You Can Kick Ass, Just Fit Into the Costume

19 Aug

by Guy Jones

As someone who has written scripts for plays and short films, I’ve struggled to write from a perspective not of my own. Whether that means writing for a character of lower socio-economic status, of different age or race, of different philosophy, religion, or worldview, or of different gender, it has prompted me to first understand these viewpoints better and then represent them in an honest and respectful way. This leads me to one of my biggest pet peeves in cinema and its representation of women: the way action films tend to depict heroines as opposed to their male counterparts.

I want to use two different examples that strike me as representing the extremes of this issue. On one side, there is Scarlett Johansen’s character Black Widow in Marvel’s Avengers film (directed by notably feminist-minded Joss Whedon who has, indeed, claimed that he is “pissed off” by the lack of female superheroes). On the other, there is my personal favorite character in HBO’s Game of Thrones series, Brienne of Tarth, portrayed by Gwendoline Christie.

I first want to point out that while Whedon was restricted by his source material in what he could do with a female character (comic books are notorious for their depictions of women as “perfect” in form and often wearing very little merely to please the overwhelmingly male audience), Game of Thrones is based on the series of novels by George R.R. Martin, who recently explained that his female characters are written so well because he’s “always viewed women as people”. Consider my thoughts on the subject to be using two different examples to evaluate trends in film and television, rather than individual productions.

I’ve always hated seeing scenes in which a dainty, thin, scar-less woman is seen beating up several men three times her size without her hair moving out of place or getting a wedgie in her skin-tight suit. This for me embodies how Black Widow operates in The Avengers: Scarlett Johansen (who, I’m sure to her own chagrin, is often typecast as the delicate, elegant, conventional beauty who may or may not also be able to kick a bunch of people’s asses) simply walks through dozens of enemies who are heavy enough to simply sit on her to stop her.

Sure, comic book movies, especially The Avengers, are not particularly noted for their realism, but compare Black Widow’s physique to her male counterparts whose physical ability is also exaggerated. Every one of them is rippling muscle combined with impressive height and at least one superpower – even Tony Stark, who relies on his suit the whole movie, is ripped (remember that welding scene from the first movie with the dreamy biceps?). I think of Christian Bale’s insane weight changes from The Machinist to Batman Begins in which he added literally 100 pounds of muscle. If we expect superheroes, even those with grossly exaggerated powers, to be giant hulks of muscle, why is this only acceptable for men, whose “ideal” body type is muscular?

Which brings me to Gwendoline Christie’s Brienne of Tarth. She is tall, muscular, chiseled, and downright impressively large. She is insulted and mocked for her seeming lack of femininity, and her role as a warrior stands in contrast to many of the women surrounding her. But when she swings a sword, I believe it. I not only believe it, but I revel in it. Brienne has a physical power that is almost unrivaled in the series, and she does not expect to keep this strength while maintaining the proper “hourglass” figure. And, believe it or not, she is absolutely beautiful – just as beautiful as Scarlett Johansen in The Avengers.

And this may be my ultimate point: women can kick ass just as much, if not more, as men can, but it looks ridiculous when that woman is beating the crap out of goons who look like they could eat her weight in meat for breakfast. It looks ridiculous, and it looks like we are simply pandering to a male conception of what a female hero is – conventionally “hot” and kickass. Of course, Scarlett Johansen is beautiful and there is nothing wrong with her beauty. Of course, Gwendoline Christie is beautiful and there is nothing wrong with hers. What is wrong, in my opinion, is our demand that women be tiny but powerful, delicate but strong, elegant but badass, sweet but aggressive, ladylike but rebellious, passive but active – all at the same time.

And here’s to hoping that a Wonder Woman film franchise gets picked up soon.

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