Joss Whedon is a well-known writer and director of TV shows and movies such as Toy Story, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Dollhouse, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Notably, in many of his shows one can find a strong female leading character. This is a clear divergent from the typical portrayal of women in popular media and culture, and because of that Whedon is often asked why he chooses to portray such strong female characters. In the video above, Whedon gives some answers as to why he chooses to portray such strong female characters in his works. These answers have a great range of meaning, as he thought his answer over with each time the question was asked. At the beginning he gives credit to his mother for showing him the strength of a powerful woman. Next he gives credit to his father and his stepfather for teaching him to prize strong women and understanding that “recognizing someone else’s power doesn’t diminish your own”. Eventually Whedon answers with a question of his own, asking reporters why they are asking him this instead of asking the hundreds of other writers why they do not write strong women characters. His next answer is simply that equality is something we need, and we need it now, and the characters we watch are examples that lead to greater change. Finally, he ends by answering simply “because you’re still asking me that question”. Within this short speech, no longer than eight minutes, Whedon touches upon more than just the inspiration for strong women characters, he also addresses so many different aspects of why strong female, leading, characters are necessary. His last statement, that he writes strong women characters because he is still being asked why he does so, hits the nail on the head. Strong women characters are needed because there is still a distinction between a strong women character and a strong character.
So how can having strong female characters in movies and television shows lead the way to the equality that as Whedon says, “we need, kind of now”? As countless studies have shown, the shows we watch on television influence our perspective and therefore our future behavior. In the article “Sex sells, but what else does it do?”, Chris Pappas discusses this very idea of how what we watch affects the way we see the world. Pappas states “the phenomenon of the porn industry acts as a space wherein people negotiate, reinforce, or change their attitudes about what is right and wrong”. Change the words “the porn industry” to “the movie industry” or “the television industry” and the idea remains the same. What the consumer watches affects ones’ ideas of right and wrong, normal and abnormal, acceptable and unacceptable. Much like the feminist porn we read about has the power to change the way the public views female sexuality, strong female characters in popular television shows and movie have the power to change the way powerful females are viewed by the public.
How can strong female characters really make a difference in the way the general public views women, specifically strong women in leadership positions? Let’s start by looking at the problem, the way women around the world in leadership positions are treated. What do Hillary Clinton, Julia Gillard, Rosy Senanayake, and Cecile Duflot have in common? All four of these women are qualified politicians with years of experience, facts that can’t be denied even if you disagree with their particular political beliefs. Despite this, Hillary Clinton is consistently called out for being “the stereotypical bitch” and was told by a heckler to “iron my shirt”. Despite this, Julia Gillard (former Australian prime minister) had to deal with her opposing party serving a dish named after her, the “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail — small breasts, huge thighs, & a big red box”. Despite this, Rosy Senanayake (member of Sri Lanka’s opposition party and former Sri Lankan high commissioner in Malaysia) was told by the transport minister that he could not focus on her question because of her beauty and that he had thoughts about her that he’d prefer to not reveal to the public, all while in a Parliamentary session. Despite this, Cecile Duflot (at the time the French housing minister) was wolf-whistled whilst giving a speech in the national assembly. Men in political positions do not receive such treatment, and I would argue there’d be an uproar if there was an occasion of men being treated as such. Such treatment doesn’t just happen to women in politics, it happens to women in every sector of work and even in education.
Can strong female characters change this behavior and treatment? Alone, no, strong fictional female characters are not enough. But fiction has the power to inspire, the lead the way, to change how people view an issue. Strong female characters are inspirations for the girls and boys watching the shows (and reading the books) these characters are a part of. I know that for myself, two key inspirations were Hermione Granger and Luna Lovegood. Both characters were strong women who worked for what they wanted, be it top grades or individuality, despite the negative feedback they received from the people around them. These characters were fictional, but they taught me that if I worked hard I could be as accomplished as I wanted to be in any field I chose. Characters like Joss Whedon’s Buffy continued this example for me, and countless other young girls I’m sure, showing that we were just as strong (physically, emotionally, and as leaders) as anyone else out there. Strong female characters provide an example that may not always be available in the real world, or are not as readily shown to youth populations, that can lead to those young girls becoming advocates for strong females in all sectors of life. Do you believe that strong female characters can influence social change?