Over the weekend, I finally watched Pacific Rim. The action-packed film chronicles the war between humans and the terrible, mysterious monsters (Kaiju) emerging from some dark abyss within our ocean waters. Set a few years in the future, mankind has created these gigantic robots (Jaegers) to be controlled by a highly compatible pair of pilots. They enter each others’ memories and psyches, and engage together in epic fights to defeat the Kaiju. The film is filled with crazy visual effects and intense battle scenes. I had been looking forward to finally indulging in this popular film directed, produced, and co-written by one of my favorites: Guillermo del Toro. I was even more excited to see a woman in a pivotal role – Rinko Kikuchi portrays the character of Mako Mori, a top ranking Jaeger trainee eager to step into the cockpit. As I watched the film, however, I thought: this is not the strong female character I was expecting.
Usually, when thinking of strong female characters, our minds will probably envision a kick-ass, bad-ass woman who can fight and hold her own against any man or other dire situation she comes up against. We might think women the likes of Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, or perhaps Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider. So I have to admit, I was a bit perplexed – disappointed even – when Mako’s character was introduced and she seemed to be quite meek and fairly reserved; certainly not the outspoken, in-your-face character we sometimes equate with “strong.” Where was the feminist character I had seen on so many Tumblrs?
And then Mako’s character changed it up on us: she owned her notable fight skills and kicked some ass. She became the sharp, quick-witted woman I’d hoped was in there somewhere. And that’s when I realized – quite sheepishly, considering I have to keep reminding myself of this point – that “strong female character” doesn’t always have to equate with snarky fighting and violence. As the movie progressed, I appreciated the different levels and complexities attributed to Mako. She is neither hailed as a life-saving force, nor is she treated as secondary because of her gender. In one scene, she comes quite close to completely destroying the entire operation, but there is no allusion to the cause of this mishap being the fact that she is a woman – only that her memories are strong and she’s fairly inexperienced, which can be said of any new pilot.
I personally enjoyed this multifaceted character because sometimes I find these hyperbolic female characters in films to be rigid, and sometimes just too perfect. I’m not saying I don’t ever enjoy them – it’s fun to watch a woman seem untouchable and integral to mankind’s survival. Many other times however, it becomes difficult to see beyond the fighting. They have little to no personality, uninteresting or nonexistent back stories, and unless we see them in some kind of action sequence, they’re simply just boring. In the case of Mako, she was intelligent, an able fighter, and a respectable pilot. But she could also be shy, obedient to her superiors, and quite emotional. As a soft-spoken introvert myself, I could identify with her anxieties. At the same time, I’m also quite capable of exerting force when I need to.
My point about hyperbolic female characters isn’t just in terms of action films. Genres like the Romantic Comedy are also culprits. Maybe I’m just being really particular but – you know those movies where there’s a guy and a girl, and the girl is just so quirky, and pretty, and resourceful, and unattached that the guy just can’t help but fall in love with her?
I’M LOOKING AT YOU, MILA KUNIS IN FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS.
Now, I enjoy this film more than the next guy and I’ve got this ridiculous thing for Romantic Comedies, but sometimes I just sit there and think:
Nope, Justin Timberlake could never inconspicuously fall in love with me This is a level of woman I’m not sure I can ever achieve. It could easily just be I’m a hot mess and you’ve got grounds to disregard my argument but … it’s a lot to live up to. Obviously, movies are stories and they don’t necessarily reflect life as it is or people as they are, but much of the time media will wrap a female character in bows and ribbons and present her as this blunt, fearless, stock thing. As great as it might be to envision myself as a clever business woman with hair and makeup done, effortlessly maneuvering the city, expertly running in heels, oozing charm everywhere … who am I kidding? Again, maybe that’s just just me.
This isn’t a call to retract the hyperbolic female character from film, but rather to have audiences and filmmakers recognize them and realize there is always room for more. We can have the goddesses, and the saviors, and the superheroines, and layered Mako’s, and irresistible Milas, and awkward Emma Stones, and quirky Mindy Kalings. In order for a film to succeed, the women portrayed don’t always have to be perfect and unbeatable. It’s great to see someone with flaws and non-standard looks and traits. It’s impossible and unfair to lump all women into such few, one-dimensional characters. Luckily, however, the winds are a changin’.