I don’t pretend to be an expert in the field of fair representation of women in genre fiction. I don’t pretend NOT to be an expert either, but if anyone’s looking for an authoritative voice on female gender stereotyping they’re probably not going to come to me first.
I am, however, an expert in reading bullshit articles on the internet and forming strong opinions on them, so I’ve got that going for me.
Now no-one can argue that if you look back over the history of action and genre cinema, there hasn’t been a shortage of strong female characters. Too often, women in these male-dominated genres have been drafted in to fill the roles of love interests, victims and eye candy, and that’s all.
You might think that things have improved in recent years. You might even be able to point to a few kickass female characters from films, books and TV – Furiosa, Jessica Jones, Lisbeth Sanders, Black Widow, Beatrix Kiddo – who have flown the flag for “empowered” women who can hold their own against any man.
The above-mentioned Cracked article is here to tell you that you’re wrong. None of those characters is anything but a lazy male writer’s hack attempt at sketching a stereotypical “female bad-ass” who can only claim to be empowered insofar as it satisfies the assumptions and attitudes of men.
Look, it’s not a very good article. Not only does it bend over backwards to find tortured excuses for making you feel stupid for liking any of the female bad-asses it lists, it doesn’t even offer any examples of female characters who do meet its criteria. Basically, it’s a big unhelpful whinge designed to make its geeky readership even angrier.
Even so, as I read through its six points, I couldn’t help but think of at least one female bad-ass from the current crop of genre entertainments who passes every obscure test the authors set: Lt. Roberta Warren (Kellita Smith) of Z Nation.
And so I pose the question: Does Z Nation currently offer us one of the best examples of how to write a strong female character?
For argument’s sake, let’s take each of those 6 points from the Cracked article and see how we get on.
1. A History Of Traumatic Sexual Assault Seems To Be A Requirement
Cracked can point to a lot of female characters who only became bad-ass after they were in some way violated by a man. Tragic backstories are par for the course when it comes to heroes, but for female heroes there is but one unifying backstory: rape. This is bad writing for various reasons, the article argues, but the main one seems to be that none of these “strong female characters” were strong enough to get to where they are on their own. In the cases of Lisbeth Sanders, Jessica Jones, etc, they could only become heroes as the direct result of something a man did to them.
Well not so, Lt. Warren. The ass-kicking, machete wielding leader of the ragtag unit charged with getting humanity’s only hope from one side of a zombie apocalypse to another, Warren’s entire backstory (as far as it’s been shown in the show) is: was a professional soldier, then the apocalypse happened. That’s all.
2. Strong Female Action Star = Tomboy
The point here, while slightly strained, is that Hollywood can’t seem to write a strong female character without making her masculine. Short hair, big muscles, bad attitude, possibly lesbian (or asexual). Any of the examples you could list are basically variations of Vasquez from Aliens, of whom Hudson famously asked: “Ever been mistaken for a man?”
No-one could ask that of Warren. She’s a soldier in a zombie-ravaged apocalyptic wasteland, so you’re not likely to see her in high heels and ball-gowns too often, but her attire, while practical, is undeniably feminine. And while she’s tough as nails, she doesn’t talk like a man and isn’t incapable of demonstrating warmth, vulnerability or sensitivity. In many ways she comes across as the mother of the group. And when she gets the chance for some sensuality, she grabs it. A woman has needs, after all. So yes, she’s a strong female action star, but she’s no tomboy.
3. Their Superpowers Usually Exist Only To Help Some Dude
Cracked argues here that almost all the female heroes you love are only good for helping the male hero (or ‘actual’ hero, if you prefer) out of a jam.
Warren doesn’t have any superpowers to speak of. She is good with a gun and a machete (and a thousand other handy instruments) but her mission is ‘Operation Bite-mark’. It is her goal and her team’s. While its aim might be to get walking zombie cure Murphy to the CDC he isn’t too keen on it and wouldn’t consider it helpful. So who benefits? Humanity. Warren’s motivation in this thing isn’t helping some man. She wants to save the world.
4. Powerful Female Characters Can Never Be Leaders (Unless They're Awful)
Hey. SPOILERS. Guess who’s leading Operation Bite-mark? That’s right. One Lt. Roberta Warren. Now, if you’ve never watched Z Nation or only watched the first couple of episodes I could forgive you for not realising this, because they came at it kind of sideways. Like a lot of current TV shows, Z Nation wrings tension out of the notion that anyone could die at any time (and it succeeds a lot better than some because its characters are actually likeable).
Over the course of the series, the team has already lost two leaders. Lt. Mark Hammond (Harold Perrineau) didn’t survive the pilot, while Sgt. Charles Garnett (Tom Everett Scott) bought the big one (shockingly, sadly and kind of brilliantly) halfway through the first season. Responsibility fell to the next-in-command, Warren, who has led the team ever since and done a hell of a job.
Strategic, cool-headed and utterly devoted to the mission, she is a woman who knows how to lead and is incredibly capable when it comes to getting the job done. She’s also pretty good at nurturing the support and loyalty of her crew, who all look up to and like her (even Murphy to a degree, though he’s also clearly afraid of her). You couldn’t ask for a better leader.
Of course, given what happens to leaders on Z Nation, she may well bite the bullet in the next season, at which point the mantle of leadership will have to go to her most trusted lieutenant, Addy. What’s that? TWO strong, kick-ass female characters? On the same side? On the SAME show? That’s right.
5. Even Their Own Movies Must Revolve Around A Guy
This point is mostly about marketing rather than story. Cracked points to female stars hiding behind the male ones on posters for Mad Max, The Force Awakens, etc.
Z Nation is really an ensemble show, so it would be wrong to suggest it revolves around any one character, but check out the marketing material to see who’s front and centre.
I don’t know off-hand how many films and TV shows in the action, sci-fi and horror genres have a black woman as the lead and the face of their publicity material (sure as shit not The Walking Dead), but it can’t be many.
6. Women Need To Put Men To Shame In Order To Appear Strong
Audiences, critics and commentators cry out for examples of strong, heroic female characters on screen. Lunk-headed writers presume this portion of the audience are man-hating feminazis (not my terminology) and to appease them offer scenes where the “strong female character” can utterly humiliate a man, preferably someone on her own team, to prove her competence and score one hit against the patriarchy.
Now, I don’t particularly have a problem with the occasional male character suffering a bit of humiliation, but… I think I actually get the point that Cracked is reaching for here. I don’t ever recall a scene like that in Z Nation. And I think the reason for that is because the writers weren’t sitting around a table trying to figure out ways to demonstrate how strong Warren is (or Addy, for that matter).
In our current age, when internet backlash (and the fear of it) dictates so much of what makes it to our screens, you can usually tell fan service when you see it. You can tell when a scene – or an entire character – has been devised to placate a section of the audience, rather than arising through organic story-telling. There’s something so self-conscious about they way many “strong female characters” are written, you can almost feel the writers watching you, nudging you, saying: “This is progressive, huh? Talk about empowered, right? Boy, I’d let her kick my ass any day, am I right?”
There are instances where “strong female characters” and their scenes don’t come across as authentic drama, from a place of true creative inspiration, but as a calculated pitch from a writer hoping to be rewarded for how politically correct he is. It’s cynical.
Z Nation is not a cynical show. That sounds crazy to someone who hasn’t seen it (this is, after all, a show from the same people who brought you Sharknado 1-4) but it’s not. It’s actually quite earnest, sweet and hopeful (while also including massive amounts of gore and carnage). It’s not made to win awards. It’s not out to troll its audience or generate internet think-pieces about how progressive it is (that’s just a happy accident).
What I’m getting at is I don’t believe the creators set out with the agenda of delivering a strong female character who would find favour with the commentariat. That wasn’t a priority for them. Their priority was to make the most entertaining zombie show they could, free of the burden of expectation. The characters just came naturally, taking shape with the story around them.
That’s usually how the best stories and the strongest characters, whether they’re male or female, develop. When no-one’s watching.