Over the last week, I happened to see two new films that shared some interesting ground: Brave and Beasts of the Southern Wild. Both films are led by strong-willed, female children, in an age where American filmmaking still seems to struggle with the concept of a female lead. They are very interesting companion pieces as well as simply being decent films, so I recommend catching both, if possible.
(The discussion below is spoiler-free, so feel free to proceed if you haven’t seen one or either film.)
I’ll begin with the film you’re more likely to have seen already.
Brave is the tale of a young girl, Merida, who is the princess of a Celtic warrior clan. She is headstrong, uninterested in girly things, and skilled in archery. When her family proposes she choose a suitor for a future husband, she is completely uninterested. The plot goes from there.
The film isn’t Pixar’s strongest work, but it is still a decent watch. Bravo to Pixar (after 12 other films!) for finally casting a girl as the main character. I was disappointed to learn that she was going to be a princess (because, apparently, Disney is allergic to female characters unless they’re princesses or witches), but at least the girl has some gumption, and she is NOT motivated by any of these things:
1) Being rescued
2) Having dead parents or a dead child
3) Wanting a man
4) Revenge for assault (Disney doesn’t usually use assault as a motivator, but other films definitely do)
Super bonus points go to the fact that her main foil during the film is her mother, who is also a strong female character. (The film quickly passes the Bechdel Test.) Yet the film doesn’t smack of “this is a GIRL FILM” sort of marketing. Instead, Pixar seems to trust that audiences are there — boys and girls and parents alike — because it’s a Pixar film, and Pixar films are usually pretty good.
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a sort of bayou-based semi-fantasy, in the way that The Fisher King is a sort of NYC-based semi-fantasy. The film is mostly a non-specific reality led by a six-year old girl, who lives on a swampy island outside the levees of Louisiana. She and her father are part of a tiny village of extremely poor societal outsiders, who seem to cobble together their entire existence from each other, fish, and detritus that has been cast off by civilization. They exist outside TVs and pop culture. They don’t seem to have jobs, but instead subsist entirely off the land around them and whatever else drifts in.
The girl, named Hushpuppy, is a force of nature. (She is portrayed with amazing gravity by a non-actress Quvenzhané Wallis, who aged two years during the course of production.) Her upbringing seems to be somewhere between brilliant and child abuse: her father, through either ignorance or great trust, has granted her amazing swaths of agency. The girl has her own separate house (a ramshackle trailer) on their spot of land, including a gas stove and piles of laundry. She has regular duties for caring for the family animals. When her father disappears for a few days, she manages.
The fantastical elements come in elsewhere. This film isn’t a Home Alone-style wish fulfillment story about children wanting to be adults. All of Hushpuppy’s independence a necessity of the strange, grimy place she calls home.
However, what I find most interesting about this film is that I actually wasn’t sure of Hushpuppy’s sex until far later in the film. I was mostly sure she was a girl (the biggest cue being a grimy, torn undershirt with a tiny bow on the front for much of the film), but her father often calls her by ambiguous or even male nicknames, and he definitely doesn’t treat her in any way that would particularly suggest she was female. Again, the audience isn’t sure whether the father does this out of ignorance (he doesn’t know to treat her differently) or out of some motive (perhaps he wanted a son?), as the film treats it as a background detail. Hushpuppy is simply Hushpuppy, and that’s that.
THE HONORARY BOY SYNDROME
There’s a sentence in Roger Ebert’s review of Brave that got me thinking: “Brave seems at a loss to deal with [Merida] as a girl and makes her a sort of honorary boy.”
I don’t really agree with Mr. Ebert about that in relation to Brave, but it is definitely a broader issue with a lot of modern screenwriting. I wasn’t a big fan of Star Trek’s Voyager TV series, but one of the complaints I’ve always heard from others is that the female captain, Janeway, is a “man with tits.” In an effort to create a Star Trek show with a female captain at the center, it always seemed that the writers were just writing a male character and hastily swapping the pronouns before the script went to the actors. It seemed to be a sort of affirmative action effort that wasn’t really heartfelt.
* real women who act like Janeway do exist. They’re just atypical.
* seriously, how does a female character differ from a male character? If Janeway wasn’t talking about her love life on the bridge, how would she be particularly different from a male captain?
If Merida is an “honorary boy”, then what would have to change about the Brave script to make her a fully-realized female character? That’s an honest question. I really don’t know, which is probably why I don’t buy Ebert’s comment. In any case, she’s better written than Janeway.
In the case of Beasts of the Southern Wild, Hushpuppy is almost literally an honorary boy as part of the plot, but she’s a three-dimensional character underneath that.
WHAT IS A STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER, ANYWAY?
Even today, strong female lead protagonists still seem to be in short supply. Even when they do show up, they rarely occupy a film with enough other female characters to make a Bechdel Test pass possible.
Yet, I’ve been mulling over a question lately: what, exactly, makes a strong female character?
Is it a well-written, dimensional, distinctly female character?
Is it a female character who drives the plot?
For a strong female character, I think both of above features should apply. Ripley in Aliens is a good example. Trinity in the Matrix fails because she has zero personality; mostly, she’s a shiny killing machine that appears next to Neo. Strangely, I think Blanche DuBois in Streetcar Named Desire is a strong female character, despite the character’s personal fragility.
It really isn’t enough to just put a female character at the helm of a film and say that, because she kills lots of people/toothy animals/zombies, she’s a strong female lead. While I appreciate the demonstration that women are as capable of battle as men, it’s the depth of personality that helps the character cross gender boundaries in the minds of the audience.
Merida and Hushpuppy definitely pass these criteria, in my book. I’m impressed, Hollywood. More of this, please.