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Criticism of Female Characters: Sexism or Something Else

Background

Recently there have been reboots, remakes, and sequels of action movies and TV shows with female characters taking leading roles. Often times these movies get harsh criticism from fans of the genre. Some of the makers of these movies and shows have fired back by calling these unhappy fans, sexist. This article contains some spoilers for older movies.

Attack the Fans

The 2016 Ghostbusters reboot with a female cast garnered a lot of criticism before the movie’s release. Fans of original movies often prejudge remakes and reboots before their release. Director Paul Feig, among others, claimed sexism was the reason for the negative criticism. Sexism charges against fans continued for negative criticism of Charley’s Angels and the recent Star Wars movies. Elizabeth Banks, Charley’s Angels producer, directory, and star told the Herald Sun: “If this movie doesn’t make money it reinforces a stereotype in Hollywood that men don’t go see women do action movies.”[i] She said this before Charley’s Angels opened in theaters.


[i] Hot Air, https://hotair.com/headlines/archives/2019/11/reinforces-stereotype-hollywood-men-dont-go-see-women-action-movies/, last accessed 11/3/20.

Charges Examined

Strong women have been a part of movie history since at least 1901. The film The Gordon Sisters Boxing has the Gordon sisters, professional boxers, in a demonstration bout. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) of the Alien franchise and The Bride (Uma Thurman) in the Kill Bill movies are popular characters. Alien and Aliens are popular movies. Alien3was a disappointment to many fans.

Often times criticism of a movie in a popular franchise revolves around the characters. Some Star Wars fans were frank to cruel about their dislike of Jake Lloyd’s portrayal of Anakin Skywalker. Many fans hated comic relief character Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best). Hayden Christensen’s portrayal of Anakin Skywalker was also strongly criticized. In Star Wars Episode II some fans pointed out all Queen Jamillia (Ayesha Dharker) did was walk around in tacky outfits and make speeches.

Usually the negative criticisms entail more than the female characters and the actor portrayals of them. Do these other criticisms indicate a poorly made movie? Would these additional criticisms have been overlooked if it was a movie with men as leading characters?

Almost all movies make mistakes. Jurassic Park averaged about one mistake a minute. This included misspelling the words Tyrannosaurus and Stegosaurus. Some “mistakes” fall into the cliché category. In many movies, devices work no matter how long they have been left unattended. One criticism of The Rise of Skywalker is a ship that has been abandoned for years is operational.[i] Independence Day had the plot turn on a ship that crashed ½ a century earlier.

It is fun to point out the inaccuracies in action/adventure movies. In action/adventure movies reality needs to be suspended. This is especially true of science fiction and fantasy movies. Star Wars: Episode IV, was a retro science fiction movie. It was closer to the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s than the cerebral science fiction movies, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Much of the criticism of the last 3 Star Wars movies is aimed at the new female characters. Much more is aimed at the story arc and the treatment of the characters of the original trilogy. Terminator fans have complained of the treatment of John Connor in Terminator: Dark Fate.

Rey (Daisy Ridley), of Star Wars is sometimes criticized as being a Mary Sue.[ii] She is a flawless character who is an expert at everything. Despite never handling a light sabre she easily defeats Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a fully trained Sith. The live action Mulan (Yifei Liu) is also criticized as being a Mary Sue. She is born with magical powers that makes her a one-woman army.[iii]

In the original Star Wars Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) was a farmer. It was established he was a skilled pilot who was good at ground strafing. Luke is an instant expert at operating a complicated defensive armament system. When he arrives at a rebel base, they give him a fighter to fly. In Independence Day F/A-18 pilot Captain Steven Hiller (Will Smith), is also able to fly a transport helicopter. He claims, accurately, that he could fly an alien spacecraft because he saw it fly. That Captain Hiller was a trained pilot meant he should know better than to say something so silly. In Armageddon a bunch of men with no astronaut training learn all they need to know about carrying out the most complicated space mission ever in less than 3 weeks. In Space Cowboys a pair of long retired jet pilots learn how to pilot the Space Shuttle in a few days. In Pearl Harbor Colonel Doolittle askes 2 fighter pilots to fly B-25s on the Doolittle Raid. These P-40 pilots learn how to fly B-25s off an aircraft carrier.

Two supporting characters in the last Star Wars trilogy are Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) and Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern). Captain Phasma’s name, body armor, and command voice gives the impression of a formidable evil character. In fights she is matched up against Finn (John Boyega). Finn is a First Order turncoat. His normal job in the First Order is waste disposal. Finn gets the better of her in their first fight. The only thing Captain Phasma does in the trilogy is get beaten by Finn, 3 times. It is a case of a character who appears formidable until the fight starts.

Critics fault Vice Admiral Holdo for her authoritarian leadership style. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) didn’t agree with what Vice Admiral Holdo was doing. She had a secret plan but wouldn’t tell Poe the plan. Admiral Holdo tells Captain Poe she wants him to stay at his post and follow orders. Critics don’t agree with the idea a fleet commander would insist on blind obedience to orders.[iv] Poe stages a mutiny.

Disagreeing with a fleet commander over tactics does not justify mutiny. Vice Admiral Holdo took over after Leia Organa was wounded. It’s reasonable, and common, Holdo would want to establish she is in command. It’s also reasonable Holdo would keep her plan from the crew for operational security. It’s also possible Holdo considers her behavior towards Poe necessary because of his attitude towards her.

Good guy mutinies and attempted mutinies are common in movies and television shows. From that standpoint the question could be why it took so long for one to happen in the Star Wars franchise. In most movies, audiences take the side of mutineers when the movie demonstrates the superior officer is no longer mentally competent. Did the audience members choose sides, before it was revealed Holdo’s plan was no good, based on gender?

[i] The Rise of Skywalker, and the Fall of Star Wars (Part 1), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jilIx1EwJMk, last accessed 10/29/20. Warning: Video uses a lot of foul language.

[ii] Paula Smith invented “Mary Sue” in her parody Star Trek fanfiction story “A Trekkie’s Tale”. She invented the character to parody poorly written fanfiction.

[iii] Mulan: The Ultimate Mary Sue, by Vito, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-CJuFasu6Ao, last accessed 11/6/20. Warning: Video uses a lot of foul language.

[iv] The Last Jedi: A Complete Cinematic Failure by Vito, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ECwhB21Pnk, last accessed 11/16/20. Warning: Video uses a lot of foul language.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Robert Sacchi

Comments

Robert Sacchi (author) on November 11, 2020:

Thank you both for reading and commenting. I'm glad you found the article entertaining. I found it interesting what some people, especially those in the movie business, have been saying. Much of it seems inconsistent with the facts. I'm glad you got the comments in under the wire before it went to Maven which doesn't have a comment option.

FlourishAnyway from USA on November 11, 2020:

Your extensive examples are superb and underline your point. It’s especially inappropriate to say ahead of time that if a movie isn’t a hit it’s because of sexism. There are a lot of potential explanations. Very entertaining article!

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on November 11, 2020:

This article is interesting as you pointed several things I just hadn't thought about some of the things you wrote about. I like the action movies like Armageddon, Space Cowboys, etc. You did a nice job with this article, Robert.