Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Strong Young Female Characters

It can be tempting write a strong female lead to the point that she becomes a unfeeling robot. Like a 1980's macho action hero with breasts. Especially now, when we are faced with images of reality show stars that are famous due to their looks, female movie leads that follow their man around like lost puppies.

But, there are good examples of recent female leads, that are strong, can match the men blow by blow, and yet remain vulnerable and driven. And who's life is not revolving around "some boy".

Hit Girl, Hanna, and Ree Dolly.*

Let's start with Hit Girl, the killer little girl in Kick-Ass. Her childhood was designed to make her a killing machine. Her father (wonderfully played by Nicholas Cage), had been set up by a drug dealer and did time in prison, which is not a good place for a cop to be. While he was there his wife dies, leaving behind their daughter, Hit Girl. He raises her to be a killer, to take revenge on the drug dealer that took her mother's life and ruined their lives. They do it as masked crime fighters.

She is a pint sized vigilante. She is an expert in many forms of weapons and fighting styles. But still is a little kid. In the scene where her and Kick Ass meet. She starts to show off, teasing the small time drug dealers, while brutally killing them in front of Kick Ass.

You would think a childhood like that would make her a psychopath. But a psychopath is defined as a personality disorder characterized by lack of empathy and remorse, and shallow emotions. She is empathic, she wants to reach out and meet Kick Ass, seeing that he needs help. Lack of remorse? Hardly, when she fails to rescue her father, she is very remorseful. But turns that remorse into the anger she needs to finish the job. Shallow emotions? She keeps her emotions in check, but she does cry, when she needs to.

Is she vulnerable? She's eleven. Part of her is still a little girl.


Hanna, from the movie Hanna, like Hit Girl, was raised to be a killer. In her case, her father had to hide her from the CIA, because she is last survivor of a project. He had to raise her to protect herself from the people that would show up eventually to "erase" the evidence. You see her hunting with a bow and arrow above the arctic circle in Finland. Whereas Hit Girl was trained to be a John Woo type of superhero. Hanna is taught how to survive with barely any weapons.


She can hunt, butcher animals, kill with a knife and a bow. She is kept away from society because they are in hiding. But her father (he raised her, not her biological father) knows she will have to face her past. That is why he teaches her to be so self reliant.

The problem is, she has no idea what the real world is like. When she has to leave her hut in the woods of Finland. She travels to Germany. Along the way she meets a family on vacation, that sort of take her in. They treat her like a the teenager she should be. Their daughter sneaks out with Hanna one night to meet some boys. Hanna has no clue on how to react. The boy kisses her, she almost kills him. Yet, her new friend doesn't abandoned her.

Unlike Hit Girl, who is normal, except for her upbringing, Hanna finds out she had been genetically altered. This should make her even less human. But as she starts to experience what the real world is like, she develops empathy. Thanking her new friend for being a friend, and tries to keep the family out of danger. If she was truly the emotionless killing machine she was supposed to be, she wouldn't have cared about the family.

Hit Girl and Hanna may seem to made to be heroes. So we turn to Ree Dolly from the movie Winter's Bone. Like the other girls, she is young (seventeen), self reliant (hunts so there is food on the table), and her mother is non existent (in this case due to catatonia). Unlike the other girls, her father is missing, she has not grown up to be a killing machine. She is a normal girl, growing up in a poor, meth riddled area of the country. She has to raise her younger brother and sister, because of the lack of parental figures in the house.

The plot of Winter's Bone deals with Ree finding her father. She is warned that if her father does not show up for this court hearing, he will be skipping his bail, which means they will lose the one possession the family owes, the house. She starts her journey to find her father. Her father had been caught producing and selling meth. This means Ree has to start with people involved with the drug. Most are in her family. Along the way she is lied to and threatened, but she will not give up. They are going to lose their home.

When she figures out her father was killed, she doesn't want revenge, she only wants proof. She confronts the head dealer in the county. This leads her to be beaten by the women in his group. In one of the most powerful scenes, she tells the group of adults that have just beaten her, that she doesn't care who killed her father. She needs proof to save her home, because she has to take care of her family and she can't do that with out a home.

The end of the movie, she is taken to where her father's body had been hidden. Without giving a major spoiler away. She gets her proof.

Ree keeps going, she is willing to put herself on the line to keep her family home. She knows the risk, but keeps going. If she had been Hit Girl, she would have faced the drug dealers with guns. She doesn't. She goes alone and unarmed. Of the three, she is the most vulnerable, but she is the strongest. She may have been pushed into the role of the care giver in the story, but she knows what is expected.

For those of you that think strong young females have not existed since Buffy ended, don't worry. They are out there. Hopefully, we will see more of them. I hope more in the vein of Ree. A strong, realistic, female is far more powerful. Even if you are writing or watching a fantasy, having a character anchored in reality, makes their strengths and vulnerabilities more accessible and believable.

* Disclaimer: I am only comparing the characters as they were portrayed in the movies, to be fair, since Hanna only appeared in film form.

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