As a young girl growing up in the 90’s, there were very few female characters in films who I felt I could look up to or enjoyed watching. In retrospect, it was a weird time for women in Hollywood, as writers and directors attempted to strike a balance between “the female action hero” and “the eye candy” (just think of Padmé Amidala from the Star Wars prequels, Trinity from The Matrix, and Charlie’s Angels). Impossibly sexy, pretty badass, and, let’s be honest, just about “perfect” in every way, these women were nevertheless always under the thumb or in the shadow of one or more male characters.
Thank goodness for Mulan.
Let’s skip forward about two decades.
2015 has been great for movies, but, more than that, a variety of films featuring complex, nuanced female characters hit the silver screen this year. Hooray! More interested in liberating themselves and others, carving a space for themselves in a male-dominated world, or maybe just having a good time, the last thing on these women’s minds is chasing after the approval and/or affections of a male character. They are not just “strong”, but they are resourceful and intelligent, too. They are beautiful, but their beauty is not the point – it is not their defining feature and it is (most of the time) irrelevant to the plot. (But yes, I agree, we need some different faces and body shapes in there, too!) Most importantly, these women are flawed. It is so refreshing to see female characters who make mistakes, act impulsively, and hesitate when tempted to swap a droid for a mountain of food rations. Some of these characters are downright malicious, and, although I might not want to have them over for a cup of tea, I can’t help but feel grateful that they exist. Additionally, it is impossible not to mention The Danish Girl, in which the leading character is a transgender woman.
Here are just a few of 2015’s awesome female characters:
But wait… they’re all white!
Last year, a report compiled by the Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University found that females comprised only 12% of protagonists in 2014’s top 100 grossing films. Among other things, the report also assessed how women of different races had been represented, finding that only 26% of all female characters were not white. A summary of the report can be found here.
At the risk of sounding reductive, the underrepresentation of Aboriginal, African, Asian and Native American women in American films remains – very clearly – a problem in 2015.
The same is true of South African films produced last year. To begin with, hardly any homegrown films featured female protagonists and even fewer were well written. Among SA feature films, I can identify a whopping total of three interesting, well-rounded female characters, and only one of them is a black woman. Without saying anything of the quality of the films they appear in, here they are:
Please do let me know if I’ve missed any – I will be so relieved!
Admittedly, I was surprised and a little disappointed that Sibs Shongwe-La Mer’s groundbreaking film Necktie Youth – about a wealthy, multiracial, and exceptionally disillusioned contemporary youth subculture in Johannesburg – featured almost no African women with speaking roles. That the black men in the film are only interested in white women may be a comment on existing racial dynamics within wealthier circles, but the degree to which this is a reasonable or even accurate representation of the way things are is questionable. Apart from this, I had very few criticisms and thoroughly enjoyed the film.
Perhaps it is also worth mentioning that I thought Yolandi’s character in Chappie had promise, but ultimately possessed very little agency apart from Ninja’s character. Additionally, I am hesitant to call Chappie a purely South African film for a number of reasons, including the fact that the production team was composed largely of Canadians and New Zealanders, and that the director, Neill Blomkamp, has lived abroad for most of his adult life. That being said, if there is a sequel to the film, I’d be interested to see if and how Yolandi might return.
In a nutshell, I think Hollywood and the South African film industry (which operates on a much smaller scale) produced some truly excellent work in 2015, among which were a number of films featuring superb female characters. In 2016, I would love to see even more films of this nature, and I hope that writers and directors will give us a variety of female characters who 1) belong to different races and ethnicities, and 2) are of a calibre similar to (or greater than) those mentioned above.