"Liberating education consists in acts of cognition, not transferrals of information." -Paulo Friere

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Token Female Role

Mendelson's Memos is an interesting film blog, and I liked this post on token female roles in blockbuster films. This quote is particularly great:

"Actresses in most mainstream pictures are merely placeholders, basically playing one variation or another of 'the girl'. Her name is irrelevant and her character usually is too. She is eye candy for the boys, and for the girls often merely a cynical attempt to pull in females by promising romance and/or a moment or two of alleged 'female empowerment'. In all but the most overtly female-driven pictures (Sex and the City, Mama Mia!, Whip It), the actress is cast only in regards to how well she compliments the hero. She may be twenty years younger than him, but rarely older than him. She is often 'hotter' than him, but rarely taller than him. She is occasionally beside him, but never in front of him. "

What's particularly frustrating about this to me is not only how ubiquitous this "token" role is, but also how surprised everyone is when a movie breaks the mold and gives the female a fleshed out character. Think of Salt, the Jolie action movie, and how much talk it caused about how enlightened the directors were for making the lead a woman. Or Avatar, and how much attention critics gave to the fact that the female lead had just the bare minimum of her own fleshed out personality.

"Great" literature is often guilty of the same kind of tokenism, isn't it? Think Catherine in A Farewell to Arms, or Lenina in Brave New World. Sure, they're slightly more rounded characters than your typical movie romantic leads, but they still basically there to complement the male hero on his journey to understanding himself or his place in society or whatever. A couple of notable exceptions that I'm currently teaching: The Crucible, where Abigail is an incredibly believable and well rounded villain, and Things Fall Apart, where Ezinma shines through the bonds her society puts on her. Both of these are texts written by a man with a lead character who is a man, but they still manage to give other roles to the women than simply being rescued or kissing the hero at the end.


  1. Isn't Lenina made to become such a character because of the community? Everyone in Brave New World is happy and thinks about work and consumer-entertainment, there was no reason for Lenina to have a complete personality on her own. Even Bernard, the guy that started off with the emo personality, became a party animal and as flat as the other people after his rise of fame through John Savage. The only characters in the entire book that had a 'round' personality was John and Helmholtz. Maybe Linda, but we only saw the wreckage of what she used to be. If the book included the entire breakdown of Linda, maybe she would qualify as rounded character.

    And even if you were to view Lenina as a 'trophy' for John, it turns out the author deliberately twisted that aspect of the story. Normally 'trophies' would award the hero only after the hero does some heroic stuff. That is not the case here. John fought for Lenina, despite the fight being needless in this kind of society. In fact, John wasn't having trouble proving his love of her, but instead, conciliating the massive cultural shock about sexuality between the two cultures. Lenina was a trophy that was won too easily, and John didn't want that.

    Lenina wasn't even there to comment on John's actions. In fact, she seems completely oblivious to his intentions of love and affection, or at least, to his views of love (about commitment and all that). Though Lenina is flat, she is flat because the plot calls for it: there would be no reason for her to become round in the society.

    I do agree with your objection against the tokenism. But creating a round, dynamic is hard, especially since the dynamic nature of a character depends on the plot itself (whether the plot changes the character profoundly). If done wrong, the character would still be flat, except he/she would become magically changed all of a sudden near the end of the story. Dynamics of a character has to be gradual; at the very least, over several main plot points.

    Okay, I've written too much already and I should get back to doing my actual homework.

  2. Haha Phil.

    Well Lenina wasn't exactly the perfect female in her society. She had been going out with the same male for too long and later evoked the passion and love in John. But her actions were generally what society expected of her. I think she's kind of confused over her role because of these abnormal feelings. But because of society's conditioning, she does not know how to act otherwise. But she really isn't your typical female flat character.

    I know we should be evolving beyond the patriarchal society, but SOMETIMES, to me, purposely imposing the big lead role on a female doesn't always look right. For sure, some of those movies/books are great and well-made, but for others, it kind of feels overdone to a point of pretense. Can't think of any specifics at the moment, but yeah.

    Back to homework!