Why I Appreciate the Female Characters in The Dark Knight Rises
Before this year I hadn't delved much into the Batman universe. I had always been a Marvel fan, particularly and especially a Spiderman fan. However, while Batman is far from my favorite hero, he does have a fantastic set of villains in his comics, and the Christopher Nolan movies are really good. I read The Killing Joke and Death of the Family graphic novels and thought they were amazing. I had previously watched The Dark Knight and then finally on our honeymoon finished the series with the other two movies, but what struck me most about The Dark Knight Rises was the two female leads and how well they were written and portrayed.
There has been a lot of talk in the last few years about writing the Strong Female Character, the girl kicking butt and taking names without so much as a shimmer of sweat on her forehead. And that's all fine and good, I really really enjoy seeing female action and super heroes. BUT why are they always portrayed SO BADLY? And why is that the ONLY OPTION for female characters to be worth something? The real danger of this Strong Female Character trope is not the empowering of women to be truly strong, or brave, or dangerous. It's when people write them to be just like the male characters. Why is it that we feel like females are only valuable in action movies when they can hold their own in a physical fight against any villain, hero, or anti-hero they happen to come across? Why is the standard of strength totally masculine? There are other ways to be strong.
Of course there is a difference when dealing with female characters like Wonder Woman, whose power gives her great strength and abilities. It makes sense then that she would be able to go toe-to-toe with some very strong and dangerous villains - and it is only plausible for the plot of her story. I'm certainly NOT saying that her character is badly written or portrayed. In fact, I think Diana is quite well-constructed as a female with many different kinds of strengths, not just physical ones. And I'm definitely not saying that women can't be physically strong. That would be dishonest of me to imply. Today I'm looking to mainly address the problem with EXCLUSIVELY portraying females in action movies this way, and how I believe The Dark Knight Rises really got it right.
NOTE: I'm going to be talking about these characters (Selina Kyle and Miranda Tate) as they were portrayed in the film and NOT the comics, so don't get uppity if it doesn't line up with DC comic canon. Please and thank you. :P
"Do you think this is gonna last? There's a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you're all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us."
Let's start with Catwoman, AKA Selina Kyle. What struck me immediately about how this character is portrayed is that she is SMART. She doesn't storm the castle, do a few fancy flips, dodge a punch and win the day. She constructs a careful, well-thought out plot and executes a take-down that is brilliant simply because it is clever, not because she's relying on being able to punch her way out of it all the time. She's careful, she's slow. She deals in schemes, not street-fights. The best example of this in the film is the scene in the bar below. It shows how forward-thinking she is, how she can stay calm in a dangerous situation, how she manipulates those around her to feel sorry, to think her weak, and then makes her strike. If you take a look, you'll see what I'm talking about.
I love how she uses the Congressman as leverage through the whole exchange, without her enemy even knowing. I love how she thought through every possibility, including being double-crossed, and pretended to be giving up in order to make his defeat more secure. She uses the Congressman's phone to spring the trap and keeps herself clean by using Dagget's hand on the gun so her prints wouldn't be on it. Then she cries out and screams in fear when the SWAT team comes rushing in, so that they will overlook her as a frightened bystander, thus allowing her to make a quick, clean escape. This scene really exemplifies for me how a woman can be strong, not just in punches thrown, but in her orchestration and manipulation of events, people and circumstances. When you use your weaknesses as strengths, it is much harder for them to be used against you.
|honestly, what a great performance though|
Selina Kyle has trained more than her body to respond to situations and think of solutions to problems, she has also trained her mind. In one of the gifs above we see her take down Bruce with a simple flick of her heel, having noticed the heavy way he is leaning on his cane. In the gif below you can see her shut down an officer by handing him her hat and blocking his view of her punch, allowing her to make a clean hit without fear of being blocked.
Both of these moves impress me with her quick thinking. And I absolutely love that it is totally accurate to the character's skills, experiences and profession as a very talented thief. Audiences aren't expected to swallow that this small woman is taking down a whole mob of men who are literal punching bags with just her fists, but we get to see her use actual methods and opportunities. We get to see her use REAL strengths, not just those of the biceps. DC and Christopher Nolan got this so so right here.* It all makes for a character much more rounded, much more legitimate, much more honest. Isn't that what we want in our characters?
*Honestly, DC has such good females and villains but their main male heroes kinda suck, as far as interesting characters go.
I should also mention that she's allowed to have actual FEELINGS and MOTIVATIONS that make sense and are consistent with her character. She's from the bottom of Gotham's totem pole and wants a better life, resenting the rich upper class who have such a hold over the rest of the city. She wants to upset the balance of power, she wants to see big change in Gotham. Yet, when she sees the change her actions have inevitably led to, she realizes that what she wanted for Gotham and the way she went about it maybe isn't exactly what she bargained for.
She's allowed to make mistakes, to feel for things, for people. She's allowed to realize she was wrong, allowed to help. She's part of the story, part of the plot, the catalyst and one who helps end the conflict. She gets to be all of those things, she gets to be a GOOD FEMALE CHARACTER. Really all that it took was the writers allowing her to be real. How easy is that, right?
Let's move on to our second subject of the day, Miranda Tate AKA Talia al Ghul.
"Innocent is a strong word to throw around Gotham, Bruce. I honor my father by finishing his work. Vengeance against the man who killed him is simply a reward for my patience. You see, it's the slow knife...the knife that takes its time. The knife...that waits years without forgetting...then slips quietly between the bones. That's the knife...that cuts deepest."
―Talia al Ghul
Honestly, knowing nothing about the film going into it, I've gotta say I was totally taken off guard by the reveal of Miranda Tate as the villain, the instigator. The story, writing, and filmography was orchestrated so well. I had never for a second suspected Miranda of being "the Child" spoken of. Here again the audience is given a great example of a female using other strengths to her advantage. Talia is smart, she is cunning, she is patient. She has laid such a trap for Gotham through years of watching and waiting while sitting right under everyone's noses. I love that this character has no grand fight scene, no reveal of fancy martial artist skill. Despite being the leader of the League of Shadows and likely being a well-trained fighter, she does not rely on muscle to execute her conspiracy against Gotham. Her tactics are simple, but far from straightforward. Layers upon layers of deception, of careful acting, of manipulation and years of patient work pay off for her. It's not about swinging in and pulverizing Batman in one fell swoop, but taking true vengeance, playing it smart, and waiting.
Ultimately, what I really like about this character is the fact that she so obviously does have some great physical abilities but it is never taken advantage of. Having grown up in the prison known simply as the Pit and making the impossible escape by scaling the walls and making the leap across the chasm, and being the daughter of R'as al Ghul, leader of the League of Shadows, and training under him, it stands to reason she should be a formidable physical opponent. It may seem weird, but honestly, I love that the writers don't use this skill. I love that she works through Bane in the physical sense, but deceives her way into power and into Bruce Wayne's heart, enabling her plot to have a really solid foundation.
|talia escaping the Pit|
As shown with Catwoman, Talia is also a REAL character allowed to have motivations, feelings, and aspirations. She is a woman with a story not driven by a tragic romance. She wants to bring balance through destruction, a similar mission of her father's, she wants to avenge his death, fulfill his dream. She loves Bane, her protector and friend. Even as all she has worked for hangs in the balance she takes time to help him, to say her goodbyes. She is given something to feel and care about aside from just having an evil plot to mastermind. She seems like a real person rather than a cookie-cutter female antagonist.
I know I keep spouting off about characters being REAL but man, this was honestly so cool to see in this movie - easily the best part for me. That these two female villains/anti-heroes, were written so brilliantly. It wasn't about them going toe-to-toe with "the boys", it was about them forging their own methods of destruction, of leadership, of winning.
So, as writers, readers and consumers of characters, here are a few things I believe we can learn from these two women and how they were written for the movie:
- THERE'S MORE THAN ONE WAY TO BE STRONG. Intellect, organization, cunning, patience, harnessing fear, motivational drive, deception - these are all skills and strengths, all methods of successfully fighting a battle. Remember, women can absolutely be physically strong but there is so much to be said for these other strengths and many more.
- WOMEN ARE PEOPLE TOO. You'd think this goes without saying but action movies seem to tend to forget this vital piece of information. If you want to have meaningful, interesting characters, make them be like real people. That means giving them strengths, weaknesses, normal emotions and feelings as consistent with their story, giving them goals and aspirations. It's a really simple formula - just take a look at literally any real person.
- BEING FULLY CLOTHED IS FUN. Though this movie didn't have a perfect record on this front, it was refreshing that both Miranda/Talia and Catwoman/Selina were fully and normally dressed for pretty well the entire movie. They weren't using their bodies to sell the movie, but they did both use their charms and sexuality to manipulate the men around them on a couple of occasions. I feel these were justified in keeping with the characters, and weren't just "eye-candy" scenes for male audiences. There was actually a point to it, and that at least is refreshing.
- WOMEN CAN MAKE GREAT VILLAINS (WITHOUT A TRAGIC ROMANTIC BACKSTORY). This one was kinda huge for me. It seems that whenever female villains are written, their current villainy has something to do with a boyfriend hurting them and making them evil. This is lazy, stupid writing and I am so glad to see the opposite with the two women villains in The Dark Knight Rises. Guys, let's give women characters - villains or otherwise - actual motivations for their actions, something interesting and not a rehashed cliche.
Ultimately I just wanted to praise this movie and the writers for doing such a good job in portraying these characters. I really appreciated watching them unfold on the screen - even if I watched this movie like, five years after it's release. :P But hey, good writing is good writing, no matter how old.
So, what are your opinions on the portrayal of female characters in The Dark Knight Rises? Do you agree/disagree with my assessment? Let's talk about it! I can literally talk about fictional characters all day.
(Also, there's a snowstorm here where I am so I'm trapped indoors all day - alone. :P It's kinda sucky, so brighten up my day with hypothetical conversations maybe?)
((Also, also, check out my Facebook page here for the cool news I've been hinting at the past couple weeks! :DD))
((Also, also, check out my Facebook page here for the cool news I've been hinting at the past couple weeks! :DD))