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Why does there always have to be a boyfriend? April 11, 2007

Posted by kelly in bound, female relationships, G.I. Jane, Girlfight, La Femme Nikita, Set it off, Thelma and Louise, Tomb Raider 2.

I’ve noticed a pattern in the past few movies we’ve watched – every powerful woman has to have a love interest. In Working Girl, Thelma and Louise, La Femme Nikita, Tomb Raider 2, Set it Off, Bound, Girlfight, and G.I. Jane, there is a love interest for the main female character(s).

It seems like the boyfriends need to be there in order to assure the audience that these women aren’t as “hard” or unemotional as they seem to be. Underneath their tough exterior, they still fit perfectly into the heterosexual power dynamic where they are delicate and sensitive in the arms of men.

No matter how powerful these women are, they remain unthreatening because they would never use this power for evil. If they could, they would prefer to live “normal” lives because they are content with just having the love of a man (I don’t agree with this, but perhaps this is what writers hope the romantic interests will accomplish). In G.I. Jane, Jordan remains tough and resilient until the moment she sees her boyfriend. At this moment, she crumbles in his arms and cries – alas, she is still a woman!

Although in Tomb Raider 2, Lara Croft is able to rise above this requirement for a boyfriend, we get the sense that if Gerard Butler’s character were more trustworthy, then Ms. Croft would also find herself with a mate.

In Girlfight, Michelle Rodriguez’s character only seems weak when she sees her love interest with another woman. The film even ends with them finally ending up together, making it seem as though finding love is the ultimate goal for a woman. Even though the character has accomplished her dream of winning a boxing title, the film ends with her kissing a man, as if this is the ultimate reward – this is actually what will make her happy.

Even in Bound, where we see a relationship between two women, we all stated how we expected one to kill the other (that’s how it would have worked in a movie with men). But as they are both women, love is more important to them than having all the money and power to themselves, and so they blindly trust each other because they value their relationship so much.

While the concept is much more complex than I have made it out to be, one does have to wonder why a story about a woman always seems to need a love interest in order for it to be complete. Why does a woman always have to be emotionally attached to someone, especially someone who often makes her question or compromise her goals (as in the case of Tomb Raider 2 and Set it Off)? In class some people spoke of how certain characters were “masculine” because they didn’t cry when they killed others. Does a woman have to show emotion in order to be a woman? Is a story so unbelievable if a woman acts purely out of selfish desires and never considers others? Male protagonists seem to function perfectly without love interests, yet, from what I’ve seen, female protagonists are rarely given the chance.


1. andyw - April 15, 2007

To just take a glance at a few of the movies you mentioned, I’m going to try to show a general theme of a movement away from traditional roles for women. Since a lot of the movies start from that initial role, there needs to be a male who the woman is attached to so that she can leave him. This is certainly not true of all of the movies, but where true I think that it constitutes an adequate answer to your concern.
Thelma and Louise
Both of them leave behind their love interests very clearly. Yes, it is certainly problematic that Brad Pitt’s character gave Thelma the idea that let her escape the traditional role of femininity. But he only did it in a negative fashion, and he did it in a way that severed the ability for relying on men in the future (thus forcibly expelling love from the picture). This is obviously contrasted with Louise’s character, but she still leaves her boyfriend behind to venture out on her own – and it is only through that that she really achieves her power.
La Femme Nikita
Yes, it’s problematic that Nikita needed to immediately run into the arms of the first man she comes across when she leaves. But she slowly realizes throughout the film that she can’t rely on the male characters – particularly with Bob, who consistently deceives her. Thus, she leaves both men, who are broken up about her leaving them. The important point is that even though she has been trained to be a “masculine” fighter, there is something more, some other change that happens in the rest of the movie that allows her to leave behind her male crutches and start out on her own which truly defines her power.
Tomb Raider 2
You yourself mention how this challenges your paradigm, but your argument is that she would have married if he had been trustworthy. Of course, that might be true (and it might even be true of Thelma and Pitt’s character, or Nikita if Bob had been trustworthy). But I think the lesson to be drawn is not that they would have ended up hitched but for an accidental flaw in their male partners. Even if that is true (and it may very well be), they are only interesting characters precisely because their male counterparts are problematic in some way. If you take that away from them, those movies have female characters that are not particularly powerful. If Lara had conceded to Butler’s character, she would have failed at achieving the type of power she was striving for. Thus, I would read the opposite conclusion from Butler’s accidental deceitfulness: not that Lara needs a man, but that Lara is only Lara because she rises over an evil man and proves herself precisely to not need that man.
This is an extremely interesting case, and there’s a lot to be said about it. But, of course, I am not arguing that women don’t need to be women – as opposed to woman – to have power. I think that Thelma and Louise both have power clearly because of each other. And Corky and Violet need each other for power as well. What’s interesting about it is that they are also in an explicitly sexualized relationship, but it is different than needing a boyfriend: it seems to be the conjunction of women’s power and lesbianism more so than the conjunction of woman’s power and need for a sexual partner (which is, anyway, already different than your initial formulation of boyfriend).

I want to contend, against your reading, that these films work precisely through a disavowal of the boyfriend, that the presence of the boyfriend allows the transformation that turns these women into people who do not need a boyfriend. That they needed a boyfriend to change is then explainable not along the lines of powerful women need boyfriends, but rather that women who are not initially powerful because they need a boyfriend become powerful through disavowing one. That has its own problems, but I think it constructs a different narrative than the one you are tracing.

2. kelly - April 15, 2007

I think that what you argue is a different narrative is precisely the one I am discussing.

I’m not trying to go into the specifics of each and every film and relationship, but even you make the point that, “women who are not initially powerful because they need a boyfriend become powerful through disavowing one.”
Why does this always have to be the storyline? Why do women have to come into power by realizing that they actually DON’T need a man? Why do women always have to begin by needing one? These are my main questions.

Sure, they do eventually come into power, but why is that always either entirely or partially defined by their relationship to a love interest? This is rarely the case in films with men as protagonists.

I don’t want to argue the intricacies of each and every relationship that has appeared in our films, but seriously, why the hell does there always have to be a boyfriend?

Can you answer me that?

3. andyw - April 15, 2007

It’s similar to having James Bond need to get beyond his girlfriend in Casino Royale so that he can go on to be the heartless, loveless, killer that he is in later movies. Now, that is of course objectionable in the sense that it precludes a kind of power: something where both men and women share power. But that doesn’t seem to be your objection to it; in fact, it seems like your objection is precisely the opposite.

I could conjecture possible motivations for equating powerlessness with having a boyfriend. For instance, they could take the perspective that women’s power is defined through excluding men. They could see women as historically oppressed by men, and see themselves as showing how to get out of that (which I think particularly applies to Thelma and Louise). They might just be rewriting all of those love stories where a woman’s happiness is gained through getting a boyfriend: the reverse of that is female power because that is really male power. They may all see themselves as challenging the patriarchy (which would then need a representative, the boyfriend). I certainly do not think it is particularly objectionable that they show a figure of the patriarchy, since it seems like society is patriarchal. If that’s the case, then it would be really unrealistic not to include some figure of the patriarchy. The boyfriend is a likely one, because it is a very prevalent one (although, certainly, none of these movies only include the boyfriend as that representative).

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