in which Anne is more commonly treated as a historical figure.
There are some movies and books that do portray women in a non-chick flick way, but guys still don’t seem to be interested. As one male friend put it, “I don’t think the focus on a female character makes it bad, but it seems a lot of movies or books with female main characters aren’t good.”
Streep told the 2010 Barnard grads that of all the characters she’s played onscreen – and of the whopping 17 she’s earned Oscar nominations for – the one that most men mention as their favorite is Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada. Perhaps the reason Miranda resonates with viewers of both genders is the very fact of her imperfection. On Overthinkingit.com, the website that “subjects popular culture to a level of scrutiny it probably doesn’t deserve,” blogger Shana Mlawski articulates the important idea that weakness is perhaps the most vital quality in a character. Mlawski’s article “Why Strong Female Characters are Bad for Women” offers examples of flawed female characters who are successful precisely because of those imperfect traits. There’s the neurotic Elliot from Scrubs, Elaine with her touch of cruelty from Seinfeld, the vengeful Bride from Kill Bill, forgetful Dory from Finding Nemo, emotionally repressed Marge from The Simpsons, and insufferable-know-it-alls like Hermione.
Maybe Mlawski is right and women onscreen need to be “weaker” in order to be relatable. But how much of Streep’s insight penetrates deeper into a gender psychology that has taken over our cultural world? When Gross pressed Streep further, asking if women have some sort of “double consciousness” that men lack, Streep responded: “Well, it has to do with very deep things, you know, because it might be that imagining yourself as a girl is a diminishment.”
Whether Streep’s hunch is true or not, the figures show that the ratio of men behind the scenes in movie production far outweighs the number of women in comparable positions. According to Rebecca Keegan’s 2011 LA Times article, “when one or more of the screenwriters was female, 40% of characters were female; when all the screenwriters were male, 29.8% of the characters were female.” Additionally, a study of the top 100-grossing movies of 2009 revealed that 67.2% of a grand total of 4,342 speaking characters were male, while 32.8% were female. This, too, undoubtedly has something to do with whose eyes are behind the camera.
A notable recent exception to Streep’s insight is Katniss Everdeen, the main character of The Hunger Games books by Suzanne Collins (the movie version hit theaters on March 23rd). The trilogy has amassed a fan base composed of boys and girls alike. Adult men and women also count themselves in on the fandom. Author Stephen King remarked, “once I got over [her] name…I got to like her a lot,” and John Green of the New York Times called Katniss a “memorably complex and fascinating heroine.” More Katnisses might be exactly what we need.
The stories we read and the shows and movies we see seep into us, becoming part of the fabric of who we are. As an English major, I can’t help but quote from Oscar Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying”: “Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us.” Our heroes and heroines, on screen and on the page, are some of the most important teachers we have. We may not be able to immediately alter human psychology – may not be able to force anyone to “live through” a character that feels distant to them – but we can certainly create a broader range of characters to live through.
We deserve fictional heroes that reflect who we really are.