Recently rewatching the live-action “Aladdin” remake, something besides Will Smith as the blue CGI genie caught my attention. Similar to many other Disney live-action remakes, the female protagonist, Princess Jasmine, is rebranded from a damsel in distress to an independent woman. While the changing rhetoric around female empowerment should be celebrated, something about watching Jasmine’s character did not sit right with me. Although I yearn for female empowerment in movies, Jasmine’s empowerment felt forced. Her wit was demonstrated only by delivering lines with sass and a cocked eyebrow. Her song about reclaiming her voice and finally speaking out was cheesy, even for a Disney movie. It felt like her character was painstakingly crafted and presented on a silver platter for a specific audience. Instead of feeling empowered, I felt like I was being pandered to. Princess Jasmine is a fictional character, but she didn’t possess any realism. She felt like a product being sold.
Hollywood has consistently struggled with creating strong, multi-dimensional female characters. The “girl-boss” stereotype is littered throughout modern films: a woman whose only identifier is being independent. Rarely, if ever, does a “girl-boss” take an interest in “feminine” things. Instead, she is tough and surrounded by men, occasionally beating the male protagonist in a take-down to demonstrate her strength. Black Widow in the Avengers franchise is a strong example of this. While she is a powerful woman on her own, she is recognized for her power in contrast to the men around her. Whether conquering Hawkeye in a fight or earning Tony Stark’s respect after taking down his bodyguard, Black Widow’s most memorable moments of empowerment are when she overcomes a man. A movie focusing solely on Black Widow has yet to be produced because they would lose an essential element of what makes her a “girl-boss:” the male gaze.
Perhaps the prime example of the male gaze’s idealized independent woman is Megan Fox’s character Mikaela Banes in the Transformers franchise. For example, Mikaela’s knowledge of cars is displayed more as an irresistible trait to men than as a hobby she genuinely enjoys. Many women have a genuine interest in cars, but Mikaela’s interest in cars exists only to add another layer of interest to her character’s product value. Even during a line that could potentially give Mikaela a feminist edge, she is reduced to a sexual being. As she quips that “guys don’t like it when you know more about cars than they do,” the camera focuses on her body and the male protagonist’s visceral reaction to her beauty. Despite being strong women, characters like Mikaela only exist in the minds of male directors and their intended (male) audience. Overall, this character trope is impossible to relate to because she doesn’t actually exist. No real woman could ever fully satisfy the male gaze. Women aren’t supposed to relate to her, but are instead expected to embody her.
It is important to note that when the “girl-boss” is described as “strong,” it is solely a compliment towards her physical prowess. Women are more than capable of being intellectually or emotionally strong; those strengths have just as much value. They should be allowed to have emotions, wear pink, and surround themselves with other women. In fact, many “girl-bosses” on screen struggle forming emotional connections because she is reduced to her physical strength. For example, Black Widow has far more depth than being the Avengers’ “girl-boss.” In “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” it is revealed that upon graduating the school she attended, every female spy’s eggs are sterilized to assure they will never have children. The trauma Black Widow has endured over the years is not advertised like most other superheroes’ tragic backstories. In fact, she only mentions this fact in response to the Hulk’s claim of him being a monster, yet again only letting Black Widow define herself in contrast to the men around her.
It’s time to release the grip the male gaze has on strong female characters. No longer do women in movies need to be traditionally masculine to be strong. Above all, they should be permitted to take full ownership of themselves. For example, in the movie “Gone Girl,” the stereotypical “girl-boss” was released from its prison and turned on its head. Amy Dunne, played by Rosamund Pike, lived her whole life by the rules of the male gaze, personified in the film by her husband. She pretended to be the “girl-boss” character to please her husband, but the demands of the act eventually drove her insane. She describes the idealized object of the male gaze as the “cool girl.”
“Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. . .Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. . .And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. . . How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: “I like strong women.”. . . Because “I like strong women” is code for “I hate strong women.”
In the movie, this monologue is paired with visuals of Dunne harming herself and framing her husband for her murder. The relatability of her thought process with the shock of her psychological break elicits a different type of connection with the character. We know we shouldn’t root for her, but we understand her. At the core of her story is her rejection of being defined by a man: something too many “strong” female characters and real women have been subjected to. The female protagonist seen through the male gaze is transformed into a female antagonist who does not need recognition from a man to know her strength. Perhaps this is why the “girl-boss” has been kept in her cage: a woman whose strength knows no limits is a powerful weapon.
The women “pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be” exist. Amy describes the “cool girl” in the context of seeking a romantic partner, but this is only one facet in which the “girl-boss” exists. Specifically, working women are often forced to prioritize either their family or their career while it is assumed men can naturally do both. Women are not expected to act like men, but they are expected to fulfill the male gaze in order to be taken seriously. Corporate women must adapt more masculine traits to push through this glass ceiling. A subgenre of “girl-boss” emerges from the working woman: the “girl-boss” CEO. In “The Devil Wears Prada,” Miranda Priestly, played by Meyrl Streep, is the classic example of this archetype. Depicted as unagreeable and bossy, this version of the “girl-boss,” an independently successful woman, is almost always portrayed in a negative light. In a similar way to Amy Dunne, Priestly does not need a man to recognize her strength. The negative portrayal of the “girl-boss” CEO directly correlates to the discomfort surrounding female characters’ absolute power. Due to this discomfort, real women are forced to fulfill the “girl-boss” stereotype in order to be taken seriously in the workplace. In fact, Miranda Priestly was famously based off of Vogue’s Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour. Rumors of her brashness and high demands created a reputation for herself that took on a life of its own. Wintour’s confidence and strength was demonized by society and the media. Aware of her public reputation, she said, “if one comes across as being cold or brusque, it’s simply because I’m striving for the best.” Anna Wintour was poorly represented in the media simply because she was a powerful woman who did not meet the male gaze.
The progress in representation in Hollywood is still fairly slow, but we’ve passed the point of appreciating merely seeing a character on screen. In addition to women, the LGBTQ+ community, the neurodivergent community, and people of color deserve characters that can stand on their own two feet. Proper representation does not mean providing one character to embody the experiences of a whole community. In fact, those characters simply come off as insincere and unrelatable. True representation means creating and developing characters that have fully developed identities, not characters solely defined by their role in representing a community or catering to unreasonable ideals.