Over the course of television and film history we’ve watched as generations of women lobbied for female representation. Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman in the 70s has been iconic, as well as the ladies that made up Charlie’s Angels leading into the 80s and Lucy Lawless’ Xena in the 90s. The badass women who were beautiful and beat the hell out of the bad guys were important to lots of girls growing up, but The Powers That Be take these characters as a base for building not so great characters with traits that became a tiring trope – a disservice to the audience, let alone the women behind these characters. While female characters who dress scantily, are excellent marksmen, and punch assholes in the face are awesome, when the characterization stops there the importance of creating a female role in the first place is lost.
Important steps forward have been seen in characters like Buffy Summers who was feminine, wore makeup, and loved pink while also being exceptionally skilled, allowing girls to see that just because you like things that are typically associated with girls doesn’t make you weak – and that you don’t have to discard femininity or look down on girls who drew hearts in pink glitter pen on their notebooks to be powerful.The Walking Dead‘s Michonne has been a touching example of a fascinating female character as we watch her slice through zombies and enemies alike with a cold and quiet demeanor, only to be shown how vulnerable and nurturing she really was. Her strength was displayed in putting down her weapon when she had the opportunity to and picking it back up again when she was needed. Meanwhile, Bella Crawford on Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal was stubborn and desired to die with dignity and Orphan Black‘s clones display a mixture of science mastery, ability for manipulation, and suburban motherhood among their strengths. Creating female characters with depth that didn’t bust in people’s faces on the regular was also important, redefining “strong women” and broadening the characters we were seeing on screen, both big and small. Showing emotions doesn’t always make you weak, wielding a weapon doesn’t always make you strong, and giving a diverse display of what it means to be a woman reaches and resonates with a broader audience.
We’re seeing a beautiful change in female representation in media overall, but within the shows themselves that are providing this representation, it’s better than expected. While the film industry is still trying to catch up, television (network, cable, and instant streaming) is sprinting away with characters that are dynamic and fully fleshed out with strengths and faults in all shapes, sizes, ages, ethnic groups, and sexualities in shows like The 100, The Walking Dead, Agent Carter, How To Get Away With Murder, Jessica Jones, Daredevil, Vikings, and so many more. More than that, we’re getting relationships between women and platonic relationships between women and men. I have to pause for a moment in disbelief and joy because those two things make me so incredibly happy. Women are not only being written with characteristics like fierce loyalty, cleverness, ruthlessness, and nurturing love, but we’re also being shown why the pretentions of previous decades are absolutely ridiculous. Recently in an episode of Agent Carter, already noted for doing at excellent job in representation (especially for the time period in which it is set), the male characters scoff at the idea of a larger woman – despite being a trained member of the agency – being able to take on an integral part of a mission that required her to be physical.
This attitude is similar to what the men did to Peggy Carter herself, and while no longer doubting Peggy’s prowess, Sousa doubted this woman’s ability to do her job while scapegoating it on him being able to focus and not be worried about her. Of course she accomplishes her task with a satisfied grin. Reinforcing the same point that Agent Carter made in its first season, this moment added appearances into the mix, giving bigger women such as myself (who had to experience disheartening looks of shock when I told people I did 5ks for fun and was training for a half-marathon) representation and a boost of confidence.
The true heart of these shows is character, and it seems as if creators are realizing just how important these things are to their audiences. Some are understanding better than others by giving us a wide range of female characters that are representative of not just their audience, but the world we live in. What we’re seeing more and more of is a move away from creators struggling to write a “strong female character” in an original way that avoids the cookie cutter trope and just creating female characters – and writing good story lines for them. What an intriguing concept.