By Stephanie Tom
Growing up with Mulan being one of the most formative pop culture figures of my childhood meant a few things. It meant that the first time I wanted to get my hair cut in elementary school I was disappointed that they cut it with scissors instead of a sword. It meant that I wanted to master the fan as both dance technique and weapon, beyond what I was already learning in my classical dance class. It meant that I learned the words to every song in that iconic soundtrack, from “Reflection” to “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” and that I felt a belated cringe after hearing Mulan’s squeaked-out lines in “A Girl Worth Fighting For” — How ‘bout a girl who’s got a brain / Who always speaks her mind?—followed by a resounding NAH from the men as they kept on marching giddily.
Why is it that female characters are forced to present themselves in division as opposed to in duality? Take Mulan, take all of the Disney princesses for example—the traditional ones dainty and thin, their smiles small-mouthed and eyes wider than the words they say in the movies, if they have lines at all. The more recent ones that have broken the mold—Tiana, Merida, Anna and Elsa—are either beloved or hated for their more headstrong wildness, their presence on-screen deemed either a ‘role model’ or “feminist propaganda.” Take Taylor Swift’s early hit “You Belong With Me,” featuring Swift in all of her nerd girl glory dreams of the boy next door, pitted against the popular-girl “Cheer Captain”—“She wears high heels, I wear sneakers,” Swift sings, as if this snappy first line of the pre-chorus is all you need to know to distinguish their differences. Take one of the most quintessential teen movies of our generation, Mean Girls (Waters, 2004), and look at how new girl Cady is presented with the choice to befriend Regina or Janis—two sides of the same coin, once best friends but divided upon reaching high school and being forced to fall into foils of one another.
Female characters have always been forced to fill the shoes of a single trope. Whether it be the Mary Sue, the all-around perfect girl of your dreams; the Plot Point, whose sole arc in a narrative exists only in the context of providing character to a male character; or the Badass who is automatically coined as “strong female representation!” without considering the fact that she has zero character development or personality to begin with outside of being good with weapons; these tropes are long expired, and female characters deserve a new image.
There is, and has been, a growing trend in media through the past decade (give or take)—be it through film, literature, or music—about girls as fearful forces to be reckoned with. Popular young adult books have seen some of the most striking shifts in these media trends. Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Divergence—arguably, the fantasy-dystopian trio that was the hallmark of fine middle school literature—all featured various female leads, from Hermione to Katniss to Tris, that embodied strength and strong will without simply falling victim to playing plot points. Look at what’s come across silver screens and through movie theaters alike. Coraline (Selick, 2009) terrorized my friends and classmates when it came out, with the Other-Mother’s button-eyes and fantasy-turned-nightmare concept. Though I have never watched the show, something about Eleven from Stranger Things (2016) exudes cautionary vibes—as if we can already guess from trailers and teaser photos alike that although she’s only a young girl, something about that determined glare and hard-set mouth will not hesitate to deal some damage. Some of the most terrifying horror movies recently—Hereditary (Aster, 2018) and Midsommar (Aster, 2019)—have centered female drama and trauma at the center, and have been utterly haunting ever since I’ve seen the trailers (and half of Hereditary before I left the room due to its terror). Even in music, there’s been a noticeable trend in the indie-alt-pop genre that has seen female artists debuting albums with darker aesthetics, often of teen girls. Within the past decade, Florence and the Machine, Marina and the Diamonds (recently rebranded to just ‘Marina’), Lana Del Ray, Lorde, Melanie Martinez, Halsey, and Billie Eilish — all artists heralded as the voices that embody and represent the crux of teen angst as told through alternative indie rock pop — have all released songs about girlhood as something darker, and more confessional in nature.
The embracing of such narratives introduces two new categories for consideration: the Chaser and the Unknown. The Chaser portrays girl as prey turned predator, led like a lamb to slaughter but turned lion through her own wit and determination. Think Katniss, think Coraline, think Princess Mononoke, and every other female lead in which they have turned tides and turned expectations on their heads to start a revolution or fight their way to freedom. Think every girl who has ever subverted the delicate nature that has been assumed of her in order to step up and assume control when the reins are let loose.
The second category that we are introduced to is Girl as Mythos. It’s what is best encapsulated by a Shakespeare quote from A Midsummer Night’s Dream — “though she be but little, she is fierce.” It’s what we deem the girls that unsuspectingly terrifying in their power, whether it be their physical capabilities or their emotional distance that unnerves the audience. It’s how we distinguish between the “groupies” and the “outsiders;” the Wednesday Addams of the bunch, the Elsa among the ice queens, the Final Girl who survives every horror movie by outsmarting the danger and the darkness by embracing it herself. For once, she lives beyond her lifeline and she defeats her demons.
Is that why there’s been such a backlash against praise for such characters? Is that why Elsa from Frozen (Lee & Buck, 2013) has been framed as so typical of pushing a ‘feminist agenda’ that it is criticized for playing directly into expected ‘strong character’ tropes? Is that the reasoning behind James Cameron’s reduction of Gal Gadot’s role in Wonder Woman (Jenkins, 2017) to simply an “objectified icon?” Why else must online fan culture as well as Hollywood reduce The Hunger Games to focus on a constructed love triangle when it was so much more in the books?
As of 2019, we live in a world full of darkness and injustice — we have been, for a long time, and it’s no secret. And as is the duty of all art, it imitates life and provides a glossed mirror for us to look into and see a reflection of our society. In our current social-political landscape, these tropes are being rehashed and coming back to life everywhere we look. Take all of the young activists we see today at the very forefront of socio-political movements around the globe: Little Miss Flint, fighting to raise awareness of Flint, Michigan’s ongoing water crisis; Greta Thunberg, an environmental activist who has inspired millions to participate in Climate Strikes for climate change awareness; and the Kong Girls of Hong Kong who are reclaiming the vapid stereotypes once associated with the term (gong nui in Cantonese) as they have appeared at the forefront of the Hong Kong protests in droves. Take all of these young girls at the forefront of fighting injustice, and see how they parallel the heroes of the new generation that we see in our popular media now.
Is there ever a way to fully link the stories we read and watch to our own lives? Of course not, and this is by no means an absolute of sainting female characters as perfection, and neither are these newly emerging tropes made to contain them. They only try to do more to capture a different facet of their character and intentions. In fact, that’s what makes them all the more human, and all the more realistic. Despite Disney molding mothers to be made for mourning and daughters raised in devastation, despite all the critics that make children collapse in the chaos, despite all that the media does to beat down female characters into two-dimensional tropes and nothing more — they thrive and rise in the embodiment of multiple mirrors of our own reality, and survive against all odds.