There’s usually something admirable about even the most disappointing female leads. It may seem nitpicky to point out certain flaws in characters that are well-liked by many, but it’s important to take note of when and where film representations of “strong” women fall short. In the end, it’s not the characters themselves being criticized but more so the decisions writers make when realizing them.
We all have a woman in our lives that could knock the socks off most the female roles in Hollywood films. Unfortunately, movies have the power to reach people on a scale in a way that your aunt, mom, or sister just can’t. For that reason, it becomes particularly important to be critical. With that said, here’s a list of five disappointing film heroines from 2013.
1. Gravity: Dr. Ryan Stone
Gravity follows Dr. Ryan Stone during her first trip to space as a medical engineer and her fight to survive when a cloud of debris hits the craft housing her and her fellow team members. After the first 30 minutes of disaster, the film’s point was made — we get it, space is hard. It makes good sense that Stone would be struggling. It’s her first time in space and she’s not an astronaut so much as a medical scientist.
Logically, everything clicks, but this criticism isn’t so much about logic as it is about the basic facts of the story. Why choose to make George Clooney the experienced and calm voice of reason? Why have the storyline revolve around Stone’s lost child and her role as a mother, not as a scientist, and certainly not as a survivor?
It’s not that flawed characters can’t be great. Flaws can allow characters to be more than just a one-dimensional figure for which greatness comes easily. However, Stone’s flaws don’t function as a highlighter for her strengths.
2. Safe Haven: Katie
It’s difficult to criticize a victim of abuse for not being strong enough. Luckily, I’m not going there. Instead, I’m looking at author Nicholas Sparks and the filmmakers for making a character in Safe Haven that is not only unconvincing as a victim but disappointing as an example. Abuse is messy, and oversimplifying it doesn’t do justice to the full range of complexity and pain.
Katie is running away from her husband, Kevin, whom she tried to kill during a violent altercation. She stops in a small town in South Carolina and moves into a small house in the woods. She paints her floor yellow and is a bit standoffish. Not exactly a fully embodied character with the depth to characterize the pain someone in her position might be feeling. Then, suddenly, she’s in love with someone, a new man in her life — sure, they make a show of Katie being hesitant to accept gifts or help. But the next thing you know, she’s dependent and deeply in love. That was quick.
The movie culminates with her new beau blaming her when he finds out about her past, and he doesn’t listen when she says her husband hurt her. Then, the movie ends with them together, and the audience is supposed to say “Aww.”
3. The Hunger Games: Katniss
There is a hefty list of things that The Hunger Games does right. Katniss is tough, intelligent, loyal, and above all else, she’s a survivor. The list could go on for quite a while. However, the author and the film place a lot of emphasis on fashion, clothes, makeup, beauty, and, of course, her love triangle.
Removing Bella’s obsessive prattling from Twilight would shorten that film by a good hour. Doing the same for Katniss’ love triangle and dresses in The Hunger Games would also cut a fair amount of content — nowhere near as much, but still. The film spends less time than the book delving into the fashion and romance of the story, and as such emphasizes the topics far less, but they are still major themes.
Where the book may take two pages to describe Katniss’ flaming dress, the film has only to show it. Even so, beauty and boys are certainly a focus. This content is there for a reason, and the reason is that the author and filmmakers believe a good portion of the available audience can only be targeted with love and makeup. They worry young girls and teens won’t show up at the box office or crack the spine of a book without it.
It’s not that the film wasn’t great or that Katniss isn’t an admirable character that’s worth having as a heroine. It’s just disappointing to see the dependence writers have on pretty things for drawing an audience and the lack of confidence that the story can be interesting enough without it.
4. Hansel and Gretel: Gretel
I recognize that any remake of the classic tale of Hansel and Gretel that includes diabetes can hardly be serious filmmaking. Still, according to Box Office Mojo, the movie made nearly $20 million its opening weekend, hardly something to blink at.
That said, it was a bit unfortunate that this film, much like Van Helsing, had to put its female lead in a low-cut bodice and then have her rescued by others when she was supposed to be the name-taking, butt-kicking lead. Gretel ends up being rescued by her giant bodyguard more than once, and while she can seemingly take on magical flying monster witches, when a couple of men threaten her, she needs to be rescued.
5. The To Do List: Brandy Klark
This comedy follows valedictorian Brandy Klark, played by Aubrey Plaza, just before her college departure. She decides that what she really needs at the tail end of her high school experience is a crash course in all things sexual. The film relies on the old and overused premise that one must sacrifice something to be intellectually successful, akin to heading off to medical school amid shouts that you’ll never get married or have babies.
The film also seems to bear the message that, hey, she’s smart, but what good is she if she doesn’t know what a rim job is? A better message might be to learn to balance your life intellectually, socially, etc. The To Do List doesn’t seem to go much deeper than “sometimes sex is just sex” and that it’s important to be loyal to your friends and watch Beaches together.