Staff Editorial: Film does feminism wrong

Feminism is hard.

It’s had a bit of a rough time with branding. But most of all, it’s just super complicated. Everyone has their own idea of what’s right, what’s “true” feminism. The idea of feminism has evolved over time, from first legal, then economic, then social issues taking the forefront of each generation. 

So what makes a character feminist?

Does it mean that she has to be a fighter – a crime-fighting, cape wearing karate master? Nope! These are often the most obvious, but least dynamic feminist characters. Just like male characters aren’t very interesting if all they’re doing is punching the bad guys in the face, female characters whose only trait is fighting well are also pretty boring. More than that, this can feed into the idea that women have to masculine to be strong. The tomboys, the ones who wear flannel and work boots, who solve their problems with their fists and drink are characters assuming stereotypically male traits. By placing these traits on the foreground of our idea of feminist characters, we are also unintentionally assuming the opposite is true — that traditionally feminine characteristics, like wearing makeup and dresses, are signs of weakness. This is a huge problem, as no matter how hard we try, we’re never going to be able to completely eliminate the association in our minds between feminine traits and feminine people. If femininity is a sign of weakness, then where does that leave those people?

Does a feminist character have to always be smarter than her male counterparts? Of course not! In fact, this idea can lead to another sexist stereotype in movies — the killjoy. Particularly in male-driven comedies, women (especially romantic interests) are the people who are there to shut down anything they see as “immature.” Often this leads to the main (male) character growing up and learning to act more like an adult, but this woman also has to learn to accept the antics in her one true love. In fact, putting women in situations where they’re the dumb ones can often be very unusual — depending on how you do it. If she’s just a little ditzy? Only ever talks about boys and clothes? It’s going to be very hard to make that work. But what if the woman is the one who can’t get her mind out of the gutter? How often do you see a woman as the clumsy, comic-relief character — not in a quirky, omg-look-how-cute-I-am way, but in an ugly, messy, I-don’t-have-my-life-together kind of way?

Can a feminist character ever be pretty? Yes! Can that be her only character trait? Well, maybe, maybe not. The field of sexuality is perhaps one of the most difficult for filmmakers to navigate. No, not all women should be going to clubs every night, wearing crop tops and five inch heels. But they also shouldn’t all be sitting at home all day, wearing baggy sweatshirts and glasses, waiting to be told that they’re beautiful just the way they are. So honestly? It depends. The character’s style and life choices are going to change based on what the situation demands. But no matter what it is, she should own it — she should. She shouldn’t be dressing up because it makes her boyfriend happy — she should be dressing up because it makes her happy. She shouldn’t be staying in just because she’s gotten out of a bad breakup and has sworn off men forever — she should be staying in because she wants to. Just like every aspect of every female character, the need that she fills will fit the role she has in the movie. Feminism doesn’t mean every woman has to be the same.

Feminism means different things for different people. Feminism changes depending on what the situation demands. Something that’s feminist for a white character can be vastly different from what’s feminist for a black character. For instance, black women in film face problems with being hypermasculinized far more often than white women. So a black woman who wears lipstick and has long hair? That can be far more groundbreaking than if a white woman were in the same circumstance. And a black woman facing her problems with the support of family and friends behind her can break just as many barrier than a white woman facing her problems alone.

So, we ask again: what is a feminist character? The idea alone is full of so many contradictions and qualifications we can’t easily answer it in one lone editorial. But we can argue this: movies are made to reflect real life. So what are women like in real life? And here’s where we reach our answer.

Women are different.

Every single woman is different. Some wear makeup. Some don’t. Some want to be stay-at-home moms and raise a family in suburbia — some want to become doctors or lawyers and never get married. And most fall somewhere in the middle. So wouldn’t it make sense to have movie characters like that? Showcasing women for who they are rather than shoving us all into an outdated stereotype is what we want to see—that’s representation.