Why We Should Jettison the “Strong Female Character”: Part 1

The trailer for the latest Star Wars movie, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, was released last week. Following the success of the revival of the franchise in last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, anticipation is unsurprisingly at a fever pitch. As in the case of The Force Awakens, much of the pre-release speculation and comment has been preoccupied with the question of the representation of women and minorities within it. Despite concerns about a male-heavy cast early in the film’s development, the character of Rey in The Force Awakens met with a rapturous reception when it hit the cinemas. Along with the characters of Finn and Poe Dameron, many believe that her character marks a decisive movement towards a more egalitarian and inclusive vision of Star Wars, one no longer so dominated by white male protagonists.

Jyn Erso, the heroine of Rogue One, promises more of the same. Aggressive, rebellious, reckless, and gifted in combat, she seems to be another stereotype-breaking character, destined to be welcomed as a feminist-approved role model for young girls and a welcome lesson for young Star Wars-obsessed boys about the power of women and their rightful place and prominence in a world they once considered theirs. The scattered grumblings among unreconstructed fanboys have been met with derision and dismissive pooh-poohing. The only minor disappointment is that she is not a woman of color, but people are increasingly confident that the franchise will get around to rectifying that failure of representation, much as J.J. Abrams has said that there will be openly LGBTQ characters in future installments.

Popular culture is the focus of some of the most determined attempts to shift attitudes on a host of issues within society at large, and such forms of representation are an important dimension of this. While popular media and the various ‘messages’ within it may often appear innocuous, they are frequently anything but. Behind them lie concerted efforts to change the public’s thinking and perception on key matters and some carefully calculated agendas. The supposed shallowness of pop culture is deceptive: It is a realm where brilliant and talented people go to try to shape minds at their most unguarded and impressionable. It is on the ground of entertainment media that the so-called culture wars have largely been lost.

The power of such media exists in no small measure because they are the culture that mediates our social relations and perceptions (Guy Debord: “passive identification with the spectacle supplants genuine activity”). Each of us typically produces little culture of our own, but we consume a great deal and it is in our common cultural consumption that we find our togetherness. Entertainment media provide us with the spectacle that increasingly mediates and intermediates our relations to each other, to the world, to society as a whole, and even to ourselves. We understand ourselves and reality within the terms it provides us, within the images and cultural products with which we identify.

Further to this, the internet has made possible a revolution in social viewing and consumption of entertainment media. The phenomenon of the ‘second screen’ increasingly frames our enjoyment of such media, as we discuss and form communities around our favorite movies, TV shows, books, and games. Such communities and discussions existed previously, of course, but the internet has made it possible for them to swell to previously unprecedented proportions and achieve a far greater degree of visibility. There have been many positive results of this development. It has catalyzed a proliferation of close analysis and creative engagement with entertainment media, created more demanding and critically literate audiences, and has greatly raised the power of fanbases.

It also involves a new stage in and an intensification of our identification with the spectacle. We now project an image of ourselves into the shared spectacle of the internet, of which the ‘second screen’ is a part (a good example of this is the burgeoning genre of the ‘reaction video’). This shared spectacle redoubles the mediation of ourselves and our worlds and it also involves a new development in the manner in which the older forms of the spectacle function. A formerly more passive form of identification with the consumed spectacle is now replaced by the projection of our consumption itself as its own spectacle and the spectators’ remixing of the original spectacle as a means of public self-expression. This makes our identification with the spectacle even more profound.

Popular culture producers have, for their part, become increasingly responsive to the novel phenomenon of the highly visible and connected audience, to the audience that has itself become a spectacle. They know that everything they produce will become fodder for close analysis and speculation, inspire vast works of fan fiction, encourage obsessive identification with and levels of emotional investment in characters and worlds (seen in phenomena such as ‘shipping’), and produce countless real-time reactions to and GIFs of discrete moments that serve a broader online community and establish part of its emotional currency. The much greater and closer interaction between pop culture producers and their audiences has changed the dynamic of creation, encouraging such phenomena as the undeath of the author (here’s looking at you, J.K. Rowling…).

In some cases, pop culture producers play very directly to the ‘second screen’ and the social and political concerns and values of a connected audience. Doctor Who—a science fiction series aimed predominantly at children, but with an extensive and obsessive adult audience—is an example of a TV show whose writers are frequently winking through the window of the fourth wall. Episodes of Doctor Who over the last few years have contained numerous pointed and typically gratuitous references to contemporary socially progressive concerns such as same-sex marriage, queer sexuality, transsexualism, and various feminist themes. These references usually serve no ostensive plot purpose: They are incongruous and odd, violating Chekov’s gun principle. They draw attention to themselves in a way that often seems intentional and preachy, seemingly calling for us to attend, while simultaneously chiding us for paying attention to that which should be treated as entirely natural and unexceptional. However inauthentic they may appear on the ‘first screen’, though, they play very well on the second. The intensification of the messages of such media has much to do with the development of the spectacle they offer into a means of self-signalling in the age of the internet, as audiences become more visible to themselves within a spectacle of their own.

The Economics of Strong Female Characters

Supporting progressive values is good business too, and this might well be the most critical factor in their spread in popular media. Women and minorities are a huge market and attracting them to franchises that were previously dominated by straight white males can prove extremely lucrative. Egalitarian individualism is the logical ideology of the contemporary marketplace, for which all natural or structural differences between persons are to be dissolved into the business-empowering universalism of self-expressive consumerism. To the extent that the social justice movement aligns with these values, business will naturally support it. Besides, as the social justice movement in its various guises is the heir apparent of post-Christian society’s religious loyalties, people seeking to sell pop culture to us are increasingly alert to the payoffs from—frequently opportunistic—gestures towards its ideology. As Rory Ellwood observes, backing the winning team doesn’t hurt the bottom line.

Spurred in part by the new visibility and power of pop culture audiences, ascendant social progressivism has heightened concerns about inclusion and representation. Fans have always intensely identified with characters and their worlds. However, I suspect that a deepening sense of the social functions of entertainment has been one of the effects of the rise of progressive ideology among the young and of the increasing visibility of ‘fandoms’ to themselves and to pop culture producers. Providing identifiable characters for the various different constituencies of a fandom and ensuring that narratives do not overly advantage socially privileged groups in the ownership of and representation within imaginary worlds are concerns that are elevated by this sense.

Representation has been a prominent concern of the socially progressive ‘social justice’ movement, whether in its more theoretical or in its more popular incarnations. Every new popular culture product will spark thousands of hot takes and Tumblr posts closely examining how women, LGBTQ persons, persons of color, and various other minority demographics are portrayed and represented within it. The intense demands placed upon popular culture to represent demographics in an extensive, positive, affirming, and empowering manner, to provide relatable characters, and to push against stereotypes of less privileged groups encourages a situation where popular culture products are assessed as much for their alignment with progressive social and political concerns as they are for their more narrowly defined artistic merits.

Few such works can please everyone or sustain the ideological demands placed upon them and, as the Tumblr Everything’s A Problem catalogues, even works that make significant steps to please a socially progressive audience can still come under fire on various counts for their failure to conform their works sufficiently to the ideology (the new Ghostbusters fails because, although all of the ghostbusters are now women—yay!—the black woman isn’t a scientist—boo!). Receiving the nihil obstat and imprimatur of the social justice priesthood is not an easy feat.

Pop culture producers have long sought to shape society and its values, rather than just to replicate or perpetuate them or to provide escapist entertainment that leaves them untroubled. Media that were previously used to catechize the public in such things as anti-communist values are now explicitly employed to inculcate progressive ideology and explore its favored issues. Considering how explicit much popular culture has become in pursuing ideological ends and tackling prominent ideological issues, it is neither surprising nor inappropriate that people should subject its social effects and agenda to considerable scrutiny, much as Christian films and novels, which are typically deeply—and often excruciatingly—ideologically driven, demand such engagement.

For instance, The Powerpuff Girls, which was just rebooted last week, sought to engage with the issue of transsexual identity in one episode which has received a mauling for its clumsy handling of the matter from social justice advocates on Tumblr. Such social and ideological engagement is not exclusive to social progressives, of course: The recent series of South Park was an extended contrarian engagement with and lampooning of progressive issues such as political correctness, safe spaces, and white liberal culture.

This pedagogy is not merely a matter of occasional ‘Very Special Episodes’ dealing with topical social issues (although one could argue that Glee was a show frequently based around Very Special Episodes, with all of the awkward earnestness and preachiness that can come with that). It powerfully shapes narratives and characterization, as characters are favorably or unfavorably represented for ideological ends or as narratives and worlds are crafted in order to make clear points about the real world (although, as the spectacle—the ‘representation’—so often takes the place of directly lived life, the ‘real world’ features less prominently in our consciousness). Once again, such a phenomenon is not exclusive to socially progressive pop culture creators: The recent God’s Not Dead, an egregious trainwreck of a movie, is an example of a Christian film whose plot and characterization seemed to be primarily ideological contrivance.

The Ideological Colonization of Pop Culture

There has been an ideological colonization of pop culture, where old works criticized for their unexamined biases and failures of representation are replaced by new works that are quite explicitly progressive in their ideology and pointedly subversive of traditional values in their ends. Disney princesses, on account of their appeal with an impressionable demographic of young girls and their supposed role in conforming them to patriarchy, have received a particularly large degree of attention from feminists and provide some good examples of the phenomena I am discussing here.

Beginning in the mid-nineties, the more traditional Disney princesses—Snow White, Cinderella, etc.—have been replaced by a new breed of badass princesses, who explicitly resist gender norms and are more racially inclusive—Pocahontas, Mulan, Megara, Tiana, Rapunzel, Merida, Elsa, etc. (Kenneth Branagh’s recent live action reboot of Cinderella is a notable exception from the general trends here, and has been widely criticized accordingly). The ideological subtext is seldom far from the surface as these princesses demonstrate their female independence and strength through sarcasm, fighting, feistiness, rejection of their parents’ values and expectations, refusal of the traditional princess role, rejection of marriage and love at first sight, and the celebration of sisterhood.

Along the way, traditional masculinity is subtly and sometimes not so subtly satirized. For instance, against the background of the song I’ll Make A Man Out of You, Mulan, a woman disguised as a man, proves herself more competent than her male peers as they train for combat. The male characters can serve as pathetic foils or narrative punching bags against which the women can demonstrate their superior strength, virtue, independence, intelligence, wit, skill, and sassiness. Of course, the literally cartoonish over-performance of strength and independence such ideologization of the Disney princess occasionally produces betrays some profound insecurities about women’s agency and an inability to cope well with the existence of male strength, agency, intelligence, and competence.

Like many other such characters, these new Disney princesses remain quite recognizably female, and indeed feminine, in most other respects, generally exemplifying healthy relationships with men, and are often well-rounded and well-characterized protagonists. In many regards, they are a considerable improvement upon past princesses, as they exhibit more pronounced agency and interiority. They are also very far from the gender-switched scantily clad warriors with large breasts that have been the result of some embarrassing attempts by men to ‘empower’ women in heavily masculine pop culture contexts (gaming providing some of the most prominent examples here).

Yet, despite their likeableness and roundedness as characters, these new princesses betray some concerning anxieties about women’s place and agency within the world. Within the kickass princess trope lurks the implication that, to prove equality of dignity, worth, agency, and significance as a character, all of a woman’s resolve, wisdom, courage, love, kindness, self-sacrifice, and other traits simply aren’t enough—she must be capable of putting men in their place by outmatching them in endeavors and strengths that naturally favor them, or otherwise making them look weak or foolish.

Herein lies a tragic failure of imagination that weakens both men and women. Women are measured according to an unfair standard that encourages frustration and resentment, as they are pressed to play to their relative weaknesses; men, on the other hand, are ill-served as their strengths must be either pathologized, stifled, or dissembled in order to make women appear equal or stronger. Kickass princesses are an invitation to young girls to pursue their strength in a zero-sum gender game.

The rewards for a social justice-approved character can be considerable. Such a character isn’t just likeable, but represents The Cause. People can fiercely champion such figures, identifying with them on a deep and visceral level, and treating them as icons of their ideology. They are aspirational representations of the agency and place in society that people desire for themselves, affording catharsis as they resist and overcome forces that people experience as holding them back. Imperator Furiosa from Mad Max and Jessica Jones are two recent examples of characters who have received a warm reception in many feminist circles, for instance.

This concern with representation in pop culture is perhaps the most prominent social justice concern for many young people. Changing representations and breaking down stereotypes in popular media is important for many because these media play such a huge role in shaping their feelings, values, imaginations, and identities and those of their peers. Indeed, as I have suggested, such spectacles and the derivative spectacle of our spectation that they spawn are increasingly constitutive of our reality. Human beings, especially in the impressionable years of youth, are naturally imitative and form identities through emulating exemplars and through identification with others. For many, especially young people, the figures they see on their screens and encounter in their literature shape, for better or worse, their sense of themselves and of their place in the world. These fictional characters are means through which many young people form identities within an entertainment society.

Writers have long been alert to the importance of such identification, and often craft their protagonists accordingly, often forfeiting verisimilitude for the sake of facilitating easy identification. The character of Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars is a classic example of an everyman hero: The young viewer can relate to Luke and identifies with his journey. The recent rash of formulaic young adult movies featuring dystopian governments and docile populations, with an easily relatable, conventionally attractive teenager who sees through the façade, resists, forms a team, and leads others to overcome their oppression—The Hunger GamesDivergentThe Giver, etc.—all play into teenagers’ felt need to make a break with realms defined by the values of parents and teachers and to find their own place and identities in the world. Recent films have also sought to provide some everywoman heroines to complement or replace the traditional male ones—Katniss Everdeen, Tris Prior, Bella Swan, Rey, etc. Not every action heroine exists for the purposes of identification; some are primarily objects of admiration or other forms of appreciation instead. However, the desire for characters with whom girls and women can identify is one of the chief reasons why so much of an emphasis is placed upon representation.

Originally published at Mere Orthodoxy. Part 2 will be published on 3/13/18.

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham) is one of the participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast and is also the contributing editor of the Politics of Scriptureseries on the Political Theology Today blog. He blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria and tweets using @zugzwanged. This post was originally posted on his blog