On the heels of “Wonder Woman’s” success and the #MeToo movement, television and film scriptwriters are finally getting with the times. Complex, well-rounded woman characters with agency and humanity are becoming more common and stories are becoming better for it.
This year’s “Black Panther” film is breaking records for a multitude of reasons, and one of them is because of the strong cast of women. We first meet T’Challa’s lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) not wrapped around his arm but freeing enslaved women in Nigeria. Shuri (Letitia Wright) may be a princess but she’s also one of the smartest people in the world, acting as the Q to T’Challa’s James Bond. Okoye (Danai Gurira) and the rest of the Dora Milaje bodyguards stand side-by-side with the prince of Wakanda delivering the pain just as well as Black Panther himself.
Likewise, last year’s” Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) from “Thor Ragnarok” can manage Thor’s Asgardian strength while dealing with her own PTSD. On the small screen we now see the titular hero of “Black Lightning” train his daughters to use their power for good and take over his mantle.
The supporting women are no longer just stereotypical background sidekicks. They’ve turned into inspirational role models for all young women, particularly lesbians of color. The increased visibility creates unique and empowering cosplay opportunities for conventions and Halloween.
The characters also don’t need to be superheroes. In NBC’s dramedy “Good Girls,” two sisters and their close friend are all struggling financially. Beth Boland (Christina Hendricks) is dealing with a cheating husband who is bankrupting the family with multiple secret mortgages. Her sister Annie Marks (Mae Whitman) is a single mom trying to keep custody of her child but can’t afford a lawyer. Diner waitress Ruby Hill (Retta) and her mall security guard husband pinch pennies to give their daughter the medical treatment she needs to survive.
Similar to “Weeds” and “Breaking Bad,” they decide to take matters into their own hands with a one-time heist at a grocery store where Annie works as a check-out clerk. While they get the money the trio obviously stills need help, or else the show wouldn’t have a compelling plot beyond the pilot.
Each of them tackles the patriarchy in their own way. Beth lies her way out of situations naturally like Hendrick’s expert acting. Ruby stays calm and collected in high-pressure situations but can be sassy when channeling “Parks and Recreation’s” Donna Meagle. Annie eggs on her sister to keep the crime-spree going as revenge against her boss.
Netflix’s noir show “Jessica Jones” is the darkest of Marvel’s superhero offerings, and after three years of waiting, the rough-around-the-edges detective that handles her demons with a punch is digging up dirt around New York City once again.
Season one had Jessica (Krysten Ritter) dealing with Kilgrave (David Tennant), who trapped her in a toxic and abusive relationship with his mind control powers. The trauma still lingers even though the manipulative man in purple is gone in the second season. Though she isn’t the incredible Hulk, Jessica needs to control her anger or else she could accidentally kill someone. Having taken a life she doesn’t want to do it again as she wrestles with being a vigilante or villain. Yet, the show promotes the idea that female rage should be embraced rather than bottled up.
“Jessica Jones” reinforces the important lesson that superheroes are tough, but not invincible. They deal with emotional, multi-faceted situations like every other person on earth. Jessica has depth beyond the flat “strong female character” trope.
In one episode it’s revealed that she still struggles with the death of her parents in the car crash that gave Jessica her powers. Their ashes were never scattered and left in a cardboard box in a closest. But when she isn’t drowning her sorrows in a bottle she can still knock down the baddies with a swift blow.
Her sidekicks also kick their fair share of butt. Jessica’s adoptive sister Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor) uses her journalistic skills to investigate Jessica’s past while overcoming her own trauma caused by her exploitative mother. The cunning lawyer Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss) can sometimes be as shady as Kilgrave, but when she’s a friend instead of a foe she helps Jessica—albeit to push her own agenda. Driving Hogarth is a new diagnosis of ALS, the one thing she can’t control with her influential schemes.
Yes, there are more pieces of female-led pop culture in the annals of media history that I’m not mentioning. Yet the shows here excellently illustrate the recent watershed moment enveloping the zeitgeist by saying #TimesUp. The more representation there is, the better. “Strong female characters” are dead. Long live female characters.