The Strong Female Protagonist: Who is she? WHERE is she?

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A couple years back, in a casual conversation about what I wanted to be when / if I grow up, I heard myself say, “I want to be the female Ryan Reynolds.”

I promptly forgot I said this, and life went on.

Then last week, I caught some You Tube clips featuring Wonder Woman, Black Widow, Gene Gray, and other “strong” female leads, and I noticed something remarkable.

Every female with a warrior persona was in perfect physical condition and came with 2 settings:

“Berserker” and “Off.”

So I searched the ol’ memory banks for the closest thing to a female Ryan Reynolds in recollection. It took me all the way back to Lori Petty in the 1995 United Artist interpretation of Tank Girl.

tank girl

Okay. Grainy-ness of the borrowed internet photo aside, this is what a strong, female lead should look like, y’all.

Tank Girl was gritty, sarcastic, physically fit, physically funny, and – get this – allowed to where baggy clothes in scenes when it made sense in the context of the scene, not the skin-tight leather jumpsuit you’d expect to see in a modern Marvel flick. Also, in no way were her motivations through-out the picture precipitated by her feelings for a man (except maybe the feeling of contempt for the antagonist).

This was alarming to me in a lot of ways. Tank Girl was made closer to 30 years ago than 10, and it still beats the crap out of anything Wonder Woman has done for us, lately.

It also embarrasses me a little because I’m guilty having thought I wrote “strong females” into my own work, and their settings were exactly the same as Wonder Woman or Black Widow:

“Berserker” and “Off.”

I may be giving this phenomenon more thought that it deserves, but I think I know why we’re doing this to our women of genre fiction, comic books, and movies.

The short answer: “Toxic Masculinity.”

The somewhat longer answer: Back before women’s lib, civil rights, and stay-at-home dads were a thing, there was only one kind of man and one kind of woman in most people’s minds. Men were career-minded bread-winners who didn’t talk about their feelings. Women were full time housekeeper / child-minders who were kind of allowed to talk their feelings with other women but not too deeply. When we started embracing the idea that humans are complicated, women and men each became proficient in what was hither-to perceived as “man’s work” or “woman’s work.”

Here’s where it gets sticky. There are still humans who believe the man should be a career-minded bread-winner who doesn’t talk about his feelings. And since women are now prone the a similar career-mindedness, it seems natural to paint them as stoic professional bad asses who have it all together all the time…

Like a career-minded man only more-so.

With bosoms!

Not to put that Ryan Reynolds guy on a pedestal or anything, but the reason I think he can do what he does is he started out in comedy. Then, by the time someone noticed he was handsome enough to be a leading man / super hero, he was already grounded in the self-assurance that he wasn’t just, as they say, “another pretty face.”

Before he looked like…

ryan reynolds

…he was…

(the internet wouldn’t give me stills of this ancient scene featuring Ryan Reynolds and Nathan Fillion. I think it knows that much readily accessible sexy on our monitors would lead to some unintended euphoria / tech overdose and world break-age)

That’s where the toxic masculinisation of both sexes falls down, ya see. The courage to show people who we are, not the paragon we assume they want to see will eventually give us believable male and female leads and do wonders for our collective psyche.

In the meantime, “Berserker” and “Off” might be our best option in female protagonists until the governors of our movies, comic books, and genre fiction decide there’s money in it for’m to spring for an upgrade in the form of 3 denominational character development.

And not the 3 dimensions merely as it pertains to the female protagonist’s bosom, neither!




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