Blog PostsWhat Counts as a Strong Female Character, Anyway?

Photo by Chuck Zlotnick - © 2017 CTMG, Inc.

Photo by Chuck Zlotnick – © 2017 CTMG, Inc.

Yesterday, I saw Spider-Man Homecoming during a matinee at the Alamo Drafthouse. My boyfriend and I laughed and applauded for almost two hours straight through mouthfuls of truffle butter Parmesan popcorn, enjoying, finally, a Spider-man movie that truly embraced the humor in Peter Parker and his Spidey alter-ego.

Today, I looked at reviews of the film and one in particular caught my eye – The Mary Sue’s Spider-Man Homecoming and the Bechdel Test. On The Mary Sue’s Facebook page, the line above the link reads, “The new Spider-Man has strong female characters, but…” and most of the article points out how none of the women in the film have scenes with each other.

They’re not wrong with that observation, but I’m still distracted by that line on the Facebook page. The new movie has strong female characters? Really?

There are three women in the film who are important in some way to Peter Parker – his aunt May and two of his classmates and co-members of the academic decathlon team, one of whom he has a crush on. (I’m avoiding using their names for a reason.) All three of them are well-played by the respective actresses (Marisa Tomei, Laura Harrier, and Zendaya). They all have distinct personalities. Zendaya in particular has some of the funniest laugh lines of the script in the most unexpected moments, and it was refreshing to see an Aunt May with a playful sense of humor who does more than grieve for her husband and worry over Peter.

But does that make them strong?

After watching and enjoying almost every moment of both Guardians of the Galaxy movies but being very disappointed that Gamora is the only team member who never gets to be funny, the wit and energy that came from Aunt May and Peter’s classmates was a delightful change of pace.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that Spider-Man Homecoming is a male-driven story, and all of the interesting backstories and clearest character motivations are reserved for the male characters. Peter Parker wants to help people while also having adventures and find meaning in his life. The Vulture wants to provide for his family and will do anything to reach that goal, including criminal activities. Tony Stark wants to mentor Peter and mold him into a better superhero than Iron Man is. And Ned wants to be “the guy in the chair” and live vicariously through his super cool friend.

What do the women want? Well…I guess his classmates want to do well in the academic decathlon. And have fun in high school. And Aunt May wants Peter to be safe. Oh, and Zendaya wants to fit in some “light protesting” before the decathlon begins.

Their motivations, if they’re clear at all, aren’t related to the story of the film. They take no part in the main action.

I don’t even mean this as a criticism; I’m just stating it as fact. There are a lot of things to like about the women in this movie. As I said, they’re given witty dialogue, and they’re victimized a lot less than most women in superhero movies that aren’t Wonder Women. I suspect that Aunt May and one of the other classmates will be fleshed out in the second movie in this franchise, so I’m not annoyed that they didn’t have much to do in the first installment. I also loved that both of Peter’s classmates are women of color – in fact, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such a diverse supporting cast in a superhero movie, and I was thrilled that a movie set in New York City actually looks like the population of New York City.

Still. Let’s not go calling female characters “strong” just because they’re better than the average sexy window dressing we have to settle for in most action movies. The women in Spider-Man Homecoming have potential for more growth in the sequel, and I’m optimistic for that possibility. As of now, the girls are all right.


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