The paradox of the
‘strong female lead’
By REBECCA TOOK | May 7, 2019
In her recent book, Invisible Women, writer and feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez examines the ‘gender data gap’. As she argues, “women are so under-represented. I was one of those girls being taught, via a curriculum, a news media and a popular culture that were almost entirely devoid of women, that brilliance didn’t belong to me. I wasn’t being shown women I could look up to (either past or present). I wasn’t being taught about female politicians, female activists, female writers, artists, lawyers, CEOs. All the people I was taught to admire were men, and so in my head power, influence, and ambition equated with maleness.”
The correlation of success, talent, and intelligence with maleness is so pervasive in our society that even successful, talented, and intelligent women have been conned into believing the myth of exclusively male brilliance. Criado-Perez suggests that “the result of this deeply male-dominated culture is that the male experience, the male perspective, has come to be seen as universal, while the female experience – that of half the global population, after all – is seen as, well, niche.”
The niche-ness of womanhood is made explicit by Hollywood. You can see it in Netflix streaming categories: a quick search for ‘female’ produces category suggestions including ‘Action & Adventure Featuring a Strong Female Lead’, ‘Romantic Films Featuring a Strong Female Lead’, ‘Violent Action Featuring a Strong Female Lead’, ‘Inspiring Comedies Featuring a Strong Female Lead’, ‘LGBTQ TV Programmes Featuring a Strong Female Lead’, and ‘Action Comedies Featuring a Strong Female Lead’. A search for ‘Male’ produced Larry Gaye: Renegade Male Flight Attendant.
Without the eponymous ‘Strong Female Lead’ – also known as – a woman who speaks for longer than a minute – a film is just called a film. A graph produced by the BBC showed that in the last 24 Academy Award Best Picture winners (1991-2016), not one had women speaking more than men, even in female-led films. In two cases – Schindler’s List and The Hurt Locker – women didn’t speak at all. Less than one-third of all speaking roles in films released between 1990 and 2005 went to women, and men spend almost twice as much time on screen.
Think about this when the Oscars’ men’s and women’s awards suggest parity of any sort. I’ve seen these numbers, about how speech is apportioned in films, but this chart is really striking. ht @ellentejle pic.twitter.com/JIwgDKOPhQ
— Soraya Chemaly (@schemaly) March 4, 2018
Even when women are the lead, their screen time is only equal to men’s. Women aren’t even dominant in stories about their own lives; we are being elided from our own narratives.
And yet there still remains the inaccurate stereotype of women ‘talking too much’, when in fact, in formal situations, it is men who dominate the conversation. When women are given equal airtime, men perceive women to be dominating. Such is the power of the default, that gender equality is interpreted as female dominance.
But women can use this elision of their lives and narratives to their own advantage: if our experience is niche, our stories are less known, which means fresher. There is a treasure trove waiting to be tapped. And recent years have shown that there is growing demand for female-led films.
The blockbuster comedy Girls Trip, starring Regina Hall, Jada Pinkett Smith, Tiffany Haddish, and Queen Latifah, was one of the most successful films of 2017. It was also the most successful film with an African-American female screenwriter ever (Tracy Y. Oliver), grossing $140.9 million at the box office.
Lady Bird (2017), written and directed by Greta Gerwig, grossed $78.6 million, and the new Captain Marvel (2019), starring Brie Larson, grossed over one billion dollars worldwide. Women are out there doing the work, making the money, and being very successful with it – yet are still facing institutional and structural roadblocks.
Women have to do twice the work if they want to find representations of themselves, creating their own curriculums to study the work of fellow women. Just because women have been left out of the history books – usually included only under the study of suffrage or the exceptional few, like Boudicca and Florence Nightingale – doesn’t mean they weren’t making history.
In Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys, the formidable Mrs. Lintott asks, “What is history? History is women following behind with the bucket.” But I’m not sure I’d quite agree with Mr. Bennett in this case. The more that women have researched and written their own stories, the more it seems that history has been full of women doing the work of men (or men’s work for them), only to be handed the bucket and instructed to mop.
Most children, when asked to draw a doctor or a lawyer – both of which are general neutral terms in English – will draw a man. On forms, while men only have to tick ‘Mr.’, if that is how they identify, women are presented with the multiple options of ‘Mrs.’, ‘Miss’, ‘Ms.’. We are forced to declare our relationship status to the bank, to an employer, to the tax office. We’re not allowed to just be: our independent identity is constantly subsumed under our relation to men.
Hidden Figures, the 2016 biopic about the lives of three black female mathematicians, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, who worked at NASA during the famous space race as ‘human computers’, helped engineer the first moon landing with their calculations. These women were exceptional, working in a field that not only discriminated against their gender, but during a time in which segregation was still enforced in America. Yet the fact that the film was the first time many audience members had ever heard of the figures is a telling indictment of the bias of our media.
Exceptional women exist. But their superior talents are valued beneath the mediocre talents of their white, male colleagues. Hidden Figures showed hundreds of thousands of girls (particularly black girls, who are disproportionately expelled from schools) that a STEM career isn’t impossible, as the path has already been laid.
The world was made for men. Criado-Perez’s book illustrates this fact, while films are starting to illuminate these hidden figures. Stories are important, and powerful. And the more women who tell, write, and speak their own stories, the more the world will see that not only do women have stories to tell, but also impressive lives to live.
Rebecca Took is a student at the University of Amsterdam. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Amsterdammer.
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