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Two Paths to Victory, One to Defeat: How Men and Women Define a True Cinematic Hero

Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.

By Brandywine Productions.  The character of Ripley from 1979's Alien is still widely respected by most as one of the first and most credible female movie heroes of all time

By Brandywine Productions. The character of Ripley from 1979's Alien is still widely respected by most as one of the first and most credible female movie heroes of all time

Women have been pushing for their fair share of equality since Susan B. Anthony succeeded in leading the womens’ suffrage movement securing their right to vote in 1920. And there's never been a point where one could taut final victory. It's always been a grueling and ongoing process. Lately however, it has begun to pick up speed, with women the world over beginning to not only raise their voice against the violence and prejudice done to them, but getting chances in areas to prove that they are capable of doing the same work as men. Or at the very least are deserving of equal respect for the different work they do because they work just as hard as men.

This is most prominently seen today in Hollywood, mainstream movies. The last decade has seen a number of female characters rise to the forefront of cinema screens. Given that we live in an era where progressive ideals are either leading or legit competing for social status, one would think this would be a welcomed thing. However, it is not.

Many people take issue with how powerful women are represented on screen. From GhostBusters to The Force Awakens, some fans have decried the depiction of female protagonists as automatic bad asses from the outset of the movie. The term most often bandy creed for this perception is ‘Mary Sue’, referring to someone who is perfect and flawless in everything that they do. These critics call bullshit, especially when the character is depicted going against an enemy-usually White male-that is more experienced or just plain stronger on the basis of biology. The result is a spectrum stretching from calls that women are too weak to accomplish these cinematic feats, to their apparent lack of damage being taken to perform said feats.

So I wondered why this discrepancy existed when it came to their success. After all, the same argument can and has been made for heroes of old like the Terminator, Conan, Rambo, Delta Force, and a whole slew of past movies where the male leads were ‘Gary Sue’s.

Courtesy of 20th Century Fox.  One of the reasons that 1987's Predator is considered the ultimate masculine fantasy is its deception of not only strong men, but strong men working hard and dying to defeat a stronger foe.

Courtesy of 20th Century Fox. One of the reasons that 1987's Predator is considered the ultimate masculine fantasy is its deception of not only strong men, but strong men working hard and dying to defeat a stronger foe.

The Trial Without

I think the root lies in how both genders define success and what makes for a legit and believable rise towards it. American society is still traditional in many ways, and in traditional societies, someone who becomes a hero or leader has to go through trials and tribulations before they can claim any success or mastery. Think about it: both Anakin and Luke Skywalker have their limbs cut off before achieving victory over their adversary or any mastery of the Force. In any Batman film, there’s at least one point where he comes to a low point, where he was either beaten up or lost people or objects that were important to him, even though he’s Batman. Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon largely comes off as the ultimate fighting machine, yet is not only eventually caught, but cut several times before he wins by the movies end.

The scenario is the same. There’s a tax of pain that the hero must pay before claiming victory. Otherwise, it is seen as something either given away or not as important. This application of ‘no pain, no gain’ to cinematic heroes comes from our culture where men do all the heavy work. Men are the ones who risk their lives and go to war or fight fires. Men are the ones expected to work all hours of the day to be the primary support of the family. Men are the ones expected to sleep on the couch or the floor if there is a dispute between them and the partner. Men are the ones expected to bear the brunt of hardships. Men never get to take the easy way out and any that do, are either not considered real men or seen with suspicion.

Call it misogynist, sexist, or whatever, but the reality is that this mentality has existed even before America was even a colony, as well as being predominantly worldwide. Both sexes supported this view and in many places in America, still do. These women expect the men to do all the hard stuff, the really challenging aspects of life. And our reward is either getting our masculine ego stroked, or getting to fuck our partners because ‘women are attracted to men with power’. I once had a talk about this with a progressive woman and I brought up this fact as a counterpoint to her claim that progressive ideals were under attack. When I did, she referred to these traditional women as “gender traitors”. First time I have ever heard that.

Even so, it just goes to show that the status quo of the male being the strong, lead hero does not exist without reason.

Courtesy of Focus Features.  Atomic Blonde featured a female spy kicking ass, but paying a bloody price for it.  For many viewers, that made the hero credible.

Courtesy of Focus Features. Atomic Blonde featured a female spy kicking ass, but paying a bloody price for it. For many viewers, that made the hero credible.

The Trial Within

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Regarding female protagonists’ rise to success, I feel the standards are different. For the last couple of years, there's been a reluctance to show women physically suffering in order to achieve victory. Rey is the new hero of the Star Wars sequel trilogy, yet she has never lost a limb or a battle on screen like her predecessors before her. Black Widow can beat just about any opponent she goes up against in the Avengers films, yet at best suffers some bruises and her really tough fights end before a clear victor is declared. Wonder Woman-if you forgive the term-literally man-handles her way through German soldiers and a god in her first cinematic appearance with no signs of damage at all. And the latest target for these critics, Ms. Marvel, is promoted as the strongest character in the Marvel cinematic universe, having no weaknesses or flaws to speak of. And when put into a position to establish her character growth, she simply blasts her opponent and quips, “ I don’t have to prove myself to anybody.”

That said, I need to make it clear that this is not EVERY female protagonist ever shown on screen. The Hunger Games lead character of Katniss Everdeen, is beaten, shot, loses her entire family, and is brutally exhausted by that trilogy’s end, and no one called her a Mary Sue that I can recall. Atomic Blonde featured a female spy in East Berlin that is extremely capable, yet not only gets beaten pretty badly, but has got the blood loss, bloody face, and the bloodied eye to show for it, while still overcoming the odds. She is tossed from wall to wall by stronger, equally-trained male spies and only comes out on top because of determination and using objects. Scarlet Witch from the MCU is legit probably the real strongest character in that universe given that she almost kills its strongest villain, Thanos single-handed, where as everyone else-including Ms. Marvel-failed. However, that was after she was snapped out of existence for a time by him, and then resurrected later on in Endgame. Not once did I hear any guys groaning about female empowerment.

So there are cases where female heroes are not having victories served up to them on a silver platter. Despite this, many progressive directors and supporters defend the portrayal of women getting easy wins. Famously, Terminator director, James Cameron, criticized Wonder Woman for making its hero too beautiful and only serving the male agenda that they were seeking to subvert. Consequently, Patty Jenkins, the film’s director, defended her choice saying that not all women were the same and even if that weren’t the case, James Cameron didn’t have a right to speak about the ‘proper portrayal’ of women because he’s a man: this despite him being one of the few Hollywood directors who portrayed strong, female protagonists before it was ever trendy.

Supporters claim that their heroes’ struggles is against a system that seeks to suppress women's’ abilities and their own inner self-doubts that results from it. In other words, the female struggle is internal rather than external like it is for male protagonists. The legitimacy of this argument lies in that the internal struggles women deal with have been and can be just as brutal as the physical ones men deal with, while also being rooted in real life. Therefore, Rey struggling with her identity and self-doubt, and Wonder Woman with her naivete and self-doubt are legit markers for the characters earning their glory.

If anything, it may seem unfair to many that a female protagonist needs to visibly shed blood in order to get respect she deserves

"A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles"

— Christopher Reeve

Behind the Curtain

In many ways, this argument is something that our society has set itself up for.

It's not the result of a liberal agenda seeking to undermine masculinity, or the result of toxic male standards seeking to oppress others it sees weaker than itself. Rather this debate is the result of the boundaries and definitions that society has chosen to adopt.

Men are the external and extroverted alphas that are more rational, while women are more introverted and feeling-based gender. Those are boundaries that we all on both sides have agreed to in one form or another, and as a result, we define our perceptions of success based on this subconscious, social programming. And when women want to get the glory of victory from their cinematic achievements and demand respect, their opponents reject it on the basis that it did not meet those pre-established standards.

Therefore, a female hero may not need to prove herself to anyone, but neither does the audience need to accept her declaration either. Which then leads directly into disrespect and their equality taken less seriously, no matter how legit their claim is. It’s like trying to piece together two Lego parts that do not match.

Both genders’ standards of achieving victory are in fact forms of submission to the overarching and invisible social norm. Naturally, some may want to claim otherwise, saying that it is subverting and challenging the status quo or that they make their own decisions. They may point to examples where their standards are depicting the opposite of what is shown, or that one standard is more consistent than the other. It doesn't matter though. The examples either side uses to contradict said status quo, are still ones dictated to them prior by an outside source i.e. society.

So to me, the argument of whether or not the hero earned their spot on the mountain top or not is a mute point. Because someone else established the rules that form the basis of their getting their in the first place.

© 2019 Jamal Smith

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