Response to Tasha Robinson

This post is in response to an exposition by Tasha Robinson that appeared in The Dissolve on 16 June, 2014. To read the full text of the article, please follow the link: We’re Losing All Our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome.

A few days ago, a friend’s posted link on Facebook caught my eye. “We’re Losing All Our Strong Female Characters…” it read, and I was unable to see the rest. I thought, “That’s weird, I really thought we were getting better!” Of course, I had to read.

Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) in The Matrix.

Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) in The Matrix.

The article, written by The Dissolve‘s Senior Editor Tasha Robinson, bemoans the evidently chronic practice of film-makers to create “Strong Female Characters(TM)” as she calls them, only to throw away their potential in favour of bolstering a male protagonist. I agree, this sounds like a bad thing. I wouldn’t stand for it, personally. Ms. Robinson cites several films in support of her thesis, alluding to “Trinity Syndrome,” which refers to Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) from The Matrix trilogy.

Merida in Brave.

Merida in Brave.

First on Ms. Robinson’s list is Valka (Cate Blanchett) in How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014). Robinson writes, “She’s interesting. Too bad the story gives her absolutely nothing to do.” Now, I haven’t seen How to Train Your Dragon either 1 or 2, but that does sound like a real bummer for the Strong Female Characters(TM) of this world. But then I remembered my post about Frozen from this past February, rejoicing at the gains for, to abbreviate Ms. Robinson, SFCs(TM) in children’s (and especially Disney) films. Has Ms. Robinson see Frozen, I wonder? If so, she is correct that How To Train Your Dragon 2 could represent a depressing (though not wholly unexpected) backslide.

Ms. Robinson proceeds to lambaste The Lego Movie (2014), which evidently builds Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) as a SFC(TM), and then erodes that when she asks her boyfriend’s permission to give the plucky hero reward sex. Next on Ms. Robinson’s list is The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013), which evidently invented a new, female elf character simply because there weren’t any girls in the book. To be sure, that does sound like a rather stupid marketing ploy. Finally, Ms. Robinson expresses disgust at the character of Dahl (Katee Sackhoff) in Riddick (2013). Oh, but in the end, Robinson salutes The Edge of Tomorrow (2014) for not falling into that trap*.

Anna and Elsa in Frozen.

Anna and Elsa in Frozen.

One thing my readers may have noticed from my language above is that I have seen none of the movies Ms. Robinson discusses, with the exception of The Matrix (1999). Therefore, I have no basis with which to refute Ms. Robinson’s interpretation of the roles she discusses. Indeed, the way she paints the picture leaves me a bit blue. The problem I am left with, however, is that her hypothesis– that we’re losing our Strong Female Characters(TM) to White Knight Male Protagonists (my term)– leaves me feeling that she must be wrong.

Kate (Evangeline Lilly) in Lost

Kate (Evangeline Lilly) in Lost

Take her first example, How to Train Your Dragon 2. The series is actually based on a children’s book series by Cressida Cowell. (If you want to read them, check them out!) Now, I’ve never read them, either, but I hear they’re pretty good. My question is, what is Valka like in the books? If she, as Ms. Robinson says, has absolutely nothing to do, then we must look at the book for our criticism. If not, then there is a deeper question as to why film-makers would take a female character’s power away from her. I assume Valka actually exists in the books, unlike Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), who was invented for the second Hobbit film. That’s pure silliness. The Hobbit is essentially a medieval quest tale. There is no place for women in it, and even as a 10-year-old reading the book for the first time, I understood that and it didn’t bother me. Tauriel is just another sign of how silly Peter Jackson has become about this Hobbit debacle.

Just the fact that The Lego Movie made it into Ms. Robinson’s article is surprising to me. Did she really go looking for a SFC(TM) there? Most reveiwers called it “slapstick” at best. I’m not surprised a formulaic, often crude, movie about little plastic people failed Ms. Robinson on this count. And she had hope for Riddick? I don’t know any women who went to see that. Not even one who was remotely interested. I’m not saying that it’s OK to turn women into sex objects in male-targeted films, but it is certainly more expected. While I hope that will change in the future, one can’t expect miracles to happen overnight.

To Ms. Robinson, I propose the following:

Don’t like How to Train Your Dragon 2 or The Lego Movie? Watch Brave or Frozen. And read the books by Cressida Cowell.

Don’t like the made-up female character in The Hobbit? Read the book. Or watch the same actress, Evangeline Lilly, being kick-ass in Lost.

Don’t like Katee Sackhoff’s character in Riddick? Watch her for 5 seasons of Battlestar Galactica.

Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) in Battlestar Galactica.

Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) in Battlestar Galactica.

My question is, why did Tasha Robinson choose those movies? This year, there have been so many films with Strong Female Characters(TM). How about Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)? It doesn’t pass the Bechdel test (which in my opinion has a few flaws, though it’s a good start), but Natasha Romanoff definitely fits Ms. Robinson’s SFC(TM) definition. If Ms. Robinson is into movies based on books, how about The Fault in Our Stars (2014) (book by John Green) or The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) (books by Suzanne Collins)? And, high on my list to see soon, Maleficent (2014)? There are so many movies out this year, including action films, that do not support Ms. Robinson’s hypothesis.

Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Ultimately, I’m glad to report that there is no need for alarm. We are not, as Ms. Robinson suggests, losing our SFCs(TM) to “Trinity Syndrome.” It’s a simple case of Psych 101 Phenomenon. When students in college take Introduction to Psychology, as they learn about each new diagnosis, they become convinced that they suffer from each and every one in turn. Once you start looking for something hard enough, you will find it. Psych 101 phenomenon works on many things. If you’re convinced there’s a spider in your bedroom, you will look until you find one (when you probably wouldn’t have noticed it if you hadn’t been looking). Ms. Robinson was looking for these Trinity Syndrome characters, and she found them.

No need to panic, strong female characters are on the rise, and they work in pairs, ensembles, and solos, both on the silver screen and the small screen. Hollywood really is improving, and there is hope for our daughters and granddaughters.

Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

*In discussing The Edge of Tomorrow, Ms. Robinson says the following: “But there are exceptions to every rule. Edge of Tomorrow features Emily Blunt as Rita, an ultra-tough female character who dies to motivate the male protagonist.(Repeatedly!) She starts off as the biggest bad-ass in her world, but is eventually surpassed by hero William Cage (Tom Cruise), who starts off as a bumbling fuck-up. She mostly exists in the story to provide Cage with information and cheer him on, and eventually validates him with a brief romantic moment. And yet the story doesn’t degrade, devalue, weaken, or dismiss her. It sends the hero on without her at the end—but only at the very end, after she’s proved her worth again and again. She’s tough. She’s confident. She’s desperate. She’s funny. In short, she’s aspirational and inspirational, and just as exciting at the end of the movie as she is at the beginning.” Now, that sounds great. But why does Rita have to die to motivate William? I mean, isn’t that even worse? I understand that dying repeatedly is a part of Edge of Tomorrow‘s premise, but why couldn’t Rita just save the day herself? She has to die (and William has to die until he gets it right) so William can do it? How is that any better? It seems Ms. Robinson’s only concern is that her SFC(TM) is just as interesting at the end of the movie as she was at the beginning. Plus, Tom Cruise gives me the heebeegeebies, especially when we’re talking about women’s rights.


Lion King?

I had a few people ask me privately why my last post about Frozen did not mention The Lion King in the litany of past Disney successes.

First of all, there is no doubt that The Lion King was one of the greatest commercial successes Disney has ever experienced, and I’m still dying to go see the musical on Broadway or in the West End.

However, when The Lion King first came out, I was nine years old, and I went to go see it in the theatre. Needless to say, I found the whole experience very traumatising, especially the stampede (didn’t Disney learn their lesson with Bambi?!!), and ended up needing to leave the theatre twice due to my own upset. (I had found The Little Mermaid similarly traumatising at age 4.)

Later that day, a family friend sat down with me and tried to explain, “Heather, that’s what life is really like for animals in Africa.”

To which my response was, “In real life, ANIMALS. DON’T. TALK.” So now you have an idea of what I was like as a child.

The Miracle that is Frozen

I, like almost all Americans my age, grew up on some excellent Disney staples. I think I spent most of second grade singing Beauty and the Beast songs on the jungle gym, and became quite torn over my favourite movie when Aladdin came out. At 14, I condescended to forget I was a teenager long enough to go see Mulan, which made a nice little change from the other princesses. While I never went to Disney as a kid (my parents preferred to spend money on vacations to Williamsburg and Plimoth Plantation, for which I am eternally grateful), it is inevitable that these Disney incarnations of ancient tales in  many ways shaped my childhood. As a teen, I moved on to finding my heroines in Star Wars (the original trilogy) and Xena: Warrior Princess (yeah, that was a phase, we don’t need to dwell on that). I grasped at Eowyn as a role-model in Lord of the Rings, though I hated her for loving Aragorn when he clearly couldn’t love her back. As a young adult, it was with great joy that I discovered the work of Joss Whedon, the new Battlestar Galactica, and Veronica Mars. In my childhood, books and real life provided me with the truly strong women; in that, the silver screen failed me.

I really, really wish that the world had been ready for Frozen about 20 years earlier.

A few years ago, I heard that Disney was doing a version of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” and I remember thinking briefly, “Well, that’s a terrible idea.” I thought it would easily fall into the same traps that Once Upon A Time had been finding itself in during its first season: buying into the fairytale idea that if a woman doesn’t fit the traditionally feminine expectations set out for her, she is evil and should be punished.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Years later, I first became re-acquainted with the idea that became Frozen when a friend posted this little gem on Facebook:

(I won’t condescend to call this girl cute or amazing– she is phenomenally talented and she’s only 9 years old. If you don’t want to watch now, feel free to enjoy it later, because it’s worth it.)

I loved the song the moment I heard it, and it got me curious about the movie. I still had no idea that Frozen was the final incarnation of “The Snow Queen.” In fact, I had absolutely no idea what it was about. Seeing the occasional clip of Olaf the Snowman had led me to think maybe it was the next incarnation of the Ice Age franchise or something. But when Frozen won the Golden Globe for best animated feature and I heard Idina Menzel was involved, I realised this might be something I needed to go check out.

It makes sense that the song “Let It Go” was what got me interested in Frozen: the song was what changed the course of the whole movie. Written by Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez of Book of Mormon fame, “Let It Go” was the earliest piece of composing that made it into the final film. In an Entertainment Weekly interview, Kristen said, “We … [were] still walking the line– is she a villain? Is this about good versus evil? And then we put ourselves in the head space of someone who would have to leave everything they knew, who was keeping a secret their whole life and then messes up once. Just once! And gets chased out.” From then on, she said, the story became about hope versus fear, rather than good versus evil.

However, I would say that the success of Frozen started even before that, but was the reason that “Let It Go” had to happen: Kristen and Bobby were writing this film for their daughters. I would argue that nothing else worked before “Let It Go” because good versus evil creates one dimensional women that are not sufficient for the daughters parents today want to raise.


In another interview, Bobby and Kristen tell us their favourite lines in the song are, “The cold never bothered me anyway,” and “That perfect girl is gone,” respectively. Bobby cites the subversiveness of the former, and how much he loves introducing that to a female Disney character. Kristen says she can personally relate to the latter, because as a career woman, she feels she constantly has to block out those feelings that she’s not being a good enough mother, wife, or woman. She literally has to “Turn away and slam the door.”

This is a far cry from “Tale as old as time,” or, “I can show you the world.” It’s even a welcome improvement on “Be a Man.”

Yesterday, I serendipitously ended up seeing Frozen with two friends after a lunch date. The moment it opened with a Saami chant, I knew I was in for something truly special. (The Saami are an indigenous people who live in far northern Europe, mainly Norway, Sweden, and Finland.) Visually, it was beautiful. I strongly recommend going to see it on the big screen in HD, because moment after moment left me gasping. The music is phenomenal. And the story is one of the best ever told. I laughed and cried, and laughed so hard I cried, and became totally lost in the wonder of it all. Oh, and did I mention Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars) voices Anna, and Idina Menzel (Wicked and Glee) is the power behind Elsa? Plus, the cast is full of a host of other acting gems like Jonathan Groff (Spring Awakening and Glee)  and Alan Tudyk (Firefly and Dollhouse). Dare I say it, but Frozen may be the best film of 2013.

I really hope that Anna and Elsa mark the start of a new era of Disney princesses. I’m aware that both Tangled and Brave made way for these ladies in recent years, and I hope to watch both those movies in the near future. But Frozen has that combination of excellent writing, phenomenal visuals, and truly inspiring music that makes true Disney magic.