The question of “How Do I Feminism?” is something the media has grappled with for years. Too often the answer falls into the Strong Female Character, who can punch things really good and is an absolute asshole to everyone until the male Chosen One comes along to surpass her and also melt her stunted heart. While there’s nothing wrong with physical strength, the niggling problem of it all is, of course, diversity. Too often writers (mostly Straight White Men) mistake physical strength for depth and respectful treatment, creating a stopgap that lets themselves pat themselves on the back for their progress without having to actually examine their writing (see also the “writing the exact woman I, the writer, would like to sleep with over and over again” school that your Joss Whedons and Stephen Moffats tend to fall into).
While the full scope of this issue is far from what one could cover in one or a dozen essays, let’s take a look at one good starting place: agency. One of the successors to the Bechdel Test (which was always meant to be a purposefully low bar for purposes of commentary, and still many films are unable or barely able to meet it) is known as the “Sexy Lamp” test. The rule of the latter is that if your female character’s role in the story could be replaced by an inanimate object with a note pinned to it, you’ve done it wrong. That is not a character. It is a thing for the audience to ogle and the characters to fight over. Agency, by contrast, means a character has control over their actions and those actions then have a meaningful impact on the plot.
It seems simple, but all too often writers can fall into undermining a character in favor of her male counterpart, even when they mean well. As an example, let’s take a look at two works: one which reduced a female character’s agency; and one which, taking in the reaction to past writing, actively worked to correct a previous lack of agency.
Legally Blonde isn’t a perfect film – its presentation of femininity is heavily focused on a celebration of commercialism and it has some very 2000-era hangups about queer representation – but it is one of the earliest and in some ways still best attempts in Hollywood in trying to grapple with third wave feminism. Its entire plot revolves around its lead, Elle Woods, gaining agency and respect for herself without having to prioritize masculinized dress or interests just to be taken seriously in a male-dominated field. It’s still a solid, sweet and funny film, carried by the charm of Reese Witherspoon in the leading role.
When it came time for the show to be adapted for Broadway, because the musical theater industry at the time was really pumping film adaptations for everything it could muster, they decided that the romantic subplot from the film needed a bigger spotlight. Fine enough in itself: Emmett, Elle’s eventual boyfriend, is rather purposefully written like the “supportive girlfriend” roles in other films, meaning that he’s sweet and also doesn’t get very much to do; which, on the stage, doesn’t translate to a lot of opportunities for musical interludes.
The problem came when the writers decided the means of enlarging Emmett’s role in the story. The central turning point in the film comes when Elle, who has followed the boyfriend who dumped her to Harvard, realizes that she’s never going to live up to his ridiculous expectations and decides to turn her attentions from winning him back to outdoing him. It’s a really satisfying scene with a montage and everything, kicking off Elle’s arc in the second half about learning to respect and value her own intelligence. The musical…well it does have a moment where Elle decides to outdo her ex. It’s just that she never makes the realization that he’ll never take her back. Emmett (who, in the musical, also is there to coach her through her studies rather than her doing it on her own) has to out and out tell her that this jerk doesn’t respect her and never will.
No amount of catchy bubblegum or brassy belting (this soundtrack is a ton of fun to belt out on roadtrips) will ever fix the fact that in one fell swoop, this has changed from a story about a woman learning to respect herself and learn to stand on her own (after starting the story with no aspirations beyond waiting for her jerk boyfriend to propose), who happens to get another boyfriend along the way, has now become a story where in a woman who was disrespected meets a new man who informs her that she’s better and teaches her a new way to comport herself. That narrative might’ve been progressive in the 50s, but in direct comparison to a film that already took the next narrative step, it’s a sour bit of backpedaling.
In a complete shift of genre (bear with me) we have Hannibal. Alana Bloom spends most of the show’s second season out of the loop regarding the whole “the main character is a serial killer who eats people” thing. In fact, she’s the only one out of the loop, while the other characters are all circling in on Hannibal and conceiving a way to catch him. In-universe, it makes complete sense that she would trust this man: he was her mentor and friend for many years prior to the story, and supposed good guy Will Graham tried to have Hannibal assassinated by another serial killer. The fact that Alana trusts Hannibal over Will makes sense for character.
The problem was that her role in that arc was never as an active questioner. She was Hannibal’s unwitting pawn (in point of fact, her practical contribution is to give him an alibi at the arc’s midpoint; yes, her biggest contribution is when she’s drugged and unconscious and sleeping over at the cannibal’s house) and a means of making Will jealous, and she got a fair number of oblivious romance scenes, but her own interactions with the case were reactionary (often purely as a writerly means of stymying the investigation) right up until the season’s bloodletting finale. It was frustrating sidelining for a character who had theoretically been defined by her ability to read people and her status as the only character who remembers what professional ethics are.
And when Fuller and the writing team heard these complaints about how Alana had been written…they took steps to correct it. Alana’s arc in the third season is entirely proactive. She has goals that she works to achieve, and the effects of those goals further not only her own arc but the narrative at large, affecting how other characters are able to move through the story. She’s an equal player where before she had been relegated to the sidelines, an emotional support who existed to be misguided and pined after. And while she does gain a new love interest in season 3 (the wonderful Katherine Isabelle as Margot Verger), they work as coequal partners in their machinations rather than one or the other being set aside to champion their partner’s pursuits.
Alana’s arc is a brilliant example not only of how simple, thoughtful changes can elevate a previously neglected or mistreated character, but of the difference that’s made when a female character is intentionally written with respect and interest by the writers: not just so that the male lead can have a love interest or a grudging attempt to ward off questions about cast gender parity (abysmal trans and nonbinary representation being a subject for another day), but as a true character. As someone we the audience are expected to care about and invest in and root for. Not every female character has to be able to take down twenty burly opponents with a single punch. But a fully realized inner life and meaningful stake in the overarching narrative might be a nice start.