“She’s not alone.”
With this line, almost every female superhero that Marvel has in their roster was unleashed against Thanos and his cronies, kicking off the last act of Avengers: Endgame’s closing battle. This moment sits at the awkward intersection of cringeworthy and awesome: it is clear pandering from a corporate franchise that is ostentatiously playing catch-up for years of sidelining its female characters, but it is still – at an emotional level – spectacular. Maybe this moment would have had a deeper significance had they not ‘fridged’ one of their most beloved and established heroines earlier in the film, giving her an infuriatingly minimal send-off. It also serves as a call back to an even more cringeworthy fight in Infinity War. Regardless, seeing a host of superpowered women rise with untethered power against the MCU’s biggest baddie to date is fun, even moving – and there is nothing wrong with enjoying it. With Marvel’s recent Phase Four announcement revealing a diversifying cast, a female Thor, and two female directors, there is hope that the franchise might finally give its heroines the screen time and character development that have largely been reserved for its heroes.
The scene that launched a thousand think pieces may emblemise 2019’s relationship to the Strong Female Character – a now-ubiquitous phrase denoting women who are not defined by the men in their films. Years of critical pressure, perhaps crystallised by 2017’s #MeToo movement, have brought an urgency to such depictions in established franchises – see: Marvel. On the one hand, such cases are often somewhat disingenuous, producing manufactured moments as afterthoughts. On the other – they are wonderful to see, and long overdue. Two years on, conversations are still being had and our collective understanding of what makes said characters ‘strong’ and well-rounded continues to evolve.
There is still a long way to go: while female characters are redefining ‘strong’ with an increase in personalities, motives, and narratives on display, the overwhelming majority are still white and well-off – not to mention cisgender, heterosexual, and able-bodied. Behind the scenes, female and minority directors, writers, and producers are still vastly outnumbered by their white male peers. It seems that the only way the film industry will truly change to this more balanced, representative view of humanity is with a diversity of on-screen and behind-the-scenes talent – eliminating the need for Scarlett Johansson to play every role herself.
The financial returns may also be driving this change, but a closer examination reveals a more complicated picture. Films that pass the Bechdel test perform better at the box office, and the film business would seem to be following the money were it not for the fact that independent female-centric films struggle to find funding and distribution. Disney and its fellow entertainment behemoths can safely fund diverse projects content in the knowledge that their box-office dominance will remain untouched. Additionally, audiences in the UK have not had the same luck as their American counterparts this year – despite critical acclaim, Fast Color and Support the Girls got a non-existent and an extremely limited release respectively. There is even more content – and female characters – but they do not always reach the widest audiences.
There is no easy answer to this dilemma, as distribution is driven by perceived box-office demand in an inherently risky industry – the same motive that continually pushes Disney to terrifying dominance. Independent films such as the above – notably starring non-white performers – often do not get the chance to prove their appeal, thus perpetuating this vicious cycle. This may be preventing the full diversity of film’s current women-centric narratives from reaching audiences, leaving cinemas poorer for it.
Market cynicism aside, the interpretation of such moments and characters may be down to the individual viewer’s experience and outlook; despair at the corporate machine can coexist with enjoyment of the films and characters on display. With that in mind, the first half of 2019 has been full of fantastic female characters across films of all sizes and styles, displaying rounded character development and motivation reflecting recognisable humanity – not always in terms of lived experience but sometimes in putting relatable realities into fantasies.
Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart allows teenage girls to take centre stage in their own raunchy, raucous high school comedy, never sacrificing the weight of their insecurities and expectations at the expense of the jokes. In a similarly loving yet more painful fashion, Bo Burnham’s debut feature Eighth Grade zeroes in on the inconsequential worries that wreak havoc on adolescence. Wild Rose and the upcoming Animals have defiant, vivacious protagonists struggling to balance adulthood and responsibility with a search for meaning, safety, and artistic dreams at their hearts. Late Night elevates a predictable plot with a magnificently rendered protagonist – imperfect, hilarious, and all-too-human. Leaving reality behind, Us focuses intensely on two sides of the same conflicted woman against the home invasion thrills. Midsommar combines a torturous, unglamourised portrait of anxiety with a washed-out pastel nightmare. Even the ridiculous, sincere spectacle of Alita: Battle Angel has at its heart a heroine as compassionate as she is tough. And lastly, Marvel’s first female-led superhero film may not have been their strongest entry, but Captain Marvel refused to apologise for Carol’s superpowers or self-confidence.
The Strong Female Character is full of contradictions: there are plenty of fantastic examples from 2019’s releases, but representation beyond womanhood is sometimes lacking. Lively, poignant portrayals of womanhood are plentiful, especially among independent works, but many films and characters still struggle to find audiences. On the studio front, Disney’s diversifying slate and increased focused on its women is not a moral victory, but a marketing one. That said, Disney would print money regardless of their cast’s and crew’s diversity, so seeing greater on- and off-screen roles for women is still a welcome change. While the significance of “She’s not alone” is up for interpretation, the moment exemplifies the triumph and tokenism of 2019’s female characters – there is much to celebrate, but so far to go.