literally strong female characters

What’s Behind Pop Culture’s Love for Silent, Violent Little Girls?

Dafne Keen in Logan. Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture and Photo by Marvel

In 2002, a teenage girl named River Tam crawled out of a box and started beating the crap out of everyone. She was waif-thin and never used a weapon, but could take out 20 bad guys — barefoot, handspringing, and cartwheeling off them like a human tornado. She was a fearsome badass, a force to be reckoned with, bodily proof that one should never underestimate girls. The mysterious origin of her powers was the focal point of the short-lived space Western Firefly and its film sequel Serenity. But she was not its protagonist.

How can we tell she’s not the lead? Because those were Joss Whedon projects, and in a Joss Whedon project everyone jabbers their heads off with pithy witticisms that can easily fit on a T-shirt. Or, barring that, they are deeply empathic types who can look another character in the eyes and commune with them as a fellow human in times of crisis. By comparison, River was barely lingual; she was a font of semi-lucid, savant-like babbling that was occasionally punctuated by post-traumatic outbursts. That was easy to overlook, though, because the Firefly universe was populated by all sorts of interesting women — tough women, funny women, devious women, compassionate women — and River was a quirky but pivotal outlier who was absolutely part of that that tapestry.

But all that was over a decade ago. While Firefly was a commercial failure, its cult appeal has lived on to influence a new wave of film and TV creators — and with them, a new generation of River Tams who are younger, deadlier, and even less verbal.

In Logan, the X-Men universe has seen its abundant, multicolored glory reduced to dystopian, sparsely populated desert rubble. Nearly all the mutants have been hunted down and wiped out, and no new ones have been born. All who remain are an aged Professor X, Wolverine, and Caliban, hiding out in an abandoned bunker near the Mexican border. That is, until a little girl named Laura shows up. She’s been smuggled out of a nefarious facility south of the border, where scientists have been doing dark and mysterious experiments on children. Laura, it is soon revealed, has adamantium claws and regenerative abilities just like Wolverine, and spends an extended and bloody sequence killing mercenaries while hopping all over them like a CGI Yoda.

Laura is the only female character of consequence in Logan, and she doesn’t talk for the bulk of the film. Instead, her silent, shattered presence alone motivates Logan to step up and take responsibility for her. (No spoilers, but the mutant resemblance helps as well.) We are told she communicates telepathically with Charles and has formed quite a bond with him, but this seems like a convenient loophole, a way to assure us she’s a nuanced and expressive person without having to write actual dialogue for her. Her image as a cute, mute little tank remains intact.

If you find yourself suddenly overcome with déjà vu while watching Laura slice and dice her way through the bad guys, it’s probably because not even a year has passed since a little girl named Eleven broke out of her nefarious experimental facility only to speak in monosyllables while a bunch of boys looked after her and learned important lessons. In the case of Stranger Things, the silent, deadly little girl wasn’t the show’s only female character, but it’s interesting to note that she’s been the most lasting emblem of the show (well, besides Barb). Like River Tam, Eleven was the focal point of all the action, while possessing very little in terms of human traits besides being damaged and loyal (two things any young actress must learn how to play convincingly if she wants to make it).

Eleven was a collection of clichés and references charismatically embodied by Millie Bobbie Brown, who turned her into an avatar of sorts for men and women alike. Similarly, Dafne Keen’s Laura has been christened as a new heroine of the X-Universe, largely based on the assured magnetism of her screen presence. Sometimes a performance transcends what’s on the page, but that doesn’t change the fact that Laura hasn’t been given nearly the same level of texture as her cigar-chomping forebear. Perhaps we just don’t need it: For whatever reason, it’s easy for us to see a preteen girl who’s been traumatized by years of paramilitary experimentation and who oscillates between shell-shocked silence and bone-crunching violence, and say “it me.”

Because as soon as the embargo for Logan broke, my feed was filled with film writers, including many female film writers, claiming that Laura was “kick-ass,” “a little badass,” or “#goals.” Gut reactions don’t lie, but I couldn’t help but think that here we are, a bunch of smart, opinionated adult women, identifying with a silent little girl.

And that’s fine. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves: Laura and her ilk aren’t characters. And their age and increasing silence has become a handy crutch for writers who might otherwise have a harder time bringing female leads to life. (Look to the lackluster characterization of Stranger Things Nancy and Joyce for evidence of this.) So while the device aims for gee-whiz novelty — A little girl who can fight? Now I’ve seen everything! — it ends up being a part of a fusty and familiar trend in genre writing.

Despite countless critical calls for more and better-written women, many genre and action films still find they can get by with a single, one-dimensional woman. Again, that’s fine — it takes all types, though I’d personally like to see more of the other types. But the fact that that single one-dimensional woman is now just as likely to be a girl seems conspicuously regressive, like a joke about Hollywood ageism told with a dead-serious face and deafening BWOOOMMMs for punctuation.

But the age issue is not as telling as the silence is. One only need to look to Game of Thrones Arya Stark — another killer girl paired up with a gruff older man — to see how far a modicum of thoughtful writing can take you. Arya is rebellious and prickly, and as the seasons go on, defined by her personal code and desire to avenge her family. But the way she communicates — with her teachers, with her allies, with her enemies — is how we see her grow and gain a better understanding of the world and her own values. Part of this can be chalked up to the benefit of long-term TV storytelling. And part of it is that Arya exists on a continuum alongside many other interesting female characters and does not bear the weight of being The Girl. But it’s also that she’s given a lot of memorable dialogue in between her fight scenes. What does she say to the god of death? “Not today.”

Anyway, spoiler alert: Laura doesn’t stay silent forever. At a certain point in the film, she suddenly becomes very talkative, railing at Logan in mile-a-minute Spanish. But this isn’t presented as communication, either (it’s not subtitled, which is a definite choice) and it doesn’t lead to any new depths in their relationship. If anything, it’s reminiscent of The Fifth Element’s Leeloo, another female lab escapee who can take on a room of Mondoshawans with her bare feet but only speaks in an indecipherable alien tongue. The lack of a shared language between her and her male counterpart means they won’t connect on an intellectual level; she exists to be observed as an object of contemplation.

Like Leeloo and Eleven and River, Laura is abused but divinely virtuous — an savant so capable and intuitive that she no longer exhibits any recognizable human behavior. We’re told these girls are so hypercompetent, they’ve effectively transcended this mundane plane of existence all the other characters live in. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be funny when she does normal person things like, say, going to the store to buy brand-name packaged food items (Laura gets Pringles, whereas Eleven got Eggos) or experimenting with personal style (Laura wears sunglasses, Eleven wore a wig).

If Laura (or rather, X-23) grows up to become the central heroine of a new X-Universe — the first Spanish-speaking superhero lead in a film! — then I’m very much here for that. There’s been plenty of speculating that she and her multicultural band of fellow lab-kids will form a new Canadian mutant alliance — again, great, can’t wait to see what that looks like. But that’s not this movie, and I can’t help but notice that the X-Men movie where they got rid of all the adult female characters is the one already being hailed as the most grown-up and sophisticated.

What’s more, a story about a group of lab escapees is very different, thematically, than a story about a bunch of born mutants. The X-Men, with their myriad origin stories and socioeconomic backgrounds, represent the collective experience of discovering who you are — an oftentimes horrifying discovery at first — and then growing up and into your own strengths and weaknesses. Laura and her peers, on the other hand, are trauma survivors, defined by a thing that happened to them. That’s every bit a valid story, perhaps more resonant with these times, but years of experience at the movies tells us that it’s far more subject to writerly laziness. Hopefully the success of Logan gives whoever inherits the X-23 story license to think outside the damaged-woman box. But so often these writers invite such horrific circumstances on their characters — needles! Bright lights! Vats of mysterious liquid! Straitjackets! — that they have no fuel left when it comes to the person herself. Inventing forms of torture, it would seem, comes easier to them than inventing a complex human — or mutant.

Here’s the latest Logan trailer:

Logan and Pop Culture’s Love for Silent Violent Little Girls