In film and in television, the concept of a “strong female protagonist” is often a way of saying “a woman in a movie or TV show doing manly things in a manly setting while being a woman.”
Think of the recent films and TV shows that have been praised for strong female protagonists: Wonder Woman, the Star Wars movies Rogue One and The Last Jedi, Mad Max: Fury Road, Game of Thrones, Westworld, The Americans, Orphan Black, Atomic Blonde, and Good Girls, among many others. All of these examples feature complicated, resilient, brave women engaging in the kinds of activities — firing guns, wielding lightsabers, overall butt-kicking — generally reserved for men, set in genres traditionally considered “masculine.” Being a badass woman in film and TV has often meant engaging in testosterone-tinged behavior in milieus ordinarily ruled by men.
But lately, several TV shows and films are taking the strong female protagonist into new territory by infusing familiar story frameworks with more blatantly feminine vocabulary. The fierce women in TV shows like Killing Eve or movies like Ocean’s 8 openly appreciate quote-unquote girly things like beautiful clothes and fine jewelry. They even wield them as weapons or tools in ways we rarely see in similar stories with male protagonists.
Killing Eve, the BBC America series starring Sandra Oh as MI5 officer Eve Polastri and Jodie Comer as the ruthless Russian assassin Villanelle, serves as the best example. At its core, Killing Eve is a classic cat-and-mouse thriller that traffics in the stuff of Jason Bourne movies or more horrifying cinematic works like Se7en and The Silence of the Lambs. Except in this case, both the cat and the mouse are women.
When the conniving Villanelle needs to get a job done, she not only relies on her feminine wiles, she often uses items associated with female beauty to carry out her murders. In the first episode, after infiltrating a mansion in Tuscany, she offs her victim by stabbing him in the eye with a hairpin that doubles as a poison-filled syringe. In episode two, she snuffs out a woman, but this time the poison takes the form of perfume. In either case, Villanelle could have used a gun or a knife, but instead, she chooses something pretty and therefore more innocuous. The male victim dies because he doesn’t even notice a thing like a hairpin — he’s too focused on the prospect that Villanelle might be a potential conquest — and certainly doesn’t realize it could be something potentially dangerous. The female victim dies because she, too, doesn’t foresee danger, but also because she is enticed by the fragrance and, more importantly, Villanelle’s made-up story about having been inspired by the woman’s career. Villanelle seduces her on womanly terms, with words evocative of female empowerment.
Villanelle knows how to seduce Eve, too. When she wants to communicate with the spy who’s obsessed with finding her, Villanelle doesn’t send a cryptic note or leave behind a coded clue. She returns Eve’s missing suitcase and fills it with meticulously wrapped sweaters and dresses, along with a box of Villanelle’s signature perfume and a note that says simply, “Sorry baby.” It’s like Eve is being stalked by Stitch Fix and Sephora. Eve is both horrified and tempted to try on the gifts she’s been given.
When the two finally confront each other in person, they wind up in Eve’s kitchen, a sphere typically considered a “women’s space.” All Villanelle wants, she says, is to have dinner together and talk, the same thing many women want from their partners. In another clever subversion of gender expectations, Eve heats up food previously prepared by her husband — he’s the real cook in that relationship — and the two talk until things almost, but not quite, turn violent. When Villanelle pulls a weapon on Eve, it’s a kitchen knife that’s normally used to dice up vegetables. Everything about this scene, right down to the charged hint of sexual attraction, announces that it’s an interaction between two women. Their gender and their understanding of each other on gendered terms completely dictates the way they talk to each other, in words unspoken and not.
It’s also worth noting that during this encounter, Eve is initially dressed in an evening gown that Villanelle sent to her. Fashion is practically another character in Killing Eve — series creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge is “very interested” in clothing, according to costume designer Phoebe de Gaye — which is yet another case of the show speaking in feminine terms. That’s also true in Ocean’s 8, the heavily hyped all-female take on the George Clooney–led heist films. This time around, the ringleader with the last name Ocean (first name: Debbie) is played by Sandra Bullock, who assembles a full-on lady gang to pull off an audacious crime: the theft of Cartier’s Jeanne Toussaint necklace, worth $150 million, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in the middle of the Met Gala.
Style was always a key element in the Ocean’s movies but, again, this time the style is very much defined by women. The tuxedos donned by Clooney, Brad Pitt & Co. have been replaced by stilettos, dresses, and the feminized blazers and skinny, edgy ties worn by Cate Blanchett. Even the heist’s setting has a more female vibe: While the Met Ball is, obviously, attended by famous, well-connected members of both genders, it’s the women in their elaborate, often over-the-top gowns who grab most of the attention (and women, in general, who tend to pay more attention to it). Debbie Ocean and her cohorts, instinctively understand what a baller move it would be to slide out of the Met Ball with a valuable diamond necklace in their possession.
Of course, part of the thrill in Ocean’s 8 is the same as in any heist movie: It’s based in the adrenaline rush of finding out whether they can pull off the impossible. But an equally big thrill comes from the prospect of simply getting to enter the Met Ball itself. The film’s subtext — which slyly comments on the fact that women and the things they value are often dismissed, in Hollywood and elsewhere — suggests that the pleasure of a successful heist will be magnified because the women will walk away, in plain sight, with a treasure that’s named after a woman and coveted by many women. The movie also tells us that women are uniquely equipped to execute on that front: As Debbie explains to Blanchett’s Lou after she asks why they don’t hire a man to join the heist planning committee, “A Him gets noticed. A Her gets ignored. And for once, we’d like to be ignored.”
Killing Eve and Ocean’s 8 are the best recent pop-cultural examples of narratives that are awash in feminine sensibilities, but they are not the only ones. The money-laundering ladies of TBS’s Claws, whose second season begins Sunday, fly under the radar by operating a nail salon, their blinged-out talons serving as a metaphorical distraction from their roles in a criminal enterprise. The handmaids of The Handmaid’s Tale have many things stripped away from their lives and bodies, but their most immediately visible loss is their ability to dress themselves with any sense of individuality, grace, or flair. The trans women of FX’s Pose, set in the New York ball culture of the 1980s, use fashion to express their competitive nature and their true identities. They make names for themselves by competing in high-stakes game of dress-up, where they subject themselves to harsh judgment from their peers as well as actual judges. There’s something fitting about these voguing masters asserting their womanhood by experiencing, in a more dramatic context, what all women deal with every day: ruthless assessments of their appearances.
Meanwhile, the “topple the patriarchy” spirit of AMC’s new drama Dietland comes across loudly in the allusions to a masked feminist vigilante group, Jennifer, that enacts punishment on abusive men. In the first handful of episodes, the brief glimpses of Jennifer are reminiscent of the Joker and his bank robbing crew in the opening sequence of The Dark Knight. This is, again, women speaking via visual language typically associated with men. But other pieces of the series unfold in a super-feminine atmosphere: specifically, the offices of Daisy Chain, a teen fashion and beauty magazine that employs the show’s protagonist, Plum Kettle (Joy Nash). Dietland calls into question the entire ethos of publications like Daisy Chain, which teach girls their looks are of paramount importance. But it doesn’t suggest that women are foolish or vapid for caring about fashion, makeup, or other aesthetic trappings.
In the pilot, Dietland introduces us to the beauty closet, which is as gorgeous and tricked-out with product as any of the storage areas glamorized on Sex and the City, Ugly Betty, or The Bold Type. But it’s also a basement-level exercise in contradictions. On one hand, Julia (Tamara Tunie), the overseer of the closet, tells Plum that publishing companies like Austin Media, which owns Daisy Chain, convince women “to pay them to tell us how broken we are. Then we pay for the products to fix it. But we’re never fixed.” On the other, Julia is a pusher of these so-called fixes. After Plum points out that it’s “human nature” to “like pretty things,” Julia begins to apply lipstick and blush to Plum’s face, an act of female generosity that causes Plum to get teary. “Doesn’t anyone ever tell you you’re beautiful, just as you are?” Julia coos. It’s a deeply ironic thing to say while she’s covering Plum in makeup. But only a woman would understand how persuasive it is to hear these mixed messages, because so many women paradoxically want to be their pure, unvarnished selves and also enjoy the feel of powder and gloss on their skin. Like Villanelle on Killing Eve, Julia knows exactly which of Plum’s self-care-hungry buttons to push.
Where Killing Eve is a feminized spin on the spy thriller and Ocean’s 8 is the ladies’ version of the all-male heist flick, Dietland takes a category of storytelling — the light, stylish TV equivalent of chick lit — and skews it toward something darker in order to wrestle with feminist subject matter. Other contemporary shows also tinker with the tropes of traditionally female genres to similar ends, as Crazy Ex-Girlfriend does with the rom-com, and Jane the Virgin does with the telenovela. In their various idiosyncratic ways, each of these narratives prove that feminine signifiers are as meaningful and resonant as symbols of masculinity. Alongside “strong female character” vehicles like Wonder Woman or Westworld, the figures in Killing Eve or Ocean’s 8 or Dietland prove there are millions of valuable ways to show audiences what formidable women look like.
As Julia tells Plum in Dietland, “You are a woman. You should decorate yourself however it pleases you.” Increasingly, and thankfully, that’s what TV shows and movies about women are doing.