Amy Schumer, Meryl Streep and the State of the ‘Strong Female Character’

Amy Schumer, Meryl Streep and the State of the 'Strong Female Character'
Amy Schumer, Meryl Streep and the State of the 'Strong Female Character'

The article was produced as part of the 2015 Locarno Critics Academy. Learn more about this year’s class here.

“People will say to me, ‘You’ve played so many strong women…’ and I’ll say, Have you ever said to a man, ‘You’ve played so many strong men?’ No! Because the expectation is men are varied. Why can’t we have that expectation about women?”

Meryl Streep

In the murky depths of the discussion around the film industry’s diversity crisis, one phrase has popped up time and time again: Strong Female Characters. We need more Strong Female Characters. It has assumed the power of a mythical incantation, something that many have fallen into the habit of repeating without fully interrogating.

Two films from the recent 68th Locarno Film Festival, devoted to challenging cinema and sometimes described as Europe’s Sundance, call into question the conceit of the Strong Female Character. Those films are Streep’s latest, “Ricki and the Flash,” written by Diablo Cody (“Juno”), and “Trainwreck,” by official feminist icon Amy Schumer. What does the concept of Strong Female Character mean, and is it something we want?

I posed these very questions to Schumer at Locarno, and asked her what she thought of the Streep quote. She said:

“Well, like everyone else, I worship Meryl Streep. That [quote] really resonates with me because people will say that I’m a female comedian. And they don’t say, ‘He’s a male comic’. I hope people can tell by looking at me that I have ovaries. It would be really nice to not have to qualify things with that. And a lot of the men I know, the word ‘strong’ would not be one of the first descriptors I would say. I think it’s strange. You wouldn’t say, ‘He’s a black comedian.'”

Schumer has a point: it’s rather odd that we feel the need to qualify that a woman onscreen is, in fact, a human woman. The phrase Strong Female Character has become a fallback trope of contemporary film journalism that stands in for “badass” or “fierce.”

But the conversation is moving towards placing less emphasis on a subjective assessment of female characters’ qualities and more on their how they function within the narrative. Really, a strong character is a person, and a person is more than their gender. Author Chuck Wendig has said that when writing female characters, “You do not ignore that they are girls or women,” but you also do not make their characterization dependent on their gender. Tasha Robinson of the Dissolve has argued that strength in a character is complexity. Strength is vulnerability and weakness and wholeness. Strength means human flaws.

Beyond making easy judgments of the characters, we might ask about their role in the progression of the film. Does this character drive the plot forward? Is she more than a symbol, more than a glitch in a male story? Is her existence conceptualized outside of her male counterparts, or does she only exist in relation to her husband or boyfriend or son? Is she more than a functionary in an uncritically male story?

Here’s an exercise: if you swap the gender, does the character still essentially make sense? Does she perform actions that are not related to her womanhood? Is she a person rather than a female person? Or does her gender come before her humanity? When Angelina Jolie stepped into replace Tom Cruise as the lead in Philip Noyce’s action film “Salt,” she showed that, with a little script tinkering, genders can in fact be interchanged, even in the blockbuster realm. This gets to the heart of the issue: male characters are often the default characters, they are just characters, whereas women are female characters.

The next round of questions we might ask at this point get shockingly basic. Does she have a backstory? Does she change throughout the course of the film? Does she make decisions, or is she drifting along on the current of the plot. Is she doing things in the film?

Now imagine if we asked all these same questions of male characters. It would seem absurd, wouldn’t it? Because, as Streep points out, it’s naturally assumed that male characters have decisive roles in the narrative. Default characters, in cinema, are still male.

But if these are our criteria, then Schumer’s Amy in “Trainwreck” and Streep’s Ricki in “Ricki and the Flash” fit the bill. They’re messy and complicated and doing things they regret. They’re humans, they’re making mistakes, but they’re trying. Their womanhood forms just one part of their character’s identity. In many significant ways, they bust out of the narrow definition of a Strong Female Character.

Ricki is a mother, but she’s more than a cut-out mother figure. Her relationship to parenthood is clearly unconventional, and there are other parts of how her character is drawn that do not revolve around motherhood. That is not an ideological point, but a real one: parents are not just parents, they have sections of their identity that live outside their children and partners.

Beyond being someone who drinks a lot and sleeps around, Amy is brainy, cynical, quick-witted, confused, straight-talking, pragmatic, distrustful of affection and often dishonest. I don’t note these qualities to mark them as especially good or bad, I note them as elements of a living, breathing, contradictory character.

But it’s not just that Ricki and Amy aspire to more than domestic bliss. This discussion is about more than making character assessments: It is about evaluating the crucial role they play in spurring the narrative forward. It is about realizing that they, like the women Greta Gerwig plays, and unlike “Annie Hall,” they’re not muses for male characters. They are not concepts, they are the product of voices of female screenwriters. In Streep’s case, there’s a good argument that her musical performance in “Ricki” allows her to add her own, extra layer of authorship to the character.

Perhaps most interestingly, both “Trainwreck” and “Ricki” exist in the realm of popular cinema. They both transgress on the edges of the mainstream, playing within the safe space of conventional genres. That’s important — we need films that softly subvert the mainstream, because if change doesn’t happen in popular cinema, it won’t happen significantly at all. The rom-com genre in particular is a space that director and producer Judd Apatow, who encouraged Schumer to write the script and mentored her through the process, knows intimately and dominates. But rather than the film’s goal being just being about getting the guy, much of Amy’s dramatic stakes are in fact internal: they’re to do with overcoming her fear of intimacy and commitment and disbelief that someone might actually love her.

Paradoxically, this is where we reach the limitations of “Trainwreck”; its virtue becomes its imperfection. Because of the logic of the rom-com, Amy ultimately plays into a fairly conservative narrative arc, in which a man’s love reforms a wayward woman. Bill Hader’s character Aaron eventually admits that he has a problem with how many men Amy has slept with before meeting him. Though Schumer denied at Locarno that this judgmental undercurrent exists in the film, Aaron’s admission is jarringly conservative. For cinema to change, commercial cinema must change too.

This is where the conversation about gender diversity on screen has taken the wrong track. We’ve forgotten about the representation of male characters. Perhaps it is time to turn the tables. What about more varied male characters — what about some feminist men characters? Or ones who aren’t afraid of intimacy or aren’t jerks or don’t treat women as disposable objects or props or ideas? Who reveal emotion? Who are vulnerable? Who aren’t threatened that their partners have had (OMG!) an actual sexual history. Or whose machismo is treated critically.

This discussion is not about importing a feminist agenda into film (though that wouldn’t be the worst idea). It’s about constructing smart, interesting, challenging stories. It’s about serving and developing characters. It’s about good storytelling. Shallow male and female characters are a sign of sloppy storytelling, and they are boring.

We need to stop regarding female characters as different from the norm, as some distinct unique snowflake unicorn. We need to get away from one-dimensional gender-based stereotypes of both men and women. The emphasis needs to shift — away from making qualitative judgments about female characters, and towards providing the support structures for female storytellers — of whom Schumer and Cody are just two — to be able to make their voices heard on screen.

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