Note: in this article I refer to masculine and feminine traits in the traditional sense, mostly attributing feminine traits to women and masculine traits to men, however I am aware that men, women and non-binary folk can possess any mix of these traits.
It’s 3am in the middle of the week and I am inevitably completely awake and watching an easy to digest blockbuster in complete darkness. It’s an action movie that came out in 2010 and I’m watching it because it was on Netflix and my insomnia told me it was what I needed at that exact moment. While at three in the morning I’m not exactly at my mental peak, I’m still conscious enough to pick up on details that bother me with one of those details being that, in an ensemble cast of six, there’s one woman. It’s a dodgy as fuck ratio. But it’s 3am and I’m not going to spend another half an hour being a slave to the indecision that Netflix always seems to bring out in me. So I watch.
At first glance I don’t mind her, she holds her own in the sausage fest that is the all-male main cast. In fact, she’s immediately my favourite character because, hey, I gotta support my girls. Then the second act rolls around and the badly edited fight scenes are badly edited enough that they’re kind of waking me up and I’m starting to feel real uneasy. I find myself in this situation a lot because I watch a lot of film and TV and while from ages of 12 to 15 I couldn’t pin down where the unease came from, I know full well now.
See, the singular female character in this movie is a badass, she entered through a window and straight up murdered a dude, her brothers taught her how to fight when she was old enough to walk and her dad taught her how to throw knives because that’s an invaluable skill if you wanna grow up to be a Strong Female Character, Action Girl, Girl with a Gun. Shit, there’s a goddamn excess of tropes that this girl shaped the goddamn mould for, but I call her the Filme Fatale™.
The Filme Fatale™ isn’t a problem because she’s not realistic, because there are women who fight well and shoot well and who look like Beyoncé while doing it but they’re not the only women who exist. She’s a problem because there is an overabundance in the market of female characters who are exactly like her, and this flood of Filme Fatales™ has left little room for other diverse and nuanced depictions of women. And the picture of strength that she renders is a very specific, male oriented strength. She embodies hyper-violent and hyper-masculine ideals and is seen as stronger and more powerful for it. In doing this, female strength is erased and undervalued.
With the rise of second-wave feminism came a trend of people, mostly women, rejecting traditionally female roles. It’s not a school of thought I agree with but it’s one that’s origin and sentiment I completely understand. If roles are forced upon you unwillingly, you fight to push them away, if your very essence is being denigrated, if it’s seemingly the reason for your oppression, then your primary reflex is to burn it: burn the symbol of your oppression, burn bras, burn motherhood, burn being relegated to making sandwiches in the kitchen. Burn the Girl. The problem, though, is that misogyny isn’t just the denigration of femininity, it’s the ingrained prejudice felt against women. The prejudice towards women was felt first, and it was felt for a long time, and then came the devaluation of what they could do and of the roles they traditionally inhabited.
For those who write Filme Fatales™, it’s understood that femininity equates to weakness. For these characters, their weakness is rooted in their gender and so to be strong, to empower themselves, they have to strip off this part of themselves and claim masculine traits. Their strength is found in their physical shows of power, they fight well, they kill faceless mooks, and they are vocal about how easily they can change the oil in their 1960s sports car – all of which are strangely seen as masculine acts. In seeking strength in masculinity, the Filme Fatale™ devalues femininity and in doing that she acts as a tool that ultimately devalues women. She doesn’t dismantle sexism in media, she perpetuates it.
My mother is one of the strongest people I know and to this day I am pretty positive that she has never killed a person. She loves to cook and really digs yoga, she has said that the thing she values the most in the world is being a mother to my sister and I. She is a woman who inhabits a traditionally female space, traditionally feminine roles – she is nothing like the Filme Fatale™ but her strength is undeniable.
Female strength is almost comically undervalued in modern society, there are pockets of the feminist movement who still question the feminist credibility of stay-at- home mothers, still the masses of people who don’t hesitate to call an emotional woman hysterical. It’s no surprise that this is reflected in our media, but female strength deserves to have a place carved out for it too. The Filme Fatale™ will always have her place in our media but I think it’s time she steps backs and starts backing her sisters. Time that the people who are creating our film and TV realise that strength does not mean masculinity and female strength is just as powerful.