There has been a ton of media with Strong Female Characters in it in 2015 (and 2014 as well, but 2015 is kind of unique) and a lot of bizarre conversations are happening as a result. I have tried to cover each thing as it has come out, but I think there is a larger conversation that needs to happen because it seems like there's some confusion about all of these things.
There are a few different things I focus on when I look at television or a movie; I look at representation, writing, and at how the characters are portrayed overall. I believe that it is important to consider all of these factors when examining a show or movie from a feminist perspective. I've written before about how sexism and misogyny factor into representation, writing and the portrayal of women and I try to find the places where that happens, and places where it doesn't happen.
There's been a big shitstorm, for lack of a better word, in regards to Mad Max. There are people camped on the side of Feminist Masterpiece, and people camped on the side of It's Okay I Guess. I am on the latter, and it's resulted in arguments with a few different people who are on the former. I wrote a piece about it, but I think that the movie itself needs to be looked at in a larger context. This isn't even about Mad Max.
The Matrix is my favorite movie. I love science fiction, I love Trinity, I love Neo, I love Morpheus, I love the story, I love everything about it. I'm sure that if I called Trinity a Strong Female Character, most people would agree, and that's because she is one. She is super good at fighting, she's smart, she's compassionate, she's interesting. I love Trinity.
This, however, is the problem with Strong Female Characters being conflated with feminism. In The Matrix, Trinity falls in love with Neo and she uses her love for him to convince him that he is The One. Trinity's purpose in the movie is to fall in love with Neo and help him understand that he is The One. That does not make Trinity any less of a Strong Female Character, but that is not feminism.
Now, some of you probably see an issue with that, and it reminds me of a couple of critiques I got after I wrote the piece about Mad Max- my unwillingness to give a Feminist Seal of Approval to movies just for having strong women in them. People were confused about why I wasn't interested in a film where Furiosa was working with Max. This is because female characters, even Strong Female Characters, are put into these boxes where their stories revolve around men and cooperation with men. This is sexism, and it is sexism because male characters are not treated this way. There are endless examples of male leads who do not have women around to help them, because the trend is that men don't "need" the help of women in media, which is, of course, a ridiculous trend. There are far less examples of female leads who don't have men around to help them. It just doesn't happen. So no, I do not have a problem Furiosa working with Max. I have a problem with this being championed as feminism, because it is not feminism. It is sexism.
The Bechdel Test, though flawed, was created as a means to determine if a piece of media did well with representation, and the third criteria a piece of media has to meet to pass the test is that women have to talk to each other about something other than a man. That criteria is not an accident, it is there because it is the norm for female characters to have their stories and their interactions revolving around men. That is sexism.
I would absolutely call Furiosa a Strong Female Character. I have no illusions about her intelligence or her ability and I did like her and what she was trying to accomplish in Mad Max. That does not make Mad Max a feminist movie, because the writing surrounding Furiosa was sexist. The "need" for her to depend on a man was sexist. That doesn't mean that Furiosa is not a strong female character, that means that Mad Max is not a feminist film.
The definition I use for feminism came from bell hooks- "feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression." If I am going to consider a piece of media to be feminist, there shouldn't be sexism in the writing, because that goes against the meaning of my feminism. Mad Max goes against the meaning of my feminism.