thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Girls Like Giants Presents: Our 2011 Preferences (Melissa Part 1 – Film Characters)

In Uncategorized on December 19, 2011 at 7:51 am

Melissa Sexton

I like lists.  Perhaps far too much, as my expansive contributions below demonstrate. I’ve even split these posts up – this one will just be my film lists, and I have a whole extra one for music videos.  What can I say?  Enjoy?

Top Five Girl Heroes

Without getting too middle-school Honors English on you, I want to reflect on what makes a hero: confronting incredible odds and conflicts; demonstrating courage, determination, and strength; having to make sacrifices and hard decisions. In the 2011 pop cultural universe, there have been a surprising number of admirable girl heroes – not just females that do battle, but specifically young girls that face complex ethical and moral struggles that demand as much fortitude and ferocity as Frodo Baggins or Harry Potter ever had to show.  I specifically call them heroes because I think “heroine” can have certain quasi-romantic overtones…These five girls (and yes, I say girls deliberately, because all of them were teenagers!) were my favorites:

1. Katniss Everdeen, The Hunger Games

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss!

Me as Katniss!

In the post-apocalyptic world of Panem, starvation is a constant threat and survival is the only goal. Even before the narrative of The Hunger Games starts, Katniss is a hero for learning to hunt (illegally) and thereby rescuing her mother and sister from death in District 12. And when Katniss replaces her younger sister as District 12 tribute in the Hunger Games – a gladiatorial wilderness battle between adolescents from across the nation – her heroism grows. In the Games, Katniss weighs loyalty against survival; her emergence as one of the strongest contestants in the Games, armed with her remarkable capacity as an archer, is a breathtaking portrayal of a woman for whom physical prowess and an incredible capacity for empathy emerge simultaneously. Women in this world can fight for themselves, their friends, and their family all at once, and Katniss does. While the books have been out for a while, 2011 saw the release of the film trailer and Katniss’s emergence into wider pop-cultural discussion.
2. The Collective Awesomeness that is the Pretty Little Liars, Pretty Little Liars (from left to right – Spencer, Hannah, Emily, and Aria).

A year after the unsolved murder of their mutual friend Allison, the four friends at the center of this story are being stalked by the mysterious A – a capricious and violent shadow-figure that knows way too much about the girls’ most private secrets.  While trying to solve the murder and find their stalker, the girls also have to navigate all the challenges of high school – sports rivalries, young romances, social ostracism, and family drama involving absentee fathers, infidelity, divorce, and remarriage. These girls are heroes because they balance typical teen battles with more sinister battles against blackmail, homicidal road-raging strangers, and threatening figures lurking in bell towers, cemeteries, and the girls’ text in-boxes. Sleuthing, the horrors of high school, and true friendship? Now that takes some heroism.

3 and 4. Hermione Granger and Luna Lovegood, Harry Potter (shout-out to Prof. McGonnegal, Mrs. Weasley, Ginny Weasley).

I know, I know – I just lumped 4 girls together into 1 and now I’m splitting hairs, making these two characters count as two entries. But while the close relationship between the 4 PLLs defines and shapes their characters throughout the show, I think Hermione and Luna, while allied in war and united by friendship, are characters that are not quite so closely intertwined and that face many separate battles. What Hermione and Luna share is that both are girls that don’t fit the typical “tough-as-nails-and-sexy” heroine archetype. Both women find heroism within their own personalities. That is, these girls become heroes when they become most themselves. Hermione never stops being the perfectionistic bookworm with an answer for every question; Luna never stops being the spacy sweetheart with a weird spin on the world. But these girls learn to use their idiosyncrasies in service of wizarding justice. Both of these girls also help Harry Potter to learn how to have meaningful, real relationships while fighting evil. The same can be said, I believe, for the cantankerous Professor McGonnegal; the fret-some, family-loving Mrs. Weasley; and the angry, independent Ginny (whose character seemed a less less piquant on screen than on the page). How nice to see a series that allowed so many women to participate in acts of heroism and that gave us such a spectrum of what women-heroes can look like. (On a side note – also awesome how there were some diverse female villains as well, from Bellatrix LeStrange to Narcissa Malfoy to Dolores Umbridge!)

5. Hanna Heller, Hanna

A strange film, Hanna tells the story of a young girl who is the result of a secret CIA project; while she grew up unaware in the Finnish wilderness, under the careful tutelage of spy-dad Erik, she is being shaped into a lethal assassin. If she ever wants to leave the wild and enter society, Hanna is going to have to hunt down and face off with a corrupt CIA agent who wants her dead. It’s a little bit Bourne Identity meets Pretty Little Liars – but by making the feelingless, lethal product of a DNA tampering project be a 16-year old, emotionally-thwarted but inquisitive girl, Hanna makes us question all sorts of conventional cultural narratives – particularly male-centric ones that figure retreat to wilderness rather than return to society as necessary to self-realization as well as narratives that seem to think the only problem with antisocial, lethal killers is their inability to sustain healthy romances. Hanna cannot make friends or really mourn for her family; she cannot seem to help killing, and it is troubling to watch her struggle to understand what she has been made into as she battles for the right to continue living. Hanna asks the haunting question: what is the final end result if we really do make our ideal female heroes into the same troubled prototypes as male action heroes: emotionless killing machines who can survive and succeed but only in the midst of constant loss and destruction?

Top Five Romantic (Comedy?) Heroines

I’m more of a spy-thriller-and-action-film girl than romantic-comedy girl, but there is sometimes romance in my life…and more and more, I’m interested in comedies that explore romance via characters I can somewhat relate to rather than simply resent or dismiss. All of the characters below fell in love on film, but these girls made the process real and interesting; these women did not insist that romance be shaped around black-and-white choices (for instance, learn to find love or be a soulless, work-obsessed, clueless spinster OR choose between love and independence).

1. Annie, Bridesmaids

I picked this picture of Annie because it comes from a moment that won my heart and that demonstrates what this romantic comedy really had going for it: believable female relationships that did not simply revolve around lamenting or analyzing heterosexual romances.  Annie and Lillian are best friends and they do things together, like eat cake, tell stupid jokes, and crash aerobics classes in the park.  Sure, Lillian’s engagement and wedding do make things complicated; Lillian seems to be on the fast-track to upper-middle-class success with a Parisian wedding gown and a country club engagement party, while Annie seems to be on the downward spiral to spinsterhood as she moves back in with her mother following a failed bakery, a failed romance, and a mental breakdown at her job. But the twist on romantic comedy cliches? SPOILER: Lillian realizes that she  was the one who was wrong! She was wrong to put the elegance of her wedding and her new set of friends above her long-time best friend. And when Annie does fall in love, it’s all wrong in all the right ways. She meets him when he pulls her over; their first date involves sharing carrot sticks on the hood of his patrol car. She runs out on him after her first night of sleeping with the guy. And she wins him back through a mix of hilarious physical comedy and admitting that she’s wrong

(When she yells, “Here comes the LITTERBUG,” I die.  Every time.) Point? Real romance, like real friendship, is not necessarily aesthetically pleasing or easy; what it is is funny, awesome, and full of mistakes.  Like teethfuls of cake?

2. Hannah, Crazy Stupid Love

Come on.  You, me, and every girl we know fell in love with Hannah, aka Emma Stone’s character, in the scene where Jacob (Ryan Gosling) takes off his shirt and her response is, “Fuck, seriously? It’s like you’re photoshopped!” I mean, wouldn’t it be great if when super-confident, attractive men tried to get it on with us, we were overcome by uncontrollable laughter rather than anxiety – and that he then found this laughter irresistible? While Hannah’s romance is clearly another fantasy projection, it’s a fantasy that I haven’t seen played out nearly as often in film as the reverse (women that change for men! or men that change for good, beautiful, predictable women) and that I think speaks to a certain kind of wish-fulfillment for present-day women. Jacob, the man-about-town, bang-who-I-want hottie, is completely disarmed, not by Hannah’s looks or the deep passion of her love – but by her wit. He hits on her; she initially rejects him. But she comes back, picks him up, and attempts to get him to have sex with her.  Unfortunately, she’s just too funny and they end up talking all night. She transforms the bad boy by making him laugh until his facade splits. While the movie may recycle the old myth that the right kind of woman can make an emotionally distant man into a good boyfriend, Crazy Stupid Love breathes new life into the old story through the synergy between these two actors, making us really believe that these two people aren’t changing so much as colliding and them stumbling back into true selves that they’d previously been shelving.

3. Jessica, Crazy Stupid Love

Okay, this film was just full of great and believable love stories – it’s like a Love Actually that I can actually recognize. If Hannah epitomizes a kind of 20-something fantasy of real-love-at-last, then Jessica epitomizes the pain, confusion, and generally embarrassing state of early teen love. Jessica is the babysitter for the Weavers (Steve Carell and Julianne Moore’s characters, Cal and Emily). When their pending divorce becomes public, Jessica’s long-time crush on Cal Weaver also begins to come to light. While the attempts of an awkward teen to attract the attentions of a middle aged man could become uncomfortable territory – especially when she decides her best plan of attack would be sending him inappropriate pictures of herself – it is just further testament to this film’s thoughtful and good nature that we end up empathizing with Jessica’s situation. If Hannah crystallizes our young adult hopes that romance might look a lot like becoming our truest and best selves, Jessica represents our still-present teenage sense that romance often makes us awkward, vulnerable, and foolish.

4. Anne, Beginners

You might remember Anne as my “just-right-quirky” girl from previous posts. Her romance with the winsome yet often whiny Oliver Fields is so real it hurts and charms all at once.  When they meet, she has laryngitis and is at a costume party; they flirt via written notes. Their dates include pleasantly water-colored strolls through pastoral parks and whimsical roller skating expeditions in the hallway of her apartment. But there’s nothing winsome or whimsical about their failed attempt to move in together – all the pain of shared space, shared pasts, and mismatched pieces. Anne is a delightful, witty, beautiful, and charming woman; this in no way guarantees that things will work out between her and Oliver, although we the audience all know that their romance should work. Beginners tells a story about love that recognizes its contingency: that even if all the pieces are there, it takes real decisions and efforts of the heart to bring and keep two people together. Anne’s grace in the midst of the difficulty of relationship-building makes her as endearing as her quirky charm and her deft way with Oliver’s inherited dog.

5. Bella Cullen, Twilight: Breaking Dawn

That’s right. While Twilight might not count as a romantic comedy, I put Breaking Down into this mix-up because I’m buying in, more and more, to readings of this last novel/film that insist it’s more than the mindless teen romance critics claim it to be.  Sure, sure (as Jacob would say); for three novels, Bella is incapable of doing anything in her own interest; she dates a predator who wants to kill her, faces death over and over again to save this predator; and engages in reckless, dangerous behavior (cliff jumping! motorcycles! werewolf friendship!) when this love leaves her. But Breaking Dawn is a weird new coming-of-age story. What happens when you’ve built your whole life around trying to win the love of your life…and then you win him…and then shit stays weird? Breaking Dawn takes us beyond the end of most teen romances, into the dangerous realms of childbirth and post-marital conflict. While becoming a vampire like Edward, Bella also starts to refuse his overprotectiveness. She does not remain in blissful happily-ever-after with her prince but has to navigate what it means to become part of a new family and to remain part of her old family. Choosing to have a child is a radical choice and a struggle for Bella; ironically, it is in making the choice that many feminist critics have most scorned that Bella first starts to act as an autonomous character. As a result, she shows us that even the addictive and unhealthy romances of teenage infatuation might, if put to an adequately supernatural or at least dangerous test, become more complicated, nuanced, and vibrant relationships.


  1. Hanna was such an interesting character (and movie). We should chat sometime.

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