I recently stumbled across a comment online that best sums up the reason why all-female led reboots crash and burn: “Hollywood focuses so much on creating strong FEMALE characters rather than STRONG female characters.”
When recently asked if the James Bond franchise should get an all-female reboot, Daniel Craig was adamant about the fact that a woman should not play James Bond.
"Why should a woman play James Bond when there should be a part just as good as James Bond, but for a woman?” Craig said.
He’s not alone in this sentiment, as recent all-female reboots of historically popular films such as Ghostbusters, Charlie’s Angels, Terminator, and Ocean’s Eleven have not been received well, to put it lightly. Why have audiences rejected these female remakes of classic stories? Is it because of misogynistic audiences, like many of the creators of these films point to as the reason for their project’s failure, or is it the fault of lazy writing, unoriginality, and an ultimate lack of respect for the complexity of women?
Truth be told, the answer is simple – they’re just not good films. They rely on representation over story, and when they bomb at the box office, blame audiences for refusing to support women. When Elizabeth Banks’ recent iteration of Charlie's Angels tanked at the box office, Banks literally blamed men for the commercial failure of her film. This, of course, is in reference to a film that’s a reboot of an already all-female film. A film that was incredibly successful in 2000, generating $264 million at the box office. Paul Feig also attributed the flop of the all-female Ghostbusters reboot to “racists and sexist” trolls.
Dismissing any genuine criticism of your film as mere sexism doesn’t say much for the substance of your film.
Dismissing any genuine criticism of your film as mere sexism doesn’t say much for the substance of your film. It suggests the entire film serves as a propaganda piece of gender politics rather than a genuine story. Herein lies the central problem with these films. No one has an issue with great stories told through the perspective of well-written women. The real problem is that female reboots or “strong female characters” are being used as tokens that aren’t handled with any care or dignity.
Poorly Written Female Characters: The Mary Sue
These films fall victim to many different tropes; the first being that the objective of creating a “strong female character” trumps writing a compelling, genuine character, leaving us with the dreaded "Mary Sue." A Mary Sue is a fictional female character who has no flaws. She’s not compelling because she’s not realistic. She is, in all aspects, perfect. She’s strong, smart, courageous, witty, and has no flaws to overcome. She’s not allowed to be vulnerable, weak, emotional, fragile, or incompetent in any area of her life, making her so boring that you have no investment in her growth or story.
In the newest Charlie’s Angels reboot, each angel is a Mary Sue. While being skilled fighters who are experts with weapons and can take down large men with ease, they’re also nerdy chemists, witty street-smart conwomen, or tech geeks. Watching their storyline unfold is uninteresting because they always prevail and never struggle. Sure, this happens in male movies as well, but it’s usually made up for. This can be done in various ways, such as using well-shot stylistic violence (think John Wick).
While this is one way to approach solving the Mary Sue problem, it will still have limited effectiveness if the movie landscape is flooded with these kinds of movies. If the majority of male-led movies were similar to John Wick, the stylistic violence would no longer be enough to save the one-dimensionality of the character. This ultimately means that writing complex characters is unavoidable if movie producers are serious about female representation.
As actress Brit Marling wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times, titled “I Don’t Want to Be the Strong Female Lead,” “the more I acted the Strong Female Lead, the more I became aware of the narrow specificity of the characters’ strengths – physical prowess, linear ambition, focused rationality. Masculine modalities of power.” She continued, “What we really mean when we say we want strong female leads is: ‘Give me a man but in the body of a woman I still want to see naked.’” This perfectly encompasses the way these Mary Sues are written.
Kill Bill – Beatrix Kiddo As the Vengeful Mother
Compare a Mary Sue character with Beatrix Kiddo and you can instantly see the difference between thoughtful and lazy writing. Beatrix certainly embodies a lot of masculine ideals in that she’s an aggressive de-sexualized kung fu master going on a murderous rampage to get revenge against the deadly assassins who tried to kill her at her wedding rehearsal. However, her story is different from a typical male protagonist, as she was pregnant when she was nearly killed and believes her child to be dead until the second film. She’s raped by men that work at the hospital during her four-year coma. The kung fu master Pai Mei who trains her has nothing but contempt for women.
We understand Beatrix’s character arc and her journey. We see the lengths she had to go through to become as deadly as she has through flashback scenes training with Pai Mei. Before she becomes a master of Kung Fu who can deliver the five-point palm exploding heart technique, we see her being broken down by Pai Mei, mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually.
She’s beaten with a stick, almost has her arm broken, has to repeatedly punch a block of wood with her fist until her knuckles are bleeding, and must use her sore, bloody hands to eat rice with chopsticks. Witnessing this abuse and humiliation helps us understand how she’s become such a deadly assassin, as it makes her journey seem authentic. She doesn’t magically hoist unexplainable power – that power had to be earned by enduring immense suffering. Kill Bill can be thought of as a story about the wrath of a woman who has lost her child and how she gains back her agency by killing the people responsible.
The Erasure of Femininity
The “strong female character” is designed to show women they can be just as strong, intelligent, and capable as men. Instead, women are treated as pawns to make social commentary on the status of women in society. What it does instead makes a mockery of all of the strengths that women have to offer that aren’t in the domain of the masculine. They’re written poorly or with an overarching objective of female empowerment in mind. Isn’t it ironic that to celebrate the strengths of women they must act like men?
Women are considered strong so long as they embody masculine ideals of power, strength, domination, leadership, and assertiveness. Using women as props to push these narratives ironically strips them of their agency. The empowered female characters aren’t women at all – they’re male characters written for men that have been replaced with women.
Isn’t it ironic that to celebrate the strengths of women they must act like men?
Being feminine or masculine is not the end-all-be-all of storytelling, but femininity is unfairly tarnished as a negative thing to be cast aside, to be ashamed of, or as something to overcome.
Women can persevere and grow without demonstrating physical prowess, domination, and unrelenting stoicism. Referring back to Marling’s op-ed, she sums this up beautifully: “I don’t believe the feminine is sublime and the masculine is horrifying. I believe both are valuable, essential, powerful. But we have maligned one, venerated the other, and fallen into exaggerated performances of both that cause harm to all.”
Amy Dunne and Toxic Femininity
If you’ve ever seen Gone Girl, you’ve likely been left horrified, shocked, and confused about how you’re supposed to feel about the film’s antagonist Amy Dunne. The film reels you in by suspecting that Amy’s husband might be responsible for her disappearance. We see him being unfaithful to her, he acts strangely in front of the press and to the police, and then Amy’s journal detailing accounts of abuse is discovered.
When we later find out that Amy is a highly intelligent, diabolical woman who planned every single detail of framing Nick Dunne months in advance, it’s a huge plot twist. We’re even meant to feel somewhat sympathetic to her Cool Girl Monologue explaining why she did it. After all, many women can relate to changing themselves for a man, losing their entire identity only to still be cheated on and discarded for a “newer, bouncier cool girl.”
What makes the film truly terrifying is just how plausible its premise is. Unlike other female villains who either embody the masculine or are later revealed to be innocent, Amy Dunne truly embodies the toxically feminine. She’s scary because she’s a genuine, villainous psychopath who uses her femininity to falsely accuse an innocent man and ensure that everyone believes her, sympathizes with her, and traps him into staying with her.
Amy capitalizes on her femininity to make others believe her, make her victims gain her trust, and create a plausible story of a female abuse victim. What makes Amy so compelling, as Rosamund Pike has said, is that “Amy could never have been a man. She is purely female.” She uses her feminine charm to appear innocent and gain credibility. By the end of the film, Nick Dunne knows he can’t go to the police and he also can’t leave her. He’s stuck playing the role of the man Amy wants him to be.
The biggest insult of rebooting successful male-led box office hits and recasting them with women is that it suggests Hollywood doesn’t believe women deserve new, original, or unique stories. Suggesting that an all-female cast can only be successful on the backs of films that already have a legacy within pop-culture is counter-intuitive to their feminist messaging. It’s also demonstrably wrong.
Audiences respond to well-written, original stories that resonate with them, such as Bridesmaids, Mean Girls, Clueless, and Pitch Perfect. What’s the point of casting an all-female film that merely recycles an already told story without adding anything of substance? The reason Beatrix Kiddo and Amy Dunne are such compelling characters is that the writers respected the audience (and women) enough to create a complex character. We don’t need more female reboots. We need more intelligent screenplays with fully fleshed-out characters, especially for women.
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