A friend pointed an article my way called “We’re losing all our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome,” citing a concern that, while storytellers in film have come a long way in empowering female characters, those characters are often reduced to mere plot devices.
There is an essential truth to this: they ARE plot devices.
And the reason for this is just as true: secondary characters support the Protagonist’s story.
Before we crawl under the hood, understand that I am not advocating the treatment of Strong Female Characters in many works – the author of the article makes a fair point of this – but we’re not talking about Ripley from Aliens or “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” because those are their stories. We are also not talking about “Women In Refrigerators,” a trope concerning violence against women in comics as a plot device to “hurt” Strong Male Characters.
The article outlines eight questions writers should ask themselves about Strong Female Characters, everything from “(can she be) seamlessly replaced with a floor lamp with some useful information written on it” all the way to “deciding to have sex with/not have sex with/agreeing to date/deciding to break up with a male hero” pointlessness. The article contends that writers should rise to the occasion to create someone worthy of the name Strong Female Character, but these could all be reduced to a single, far simpler question: Can your Strong Female Character be seamlessly replaced by a Strong Male Character? If yes, all’s good; if not, why not?
Let’s be honest: sometimes someone needs to be rescued. It’s a fact that a female in jeopardy elicits a more emotional response because, like it or not, everyone – men and women both – equate a female’s response with emotion. Males are encouraged to be strong, bury emotion to “suck it up” and “get over it,” but while “the female rape survival scenario” has become a standard trope for demonstrating how strong a woman is, the same isn’t true for men. If you can identify more than three films where the Strong Male Character is either raped or threatened with rape without Googling it, you’re more knowledgeable than I, but that’s not entirely what we’re talking about here.
Let’s address a few of the examples from the article. The first is its namesake: Trinity from The Matrix films. True, she’s a badass at the beginning and Neo’s a mere wannabe, but that also casts her in the role of a mentor; as such, the main character – Neo, not Trinity – is destined to surpass his mentor, even if she has to perish so that he may fulfill his destiny (do I even need to mention what Neo’s ultimate fate is? Uh huh, that’s right). Yes, she loves him – even if that love isn’t reciprocated – and who wouldn’t want to be the chosen of “the chosen one?” Everyone is second banana in that pecking order; Trinity gets a bad rap because she’s sleeping with the main character. Her role as mentor and martyr IS significant, even if it diminishes her story arc, because it supports the Protagonist – as it should be.
Other examples? Tauriel in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug saves the lives of many characters including Legolas; moreover, her entire story hasn’t been revealed as yet. Katee Sackhoff’s Dahl in Riddick WAS a bit of eye-candy – she was rather proud hitting her workout goal in time for the film and happy to show herself off – but as one of the few survivors who wasn’t there to be killed off, her character was willing to change her mind about Riddick and has become a potential ally in any future sequels (fingers crossed!) Rinko Kikuchi’s Mako Mori in Pacific Rim has one of the more significant arcs for a Strong Female Character in overcoming a scary childhood, an overprotective mentor, and her own doubts to raise herself up to an equal to the main character; by the end of all that, I submit that a kiss has been earned, but it’s still not Mako’s story.
Alice Eve’s Carol Marcus in Star Trek: Into Darkness WAS a Victoria’s Secret footnote that could have been phoned in – I agree wholeheartedly on this one. Really, JJ?
With a Strong Female Character as the Protagonist, I happily reversed this trope as a plot device in my vampire thriller sequel, The Matriarch: Guardians. My main character, Janiss, begins her second book with a fatal flaw: she fears making the wrong decision and – by choice – defers to a male. That same Strong Male Character encourages her, however, to make the active decision to take the leadership role for herself to reinforce her status as the Protagonist; it’s not his story. One of my reviewers even noted that Janiss was in danger of becoming a secondary character in her own book; little did that person suspect that this was by design!
While the battles rage on, the war is far from lost. A far worse offender was last year’s Beautiful Creatures, a story that introduced a Strong Male Character, shifted the story away to a Strong Female Character, took the element of choice away from both of them, then handed the title of Protagonist back to the Male Character…ugh. If more was supposed to be going on than what hit the screen, it needed some serious script doctoring or editing. With Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games and Tris from Divergent blasting onto the scene, relevant Strong Female Characters are not only getting top billing but are taking a commanding lead in box office receipts. Take that, Women in Refrigerators trope!