There has been a lot of talk recently about the glaringly obvious differences between male and female protagonists in Hollywood films, made even more obvious by the distinct lack of female protagonists. All films nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards had a male main character. Not just any character either; they were heavy, quirky, complex, unique, context laden roles ranging from the beautifully historical (Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game) to the downright bizarre (Michael Keaton as Riggan Thompson in Birdman).
However, the fabulously talented women nominated for Best Actress had to be content with the serviceable but archetypical wife/mother/girlfriend/sexy murderess roles that seem to flood modern screenplay. In addition to this, the majority of supporting roles in all film and television are male, and are (again) many and varied in terms of age, shape and size, ethnicity, etc. Women are relegated to the ditzy college student, the ingénue, the pretty, late 20’s lawyer-type and the wise but cranky older lady. There is very little in between.
Hollywood has always been a bit of a boy’s club (hence the lack of female directors/producers), but the absence of the truly female story indicates that this is becoming more, not less, prevalent. The lives and thoughts of women are constantly revealed through a male lens. Whether the world of Hollywood realises it or not, the female experience is secondary to the tales of men. This is a terrible shame, because aside from the obvious gender (and therefore employment) inequality, women are really, REALLY interesting. Why wouldn’t viewers want to see a story filled with wonderful women? We’ve got our own way of thinking and our own unique yarns to spin.
This week, I had a long think about the issue and decided to ask a few of my female friends and colleagues what they specifically would like to see in a Hollywood heroine. What character traits would appeal to them and what do they relate to? Here, in a nutshell, is what women want to see on the big screen.
Heroine’s age: I guess anywhere between 20-35, mostly I think I like to watch characters around my own age so I can relate to them better.
Special skills/superpowers if any: Well I would love for my perfect heroine to be able to defend herself – so have a good knowledge of self-defence skills – maybe some cool Game of Thrones style fighting skills.
Ethnicity: Purely because I want to relate myself to this heroine; Caucasian.
Five words to describe her personality: Kind, loyal, quick-witted, generally intelligent (interested in the world around her), confident.
Financial status: Middle class – working towards making some of her own money – paying for things herself not having her rich kinky boyfriend called Christian Grey do everything for her.
Traditional name or original name (e.g. Elizabeth vs Meadow): Always for the original name. I like names that are different to everyone else.
Country of origin: I honestly don’t have much of a preference. It doesn’t bother me.
Bookish and reclusive or outdoorsy and outgoing: I think watching a character who is more bookish and reclusive learn to be more outdoorsy and outgoing would be great, possibly seeing someone who is quite shy coming into themselves and finding a healthy balance between the two.
General Thoughts: I think my perfect Hollywood heroine would have flaws. I don’t want to see someone absolutely perfect on screen and start to compare the inadequacies to myself, especially as I am a real life person; not a perfect, well rounded fictional character.
In terms of qualities in a perfect heroine though, I think I would like to see someone who is generally kind [and] always means well. Maturity that suits the age of the character (I hate nothing more than when the main character – who is an adult – starts to behave like a young teenager over something like a boy).
A lot of Hollywood is about romantic love/relationships. One of my favourite TV shows is Friends, because of the strong bond between those characters that really forms their own little family. I think the perfect heroine in Hollywood would have at least one good friend who she has a strong bond with and won’t discard once something/someone better comes along.
She should be witty; able to hold her own in a conversation, a bit like an Elizabeth Bennett against Mr Darcy!
Heroine’s age: 37
Sexuality: Maybe a lesbian, but it shouldn’t be the main thing. Like, she should just happen to go home and have dinner with her wife. Or husband. Gay or straight; it shouldn’t be what the movie is about.
Special skills/superpowers (if any): Sailing…and amazing chin-ups. Basically Sarah Connor.
Ethnicity: A real mix. A bit of everything, but not blonde with blue eyes. I had this teacher at school who taught me Latin and she was so beautiful. She had some Egyptian in her I think?
Five words to describe her personality: Capable, gritty, confident (like, Rebel Wilson confident), varied, adventurous.
Financial status: Has some money, but works hard for it (as in, if she’s super rich she should be a top investment banker; no mysterious money please).
Traditional name or original name: I’m a sucker for old names. Elizabeth, Jane, Mary, Kitty, Lydia…
Country of origin: Oooh… Australia! No, maybe Iran?
Bookish and reclusive or outdoorsy and outgoing: Outdoorsy. I’m so sick of the classic Hollywood girl who sits around designing or reading or writing or some other non-intrusive occupation all day and then a MAN has to come and bring her out into the world. Blah blah.
General thoughts: You didn’t ask about physical shape and size! I’d love someone who’s just normal looking, like a strong body that is beautiful but in a Sarah Connor/Jennifer Ehle from Pride and Prejudice/Emma Thompson. Like, not super sexualised. I miss the days when a woman like Julie Andrews was considered a star. I never saw a hint of boob or even a knee. Not that you SHOULDN’T show your boobs or legs or any of it, but it shouldn’t be why she’s cast.
Heroine’s age: 25
Special skills/superpowers: Super strength. Mind reading.
Ethnicity: Hmm. Any really! There’s an appeal to all.
Five words to describe her personality: Strong, funny, empathetic, determined, just.
Financial status: Middle class.
Traditional name or original name: Original name.
Country of origin: Again, there’s an appeal to any!
Bookish and reclusive or outdoorsy and outgoing: Book smart but fit. Perhaps was neither of these things and worked hard at both.
General thoughts: I just find an appeal to someone incredibly average doing extraordinary things and a woman being powerful without the end goal being a man.
Heroine’s age: 20
Five words to describe her personality: Feminine, witty, clever, dreamer, romantic.
Financial status: Lower-middle class.
Traditional name or original name: Traditional name.
Country of origin: America
Bookish and reclusive or outdoorsy and outgoing: Outdoorsy
General thoughts: Confident but not 100 per cent sure of herself. She’d be in fine form but with curves!
Heroine’s age: Not too young. I think you want a woman who you can tell has experiences under her belt and is confident enough in herself to look the world in the face.
Sexuality: I don’t think in any way this should be a focus of a film and as such I don’t have a real preference for sexual orientation. However, I have often found that some of the women most accessible while still being confident and strong don’t necessarily place a label on their sexuality but are open to just accepting their love for whoever they find themselves in love with at the time (regardless of their partner’s biological sex).
Special skills/superpowers: I love intelligent characters who you can tell are bountiful in wisdom and don’t flaunt this over others but are patient , kind and understanding while still being strong enough to stand up for their opinions, those they love and themselves. These may not seem like extraordinary traits but too often in films women must be either intelligent OR loving OR strong. When she is able to have several of these traits rolled into one, that is when she is given the depth and complexity that a main character should have, and in a way, I see this as a superpower in its own right. I also love a bit of kick ass skills, witty banter, sass etc and an athletic protagonist.
Ethnicity: I wouldn’t have any problem with a Caucasian protagonist, especially because they are most likely to be relatable to my own circumstances. However Latino, African, African American, British African, Spanish, Mediterranean, Egyptian, any ethnicity really would be really cool to see. To have a non-Caucasian woman in a leading role that women can be proud of would be awesome because it reaches out to everyone in a completely different way eg. Lupita Nyong’o or Zoe Saldana would both be incredible.
Five words to describe her personality: Quirky, witty, confident, loving, multifaceted.
Financial status: Doesn’t matter as long as they work hard for their money. A character who works hard for what they have is more accessible for audiences because we get to see a bit of our daily struggles in that character. And if they can be strong, in both the good and bad times, working towards a worthy goal then why not us too?
Traditional name or original name: I absolutely love traditional names and they would be my first choice for any character I write about, but I think the name has to match the character’s attributes (if they’re quirky or stern etc.) and ethnicity of the character. I feel that if a character of a particular ethnic background is the lead then why not give them a name (and indeed experience in the film) that reflects their unique cultural heritage.
Country of origin: No preference.
Bookish and reclusive or outdoorsy and outgoing: I love a character that is intelligent and has a deep respect for learning but why should this mean they can’t also have a love for the outdoors and a deep-seeded belief in themselves that makes them strong and outgoing?
General thoughts: A woman who doesn’t have to be a sex symbol in every seen, who doesn’t have to look like a model. To see a female protagonist’s beauty come from her strength, intelligence, moments of doubt, protectiveness, sense of self-worth is a far greater beauty than looks alone and speaks volumes to audiences. Come on, Hollywood; listen up!
Image via Izismile.com