This question interests me on two levels. The first is that I don’t think there are many positive role models for young women anywhere, let alone in films. I have a habit of asking women who they would consider to be role models for young women and teenagers just to see if they have any more clue than me. The last person I asked was my ex-pal Angela who was, as I’ve said before, a fully paid-up feminist. Her first response was along the lines of historical figures, all worthy women: Amelia Earhart, Marie Curie, and one or two others long dead who I didn’t know. But when I asked her to name some that are still alive she faltered. Michelle Obama: successful only in the sense of whom she married. Elizabeth Warren: best known for having invented a Native American ancestry in order to get into Harvard Law School under an assisted places program. And that was about it. Being mischievous, I asked why Condoleeza Rice wasn’t considered. She said she didn’t know, but I did: she was a Republican, and that would never do. The same goes for Margaret Thatcher.
In fairness to Angela, she wasn’t the only one to struggle with this question. A lot of women (including her) don’t follow sports closely enough to know the female sports stars, such as Jessica Ennis-Hill, who could easily qualify. Most women when pressed propose Beyoncé, at which point I show them this:
Uh-huh. Just what you’d want your teenage daughter aspiring to.
It’s a difficult question, one that’s a lot easier to answer for boys mainly because most of them are into sports of some sort (as to why boys generally like watching sport whereas girls generally don’t is a question I’d like to have put to Angela; no doubt the answer would have included the term “social conditioning”). When I was growing up most boys were into football or rugby, so they had the likes of Ryan Giggs and Jeremy Guscott to hang on their walls. Failing that, there was cricket or motorsports. Of course we looked up to rock stars too, but the good thing about having sportsmen as role models is they are (usually) in good physical shape and are famous for mastering a discipline rather than doing something outrageous. I believe girls and young women have a much tougher time finding a decent role model, for the simple reason there are a lot fewer about.
So it’s not surprising that it is difficult to find decent female role models in films, as this is merely part of a wider issue. But it is also part of a second wider issue: there are not many decent female role models in films because there are so few decent female roles of any kind in modern films. The reason for this, in my opinion, is mainly due to the dumbing down of all film roles, be they male or female.
In an age where studio executives refuse to take a risk and audiences apparently need to be spoon-fed every scene, film characters have become increasingly one-dimensional to the point that they might as well walk around with labels on saying “Goody” and “Baddy”. Every “good” character has to have at least one scene early on showing us how noble and righteous he is (usually by kissing his wife and kids, or reading them a bedtime story) followed by one showing him wearing a pained expression during a moral dilemma (Tom Hanks’ recent output has taken this to nauseating levels); every “bad” character must be shown murdering somebody in a gruesome fashion or at least kicking a dog; and each character’s appearance must distinguish which side they’re on as effectively as a football strip (the turncoat in The Matrix was the one character with a huge scar down his face: he was never going to be anything else). Ambiguity in a character is seriously frowned upon these days, presumably because there is a danger the audience might get confused.
It wasn’t always thus. I recently watched Hud (1963) in which Paul Newman was cast as an arrogant, violent, irresponsible ranch-hand but somehow the audience ended up viewing him as the hero, much to the surprise of the actor himself. This was in no small part due to a slick script and some very good acting on the part of Newman and the supporting actors, but it shows that once upon a time a character could be cast with the director unsure of how the audience would receive them. I noted early on in the film that no modern production would feature a character like Hud, let alone in the leading role. I also doubt that any modern actor could pull off a role like that.
Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind (1939) is another example of a man cast with dubious morals, played superbly by Clark Gable. It’s highly unlikely such a film would even get made today without turning into an anti-slavery harangue, and a character like Rhett Butler – who not only fights for the Confederacy but is a shameless womaniser and a blockade-runner to boot – would be sanitised into fighting for the other side as a minimum.
A third example is Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941), where he is as close as the story gets to having a hero yet thinks nothing of shagging his partner’s wife and doesn’t care one jot when said partner gets murdered, not to mention his misogynistic behaviour and slapping women around occasionally. Could you see a modern detective being cast like this? Not a chance, he’s too morally ambiguous. In fact, all the characters in The Maltese Falcon are morally ambiguous, there’s not a single one I can recall that is particularly nice.
Now I mention these three films not just to illustrate complex and questionable characters played by men, but also because of their female leads. In Hud, the part of Alma Brown is superbly played by Patricia Neal (Roald Dahl’s wife, as I later found out). Her character is neither one of heroine or villain, she is simply what passes for an ordinary woman caught up in the mess that Hud makes around her. But that doesn’t mean the character is uninteresting, by contrast she is as intriguing as the male lead with her own set of virtues and flaws, particularly her failed marriage which forces her to work as a housekeeper living in a small annex of the main ranch house. Even though she is unquestionably a “good” person in the narrative, she ends up worse off than at the beginning through no fault of her own. Very few, if any, of these elements would make it into a modern female film character, and they would be all the more dull because of it. Neal’s character is so interesting because she has flaws and is ambiguous (e.g. complimenting Hud on his looks even after he tried to drunkenly rape her) – just like people are in real life. Funny, that.
Rarely has a female character been better scripted than that of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, for which we can thank Margaret Mitchell. I read the book when I lived in Nigeria, and was rather surprised to find the character an absolute bitch: she married her first husband in a fit of pique, the second one for money and security and spite, and the third (Rhett) while still pining after bloody Ashley to the point she ends up on her own and doesn’t seem to give a shit. There is a line in the book where somebody (it might be Rhett) points out that O’Hara didn’t even bother to ask after her second husband upon hearing news that the group he was in had been attacked and some of them killed (including him, as it turns out). But she’s a fascinating character because despite all of this she is incredibly strong and resourceful and you are always under the impression she is being forced by circumstances into taking certain actions and her heart generally lies in the right place. What modern film would have a heroine like this? Or modern book, for that matter?
I am sure modern actresses would kill to have had the opportunity of Vivien Leigh to play a character of such complexity as Scarlett O’Hara. But as with the men, these characters simply don’t exist as the leads in a modern film, and the best one can hope for is a small supporting role usually as some sort of eccentric. A female lead these days needs to be one of the following:
1. An innocent victim of some more powerful force (such as a violent husband, or asshole boss) who she eventually overcomes through perseverance and/or being much cleverer than her adversary. (A Goody)
2. A ripped, kick-ass chick straight out of comic-book fantasy who beats up Samoan extras and can throw knives through chipboard. (Can be a Goody or a Baddy)
3. A sassy, independent, fuck-you-in-your-face, policewoman, soldier, politician, or CEO. (A Goody)
4. A woman who saves her husband/boyfriend from his own stupidity. (A Goody)
What’s a girl to do if she wants to play Scarlett O’Hara or Alma Brown these days? Little wonder there are few inspiring female role models in films if each character has been sanitised or exaggerated beyond all recognition of what it is to be human.
While male actors have also seen their available characters stripped down to almost cartoon levels, at least they still have one avenue of opportunity open to those who want a more interesting role: the chief villain. It’s common to hear actors say they prefer playing villains because the characters are more interesting, and this makes sense: you can take more risks with a character that meets a sticky end (see Leonardo DiCaprio’s repulsive slaver in Django Unchained).
But what villainous roles are open to women these days? Other than the tank-girl sidekick I mentioned at No. 2 in my list above, they don’t really have much option on that score, either. Which is a shame, because women have starred splendidly as the villain in the past. The character of Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon is a great example, being fiendishly manipulative and greedy throughout and winding up being carted off to the gallows for her treachery, and played flawlessly by Brigid O’Shaughnessy. More recently is Nicole Kidman’s superb performance as the evil weather girl in To Die For (1995), which I showed to Angela partly to demonstrate my belief that feminist-driven political correctness has over the past decade or two killed off the best roles for women in films.
The one exception I can think of is Rosamund Pike’s character of Amy Dunne in Gone Girl (2014). That was one of the most intriguing (and disturbing) female characters I’ve seen portrayed in a long time – which is presumably why the film did so well and Pike’s performance earned her an Oscar nomination. Women deserve better roles in films and scriptwriters should stop pandering to the grievance industry and start creating complex, morally ambiguous, flawed, and sometimes nasty female characters which are also human and therefore believable. Maybe then we’ll see a role model or two emerge.