Over the weekend Entertainment Weekly held a panel at San Diego Comic-Con called “Women Who Kick Ass.” It featured a pretty stellar line-up of television actresses, including Tatiana Maslany of Orphan Black, Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones, Nicole Beharie of Sleepy Hollow, Katey Sagal of The Sons of Anarchy, and Sarah Paulson of American Horror Story. There were plenty of interesting tidbits from the conversation, but the one that stands out to me the most is an awesome quote from Natalie Dormer, aka Margaery Tyrell on Game of Thrones.
Natalie talks about how differently female characters are treated by television and film, and I think she really hits the nail on the head:
“The best female roles are in television at the moment. Katniss Everdeen — as popular as she is — is an anomaly. She really is. Where television is fantastic — and is way ahead of film — is it doesn’t feel the need to polarize women so much… Male writers — and I say this with all love and respect — often want to make a woman either the angel or the whore, make her the witch, or put her on the pedestal. When people ask me about Margaery, I say they’re not mutually exclusive. You don’t have to be practical and politically savvy and not be a good person. You can be a good human being and just be shrewd.”
As sad as it is that it’s 2014 and movies still can’t get this right, I think Natalie’s explanation is spot-on. This panel could have included so many other television actresses who would have fit right in with the theme, from Alison Tolman of Fargo to Lucy Liu of Elementary to Elisabeth Moss of Mad Men, not to mention multiple other women from the same shows that were already represented, particularly Game of Thrones and American Horror Story. The fact that these shows offer powerful, complex, interesting roles for not just one woman, but many, says a lot when you compare it to the state of mainstream movies these days.
Trying to pick out a solid panel of women from recent blockbusters is sadly pretty hard. It’s rare to see a woman headlining a major movie that’s not a mindless romantic comedy. Usually she’s merely a token female who serves little purpose to the story and just furthers the male protagonist’s arc, more often than not as a love interest. And most of the time she’s not particularly three-dimensional. Even when you get a supposedly “strong female character” (Anyone else sick of that term?), that’s often interpreted as “badass killing machine.” Indie films are much better at complex representation, but it shouldn’t be so hard to find a big-budget movie that passes the Bechdel test (having two women talk about something other than a man).
I think this issue also relates to the fact that television is quickly surpassing mainstream cinema in terms of quality these days. While the movie theaters are increasingly full of blow-em-up action sequels and idiotic gross-out comedies, TV is telling compelling, well-produced stories to the same mainstream audience. Whereas it’s hard to see an original independent film unless you live in a major city, just subscribing to basic cable or Netflix gives you access to countless interesting TV series that touch on the same themes and use the same tones. And those TV series are treating female characters as actual people for a change.
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