I’ve always had a thing for tough chicks. And I love strong female characters in fiction. Not just emotionally strong characters, mind you, though there’s certainly nothing wrong with that archetype. I mean physically strong female characters, characters that defy the sociological constraints that demand women conform themselves to society’s expectations of them as frail and fragile creatures.
The disgustingly misquoted research “proving” female physical inferiority has long been known to be flawed, as it only provided a general measure of general male strength versus general female strength at a singular point in time, failing to factor in the psychological and sociological factors that play directly into our physical ability to generate outputs of strength. More and more, society is catching up on information sociological and biological research is already aware of: that, fundamentally, there is no biological difference in physical potential, in terms of power, between men and women. Women’s muscles may not bulge as much as men’s do, but the same potential for mass and power is there, despite the unimportant difference in volume.
I bring the above up because, in portraying physically strong female characters, there’s a particular type of strong character I’m usually focused on: women who are naturally strong. Sure, superhuman women like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or the Bionic Woman are intriguing, but I’m more interested in women who made themselves powerful through training and determination.
It’s tough to find characters who fit this description, as American cinema almost always demands that, no matter how strong, competent, and effective a female character is presented as being, there is almost always a moment in which she must have a male character rescue her. I thoroughly enjoyed Predators until the unbelievably badass Israeli chick needed Adrian Brody to swoop in and save her from the nefarious clutches of Eric Mother-Fucking-Pencil-Necked Foreman from “That 70s Show.”
NO. No I do not accept that! Don’t get me wrong, I like me some Topher Grace, but NO. He is NOT a credible threat, Robert Rodriguez, so fuck your attempt to recoup later when the Israeli lady, a sniper, helps Brody kill the last Predator. Sure, he would have died without her, but the whole fight was essentially Big Strong Man vs. Scary Monster, so that he could Save The Woman. God…Goddamn it.
And while it can be argued that the horror genre endorses physically powerful women, the evidence doesn’t really support the hypothesis. While Wes Craven certainly provides an exception in portraying female protagonists as resourceful and cunning (Nancy in A Nightmare on Elm Street), most female survivors in horror often endure the film simply by a stroke of luck, typically after finding a convenient weapon to use at the last minute against the bad guy when his guard is down. Even tough, thinking-on-her-feet Laurie Strode in John Carpenter’s Halloween was reduced to a sobbing, shambling wreck in the sequel (though to be fair, the character was drugged in Halloween II).
The frustration I often feel in the above scenarios plays directly into why I love Strange Days so much (aside from the amazingly puppy-eyed presence of Ralph Fiennes and the have-my-babies beauty of Angela Bassett, I mean). Strange Days, as well as being an unflinching commentary on the nature of race relations, the abuse of power by authority figures, and the corrosive effect of public apathy, has a female character who’s a stone-cold ass-kicker, and a believable one at that.
Spoilers follow, so if you’re that pretentious person no one likes to invite to the movies, you might not wanna read further.
Strange Days revolves around the awesomely-named, drug-dealing former cop Lenny Nero and his best friend, professional bodyguard Lornette “Mace” Mason. Lenny deals in devices called Superconducting Quantum Interference Devices, or SQUIDs, which can record memories and play them back into the minds of others. The technology is illegal, and the experience it provides can be addictive to users. Lenny is also slowly wasting away from use of his own product retreating into a fantasy world to alleviate the pain of rejection he feels from a former lover, Faith. As the film progresses, Lenny and Mace are caught up in a conspiracy to cover up the murder of a highly influential rap artist by two officers in the LAPD, and find their lives are put at risk by forces greater than what the two of them, even with their combined skills, may be able to fend off.
Besides being a solid and intelligent sci-fi film, Strange Days is refreshingly blunt regarding racial tension in America, and how police corruption and social apathy play equal parts in the breakdown of societal standards. But despite the film’s fearless commentary and precise intelligence, it was the film’s blurring of traditional gender roles that drew me in.
Lenny Nero is a former cop, a detective specifically, but though he’s not a complete pushover, he is far from hyper-masculine. Lenny is slender, non-confrontational, and vain about his wardrobe and appearance. He frequently whines when inconvenienced, and often grovels when put in danger. He knows how to wield a gun because of his former profession, and he can handle himself if he is prepared for a fight, but it isn’t difficult for many characters to overpower him. Lenny is shown to pine ceaselessly for Faith (Juliette Lewis), who clearly no longer returns his affections. And at one point, when a character shoots at him, it seems as though Lenny falls from a gunshot injury, though it is subsequently revealed, to humorous effect, that Lenny simply fainted out of fear. At several points in the film, Lenny is driven to tears over the stress placed on him by the story’s events.
As manly as Lenny gets.
His best friend, Mace, is clearly the more physically and emotionally dominant of the two. It is established early on that Mace is in love with Lenny, who is either oblivious to her feelings, or doesn’t acknowledge them. However, Mace does not let her feelings overtake her judgment, and if Lenny’s behavior goes over the line, she is not opposed to letting him to stew in his own mess, provided his life isn’t put in danger as a result. When Lenny is (frequently) overpowered by adversaries, it is Mace who comes to his rescue, utilizing her strength, speed, and apparent martial arts training to subdue sometimes multiple opponents at a time. During a chase sequence halfway through the film, as Lenny panics in the passenger seat, Mace remains cool-headed even as the car bursts into flame, and she is forced to drive into a river to put it out and save their lives. As opposed to the peacocking Lenny, Mace is shown to dress in a simple, almost pragmatic fashion, though she does wiggle into a tiny skirt for the climax of the film, which occurs during a New Year’s Eve party.
If I could point to one tough female character that was done right, it’d be Mace. She is physically powerful, socially liberated, competent in her actions, and emotionally independent. Though she carries romantic feelings for Lenny, and is protective of him as a result, her disapproval of his feelings for Faith is not based in petty jealousy, but out of genuine concern for his well-being. Mace makes it clear that, if it ever becomes obvious that Lenny no longer has any hope of moving on with his life, she will not let his inability at personally growth interfere with her own path in life. Mace has a child from a previous marriage, a lifestyle to maintain, and bills to pay in an economically ravaged city. Making eyes at her best friend will take a back seat to those priorities when necessary.
There are lots of little points to enjoy about how the two main characters are structured. The female character is celebrated as a strong, competent black woman, with a strong sense of ethics, morality, and justice. The film dared to present the white hero as weaker, generally non-heroic, and driven through the film’s plot mostly by petty desires, as opposed to the desire for justice that eventually motivated Mace. Keep in mind that this film opened during a period in American filmmaking when Independence Day almost didn’t get made, because the studio insisted a white guy play the role Will Smith ultimately carried to extreme popular acclaim. And that was despite knowing how insanely popular Smith was at the time (and has been forever since). Writer James Cameron (Terminator, Titanic) and director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) really did their best to blur the traditional gender and racial roles in film, and they did so in a manner that seemed virtually invisible until later reflection.
To be sure, there are some parts I could do without: you can pretty much see Juliette Lewis DO ACTING, and varying the tone of her voice did not seem like it came off as much of a high priority for her in this movie. And I feel like her evil record producer boss/boyfriend could’ve switched places with the bad guy from The Crow without anyone really noticing. But nearly every movie has parts of it that someone in the audience will bitch about. The movie’s uniqueness and intelligence shines through whatever petty complaints I could throw at it.
Plus, kudos for refusing to have the white former girlfriend spontaneously realize her mistake and end up with the hero, thanks to the tireless sacrifice of the reliable black friend. That happens a lot in movies, or at least it seems like it does to me, and it was nice to see the more emotionally relatable (and, frankly, better-looking) female character celebrated, even more so in this case for playing against the normal arch of minority characters in nineties movies. (Although when Mace and Lenny finally kiss as the credits roll, Ralph Fiennes kind of looks like he’s trying to eat Angela Bassett’s face. Though, considering it was Angela Bassett he was kissing, I suppose I can’t blame him for being eager.)
I don’t pretend to be that “enlightened white guy” who embarrasses himself and others at bars. I recognize that there are numerous aspects of minority relations that I will never be able to fully understand, as a result of winning the current era’s socio-genetic lottery (i.e., being born a white American man). But refusing to be aware of the issues, or, even worse, pretending they don’t exist, would limit me as a human being. It would limit me spiritually, intellectually, artistically, and socially, and understanding that, I appreciated the effort on the part of Strange Days to resist these limits, and doing so with a brash and uncompromising attitude.
Also, Angela Bassett. Mmm, that’s a woman. But then again, I’ve always had a thing for tough chicks.
– The Awful Writer