In 2006 writer-director Joss Whedon received an award from Equality Now. His acceptance speech is one of the funnier things I’ve read. In it he talks about going on press junkets and being asked the same question over and over, “Why do you write these strong women characters?” Over the course of answering the question multiple times in the speech it is his final answer that was most telling of the way things were in 2006, “Because you’re still asking me that question.”
In 2006 characters like Mr. Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer or the women on his show Firefly were anomalies. Now in 2017 we are a week removed from a movie which featured the original pop culture strong woman, Wonder Woman. Which was directed by a female director, Patty Jenkins; becoming the biggest box office opening for a female directed movie.
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman
In the eleven years since 2006 there has been a steady increase in women taking on starring roles in some of our biggest pop culture mediums. Besides Wonder Woman the character Rey in the new Star Wars movies is as big as any hero in any movie coming out in 2017. The heroine of the storybook television show Once Upon a Time is the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming. Supergirl has her own show. In comics, a woman wields Mjolnir as Thor. The most interesting thing is I could keep going on and on with examples. In 2006, I would have had trouble writing a paragraph as long.
Daisy Ridley as Rey in Star Wars
What changed? I don’t think anything changed. What I think happened is a generation of creative minds were influenced by the opportunity to work in the unexplored territory of writing for strong women. If you’re going to tell the tale of the Hero’s Journey why not make it the Heroine’s Journey and claim it for your own? Which is why we have this growing sector of strong women in pop culture. It is also why this will be an enduring change because it has emerged in a natural way driven by the writers, directors, and artists looking for their story to tell.
In 2006, I think we were just beginning to take the first steps to rounding the corner. In 2017, I think we are almost at the point that the change is complete. Which means the question of “Why do you write these strong women characters?” will disappear sooner rather than later.
Spending this weekend at the 2014 New York Comic-Con I realize how far things have come since I attended my first con back in 1973. Back then it was more about comics than popular media although Star Trek original series episodes were often the entertainment in the early days. Things would continue to grow over the years until by the early 1980’s the San Diego Comic-Con had grown in size to become the biggest con in the country. Throughout those early days I can tell you there was one very common aspect to all of them, very few women. This year as I walk around the convention hall there are lots of women. Some of this is due to the expansion of Comic-Con to cover a wider swathe of pop culture as it is more than just comic books. Even with that as a disclaimer over the last couple of years there have been a lot of female characters added into the mainstream superhero comics.
The biggest indicator of this change is the recent change in gender of Thor. For those not up on your comic book mythology Thor has been the embodiment of the Norse God of Thunder son to the ruler Odin. Thor has a hammer called Mjolnir which only he can wield and which only he can pick up, because he is worthy. The new story line outlined in the latest issue of the comic is the male Thor has lost the ability to pick up Mjolnir. Part of the mystery to be resolved over the next few issues is why this happened. What has changed is a woman walks forward and picks up Mjolnir which makes her Thor Goddess of Thunder. Her face is shrouded and the other mystery to be resolved is her identity. Along with a female Thor, Odin’s wife Freyja has been ruling over the Norse Gods recently and seems reluctant to let go the reins of power. The women are taking charge in Asgard, the Norse Gods home.
This is a big event within comic book mythology and it has much to do with the changing demographics of who is reading. In the third quarter of 2013 young women aged 17-33 purchasing comic books increased by 20%. They are drawn to the books which show women superheroes. They eventually may show up at a con dressed as their favorite superhero which represents their ability to find fun in imagining themselves saving the world.
The trend isn’t going away as Wolverine of X-Men is being killed off in the comic books and the new version will be his genetically engineered daughter X-23 who will be the new lead in her own series of books.
I am looking forward to reading the adventures of Thor Goddess of Thunder, and X-23, and hopefully many more female heroes over the next years because there is nothing like a woman who can be as tough as she needs to be.