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September 29, 2023

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Recent influx of aggressive female protagonists positive, still problematic in some areas

Imagine walking in on an audience watching a movie that features a knight in shining armor battling a dragon.

In the moment this premise seems like standard cinematic fare until you notice one thing: the knight is a young girl.

The movie the audience was watching was Tim Burton’s semi-recent remake of “Alice in Wonderland,” which features the titular character donning armor and fighting a dragon-like monster. It’s just one example of the increasing popularity of films that feature female protagonists who exhibit aggressive behavior.

Lisa Richman Kaplan, a third-year doctoral student in American Culture Studies, has dedicated much of her research to the topic of “aggressive girls” in film, focusing on characters between the ages of 12 and 18. During her studies, she has uncovered some insights as to the recent surge in such movies.

Kaplan began doing this research in 2010 after she was inspired by the film “Kick-Ass,” specifically the mixed public reaction to the character Hit-Girl.

“[Culturally] we place little girls in a context or in a role where they need to be protected,” Kaplan said. “The role that Hit-Girl played really flew in the face of that.”

Kaplan’s research deals largely with the possibilities, as well as problems, associated with this rise of what she calls “Killer Girls.” As part of a her presentation “Shoots, Slices, Survives: The Possibilities and Problematics of Aggressive Girls in Popular Film” given this past March for Women’s History Month, she points to several films as examples. Included were the films “Hanna,” “The Hunger Games,” “Kick-Ass,” “Snow White and the Huntsman” and “Alice in Wonderland.”

These films all introduce a different and in some ways progressive take on what a hero is, but are by no means perfect, Kaplan said.

“I think for the possibility of challenging normative expectations around girls’ aggression, it’s positive,” Kaplan said. “I think there are still some other parts of these films that reinforce normative expectations.”

Some of these negative aspects, Kaplan said, include the fact that the girls seen in these films are almost always white, are usually saved by a male mentor near the end of the film and the fact that there is generally only one aggressive female per movie.

“We’re not changing the paradigm so that this is something that’s normalized,” Kaplan said.

Gender normalization, of course, is not limited to film. In a recent article by The New York Times, mentioned by Kaplan, the author discusses an influx in gender-neutral toys. Among other points, the article mentions these toys still feature gender normative colors, a pink bow and arrow given as an example.

Sophomore Christine Wright said these toys help break stereotypes, but the colors and decorations still reinforce gender roles.

“There’s always been that assumption that pink is for girls, blue is for boys,” she said. “No one knows why. It doesn’t matter who plays with them.”

Senior Brandon Kaufman is a fan of “The Blacklist,” an NBC crime drama featuring a strong female FBI agent. He said the popularization of aggressive female role-models is positive, but people shouldn’t be concerned with the color of children’s toys.

“The color thing is something little [kids] can identify with,” Kaufman said. “I don’t see why it would be a negative thing.”

This development in entertainment media, particularly film, is a result in gender roles in regards to aggression, Kaplan said.

“Girls are expected to internalize their aggression,” Kaplan said. “I’m not arguing that girls should [have] to ‘be like boys,’ but instead that we should break down these gendered constructions of aggression and instead work for healthy possibilities for kids [to show aggression].”

As far as these movies making a visible mark on society, Kaplan said it’s too early to tell, but there may be potential.

“I think even this idea that these [are the films] that kids want to go to speaks a lot to maybe the kind of expectations they’ll have for their own identity,” Kaplan said.

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