In Defence of Imperfection

Last weekend’s New York Times Magazine featured a funny, insightful, self-deprecating piece by Carina Chocano, in which she discussed one of my favourite hopeless clichés – the Strong Female Character:

“Strong female character” is one of those shorthand memes that has leached into the cultural groundwater and spawned all kinds of cinematic clichés: alpha professionals whose laser-like focus on career advancement has turned them into grim, celibate automatons; robotic, lone-wolf, ascetic action heroines whose monomaniacal devotion to their crime-fighting makes them lean and cranky and very impatient; murderous 20-something comic-book salesgirls who dream of one day sidekicking for a superhero; avenging brides; poker-faced assassins; and gloomy ninjas with commitment issues.

I discussed this one-dimensional understanding of “strong” when it comes to women on-screen a few weeks ago. “Strong” is not a matter of size or importance of a role or character. Rather, it has become synonymous with a sexy, steely gaze; women with perfect hair and a perfect shot; Angelina Jolie in any movie she’s done since 2005 (let’s all try to forget The Changeling, shall we?). As Chocano puts it:

Maybe the problem is semantic. Maybe what people mean when they say “strong female characters” is female characters who are “strong,” i.e., interesting or complex or well written – “strong” in the sense that they figure predominantly in the story, rather than recede decoratively into the background. But I get the feeling that what most people mean or hear when they say or hear “strong female character” is female characters who are tough, cold, terse, taciturn, and prone to scowling and not saying goodbye when they hang up the phone.

But heaven forbid we stray too far from this trope! In her L.A. Times review of Bad Teacher (appropriately infuriatingly entitled “˜You Want Raunchy Female Comedy? Be Careful What You Wish For.’), Karina Longworth hops on the Bridesmaids-fueled women-in-Hollywood train (I have a first-class seat, natch!), but she veers pretty dramatically from my own destination:

The general argument holds that because studios produce so few films built around strong lady protagonists, Hollywood must hate women. But be careful what you wish for. Here, a “strong woman” means a lazy, lying, scheming, slutty, and obstinately materialistic one”¦

Longworth goes on to criticize the film further for its seemingly terrible narrative and sloppy execution; this, I can’t argue with. But the above quote? My initial reaction is: What is so wrong with that?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’d rather have well-developed, complex, important, imperfect female characters than all the one-dimensional Strong Female Characters in the world. Give me an inappropriate loser, a slob, and a sad-sack any day. Because I can relate to them. I can understand them. I AM them.

I read many reviews of Bridesmaids that struck a similar tone to Longworth’s quote:

Is this what feminists fought for? The right for women to make poop and fart jokes?

Kristen Wiig’s character is not a good role model.

These are not positive representations of women! 

One of the reasons I loved Bridesmaids is because Annie (Wiig) was so imperfect. She was different from the perfect women, beaten down by the external forces of life (no fault of her own!). Yes, she had been dealt a bad hand by life, but she also contributed to her lackluster station. She was petty and resentful, selfish and unwilling to overlook her own issues for the sake of a friendship. She willfully remained in the most awful of “relationships” with her asshole “friend-with-benefits” and turned away from gestures of friendship and caring from the people around her. She was imperfect. She was real. People are sometimes assholes and jerks offscreen, and it’s no different onscreen (has Longworth never seen a Noah Baumbach movie? They’re filled with assholes and jerks!). Just as I sometimes am, and just as you sometimes are (let’s be real here).

I will argue until I’m blue in the face that these characters are infinitely stronger, and infinitely more positive, than any number of cookie-cutter female tropes out there. It is far better for women and girls to see that they need not be a one-note character in their own lives.

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