When "women can be heroes" is simply an accepted premise

By Christine Lemmer-Webber on Wed 04 July 2012

Morgan and I went and saw the film Brave recently. I thought it was good, maybe worth a second seeing even. It was certainly pretty. And after twelve (twelve!) films in a row by Pixar where the primary character was male (don't give me the "The Incredibles" had the mom and daughter characters either... those were main characters, but there was a decidedly "primary character" and that person was not a woman), it was probably the right film to make. It takes a stand of sorts: women can be heroes too, should be free to make their own decisions and set their own life directions, and manages to say all this cleanly without feeling at all like it beat you over the head. So I'm glad films like this are being made, and given Pixar's long period of negligence, it was probably the right film for them to finally make.

That said, here's my worry: so, great, Pixar made a film that's good, and largely about how you can be a woman and a hero. Now that we've established that, will we have other films about women heroes with that pretext established? I'm worried that either we won't see any ("hey, we hit our films about women quota anyway, right?"), or there will be a long and dry spell of no films where a woman is the primary character, and then we get another one that steps out and reminds us, "Oh hey yeah, by the way, women can be awesome heroes too! Don't forget about that!"

What I'm trying to say here is: why aren't there more films where women just are heroes? Can we get to the point where the pretext that women can be heroes is established and they just... are?

This isn't the first time I've mentioned this; in fact when I first saw the trailer for Brave, I made similar comments:

"Sintel beat them to it though. I also feel like the way Sintel did it was best: a female character who just was awesome, without even a gender battle backdrop. (Challenging patriarchy is good, but a state where female leads are just awesome from the get-go and we're not even questioning that is better.)"

Deb pointed out that the character of Sintel is maybe not the best example as to possibly being a bit too "shaped for dudes to look at" in that "it would be kind of radical for a pudgy, awkward girl to be chosen in a fantasy story every so often". That said, I was glad that a free culture film beat out Pixar/Dreamworks/etc in putting out a film where the primary character was a woman, and that she was just awesome and had an interesting story and adventure without needing to justify it.

It's not that these films don't get made, even in the animated world; I can think of a few examples: Spirited Away, and The Triplets of Belleville (probably my favorite film ever, with a great amount of adventure and a very non-traditional "hero" of sorts in the grandmother (tangentially the word "hero" is not really great in this article, I really mean "primary character" or "character of focus", but those sound a bit belabored to say)). And on the free culture end of things, Tube is not out yet, but will succeed I think here. But anyway, these films seem sparse.

So I'd like to see more films, especially animated films, that don't fit the lame "princess"/"damsel in distress" archetype but that have strong female characters. And there may yet still be a role for films like Brave (or Mulan in the 1990s) that try assert clearly that women can be awesome. But I hope that's not an unfortunate trope that gets developed... do we really want to teach our young girls "You can be anything you want, as long as it's a woman who proves that you can be anyone you want as a woman?" What I'm hoping, basically, is that more films really and truly accept the premise that these films are trying to put down. Can we get to the point where we've simply agreed on this, and have a large number of films that simply have characters doing awesome things, those characters are women, and we've accepted that as just being normal? Because I think that would really be a progressive message for future generations.

Or, you know, we could decide this film hit our "say that women can be awesome" quota, and go back to making films where the primary characters are always dudes.