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Is Part of Hollywood's Issue With Ambitious Women Written in Its Characters?

18/12/2015 16:50 GMT | Updated 18/12/2016 10:12 GMT

Despite growing protests from female directors, producers and actors that women are not getting the recognition or pay that they deserve from the industry, it seems (at first glance at least) that the female characters on screen aren't having the same problem. On TV especially, there are plenty of powerful women at the top to choose from, but as we're still waiting for Cersei Lannister to roll her wrist around a glass of red wine before taking her revenge in Game of Thrones, I've had to get my superbitch fix elsewhere.

My current favourite is Chanel Oberlin, the seething, sparkling Sorority girl played by Emma Roberts in Scream Queens, a new series that's accurately been branded a 'Mean Girls meets Halloween' hybrid. Chanel recycles the old stereotype of the bitchy fashionista, (oversized shades; gaggle of minions etc.) but because of the casual OTT gore of the show, the writers manage to make it seem new and interesting. Still, it's got my feminist knickers in a twist, because there's something incredibly unimaginative about the strong/cruel woman trope, and it chimes uncomfortably with the industry's glaring gender inequality problem. 'You're an awful person,' two dimensional semi-protagonist Grace says to Chanel. 'I know,' Chanel soothes back, 'but I'm rich and I'm pretty, so it doesn't really matter.' She's got a point. It seems that female characters in a position of power rarely deviate from the tried-and-tested strong/attractive/evil formulae; anything else just doesn't seem to exist.

Don't get me wrong, I initially enjoyed watching Chanel dunking her calorie-free cotton balls in hoisin sauce, and her maid in the deep-fat fryer, but I quickly started questioning why her icy personality played so well to her entertainment value. Is it because we can't reconcile a kind woman with a strong one? The same can be asked of Jamie Lee Curtis's character Cathy Munsch, the besuited university dean on a mission to take down the sorority because its appearance and wealth-based elitism doesn't cut it with her feminist values. Sounds excitingly fresh at first - noble, even - until you realise that Munsch is an even bigger psychopath than Chanel.

It's nothing original: the list of strong ruthless female characters is a long one, and extends through history. The novelist Philippa Gregory recently wrote of our fear of powerful women, citing Elizabeth I: 'It's no accident that [she] spoke of herself as a king and referred to "princely power". Queenly power was a contradiction...Like Lilith, like Eve, like the Virgin Mary, if a woman exerts herself to gain power, she is condemned for being unwomanly.' Bonus points if she also happens to be well-dressed - that's even more terrifying (see Meryl Streep's lead role as Editrix-in-Chief Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada). Even Downton Abbey isn't innocent - look at the formidable Lady Mary: chic, calculating, and cold. Her comparatively kind sister Edith? Weak, watery, and overlooked. It presses a fierce question about female characters written today, and it's one that's not being asked enough: why are we so scared of strong women that we must always make monsters of them? In other words, must the Head Bitch In Charge always be a bitch?

Natalie Dormer, who plays femme fatale Margery Tyrell alongside Cersei in GoT, recently said in an interview that women on screen shouldn't have to be sexualised to be empowered. She could have gone one further and said they don't have to be evil, either. Her appearance as rebel film producer Cressida in the latest installment of The Hunger Games seems to trump this idea, but there's little depth to the character, and any tough woman in the film is inevitably also a victim. Even Julianne Moore's grey-clad resistance figurehead Alma Coin, who we so hoped would bring change to the Capital, turned out to be as cruel as the man she replaced. A possible glimmer of hope lies in Game of Thrones' Daenerys Targaryen, but the problem with Dany is that in a real life setting she's about as relatable as her dragons.

What we need is more remarkable and amazing women we can identify with, which according to MP Jess Phillips, is exactly what you have to be to get to the top in politics, because unfortunately, average men get there all the time. Scarily, the same is true in Hollywood, whose woman-proof career ladder is designed for, as Maureen Dowd recently said in the New York Times, 'young guys in baseball caps who remind older guys in baseball caps of themselves'. I can't help wondering if the fierce female roles I'm talking about (overwhelmingly written by men, naturally) are partly to blame.

Maybe I'm overreacting. It is only fiction, and as Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett wrote last year defending the feminist integrity of Gone Girl, 'true equality is admitting that women can be evil too.' Perhaps, but I'd argue that the boxes female characters fit into are still too few. When women on screen can never be seen as captivating, successful, and good all at once, then we have an obvious problem. This is the part where the men's rights activists predictably start itching over their keyboards, ready to mansplain about how we should be grateful because at least female roles nowadays are passing the Bechdel test. And really, we do have to admit that these characters are quite badass - we're all a sucker for a well-dressed wicked witch. But when the representation of powerful women on screen is either sexualised or vilified with very little compromise, it's expressing the sentiment we've heard too many times before: that women can't have it all. And what's remotely new or interesting about that?