There's nothing like a blow to the head to knock some sense into a girl. Monsters vs. Aliens'
Susan Murphy (Reese Witherspoon) is saved -- despite all immediate appearances to the
contrary -- by just such a blow in a close encounter with a meteor that not only effects her thinking but also her corporeal self, and not a moment too soon. After trading her Parisian honeymoon for a job interview in Fresno, and just before sacrificing herself on the altar of matrimony to selfish, cad Derek (Will Arnett), Susan is transformed from a petite, selfless, brunette into a five-story, white-haired giantess, or, as the military dubs her, "Ginormica."
While her transformation soon puts Susan in physical harm's way, it also saves her from what could be a fate worse than death -- marriage to a self-absorbed jerk.
Now, don't get me wrong, I have nothing against marriage. I, myself, am very happily married, but what does chafe my sensibilities is the predisposition
of moviemakers to reserve hero status for male characters while females in need of protection seem to be the norm. My kids and I enjoyed Dreamworks Animation's Monsters vs. Aliens so much because it is not normal, and I mean that in the best possible way. (See Christine Champ's full review of the film here.)
After her transformation, Susan/Ginormica kicks some serious alien butt, saves the world, discovers that she is highly capable, likes being strong and realizes that she never needs to sell herself short again. She also becomes friends and partners with some highly unusual characters who immediately and enthusiastically embrace her and encourage her to be the best version of herself, no matter what her size or strength, kind of like a good husband should.
Interestingly, Susan is not the only strong female character to be found in Monsters. The second, if bit part, belongs to Katie (Renee Zellweger), the girl on "the worst date ever" who first encounters the alien spaceship sent to seek out and appropriate Susan. Her appearance is brief but gender-bendingly funny.
Watching the strong girls in this film reminded me of some other strong female characters we've discovered in "family" films. Until Susan (whom I love not only for her self-discovery and strength, but also, I confess, for her name) my favorite female superhero was Elastigirl from The Incredibles ("Leave the saving of the world to the men?! I don't think so."), with her daughter, Violet, following a close second. Elastigirl and Violet (like all Supers) are forced to hide their powers and conceal themselves as ordinary humans -- Violet can achieve something most "normal" pre-teen girls would love to do at one time or another, she can literally disappear -- but when called into action, both acquit themselves spectacularly. In fact, without them, Mr. Incredible, and the world, would fall to the villain, Syndrome.
Another animated heroine our family loves is Kate Winslet's Rita from
Flushed Away. Rita is smart, tough, directed, loyal to family and friends and capable of looking after herself, even in the sewers of London. (She is, after all, a rat). She also wears very cool pants. A smart, strong gal with fashion sense who knows her way around a boat, Rita is one of both my daughters' favorite film heroines.
A long favorite, live-action heroine is Drew Barrymore's Danielle in the 1998 picture,
Ever After. A retelling of the Cinderella story, with Danielle as a Cinderella who refuses to behave according to type, Ever After puts a 20th Century spin on a centuries-old story. The adored daughter of a father who, before his untimely death,
instilled in her not only a sense of pride and humanity, but also a love of learning and a capacity for swordsmanship, Danielle is a force to be reckoned with and, ultimately, saves herself, thank you very much.
Kit Kittredge also belongs in the company of these strong female characters. Kit believes in herself and in truth. Despite her age, she solves a mystery, saves her family home from foreclosure, and achieves her goal of being published in the local newspaper. Kit manages to accomplish all of this without ever seeming too old for her age. She's a girl, an American Girl, competent, strong, intelligent and generous. Why shouldn't she succeed?
While there are certainly more noteworthy heroines in the history of American cinema than those above, they are comparatively few and far between,
especially in the "family film" niche. My 12-year-old asked that I include Scarlett O'Hara ("With God as my witness, I'll never be hungry again!") from
Gone with the Wind, but then faltered with the acknowledgment that Scarlett is really more of an anti-hero, and did that count? I think she does "count." I just can't figure out why the folks who make movies seem unable, or unwilling, to recognize that strong female characters, heroines or anti-heroines, count and have a place in family films.
My girls delight in discovering film characters with whom they have some affinity, whether a five-story-tall "monster," a Depression-era schoolgirl, or a fierce Southern belle. Heroines are out there. Filmmakers just need to work a little harder to get them on the screen. Maybe a meteor to the head would help knock some sense into them.