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The Strong Female Lead 2.0

by Radina Galabova - May, 2021

I love that we are increasingly challenging the stereotypes of how women are perceived in film. I was starting to think we are exhausting the “strong female lead” in movies with the upsurge in recreating all our favourite all-male cast classics with an all-female cast like the remakes of Ghostbusters or Ocean’s 11. But, what I have noticed though, refreshingly, is an increase in female leads that challenge what a ‘good’ or ‘strong’ female lead is. Challenging what we have come to expect from a female lead character.

WE NEED TO CHALLENGE WHAT WE EXPECT

We must challenge what our perceptions are of the now outdated, stereotypical, strong female lead character.

Here are a few great examples of this development:

I Care a Lot – The strong female lead we love and hate at the same time

I just watched I Care A Lot and the whole time watching it I kept thinking “oh my god, no woman would ever do this” but that’s a stereotype I clearly hold. In the movie, the ‘bad guys’ try all sorts of ways to stop her and call her crazy, but she is simply UNSTOPPABLE. (SPOILER AHEAD) In the end she is even recruited by the so-called ‘bad guys’ trying to finish her. (I should challenge what ‘bad guys’ are here as well but let’s leave that for another blog post). Not only is the lead character one to love and hate, but the retired woman featured as the victim is also an unsuspecting stereotype-busting character. And the twist on the stereotypically female ‘caring gene’ is the cherry on top.

Watch trailer here:

Good Girls – The strong female lead who’s also a mum

Another one to add to your watchlist is a show called Good Girls where three women (all mums) rob the grocery store they work at because they desperately need the cash to help their families survive their respective financial troubles. You just never think about a mum going to that length to support her family i.e. robbing a store – which is usually a man’s idea in films. It’s often something like sex work that they end up doing as a last resort, not something as mundane as robbing the supermarket they work at. They even get recruited by the local gang boss…

Watch trailer here:

Saint Frances – The anti-strong female lead

In the movie, Saint Frances, our heroine is not really ‘strong’ in any way. She’s a regular thirty-something-year-old who has nothing that exciting going on in her life. No job, no family, no successes or losses. She’s just living a contently boring life. She starts babysitting for two women who need help with their daughter and new-born. Our protagonist is not equipped to be a babysitter, lacking any experience or the gender-expected nurturing qualities. Yet, she manages to get the job and becomes good at it because she’s just a no-nonsense good person who does what she thinks is right – without overthinking things. Which is actually a base quality in a strong female lead but it’s just not overtly obvious like the wonder woman types we often see.

Watch the trailer here:

With each new refreshing take on the female lead character, we are opening our eyes and minds to portraying, more realistically, the humans we call women.

HOW DO WE BRING THIS INTO THE AD WORLD?

It’s great to see that the ‘strong female lead’ characters in movies are becoming more multifaceted, more multidimensional, and just more real. Less put-on-a-pedestal female superhero characters that we have grown accustomed to seeing. That’s simply becoming an outdated stereotype. Now, we’re making way for a new type of female lead that will not be bound to one box or category. A female lead that’s unexpected. Just like real women are in real life. She doesn’t always have to be strong. She doesn’t always have to be caring. She can be both strong and sensitive. Caring and not caring.

How do we bring this into what we do in advertising? We have to keep challenging the stereotypes of the good-natured female lead that we’ve cultivated and continue to create. Why do we do this? So that she is more liked? Because she has to be liked? Because we need the likes?

She doesn’t have to be liked to be respected or represented. She’s not here to please. She’s just doing whatever she wants to do because it’s what is right for her. It’s an attitude we have to emulate in the women we portray in our ads so that we empower the women we are speaking to rather than just creating a ‘model’ woman and perpetuating a passive unopinionated consumer.

We have to show her real side, not just her pretty side. That’s why the latest campaign by Bodyform, #WombStories, worked so well. The idea itself is a multifaceted experience from all kinds of women with all kinds of womb-related experiences. It leveraged the voices of many women to paint a realistic picture. But how do we show that character depth in a 6-second ad with just one woman?

THE BEST THING WE CAN DO IS JUST QUESTION IT.

Question what the woman is doing in our ad, in our script, in our story. Let’s start with one stereotypical thing seen across all ads in the world, the smiling woman. You know the one. You’ve seen her countless of times. She’s applying cream to her face – she’s smiling. She’s putting food down on the table for her family – she’s smiling. We are enabling the stereotype that a woman has to smile all the time. She simply doesn’t.

In the theme of International Women’s Day 2021 (and beyond), let’s #ChooseToChallenge all stereotypes of women in advertising. Ask yourself these questions next time you see an ad or next time you make an ad with a woman in it:

Why is she smiling?

Why is she cooking?

Why is she cleaning?

Why is she white?

Why is she voiceless?

Why is she hairless?

Why is she so perfect?

Women are most interesting when they are multifaceted. And like any human being, regardless of gender, it’s their personality, their imperfections that make them interesting. It’s what makes them relatable. They are best when they are themselves. That’s when they are truly happy, with or without a smile on their face.

Let’s close the chapter on the Strong Female Lead and pave the way for the Real Female Lead.