Heroes and Villains: The New Age of Women

Sharp-Objects

Whenever I wrestle with this idea, I often think back to Glenn Close’s phenomenal performance in Fatal Attraction.

Alexandra “Alex” Forrest (Glenn Close) – a name that sent fear in men’s hearts and shivers down their spine.  Played like a cautionary tale, Fatal Attraction was a horror-esque warning sign that cheating eventually catches up with you.  The dynamism of Close’s performance coined the phrase ‘bunny boiler’, a term used not only to describe the actions of what happened to a pet rabbit but culturally as a divisive term to describe a woman as ‘crazy’, ‘possessive’ or obsessed’ if they weren’t acting reasonably.  To conclude, Alex Forrest is often ranked as one of the most memorable villains in film history.

It naturally brings me to this question – if Fatal Attraction was released today, would we react differently?  Would we find alternative labels that cut through social stigmas, biased narratives and double standards to describe someone’s behaviour?  Would we understand that Alex was not just a simplistic villain as dictated by online polls and film-based ranking, but someone who was misunderstood and complicated?  Would we react more empathetically, acknowledging that mental health contributed to her downfall, dictated by her past and triggered by the emotional fallout left by Dan (Michael Douglas)?  Should Dan shoulder some responsibility, considering he was happily married in the first place?  Could he have handled Alex’s self-destructive tendencies better?

I only ask this question because we are living in a period of conscious reflection.  With fresh eyes, we are culturally able to analyse films and TV in a brave, new and (sometimes) uncomfortable context. A great example of that direction belongs to Molly Ringwald’s powerful article about The Breakfast Club, revisited in the era of #MeToo.  Does it change my overall love of the film?  No, but the insight builds an appreciation of its success whilst categorically accepting the troubling contradictions in its outdated attitudes regarding gender behaviours.

In 1987 when Fatal Attraction was released, we didn’t have that understanding.  It was easier to turn to social stigmas instead of assessing the root cause of the problem.  There are numerous articles on the internet which explain Fatal Attraction far more eloquently than I could ever accomplish, but today’s world is far more accommodating to those alternative beliefs.

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But the fascinating aspect regarding Alex Forrest is the depiction of ‘female rage’, essentially becoming “the most hated woman in America” according to Glenn Close at a recent Q&A session at the Oxford Union.  Alex’s behaviour went against the traditional female stereotypes of ‘wife’ or ‘mother’ – the idolised fantasy of what a woman should be that was ramped up by the societal transformation from 70s liberalism to 80s conservatism.  But there is a striking counter-argument that Fatal Attraction fuels an anti-feminist agenda of punishment towards career-driven women.  Not only does it suggests that women with careers feed an aggressive power which is unattractive and “unfeminine”, but it’s our ‘destruction of the status quo’ that must be stopped at all costs.  It’s a convincing discussion explored by Susan Bromley and Pamela Hewitt in Fatal Attraction: The Sinister Side of Women’s Conflict About Career and Family.  I mean, just *think* about how the film ended with editor Alex and housewife Beth…

Let’s put something in perspective – examples of influential female characters whether it’s Dana Scully (The X-Files), Buffy Summers (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Peggy Olson (Mad Men), Ellen Ripley (Alien), Diana Prince (Wonder Woman), Princess Leia (Star Wars), Jane Tennison (Prime Suspect) and Sarah Connor (Terminator 2), existed beforehand.  Since their iconic introduction, they’ve become symbolic trailblazers in their field, showcasing strength and determination in extraordinary circumstances.  ‘The Scully Effect’ is a real-life extension of inspiring women to join STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). But despite the strength in numbers, there’s always a looming aspect of ‘we’ve still got a long way to go’.

Part of the deep-rooted problem lies in how women are defined.  Far too often, women are depicted within media as either:

  • Damsels in distresses who need saving.
  • Heroines who can ‘tough it out’ like a man like a ‘badass’.
  • Sexualised objects to be figures of desire.
  • Sidekick or supporting acts aimed primarily to boost the male protagonist and their cause.

Sadly, most of these characteristics have been driven from a ‘male gaze’, a fantasy perspective that feeds one-dimensional characters, which was highlighted in Catherine Bray’s TED-talk inspired #RIPStrongFemaleCharacter at the Woman With A Movie Camera Summit at the BFI (which I was lucky enough to attend).  In a brilliant video montage, Bray highlighted women portraying male attributes within action films (drinking, gun obsessed, laughing in the face of danger and sexualised clothing) and comically concluded that Angelina Jolie was the essence of all of that in her early on-screen performances – Tomb Raider and Wanted, we’re looking at you kid!  If you want to extend that point further, just look at the portrayal of women within Michael Bay’s Transformers films (films which I hate) or even the Fast and Furious franchise (films that I love).

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It’s not to say that men can’t write for women and vice versa or to say men don’t suffer from the same, one-dimensional tropes of masculinity.  That would be incredibly short-sighted considering that most of the writers on Mad Men were women, The Handmaid’s Tale is made up of a diverse writing room or think every man is shaped like a jacked-up, one man army from Predator that repeatedly yells “GET TO DA CHOPPA!!!”.  But embedded within the fabric of society which has stretched into the entertainment industry, those characteristics are deeply ingrained to the point of conditioning.  How else do you explain the patriarchal inequality where men are rewarded for aggression or recklessness (the Mission: Impossible franchise), selfish (The Wolf of Wall Street) or entitled (Mad Men) versus women who are judged on their appealing features which either adds nothing to the plot (a half-naked Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) in Star Trek into Darkness) or undergo a beautifying transformation for the opposite sex (The Little Mermaid).  Women showcasing their emotions are perceived to be weak whereas men who detach themselves in an alpha-male dominance of strength, passion and intelligence are portrayed as heroic.  To be consciously aware of it and to unlearn it, takes time and practice.

The female landscape starts to get muddled when you start to drill down to the specifics – how many women can you define as an anti-hero?  There are a few – Lisbeth Salander (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Molly Bloom (Molly’s Game), Catwoman (Batman Returns and The Dark Knight Rises), Claire Underwood (House of Cards), Carrie Mathison (Homeland) and Jackie Payton (Nurse Jackie).  However, there are occasions when listing those examples can be a mental challenge (despite its obvious existence) when it’s either not talked about in greater depth or you’re flooded with symbols of male anti-hero characters (Walter White, Don Draper, Travis Bickle, Alex Krycek, Nucky Thompson, Tony Soprano, Saul Goodman, Magneto, Deadpool, Wolverine, Rorschach and many more).

It’s why I take great pleasure when I see films or TV shows that love subverting those tropes.  Moonlight tackles the perception of masculinity.  The Last Jedi is a great example of characters showcasing impulse reactions (which they would have gotten away with in previous films) and forced to re-evaluate their qualities to become better leaders.

But what we’re seeing today is the upsurge in female characters who are directly challenging those societal norms and gender stereotypes.  They’re changing the scope and narrative, allowing them to showcase a full range of identifiable emotions.  Despite these examples commissioned before the current political changes in America or #MeToo, when you look across the spectrum from Jessica Jones, The Handmaid’s Tale, Big Little Lies, Arrival, Westworld, Insecure, Orange is the New Black, The Deuce and Sharp Objects, their story-led contributions provide an experience.  This experience is not seen through a ‘male gaze’ but reaches through to confront a profound, investigative truth about themselves.

Welcome to the new age of women.

It feels like a euphoric moment because there’s an unmistakable shift in the paradigm.  What I love about the current generation of female characters is the fearlessness in their exploration.

Take a look at Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s TV adaptation of WestworldSeason one looked at Delores (Evan Rachel Wood) and Maeve (Thandie Newton) as stereotypical characters, experiencing their lives through loops of programmed torture and violence to fulfil a specific role.  However, season 2 does something clever to those characters, endlessly lost in the debate with media outlets on how ‘confusing’ or its premise being ‘too clever for its own good’.  These are characters who reject the roles given to them and re-writing their own story.  They make mistakes and rash judgements, but that is part of their evolving nature and understanding of the world.  The season was not flawless, but the calls of Dolores being “boring” or “unlikeable” proves a point about how we envisioned her character in the first place – a good girl, damsel in distress who needed saving.  The fact she takes a darker path towards a genuine resolution for the hosts in season two illustrates not only her independence to chose that direction but diminishing our expectations in how the story was going to play out.  She looks at the ‘bigger picture’ and as a liberator of hosts doesn’t necessarily have to be a path of righteousness.

The principle of heroes and villains are never straightforward, not in the traditional sense.  Heroes will eternally have a moral code but villains never see themselves as immoral people.  They always view their mission as something necessary.

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But this rejection of the system is prevalent.  The season two finale of The Handmaid’s Tale explored those societal labels targeted at women – wife, mother, daughter, handmaid, bitch, sinner, etc.  Even this writer was labelled ‘tomboy’ when growing up because I loved sports and played football with the boys.  But in the characters of June (Elisabeth Moss) and Serena Joy Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski) represents the complexity of their relationship in an extreme circumstance.  Both are subjugated by the Gilead regime.  Their relationship fluctuates between toxicity and empathy.  But by the end of the season, they ultimately recognise that all women suffer in one extreme or another.  But neither character simplistically deserves ‘heroine’ or ‘villain’ status.

June is a flawed character.  She’s had an affair and played her part in dissolving a marriage.  Before Gilead, her life was regular and conventional.  Within the confines of Gilead, her character struggles with mental health.  Her path to resistance wasn’t immediate, unlike her mother who spotted the signs early on.  But there is no doubt that she is a survivor, realising a bigger purpose in her life.  The same can’t be said for Serena Joy as a ‘simplistic’ villain.  I emotionally hate her for her vile wickedness and treatment but season 2 empathetically presented someone who is a walking enigma of emotions and prideful identity.  She may appear contradicting, given her pre-Gilead activism, education, conservative beliefs and the consulting architect of Gilead.  But it is a credit to the season for presenting her character with enough recognition on where that anger comes from.  She’s bored, lonely and desperate to fit in but also self-aware that having everything you ever wanted, can leave you unfulfilled and empty.  It develops her presence beyond what she was in the book and in the first season, to the elevation as one of the most fascinating characters on the show.

Because these characters are not conforming to our desired expectations, the more impetus to surprise or shock us.  They rip up the rule book of our perceptions.

One book that certainly challenged my thinking was reading We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (which was later turned into a brilliant feature film starring Tilda Swinton).  We expect mothers to be a ‘nurturing’ type – loving, sweet and hopeful.  But in the character of Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton), it’s the exploration of her doubts, comparing pregnancy to something out of Alien or The X-Files and whether nature or nurture contributed to Kevin’s (Ezra Miller) ultimate downfall.  Whilst the book covers all the intimate detail, topically Shriver was able to question typical female tropes, female independence, societal blame culture and its perpetual double standards.

When it comes to continuing that trend, that’s why Gillian Flynn is so effective in her work with Gone Girl, Sharp Objects and the upcoming film Widows.  She says it best in her exploration of ‘female rage and violence’ in an interview with The Guardian as:

“To me, that puts a very, very small window on what feminism is. Is it really only girl power, and you-go-girl, and empower yourself, and be the best you can be? For me, it’s also the ability to have women who are bad characters … the one thing that really frustrates me is this idea that women are innately good, innately nurturing. In literature, they can be dismissably bad – trampy, vampy, bitchy types – but there’s still a big pushback against the idea that women can be just pragmatically evil, bad and selfish … I don’t write psycho bitches. The psycho bitch is just crazy – she has no motive, and so she’s a dismissible person because of her psycho-bitchiness.”

Gone Girl explored the ‘cool girl’ rejection, tapping into the fantasies of men and the pressurised compromises for women which speaks volumes.  Gone Girl itself is a complex book and film with varying opinions ready to be extracted about revenge and the illusion of perfect happiness.  But there is no escaping from Flynn and David Fincher’s directorial adaptation of an elaborate chess game where there are no winners.

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That feeds perfectly into Sharp Objects, Flynn’s latest and masterful adaptation starring Amy Adams.  Filmed like an eerie and hypnotic fairytale, Sharp Objects dreamily evokes the memories of shows like Twin Peaks and True Detective without actually advertising it as such.  In Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) you have a character that eclipses everything about a hero and anti-hero.  She’s not a saviour – there’s no superhero quality about her, nor is she a ‘success story’, using tragedy to encourage her out of her circumstances.  She barely holds herself together – drinking, listening to music as a cathartic response and self-harming as coping mechanisms.  Like a surreal dream when she quietly pauses to reflect, her memories blurs between hallucinations or repression.  As a viewer, you’re continually debating the authenticity of her visions (ghostly in its appearance thanks to its brilliant editing), but you quickly empathise on her reluctance in returning to Wind Gap, Missouri – a place of questionable contradictions, traditions and its resolute perseverance of Southern normality.  But what Sharp Objects beautifully (and shockingly) explores is generational and unresolved trauma, a matriarchal family and the horrible things other women can do to one another.  It’s raw, visceral and unforgiving, excelling to a jaw-dropping conclusion, that carefully plays with our gender and societal assumptions but rewardingly punishing our mindset for underestimating the belief of simplistic conclusions.

It’s important to understand that this is not about women going through some ‘female suffering’ just for our entertainment or to serve for the plot.  This is not like how Gotham briskly brushed over Tabitha (Jessica Lucas) having her hand chopped off by The Riddler (Cory Michael Smith). The issue quickly resolved with her re-attached hand and superficially returning back to normal without any after effects.  Nor is it an opportunity to taint every female as ‘hysterical’ if they show rage.  But this new wave of characters are encouraged to explore their emotional depth without a pre-ordained judgement.  Like holding up a mirror, they are an honest reflection, and we as a viewer see through the prism of their lives as they fluctuate between morals and motivation.  They are a 360-degree encapsulation of a human being, and if that exploration veers towards a dark, twisted fantasy, then they’re pulling us along for the ride, whether we like it or not.

Does the term ‘heroes’ or ‘villains’ still apply in defining female characteristics?  For superheroes yes.  Despite the complexities of its characters, they’re still fighting a battle of good vs. evil in some shape or form.  But what we’re visually witnessing is an amalgamation within women, evolving above the labels and blurring between the lines.  By breathing life into a complex and nuanced performance, it presents a far more realistic and authentic experience of imperfection.  They are conversation starters – at least they provide something interesting to say instead of being a typical badass, responsibly faithful, disposable, lacking intelligence but beautiful or their demeanour is focussed purely on their looks.

This is also not just some egotistical competition that James Cameron tried to allude to in his comparison between Wonder Woman and his personification of Sarah Connor (an issue which I explored in great detail here).  There’s more than one type of woman, and there’s no right or wrong way to showcase them, in the same way that men have explored a vast range of identities in their roles.  When the world sets limitations, it only serves as an injustice for both genders, especially women whose characteristics are repeatedly sanitised in entertainment history that continually expects role based conformity.

Change won’t happen overnight.  It’s a process that will continue to unfold especially as the conversation should now include different ethnicities and cultures.  But it would seem that the entertainment industry is holding itself to a higher standard right now in choosing to explore and engage in female-led stories.

In the past, women were seen and not heard.  But now, it’s a powerful voice roaring louder than ever.

Author: Kelechi Ehenulo

Kelechi Ehenulo is the creator and writer of Confessions From A Geek Mind, an analytical film and TV blog. As a freelance film critic, her work can be found on Set The Tape - an independent pop culture website, VultureHound Magazine and podcasts such as The X-Cast, Close Encounters of the Film Kind, The Movie Palace Pod and The Tales We Tell podcast. She thinks Batman: The Animated Series is the best cartoon ever (and that is not up for debate) and loves science-fiction, LEGO and Tottenham Hotspur.

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