Why are there not very many minority actors? Not because people don't want to see them, but because Hollywood won't hire them. Why are there so few woman directors or actors playing anything but pretty distractions and generic roles? Not because there's no public demand for better female characters, but because Hollywood sees no reason to spend the time writing any.
Female roles especially fall into one of two subgroups most often...
1: The superfluous, amiable damsel in distress there to look pretty and be rescued.
2: The grouchy, superior, businesslike, alpha-female archetype.
And these two can blend or even replace one another as time goes, but this seems to be the norm unfortunately in most major productions. Woman it seems can't play characters, can be PEOPLE they have to represent something, either a male or female power fantasy. Men sometimes have this distinction (either as poetic lapdogs with pecs or invincible super heroes) but sometimes there are character actors who will play different characters. Males can just as easily be found as the geeky computer genius, the calculating villain, the quirky dork, and the jaded police officer as they are portrayed as either personality-lite shoulder candy or bullet-proof machismo.
However when is the last time you couldn't pigeonhole a female, let alone a female lead, with the following statements...?
1: She is superior to every male character in the production in terms of intelligence and strength.
2: She is the only character to refer to her gender over and over again as identifying her.
3: She is not as instrumental in the plot as male characters, except perhaps symbolically.
4: She is physically attractive be she hero, villain, or ancillary.
5: She never makes mistakes that have meaningful consequences.
6: She never makes difficult choices that have meaningful consequences.
For a society convinced of its own progressive attitude, exactly why do our female characters consistently get the sideline?
I'd argue the reason is twofold. One is that not people feel that can accurately write for a female character. Men have a preconceived notion for the most part I believe that female thought processes are entirely alien to their own comprehension. A female isn't necessarily a 'human' to many people, let alone one associable with a male. Not for chauvanist reasons (mostly) but for the exact opposite. Females are BETTER then males so they aren't susceptible to the same foibles of character and their actions don't have as grim a consequence. Female characters are most often either a purer and more morally upstanding version of humanity then male characters, or an upgraded male type who can get down and dirty with the 'boys' but outclasses them in every respect.
Apart from this incomprehension of female characters as characters rather then some kind of alien subspecies, the other problem is similar but not exactly akin: namely that male authors are afraid of what females may think of their own portrayal. Portray males any way you want to, the uproar of males will be minor and easily ignored. I've seen films attribute all manner of evil to a character by virtue of them simply being male which might be considered 'sexist' but only if it was in the case of a female character. And that's the point. Female characters are sacred ground. You can't portray a female in a poor way because then you're at risk of being called sexist. 'Poor' encompasses such things as males doing anything better then females...even if quite frankly this sort of thing is scientifically infeasible. Physically woman are less strong then men on average when it comes to upper body strength by virtue of the structure of their own musculature. They are physically stronger in their lower bodies on average to men for the same reason. However writers feel that lingering doubt that they're letting their male bias cloud their judgement if a female can't literally hurl the heaviest muscled man around like a rag doll.
Logic takes a back seat to political correctness.
And an unintended side effect of this is that almost all female characters are now Mary Sues, or characters who are incapable of doing, saying, thinking, contributing to anything unsuccessful. Can female characters do 'bad' things? Sure. There's fem fatales and evil female characters and even some female thugs in films, but none of these ever do anything unsuccessfully...unless they're confronted by ANOTHER female character in which case it balances out. With rare exceptions the female villain will not be confronted or defeated by a male character. They'll be taken out or disposed of by another female. Female characters are just without the capacity to do things by mistake that aren't ultimately a boon to everyone involved or a funny little aside that's not quickly brushed aside.
Are there exceptions?
There almost always are exceptions because people think in different ways and there's a lot of people dreaming and writing at the same time.
Most notable among these exceptions are to me anyway. To be specific these are based on the things I've seen so I can say with more certainty if they struck me as deeper characters then the usual variety.
The fact it took so much effort to come up with these speaks to the sorry state of the female character today...
1: Katniss Everdeem from The Hunger Games
At least from what I've seen in the first film (haven't read much of the book) this is a female character who is truly a character. The actress brings this to life beautifully and perhaps provides more depth then even the writing or directing, but Katniss is portrayed as a character/person first and a female in passing. She doesn't constantly refer to her gender in a positive or negative light. Characters don't immediately latch on to the fact she is a female in a positive or negative way either. To The Capital she's just another contestant, to her family she's a beloved sister or a providing daughter, and to her love interests she's an equal. By no means is she impervious either. She misses with attacks, gets injured, makes hasty decisions and is allowed to show some emotions that impair her judgement without the normal Hollywood fear that women displaying emotions would seem to be sexist.
Most interesting of all to me is that she isn't defined even by being a 'hero' so much as being an individual in a crisis situation. She isn't even that adverse to killing other people her age on principal so much as she feels she might regret it at some point. In the moment she's willing to do anything to live and to save her sister, even reprehensible actions. But the film doesn't praise her for these even though she's a hero and a woman doing them. If she does something wrong, she did something wrong. When she shoots the final villainous kid with her bow he doesn't die immediately like a action movie minion, he shrieks and piteously whimpers at the pain and Katniss's eyes express fully that even though she can justify this action in her head, the rest of her doubts if this was the right thing to do.
The film allows her to question herself, and by extension the audience to question her and perhaps their own actions as well.
A resourceful, lightly humorous, real person, she is still one of my favorite modern day female characters and an indication that some people 'get' that just because a character has another Y chromosome doesn't make them a mutant with magic powers or an utterly alien mind.
2: Alice from American McGee's Alice
This has to be one of the most daring female characters ever created. Thematic material and source adaptation aside, this is a character who is without caveat insane. She isn't pretending to be crazy. She doesn't have lapses. Alice has been driven into psychosis by trauma and spends much of her time in a coma in the real world. Even in the sequel she barely functions; battered constantly by nightmarish waking visions and complete breaks with reality. It's harder to find a character who would seem to be less capable of rational decisions then one who is lost in a dream world. But Alice is sagacious, courageous, and compassionate enough to see through her own pain to try and help that of others. Since the whole of her adventure is encompassed by an inner Wonderland, she in fighting against herself, her fears, her darkness the entire time. Others may have instigated this psychosis, but Alice isn't shy about telling herself over and over again that a majority of the reasons she remains living in the past and in her mind are caused by her fear, her inability to confront it, and her desire to ignore what is unthinkable to consider. A fighter, but not because of strength of arm but strength of will. She isn't considered (at least in the first two games) a particularly enlightened and worldly character by virtue of her sex. She's treated like a woman might be in her time, and reacts the same way. The thing that sets her apart is the choices she makes, the dangers she faces, and what she's willing to do for her family and her friends. She's also tends to be polite consciously which makes her very well spoken and cautious in her speech, and that's extremely unusual for a hero or heroine for that matter to be.
3: Twilight Sparkle from My Little Pony Friendship is Magic
She's a dork.
This is a RARE female trait, but here it's fully and affectionately realized. Twilight isn't a poor, shy, shut-in who needs to let her hair down to be sociable, neither is she an infallible genius. She likes books. She like research and keeping things organized. Interestingly the best way to describe a lot about her personality is a disorder rather then a trait: obsessive compulsive. Twilight is by nature committed to complete order in her life and work, and literally has breakdowns when she runs into a snag she can't overcome by looking it up or writing it down. She makes mistakes. She gets passionate about things and this can override her judgement. She can be open and friendly as often as she can be busy and seclusive. Twilight isn't a coward, but she can get scared. She isn't a fool, but she can misinterpret. She isn't a full on 'girly girl' but she does periodically like to investigate the hallmarks of traditional femininity with the same intensive scrutiny she applies to everything else (such as using a guide book to hold a slumber party). Here is a person first. A person shaped by her female identity, but not defined by it. Twilight I don't think in the course of the show has ever brought up the fact she's a girl, nor denied it in the face of doing something 'boy-like'. She has her attitude, her quirks, her faults, and her virtues as part of this identity.
Friendship may be 'magic' but it's not taken for granted, and the evolution Twilight's character has undergone frankly puts a lot of other shows to shame.
A lot of people consider the recent Princess from the movie Frozen to be a great role model because of her willfulness, her disrespect of her elders, and ultimately her rejection of the world in favor of relying on her own abilities. I haven't seen Frozen granted so I might be off the mark, but it seems like this from commercials and clips.
Coroline is a rather sobering example, fantasy though it may be, of one of the common consequences of this kind of acting out.
She's a teen with her own interests that tend to run counter to her boring family. She doesn't exactly care for the other kid in her vicinity Wybie who seems a bit too talkative and always butts in on her solitude to dream. She does pride herself however on her extensive imagination, and its there she takes refuge so often she wishes she could escape there, escape her overworked dad and tired mom, escape her dull new home with lousy appliances.
Escape life itself.
And she gets her chance. Through a magical door she finds another family, an Other Mother who (aside from buttons sewed into where her eyes should be) seems much better then her real life family in every way. Here in this world everything is built for her, placating to her. Magical wonders unfold and nothing is denied. This is so much better then reality: a place not only where she can be herself, but also where she's appreciated and even lauded for just that.
But whereas Frozen seems to have stopped right there, Coroline continues...and thus becomes a MUCH more interesting character to me.
Coroline isn't doing the right thing here. Not because there's danger. Not because she's being willfully cruel. She's thoughtless. She doesn't think about her parents; she thinks about herself, ironically translating this into how NOBODY thinks about her because they don't do what she wants. She doesn't wonder the consequences initially of having everything she dreams about. Even when she meets Other Whybie who seems incapable of speaking she states quite literally 'It's an improvement'. For all she's concerned at first Whybie works better as a tool then a person: someone to sit idly by, smiling, as SHE shows off how amazing she is.
But it all comes apart. The trap of this world is revealed and THEN Coroline shows herself to be a role model indeed.
Someone willing to say, without reservation, that what she did was a mistake and it is her fault things got to be this way. Not through action exactly. More through inaction, but it doesn't matter. People suffer. Other Father is destroyed and her real parents are imprisoned. Other Mother is to blame in part, yes, but Coroline ignored the warning signs, ignored the talking Black Cat who all but told her she was in danger. She wanted so much for it to be true she let herself be ensnared.
And when she fights back, what is her reward? Nothing. She doesn't win a great reward. Her parent's aren't changed. Her world isn't altered. Everything goes back the way it was.
The only thing to change is Coroline herself, by her own choices, and through her own sacrifices.
I was amazed this quite frankly flabbergasting characterization and story arc remained intact from book to film, but it stays true to the message: be careful what you wish for, you might get it.
And in the end that same boring life doesn't go away, SHE transforms it with effort, with empathy.
That is what makes her a hero, unsung though she may be. But Coroline has seen the price you can pay to hear others sing your praises.
Not just a great female character, a great character. And that's the highest compliments I can offer.
So where are our female characters?
We need them. We need people, male and female, to understand that differing physical features do not mean a separate species. We need writers to realize that writing female characters who make mistakes doesn't mean women will not enjoy or relate to these characters. It's my belief a majority of women know they're capable of making mistakes as much as a guy might, perhaps generally different mistakes because of their gender or their perceptions of that gender (guys are statistically less often jealous of each other's physicality.)
Foibles, mistakes, slipups, even ruinous bad decisions allow us to see, sometimes all too clearly, a character we can peg as human, but so can virtues, good decisions, wisdom, principals, courage, and acts of love.
And ALL of these things women is as capable as a man of expressing in fiction and beyond.
If only more people were dedicated to this in their storytelling rather then suiting either a male or female fantasy of what a 'womyn' should be ideally.
Guess what? Not all women have enormous breasts and pencil-thin waists. Not all have luxuriant hair and perfect skin.
Some actors break down this distinction. Linda Hunt, a dwarf, has shown time and again she can play compelling characters not anchored to a Hollywood ideal. The actress Helen Mirren and Judy Dench consistently deliver great performances and draw in crowds despite being an age a lot of studios might consider 'over the hill' because they don't look like the cover of a Sports Illustrated. Actresses like Ellen Degeneress emphasize humor over some kind of specific gender association, like when she played the endearingly scatterbrained Dory in Finding Nemo.
There are exceptions. They're just few at the moment because the system, flawed as it is, seems to be working.
Keep out the 'ugly' actors. Keep women either subservient arm candy or grousing uberfemales.
That way those delicate female flowers out there won't be offended, it's politically correct so men can't socially express their offensive if any, and we can still splash breasts on our posters to (supposedly) draw in the teen demographic.
But a lot of recent films and reviews I think show this ISN'T working.
Box office takes are relatively low, and dropping, especially for 'surefire' blockbuster movies. Actresses of greater age and experience are drawing crowds away from nubile models without acting talent.
If Hollywood doesn't wake up to the fact that woman can be characters, somebody outside of it will.
And then, maybe, we'll see much more equality of characterization and a lot more films where the heroine is a hero AND a women, not one because of the other alone and without further definition.
If it doesn't work for a man, why should it be sufficient for a women?