In today’s multimedia mobile world, we’re consuming screen stories on an unprecedented scale. Whether it’s watching back-to-back episodes of your favourite TV series on your laptop for 6 hours straight on a Sunday afternoon (let’s face it, we’ve all been there) or viewing the latest Hollywood blockbuster on your 3-inch mobile phone screen whilst commuting to work, content is all around us and always accessible.
Whether we like to admit it or not, the characters who inhabit those stories – who we fall in love with, laugh with, cry with and, in some cases, grow older with – have an impact on our lives (not that I need to tell writers that!). They help to shape who we are, who we aspire to be, and how we view the world around us. This is especially true of younger viewers, whose developing minds are that little bit more unquestioning about what they see and hear on their screens. Or, perhaps of equal import, what they don’t see and hear.
It concerns me, then, that it wasn’t until 2012 that a Pixar film had a female lead (Princess Merida of Brave); that in family films there is only 1 female character to every 3 male characters; and that women made up only 4.5% of characters in positions of political power in family films, according to a recent study. What message are we giving those impressionable minds about women? How might we be cutting the ambitions of little girls short before they’ve even had the time to develop properly?
I’m a big believer in the phrase ‘if she can’t see it, she can’t be it’, which is being put to powerful use by Hollywood’s new gender-warrior, Geena Davis, in her quest to improve the representation of women on our screens (http://www.seejane.org). It was with that phrase firmly in mind that I gave up my lovely full-time job with Women in Film and Television six months ago to embark upon a rather mad journey. CREDIBLE LIKEABLE SUPERSTAR ROLE MODEL is a feature documentary I’m making about an audacious and provocative protest against the world’s flagrant attempts to sexualise and commodify childhood by award-winning performance artist Bryony Kimmings and her 9-year-old niece Taylor. They decided to take on the global tween machine at its own game by inventing Catherine Bennett, a dinosaur-loving, bike-riding, tuna-pasta-eating pop star, and vowed to make her world famous. My film follows their fun-filled, problematic, but ultimately empowering journey to show young people that there can be an alternative to the limited and limiting female role models currently offered to them through mainstream media.
As writers, I think you have quite a responsibility on your shoulders. OK, so you might not pull the strings about what does and doesn’t get commissioned and ultimately made, but you’re the source of everything. You’re the ones who give birth to the characters who will go on to become a part of millions of our lives. So I wanted to put together a list of 5 of my favourite credible, likeable, superstar role models from the world of film and TV fiction in the hope that they might inspire you to give birth to many, many more of these complex, interesting, funny, and powerful female characters for audiences of all ages!
1. Princess Merida (BRAVE)
Pixar’s long overdue first female lead may have been a princess but Merida preferred to ride her horse and fire her bow and arrow than wait around for some preened Prince Charming to arrive. She showed us that princesses can be feisty, ambitious and brave, and that they don’t have to wear pink!
2. Birgitte Nyborg (BORGEN)
She may be less well-known than her fictional Danish counterpart, The Killing’s knitted jumper-wearing Sarah Lund, but Birgitte Nyborg is a force to be reckoned with in her own right. As the Danish PM, she handles her political career with charisma and intelligence, maintaining the respect of her largely male counterparts. But we also see the complexities of her personal life, and the difficulties any politician – male or female – must face in trying to juggle an all-consuming career whilst raising a family.
3. Olive (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE)
She may aspire to succeed in the ghastly world of child beauty pageants, but Olive presents a genuine alternative to all the spray tanning and fake smiles. Opting instead to get her (super)freak on, she shows what kind of beauty really counts, that which radiates from the inside out.
4. Wadjda (WADJDA)
WADJDA (first picture) has made headlines this year because it’s the first feature film to have been made in Saudi Arabia, but it’s also making headlines because it is a damn fine film thanks in no small part to the defiant young girl at the centre of its story. Wadjda refuses to accept that she can’t ride a bike purely because she’s a girl, despite what her society tries to tell her. Rather than give in to the many obstacles put in her way, this rebel chooses to find her own intelligent solutions.
5. Bette Porter (THE L WORD)
Bette is an intelligent, affluent, Ivy-league educated art gallery director who is shown to be strong-willed, domineering and driven. These are perhaps not all ‘likeable’ traits, but how refreshing to see a lesbian woman on our screens who is successful in her career, powerful yet feminine, and not defined by her sexuality. Bette shows us that female characters don’t always have to be 100% likeable in order to be credible, superstar role models.
BIO: Rebecca Brand is a filmmaker and creative communications professional. She’s made short documentary films and is currently running a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter to raise £10,000 towards her documentary project, Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model (NB. KICKSTARTER NOW CLOSED). Take a look!