Monday, June 27, 2005

What Makes a Successful Heroine?

USAToday did an article on female heroes. Joss Whedon will be writing and directing a Wonder Woman movie, and the hope is that it won’t flop horribly like Catwoman or Elektra. I have few worries because I know that Whedon knows how to handle a strong female character. His work on Buffy has done a lot to demonstrate that she-heroes can succeed.

But what makes a successful heroine? What makes an audience believe in a woman who makes it a habit of saving the day? And not in a “I brought bandages” kind of way. I think there are several elements that have developed over the years that creators of today’s heroines need to keep in mind.

Sexuality is neither sacrificed nor exploited. Focusing too much on the fact that your hero is a woman can cause problems. If she denies her femininity, you’re implying that, to be a hero, a woman must act more like a man. Go the other way and have her exploit her femininity to get her way, and you risk denying her the opportunity to use her intelligence and strength to get out of a tough situation. The first heroine to really achieve this balance was Ripley in Alien. Ripley was originally intended to be male and (according to IMDB) all of the characters were unisex. In other words, none of them were written to be male or female. This, I think, prevented the writers from falling into some of the usual traps that writers for female characters can fall into (consciously or otherwise). As such, there are no gender-based presumptions that character X will scream but do nothing to save themselves or that character Y will remain unshaken by the events that transpire. It allowed to characters to be their character and not their gender. These were people working together on a seemingly lifeless planet who are killed one-by-one by a mostly unseen foe. They should all be fighting to survive. And they should all be scared. Ripley survives not because she’s sexy or over-compensating for testosterone deficiency. She survives because she’s smart, tough, and probably more than just a little bit lucky (if you call being the lone survivor of a massacre lucky).

A compelling motivation. An audience is much more willing to accept that a man will go out and pick a fight with a bad guy because aggressiveness in men is more generally accepted. If you have an aggressive female character, there better be a darn good reason she’s not staying at home taking care of the kids! Okay, it’s not so bad as that, but women are seen as nurturers. Their motivations are necessarily different from their male counterparts. Sarah Conner made a tremendous transformation in Terminator 2. She went from the clueless and helpless damsel in distress in the first Terminator to the survivalist of Judgement Day. Gone was the terrified screaming, replaced by a confident, commanding voice. Why? She had a son and a future to protect. Some heroines are trying to make sense of life (Trinity in the Matrix), some are out for revenge (The Bride in Kill Bill), some are fighting for mere survival (La Femme Nikita, Dark Angel) and still others are fulfilling the role of protector (Buffy, Witchblade) Of course, most of my examples mix a lot of those motivations together in various concentrations. It’s called having a complex character. This may be why female heroes do better on television than in the movies. There is more time for character development.

Vulnerable but not helpless. Heroes are often defined as much by their weaknesses as they are by their strengths. This aspect of heroines, however, appears to be the toughest to accomplish. Writers are sometimes afraid to make a heroine vulnerable at all for fear of falling into the “women are weak” stereotype. Do you risk undermining her independence by giving her a love interest? Do you show the emotional toll that her life is taking on her? How about the physical toll? It’s tricky, but when done right, the character is much more believable and relatable. Buffy’s greatest vulnerability – her friends – was also her greatest strength. Take them away and you get someone more like Faith, a fellow Slayer who went over to the Dark Side, as it were. Making the love interest a source of emotional rather than physical support seems to work well. Take Allison on Medium. Her husband cannot come to her rescue because most of the problems she faces are inside her own mind. All he can do is be there for her as she tries to put her abilities to good use. Medium also does a good job of showing how Allison’s psychic abilities and what she chooses to do with them take a toll, not only on her, but on her family.

Something may be missing here, but keeping these three things in mind will at least give you a good start on creating a successful heroine. Three things. That shouldn't be so hard. Right?


Blogger Christiana said...

Excellent post. I especially like the point about TV's ability to spread out characterization is probably why heroines tend to be more successful there.

6/27/2005 10:54 AM  
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