As a woman and a writer, I think a lot about how to represent women in stories. I want them to be compelling characters on their own, fit into the larger world (whether “real” or subcreated), and free of any anti-feminist tropes. It’s very easy to roll on a topcoat of feminism over any character, usually by making her “tough” (but not tougher than the main male characters!).
But having your lady character stick a gun in someone’s face doesn’t automatically confer agency. A tough shell may give the appearance that the woman is an equal in the story, but it means little if her character is surrounded by a sausage fest, forced into a gender-normative secondary role, or damselled for the convenience of the plot. (See more on Damselling as a verb here.)
These types of pitfalls are often more obvious in film than in novels, so I’m going to use the Fast & Furious franchise to show both good and bad representations of women. This isn’t a critique or review of the movies. I’m just talking about how they portray female characters.
First, though, I’d like to offer sincere praise to the franchise for truly incorporating POC characters. Compared to many, many other Hollywood productions, this franchise is refreshingly inclusive. Major characters are black, Hispanic, and/or Asian. They hail from Brazil, Mexico, Israel, Japan, Korea, etc. I think this trend is great. It feels organic, and it’s heartening to see a nicely-browned cast in movies not explicitly about a particular race or culture. Yay!
Now, let’s talk feminism, shall we? (SPOILER warning from here on out, for those who might care!) Who are the Fast & Furious ladies? I’m going to focus on five, most of whom appear in multiple installments.
Mia — She initially appears as the sister of anti-hero Dom, and is also the love interest of slacker-hero Brian. Later, she becomes the mother of Brian’s child. We first see her making a sandwich for the protagonist Brian (albeit as a server, not a wife). Please. She sometimes drives with the guys, but usually is shown as a support/watcher/sideline character. In the fifth movie, the Big Bad threatens to have her raped and killed. In the sixth movie, she actually gets kidnapped and held as a prize for the men to retrieve (solely for her prize value, not due to any intrinsic value/knowledge/capital of her own). Mia is the favorite character to damsel in this whole franchise. Is she a feminist character? Nope. Not at all.
Letty — Outwardly very tough and on par with the boys, Letty is the obvious argument for actual feminism in the series. EXCEPT….she also gets damselled, big time. First, she is killed by an antagonist in the fourth movie, which is the fuel for revenge-y butt kicking on the part of the males (led by Letty’s boyfriend Dom). And then, when she is revealed to be still alive in another installment, she is again/still damselled by another antagonist. He puts a psychological cage around Letty by exploiting her amnesiac state. She can’t rescue herself, so Dom has to basically force her to “see the light” (as defined by him), and sort of steals her back.
True, Letty is tough in a practical sense. She is portrayed as a great driver, she shoots straight except when aiming at Dom, and defeats Gina Carano’s character in a very satisfying fistfight. But yeah, no gold star here. Letty’s toughness is a band-aid for her stunted self-determination. (Also, why the retconning about how Letty met Dom as a hottie teen rather than growing up on the same block? More troublingly, WHY do I know about the retconning in these movies? What am I doing with my life?).
Anyway, on to…
Gisele — Described as cool and competent, the ex-Mossad Gisele initially seems like pretty feminist character. She doesn’t take crap, and appears to be treated as an equal…after she shuts down one male character’s cheesy pick-up line by sticking a gun in his face. She could be played by a man…oops, only until the scene where she has to wear a bikini and act vapid to get close to the antagonist to get a handprint, a mission which she begins with the airy statement “Never send a man to do a woman’s job”. Ugh. (Spoiler: the handprint is lifted off her bikini bottom).
Oh, and bigger spoiler, she dies to save the life of her lover. Now that decision isn’t anti-feminist in itself, but she was the only character to die in that installment, implying a very unequal sense of sacrifice. No man had an “absolute certain death” option and took it. Most annoyingly, the grieving for her seemed really limited, outside of the doomed Han (Spoiler only if you haven’t seen the out-of-sequence Tokyo Drift.) So, is she feminist? Eh.
Elena — Here’s another female character who is presented as honest, loyal, competent, and tenacious. She’s pretty great, actually. After the apparent death of Letty, sort-of widowed Dom takes up with the really-widowed Elena. OMG, a mature relationship? Well, kinda. When Letty is later revealed to be alive, Elena shows an insane level of magnanimity when she tells Dom to forget about her and go retrieve his original beloved from her metaphorical Damsel Tower of the Mind. Would that all breakups went so smoothly.
Elena also saves the day at the end of the same movie by hiding Mia’s baby from the kidnappers (so only Mia gets ‘napped). And then she’s super nice to Letty in what should be an awkward meeting/catfight! Elena, awesomely, then just goes to work for Hobbs (Platonically, which is great. She’s committed to fighting crime; she not merely chasing a relationship). In fact, pretty much everything Elena does is super nice and great…particularly for the other characters. Would a male character be written as so incredibly selfless? I doubt it. Is she feminist? Maybe, if she got to be in a different franchise.
Riley (Gina Carano) — I’m not sure how much energy I have for this. Okay, Riley. Introduced as uber smart and committed new partner to Hobbs, she is treated more-or-less as an equal by everyone. Great, right? Turns out she’s a traitor. Of course. She was in the confidence (and, it is implied, the sack) of the antagonist the whole time. The traitor bit was annoying, mostly because her reasons for betrayal weren’t very clear. Just because she was the secret girlfriend of the antagonist, I guess? And money? Anyway, she dies, so that’s that. Traitors don’t get resurrected. But is she feminist? Well…actually, yeah. She’s never shown as weak. She’s treated as being in charge (or co-in-charge) right up until her betrayal is revealed. So yeah. She is feminist. That in no way changes the fact that her character is a bad person.
And maybe that’s the most feminist thing of all: Carano shouldn’t have to hold up her character as a “good example” for all women. She’s the character that best fits the plot. Bad women are people too. So…yay? Now, those are most of the major female characters. We can see that most of them aren’t really feminist, and they are certainly not working in a feminist world (or being created by feminist screenwriters, etc.).
But feminism is not a trait applicable only to women. Men, of course, can be feminist. Are any of the men in the FF franchise feminist? Well, the fact that the line “smack that ass” recurs throughout the series might give you a clue. Or the fact that when two of our protagonists roll into a milieu of scantily-clad, barely-legal ladies at a street race, the conclusion is “home sweet home.” Ew. The majority of the male cast members are straight-up dudebros, who see women as either potential sexual partners, or possessions to be protected/retrieved/secured, albeit because they are “loved.”
Are any of the male characters feminist? Maybe. Hobbs (The Rock’s uber-cop) is shown as working with several female characters because they’re good at whatever job they do. He never hits on them, nor does he assign them tasks where they have to use their sexuality to get something done. So, yay. That’s one. Only eleventy more to go. (Han might get partial credit, too.)
So what’s my point? It’s not that the franchise is evil, or anti-woman. It’s rather that even with the gloss of feminism (look at these tough, pretty girls who can drive and shoot guns!), the old tropes of the damselled female and the femme fatale are still driving forces (sorry, sorry) behind the franchise’s use of women. These movies display a careless attitude toward feminism that is frustrating only because it could have been easily tweaked at many points to minimize the tired plot devices and change some lines show a tad more respect.
Of course, the franchise doesn’t particularly respect physics, temporal continuity, or logic, so maybe this is asking a bit much.
But I’m going to ask anyway. See you at the movies.
Jocelyn Koehler writes science fiction and fantasy. Learn more and find links to her published work at her personal blog, Team Blood.