The film industry has a problem. To be fair, it probably has a long list of problems, but one of these issues has become so glaringly obvious that I can't bear to keep quiet about it. What do you see when you look at Dawn of the Planet of the Apes? Apes on horses? Apes on horses with machine guns?! A well-crafted, smart and compelling story? Definitely. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a great film. I loved it. But what I didn't love about it was the total lack of a female presence. Keri Russell, an extremely talented actress, was all but wasted in the film. As the main female character, she never had much to do. She was smart, but always positioned in the background. When things got really rough, she had to stay behind. Her role dwindled as the film went on, making it seem more and more like maybe she was only cast so the film could claim at least one woman.
Don't think that I'm just blaming this movie. I really do love anything related to Planet of the Apes, including this film, but unfortunately, it's a perfect example of the problem I'm talking about.
Movies simply aren't offering women the kind of roles that they deserve. There are amazing female roles in films, of course, but they're much harder to come across than they should be.
There are less female roles in movies, far less leading roles and certainly less interesting roles. The role of a loving wife or mother, doting girlfriend or a love-struck lady might be available, but as New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis said, “The movie industry is failing women, and until the industry starts making serious changes, nothing is going to change.”
Though it might seem colossal, that change is possible. Television is the proof. On TV, women have found more leading roles and more diverse roles available to them. While television still has issues of its own, there's no doubt that as a medium, it's dealing women a much fairer hand than film is.
To prove my point — and just because I like talking about awesome TV ladies — here's a list of female characters who are strong, feminine and absolute proof that women deserve better roles in movies. (Beware: there could be spoilers in the blurbs beneath the characters names. If you aren't caught up on these shows, you might want to be careful!)
Because my dad has always been a big fan of The Simpsons, I grew up watching this show, which means I grew up with Lisa Simpson as a role model. I'm not sure there's ever been a better role model for girls on popular television. Lisa is strong in her opinions, smarter than everyone around her and purposefully worldly and cultured. She loves reading and excels at school, but she isn't uncool or socially awkward. When Lisa wants to change something in the world, she gets up and changes it. One of the best examples comes from an episode where Lisa discovers that her favorite doll, Malibu Stacy, is programmed only to say sexist, unsettling statements such as, "Don't ask me; I'm just a girl." Lisa doesn't just go complain to the company about the doll; she teams up with powerful people to make a new doll that says only empowering things about women. Lisa embraces her femininity and realizes that being a woman isn't a weakness at all, but a strength. Lisa Simpson is the ultimate TV feminist, and she's only eight years old.
I could've chosen a number of female characters from Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer for this list, which really is a testament to the greatness of the show, but Buffy Summers, the main character, is hard to beat as far as strong feminine ladies go. Buffy kicks all kinds of butt, and she does it while looking good. The special thing about Buffy is her realness. She's a teenage girl in high school. She likes boys. She likes shopping. She likes feeling pretty. But those feminine traits are never presented as weaknesses. On the contrary, her femininity is what helps her find a lot of her strength. Villains often underestimate Buffy based on her appearance, but she quickly becomes the very thing that monsters have nightmares about. Buffy saves the world, over and over, with stellar style and perfectly manicured nails.
I like to say that Tami Taylor from Friday Night Lights changed my life. That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but she definitely helped me get through my first year of college. I was in a bit of a slump and having a hard time remembering why I was slaving away in school when all I wanted was to be out and moving forward. After a binge viewing of Friday Night Lights, I decided to "Tami Taylor my life." That's really what I called it, and that's what I did. I pulled myself out of my slump, focused on school and finished with one of my best semesters ever. That's the power that Tami Taylor has. She makes people want to be better, including viewers. Tami is a warm, incredibly compassionate and wise mother, but that doesn't mean that she's a pushover. When she scores her dream job that comes with a bit of inconvenience for her husband, Tami says, “It’s my turn, babe. I have loved you and you have loved me and we have compromised, both of us… for your job. And now it’s time to talk about doing that for my job." You tell him, Tami. When in doubt, I still ask myself, "What would Tami Taylor do?"
There are so many things that I love about New Girl, but as a dedicated Zooey Deschanel fan and a feminist, my favorite thing about the show is its leading lady, Jessica Day. Jess is a kindergarten teacher who loves her job. She likes wearing cute dresses and doing girly things. She's also a strong, outspoken feminist who fights for what she believes in. This quote from the show sums Jess up pretty perfectly: "I brake for birds. I rock a lot of polka dots. I have touched glitter in the last 24 hours. I spend my entire day talking to children. And I find it fundamentally strange that you’re not a dessert person. It freaks me out. I’m sorry that I don’t talk like Murphy Brown. And I hate your pants suit. I wish it had ribbons on it or something just to make it slightly cuter but that doesn’t mean I’m not smart and tough and strong." Being feminine doesn't mean being weak. Thanks, Jess.
Everything about Brooklyn Nine-Nine is pretty fantastic, but Gina Linetti is the show's shining star. She's funny and kooky and ridiculous, and perhaps most importantly, she knows it. Gina realizes that she's clever and fantastic, and she isn't afraid to tell the whole world. She loves who she is. Instead of doing what society often pushes women to do and feeling like she has to make apologies for being herself, Gina is open and proud. If every lady had Gina's self-confidence, this world would probably be a brighter place.
If you ask me, the most competent doctor on Grey's Anatomy is and always has been Miranda Bailey. She's strong and steady, completely brilliant and charged with tons of down-to-earth wisdom. Like Tami Taylor, Bailey always knows just what to say. She's the source of some of the show's best quotes. She's also been through plenty of realistic struggles on the show, such as a hard divorce, and come out the other side stronger than ever. Bailey manages being both a mother and one of the most reliable surgeons in the hospital with constant grace and compassion. Put simply: Dr. Bailey is fantastic.
If there's one thing I adore about Game of Thrones, it's Sansa Stark. This love is fueled by the fact that so many fans inexplicably despise Sansa. Because of a few immature decisions — keep in mind she's a child in the show — Sansa has taken a lot of unfair heat. While there are plenty of hardcore, sword-wielding strong ladies on Game of Thrones, Sansa represents a different kind of strength. Like Jessica Day, Sansa represents a strength that television often doesn’t show: feminine strength. She tears down the notion that a strong female character has to be dressed to fight with a sword in hand. Sansa isn't a tomboy. She isn't a soldier. She's a lady who loves songs, knights, sewing and poetry. She’s incredibly feminine in all traditional senses of the word. But as I've said before, feminine doesn’t mean weak, and Sansa is a fighter who knows how to survive in a harsh world.
I'm convinced that NBC's Parks and Recreation is one of the most underrated shows on television. I'm also convinced that Leslie Knope is one of television's most impressive feminists. She's basically a grown up Lisa Simpson. Leslie is hugely passionate, committed to bettering her community and easily the hardest worker on the show. When she wants something, she fights for it. When she doesn't like the way something's done, she changes it. Leslie is a lady of action, and she's proof that women can have it all. A great job, kids, a loving husband, close friends… Leslie's got life figured out.
All of the clones on Orphan Black are amazing characters that represent different types of strong femininity, but Cosima is the one that stands out the most to me. Cosima is gay, though that doesn't define her. She's also a scientific genius with tattoos and a lip piercing. And she's incredibly caring and kind. Basically, Cosima shatters all kinds of stereotypes. It's easy to see why she's emerged as a fan favorite.
Peggy started Mad Men as a secretary. Since the show's opening, she's worked her way up to a powerful position with cleverness, determination and an unprecedented work ethic. Despite the fact that she's living in a sexist time period, Peggy has never let her womanhood hold her back. Instead, she's pushed through the sexism and become the boss to the men who used to hold power over her. Peggy is a modern woman, driven by ambition and a need to win. And win she does.
Yes, this is another character from Grey's Anatomy. What can I say? Shonda Rhimes writes great female characters. Dr Cristina Yang is cold, often unfeeling and even robotic, ambitious, and focused on her career more than anything else in the world. When a man compliments her beauty, Cristina replies that a compliment to her intelligence would do more to impress her. Cristina doesn't want a family. She doesn't want to have children. She wants to pursue medicine and move forward with her career. She doesn't care what others think of her, and she makes decisions based on how they benefit her. Maybe she isn't always the most likable character, but she's consistently the complete opposite of everything that society says a woman should be, and I love her for it.
As you can see, there is no shortage of awesome female roles on television. In fact, my biggest problem with this list was cutting it down to a manageable size. There are so many more ladies that I could have included. I asked my followers on Twitter and friends on Facebook what characters I should include and I got more replies than I'd ever dreamed. Because there were so many to choose from, I decided to stick with characters I knew. So, full disclosure, this list only includes characters from shows that I currently watch. If I left out some of your favorites, it's probably because, to my own dismay, I haven't gotten around to watching the show yet.
The film industry has a problem. Television seems to have figured out the solution. Strong female characters don't hurt sales and they certainly don't do anything to push audiences away. Let's hope that film executives, directors and writers can take a look at what TV is doing and make similar changes. And if they don't, well, let's take a note from these hardcore TV ladies and keep demanding that they do.
By Schyler Martin
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