This year, I think it’s fair to say that there are two stand out movies that stand head and shoulders above the rest in my personal Movie of the Year list. Mad Max: Fury Road told a story of action, compassion and mental fortitude that manages to convey emotional complexity while staying incredibly light on dialogue. Star Wars: The Force Awakens managed to take on the hurculean task of creating a new story in an incredibly popular franchise and managed to please both new viewers and long time franchise fans.
Both Fury Road and The Force Awakens also did something else this year that I think says a lot for the ways movies are growing as a medium right now. In 2015, both of these AAA action franchises, which had previously centred on male protagonists, introduced new movies following long hiatuses from screens, that featured female protagonists.
Not only that, but these new entries with female protagonists garnered higher theatrical profits, as well as levels of critical and fan reception, than those franchises had seen in years.
2015 made me feel something about movies that I have not felt since I first watched the original Alien. 2015 was the year that gave me hope that cinema is commercially and critically ready for absolutely awesome female leads in male dominated genres, even when that means making your titular character little more than a literal hood ornament.
So, let’s talk briefly about why I love Rey and Furiosa quite as much as I do.
Mad Max: Fury Road is, at its heart, a feminist action blockbuster about the violent destruction of patriarchal society. A vicious male dictator, who owns five women as sex slave brides who he considers his property, weilds his power over those in his vicinity absolutely.
Furiosa is basically a hard as nails woman, clearly battle worn and missing at least one limb, who rescues this dictators wives, steals a war rig and heads off into the harsh unforgiving desert in complete violent defiance of the world.
While Furiosa is clearly no stranger to battle, she still retains an understanding of her more traditionally feminine traits, her place within society and the differing personalities of the cast of women she travels with. She doesn’t insist he band of companions show equal grit and determination to herself, but equally she’s given room as a character to have other emotions that rage and anger.
She’s not a “strong female character”, she’s a female character who is allowed to be strong but to also show weakness. She’s part of an ensemble cast of women who are all allowed to be distinct from one another, who all have agency in the world, who all develop and who all shift and change in there personalities.
Mad Max just gets strapped to the front of a car, then tags along for one hell of a ride.
Considering how recently The Force Awakens hit cinema screens, I’m going to keep discussion of the film as spoiler free as I possibly can.
Rey really intrigues me as a Star Wars protagonist by comparisson to the protagonists that came before her in their first Star Wars movies.
Anakin Skywalker in Episode I is a hyperactive child, not terribly well acted, with very little narrative agency. He does very little to advance the plot of his movie, and most adults going back find him at the very least a little irritating.
Luke Skywalker when introduced in Episode IV is equally weak as a character. He’s whiny, he refuses to take agency over his own future and he shows very little emotion during moments that demand it. He shows more distress about having to wait an extra year to attend The Academy than at the death of his closest relatives.
Rey in The Force Awakens has been called a Mary Sue by some critics, which to me feels really off the mark. To me, she’s simply the most interesting, well rounded, competent and consistently acted Star Wars protagonist of the bunch, if you just compare the first movie each stared in.
Rey is a scavenger by trade, but a scavenger with aspirations. She’s feircly loyal, she’s protective, she’s strong willed and she’s compassionate.
She’s also aggressive, prone to running headfirst into situations, she’s scared, she’s unsure and she’s confident.
I know some of these things may seem to conflict with each other, but that’s what makes her so interesting.
Oh, and there are fascinating parallels to be drawn between Rey and a recent critically acclaimed Marvel protagonist.
So, what is the point I’m trying to make here? It’s basically that video games may now have a new yard stick to reach in terms of strong female representation.
2015 did give us Rise of the Tomb Raider, a AAA game that built it’s female lead into a really interesting character I want to see more of, but movies have set a far higher bar in the same twelve months. This incarnation of Lara Croft, as much as I love her, has a character arc that starts off with someone attempting to sexually assault her. That’s the primary driving force behind her becoming strong, the focus of much of her development as a character in the 2013 game, and somewhat mires my attempts to recommend her as a goalpost for representation without caveats.
Can you imagine a year in video games where we saw two franchises ditch their male protagonists for female heroes, one of which was about a female ensemble cast tearing down the patriarchy, and they were two of the most critically acclaimed and financially profitable movies of the year?
Video games are moving forward, that’s for sure, but this is the yard stick I’m going to be measuring video games by going forward. Did the AAA video game scene have as good a year for female representation as 2015 for movies? I suspect it’ll be a while before we get to that point.