Female Characters: A Higher Standard For Animated Features

Wyldstyle vs. Valka

Oscar nominations have been announced, which means the Oscar snub trolls are in the midst of their annual Winter Festival of Bitching.

I don’t generally like to participate. The Oscars are important and influential, and I admit I’m a sucker for them, but I don’t get hung up about who didn’t get nominated, because let’s face it, the Academy voters are overwhelmingly old rich white men with different opinions than mine (kind of like Congress).

But I did scratch my head about the Animated Feature Film category this year. The LEGO Movie was noticeably absent, while How To Train Your Dragon 2 was noticeably NOT absent.

I have a litany of complaints regarding this nomination, and I believe The LEGO Movie is a better film in many, many ways. And I didn’t want a childish argument on Facebook, so I thought I’d write about them in blog format.

But I’m not going to write about all of them. I only want to discuss one thing: the female characters, and the shortcomings in Dragon vs. the spectacular satire in LEGO.

When I started this chain of thought, I wondered if this last point might not be an adequate measuring stick for judging which movie is a better movie, since LEGO is satire and Dragon is not, and in that regard it may be like comparing apples to oranges.

But then it dawned on me – of course it is. There is plenty of talking and writing happening around the persistent lack of well-written female characters in modern cinema. It may seem like more of a social issue and less of a “good movie” quality, but really, it’s the other way around. When we say something is a great movie, but all the female characters are less well-rounded, less developed, less involved and generally less interesting than their male counterparts, is it really a great movie?

No, it is not. And it’s time to start recognizing that.

Wyldstyle

So, to get into it: the main woman in LEGO, Wyldstyle, is a typical Trinity character suffering from typical Trinity Sydrome. (“Trinity Syndrome” is where the female character starts out way awesomer than the male hero, but her entire function is to support him until he surpasses her in awesomeness, and then there’s kissing. It’s not a medical term. It’s named after Trinity from The Matrix.)

But it’s satire. LEGO leans on this trope heavy-handedly, and makes it a big stupid joke, calling itself out on the flaw numerous times. It is, in fact, a major plot point, which is more than can be said for The Matrix or, really, any other film where the lead woman is in a similar situation.

Toward the end of the film, Wyldstyle’s big confession is that she wanted to be the hero, and was jealous that Emmet was chosen to be “the Special.” Her monologue essentially sums up exactly what is wrong with female characters everywhere that suffer from Trinity Syndrome.

And in the end, she actually does complete a character arc. After she helps Emmet complete his arc, he helps her complete hers, and she finds self-esteem buried within.

Valka and Astrid

Dragon, on the other hand, has two important female characters who both suffer dreadfully from Trinity Syndrome, and not in any apparently intentional way. It’s not satirical, it just reinforces the bad ideas that have prevailed over the last 100+ years of filmmaking.

Valka, the hero’s long-lost mother, has quite possibly the coolest entrance of any character ever. Seriously. When we see her riding up from the cloud with her big hook and her terrifying mask, standing still as a statue on a massive dragon – that’s cinematic gold. It’s the best entrance.

And her backstory is really cool – she was part of a society that feared and hunted dragons, led by her husband (Stoick). During a fight with dragons invading her village, she came to realize that dragons are intelligent, sensitive creatures, and they shouldn’t kill them. So in the middle of this fight, she tries to defend a dragon as her husband tries to kill it, and the dragon carries her off. She is never seen again for twenty years.

But it’s all downhill for her after that. The instant she sees her husband, she becomes apologetic and submissive and the character never really recovers from that. She’s still the self-proclaimed protector of dragons, but that becomes secondary to being Hiccup’s mother and Stoick’s wife. And she doesn’t actually offer much help after that point, she’s just sort of there. She offers a little emotional support after (spoiler alert!) Stoick dies, but she’s really not actually important to furthering the plot or even to helping Hiccup complete his character arc, which is usually the Trinity character’s job. She just disappears. From a story standpoint, that’s pathetic.

And Astrid, hiccup’s girlfriend – who played a much more important role in the first Dragon movie – is just sort of a henchman in this film. Like Valka, she is there for some emotional support, and a little assistance for when Hiccup can’t be two places at once, but nothing particularly special. She is given some work to do in a side plot, but in that side plot, she is again the Trinity character: she’s there to help Eret complete his character arc. But neither Astrid nor Valka has any sort of interesting character arc of their own.

This is a waste of two potentially great – great ­– female characters.

Possible Solution

I read somewhere that an earlier draft of Dragon had Valka as the villain. That would have been much more interesting. Drago Bloodfist is a great villain name, but if you really must have him as your villain, either save him for How To Train Your Dragon 3, or else – and this is the preferred choice – make him a co-villain with Valka.

Check it out. They could team up. They could share a similar goal – to rid the world of dragon hunters – and then when the time comes to either go with Drago to murder dragon-hunting people as opposed to simply stopping them from hunting dragons, well, that’s an interesting dilemma for an interesting character.

Or perhaps she agrees, but then faces the fact that she may be murdering her long-lost husband and son, ooooh, then it gets really crazy. Like, Luke-Vader-Emperor crazy. Bam, instant character arc.

Story choices like these would also give Hiccup some more interesting ways to complete his own arc, rather than the overly simplistic fight-bad-guy-and-win story we’re left with.

Am I Making Too Much Of This?

Does this even matter in a kids’ movie? I mean, it’s for kids, right? Not worthy of a lengthy discussion?

Wrong. It matters more, explicitly because these movies are for kids. Kids learn values from movies – in some cases, only from movies. We can’t let kids’ movies get away with insulting women by relegating them to just assistants who’ll pat a man on the back when times are tough.

Boys and girls deserve better. Our future deserves better.

I want more The LEGO Movie’s and fewer How To Train Your Dragon 2’s. And I want the Academy Awards to reflect that.

3 Replies to “Female Characters: A Higher Standard For Animated Features”

  1. “When we say something is a great movie, but all the female characters are less well-rounded, less developed, less involved and generally less interesting than their male counterparts, is it really a great movie?”

    It makes me question our criteria for what constitutes “great”. Compelling male characters set beside not-compelling female characters certainly doesn’t reflect my experience of the world.

    1. Good question — what makes a great movie great? That’s a big, long answer, and I’m sure it’ll vary from person to person. I can tell you this much off the top of my head, though: characters matter. And if you set up an interesting character and spend time on a relevant backstory and tell your audience that this character matters a great deal, but then do nothing of value with that character, that will prevent even a very good movie from being a great movie.

      Part of the ongoing issue is that we have movies at all ends of the spectrum — from terrible to very good — that treat female characters as little more than a tissue for their male counterparts to wipe their faces with. It is symptomatic throughout, and that’s why we need to hold great movies to that higher standard of gender equality. When films that buck that trend are recognized as “Best Animated Feature” or “Best Picture” and so on, the trend will follow at all levels of quality.

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