strong female protagonists
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Do Brands Need More Strong Female Protagonists?

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My first professional job was writing for a national women’s business magazine. I knew very little about business, but I learned quickly, while reporting on a topic I was already passionate about: the challenges and triumphs of women. Still, my favorite issue was one dedicated to women in the entertainment industry. I had double-majored in English and film studies in college, so I relished the opportunity to finally use the insights I’d gleaned from four years of film history and feminist film theory classes and a lifetime of watching movies with female protagonists.

I interviewed three legendary film producers, a rom-com director, and an Oscar-winning film editor I’d always admired. I also worked alongside a well-known female film critic to compile a list of 99 movies about strong, ambitious women.

We were both excited about the task and scheduled a lunch meeting to brainstorm. I took notes while we rattled off names, stopping only to debate the merits of certain female protagonists, until we had a list of about 50 or 60 films. After that, it got tougher and a little disheartening. Even in films we both loved, with female characters we both adored, women’s identities were usually defined by who they were for other people. Even in stories with ambitious female characters, their ambition wasn’t the point: It was to fall in love, and sometimes to dial back their career ambitions and be better moms.

That was only a decade ago, but things have changed a lot since then. More and more, we’ve seen the rise of strong female protagonists in TV and cinema—women who might very well be wives and mothers, but whose stories (and character development) don’t end there.

Entertainment brands like Disney and Netflix are breaking female characters out of one-dimensional boxes, and brand marketers across industries are doing the same thing, or trying to do so. What can these marketers learn from the entertainment industry, and which brands are already setting best practices?

The Evolution of Female Protagonists: As Animated by Disney

Feminist film theory—or the study of women in film—covers far too much ground to even summarize in one blog post. But there is a simple way to plot the evolution of film heroines: by examining the characters in animated Disney films.

Once upon a time, female Disney characters were princesses or princess-like ingénues—sweet but helpless, reliant on their goodness and beauty (and perhaps a fairy godmother) to attract men who could save them. Granted, these men weren’t well-rounded characters either, but at least they got to be heroes.

By the late ’80s and ’90s, Disney princesses had a bit more depth. Belle loved books, Ariel was curious and adventurous, and Jasmine was rebellious. Their stories were still about falling in love, and they all eventually needed to be rescued by men (a prince, a father, or a Beast). But they were also smart, spirited, and goal-oriented (and awake when the real action took place).

Fast forward a couple decades to Disney’s most recent princess movie, Frozen. Although very much a love story, the movie isn’t about romance. It’s about sisterhood. Yes, Anna gets engaged 15 minutes into the movie and then finds a better boyfriend along the way. But when true love is required to wake her from a fatal spell, the handsome young man’s kiss doesn’t do the trick. Her sister’s tears do.

Then last year, Disney outdid itself with Moana, a story about a Polynesian girl who’s not a princess but the future chief of her village.

She’s a rebel with a cause: to save her people by journeying across the ocean to restore the heart of the mother island. (It’s a long story, so I’ll leave it at that and skip the spoilers.) The point is that she has a quest, and while she needs help from a man (the demigod, Maui) to accomplish her goal, she’s the one in charge and the hero of the story. And while the film is about Moana’s love—for her grandmother, her parents, her people, the ocean, her pet pig—there’s never any mention of a romantic love interest.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got nothing against romantic love. But no woman’s love story is her only story, nor is a romantic partner the only love in her life. As Virginia Woolf once put it, “Suppose . . . that men were only represented in literature as the lovers of women and were never the friends of men, soldiers, thinkers, dreamers . . . We might perhaps have most of Othello and a good deal of Antony, but no Caesar, no Brutus, no Hamlet, no Lear.”

Put in Disney terms, that translates into no Moana, no Anna, no Elsa.

Disney still has room to grow, particularly with respect to minority representation and cultural sensitivity (that’s a whole other article), but they’ve made leaps and bounds in terms of female protagonists. Still, while Disney is a great barometer for the evolution of women on screen, Netflix is where to look for best practices.

Netflix and Chill, Woman

Which television network features the strongest female characters? Until recently, you could have made the case for Disney-owned ABC. In addition to Once Upon a Time, in which Disney rewrites its traditional characters and makes princesses like Snow White into heroes, there’s the girl-power Thursday night lineup brought to us by show creator Shonda Rhimes. Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, The Catch, and How to Get Away with Murder all feature strong, smart, complex women. These characters are tough but vulnerable, confident but also insecure, compassionate but occasionally cruel, good and bad (you know, like pretty much any real person).

That’s why it’s not super surprising that Rhimes is leaving ABC to create shows for Netflix. After just a few years of original content creation, the streaming giant is already a serious force for broadcast television to reckon with. This year, Netflix earned 91 Emmy nominations and won 20 awards for its original content, finishing second after HBO, which had 29 wins. Among the Netflix shows that were nominated for or received awards, the vast majority featured strong female leads, including The Crown, Grace and Frankie, Stranger Things, Orange Is the New Black, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

Like HBO, Netflix has also managed to do what was once impossible: lure Hollywood A-listers and Oscar winners to television, including Naomi Watts, Martin Scorsese, Jane Fonda, Kevin Spacey, Winona Ryder, and Sigourney Weaver.

What does Netflix have to offer these stars? A $6 billion content creation budget (reportedly $7 billion next year) and a willingness to tackle topics that are too dark, uncomfortable, or controversial for network television. For example, there’s Dear White People, where a group of black college students deal with racial tensions at a predominantly white Ivy League school. There’s Orange Is the New Black, where straight girls aren’t so straight, and good girls are criminals, but even the worst of the worst has a soft spot. There’s Jessica Jones, the superhero who is otherwise not a very nice person. And 13 Reasons Why tackles teenage suicide. I’m sure it’s great, too, but I haven’t yet built up the emotional fortitude to watch it.

Netflix also offers Hollywood storytellers the chance to develop characters in a way that’s just not possible in a two-hour movie, and that’s a big deal for female and minority protagonists. The more well-rounded a protagonist is, the less she is a stereotype. She’s not just one thing. She’s madonna and whore, friend and lover, good and bad—again, like pretty much any real person.

Strong Women Are En Vogue—and Brands Got That Memo Years Ago

In some ways, brands have a head start over film and television. Traditionally, production companies geared most of their content creation towards teenage boys and young men, because that demographic spent more time (and money) at the movies and in front of the TV. This paradigm has shifted in the digital age now that box office results aren’t the only metric for success—but the shift has been a slow one.

Women are, however, much more likely to shop, so that’s who most brands target. And since women typically don’t enjoy seeing women portrayed in negative or stereotypical ways, brands generally try to avoid doing that. If anything, some brands go almost overboard—turning female empowerment into a marketing strategy, even to the point of disrespecting dads in order to show moms some love.

Those content creation strategies might resonate with women, providing a quick burst of inspiration or a good laugh at the expense of men (which, admittedly, is sometimes fun). But if Netflix and Shonda Rhimes and centuries of stories about women have taught us anything, it’s that compelling female protagonists aren’t just strong: they’re complicated.

3 Brand Storytelling Lessons from Netflix

How can brands tell stories about complicated, well-developed women? Try these three strategies from Netflix.

1. Go Long

When it comes to character development, TV shows have the advantage over movies because of the longer format. There’s simply more time to peel the onion and discover a character’s many layers. The same is true for brands: Longer-form content provides better opportunities to tell stories about complicated and compelling characters.

Take, for example, the recent documentary sponsored by Stella Artois. Coming from an industry that has traditionally portrayed women as sex objects—prizes for men who drink the right beer—“Our Dream of Water” is a surprisingly beautiful story, told from the perspective of women in Haiti, Peru, and Kenya. Part of Stella Artois’ “Buy A Lady A Drink” campaign—an ongoing partnership with Water.org to help provide clean water for people in developing countries—the film was directed by 2015 Sundance Grand Jury Prize Winner, Crystal Moselle.

Gaining access to clean water is a problem for 663 million people around the world, but “Our Dream of Water” focuses on just three women and tells their stories. “All of my films are extremely character-driven, and that’s exactly what I wanted to do for ‘Our Dream of Water’—find the right character to tell the story,” Crystal Moselle explained in a press release about the film. “In Haiti, I heard Marie before I even met her—because she was singing and dancing. What immediately drew me to her was her beautiful spirit, and that despite facing hardships that most of us will never know, she had an unshakable perseverance.”

Now, that is a compelling female protagonist.

2. Serialize Character Development

Brands don’t have to make documentaries to develop characters. There’s also something to be said for short-form content that builds on itself.

For example, Progressive spokeswoman Flo has been around for nearly a decade, and over the years, we’ve gotten to know her as more than the quirky but helpful auto insurance saleswoman. Flo has evolved. She’s wicked funny, a little weird, overly helpful for her customers, and a little cocky among her colleagues. She’s not just the face of the business; she’s a cultural icon and a complex character.

Does that mean every brand should have a dedicated spokeswoman? Absolutely not. It doesn’t take 10 years to develop a character. It can be done throughout a particular campaign, or via a series of blog posts. The point is: If marketers can’t go long, serialization is always an option.

3. Straighten Up and Hire Right

When Netflix wanted to tell a story about women in prison, they didn’t hire a male content creator, nor did they hire a white guy to tell a story about a black superhero in Harlem.

Of course, many great female characters were written by men, and vice versa. But there’s something to be said for life experience, and perhaps with the exception of transgender individuals, no one really knows what it’s like to be both a man and a woman.

That’s why it’s important to have diverse teams, not just among content creators but in marketing leadership. There are so many great stories for brands to tell, and the more diverse the team, the more likely it will include the right storyteller for the job.

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Featured image attribution: Ryan Moreno

Taylor Mallory Holland is a freelance writer, editor, and content marketer specializing in technology, healthcare, and business leadership. As a content strategist, Holland contributes thought leadership content for some of the world's top brands, including Samsung, IBM, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, and UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine. She has been a contributor for The Content Standard since 2014.

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