One of the primary reader reactions to the Trinity Syndrome essay from earlier this week has been “We need more female protagonists.” True enough. Not because they fix all the problems of how women are portrayed in popular entertainment, because they often don’t. Not out of some abstract, idealistic desire for equal screen time. And especially not just because a new study has shown that films that pass the Bechdel Test make more money, though that’s a compelling argument to throw at gatekeepers who are chary about opening the gates to women.
The real draw of women in lead roles is sheer variety. A recent university study found that in 2013, just 15 percent of lead characters in films were women. Upping that number—making female protagonists one of the norms, instead of an intermittent gimmick—is the first step toward further improving how women are portrayed in film.
Because audiences get bored easily. Right now, a Frozen or a Haywire or a Hunger Games is a relative novelty, enough to inspire dozens of journalistic thinkpieces about the implications of a film about sisterhood, or women and violence. Getting past “novelty” status opens up more options, as filmmakers are pressured to find something new enough to get viewers’ attention, and reach a little further to make the next female character not look entirely like the last one. And just maybe, getting more women into film would open up the gates for something as low-key and enjoyable as Rainbow Rowell’s 2013 young-adult novel Fangirl.
Young-adult novels are the major inroad to Hollywood access for female protagonists at the moment. Not all YA adaptations have been successful, financially or critically or narratively, but Divergent, The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones, the Hunger Games series, The Host, the Twilight series, How I Live Now, The Book Thief, Vampire Academy, and The Moth Diaries are at least providing a break from a decades-long run of straight, white male leads, and putting women on the screen who think and act differently from each other.
The most promising signpost in recent years is the massive financial success of The Fault In Our Stars, a YA adaptation with no supernatural elements, no kung-fu or exotic weaponry or overbearing authoritarian dystopian regime, no paint-by-numbers love triangle, and no vampires. Stars offers up a teenage-girl protagonist dealing with the effects of a long bout of cancer and chemo, and navigating the first delicate steps of a young love that can’t last long enough to become a mature love. Stars’ Hazel Grace Lancaster has her onscreen antecedents, from Juliet to Jenny in Love Story, but like any well-written protagonist, she feels fresh and of-the-moment. And her dominance at the box office bodes well for a new wave of screen stories about women who don’t have to physically kick asses to be interesting.
Fangirl would be a terrific next step for producers looking for the next Fault In Our Stars. (The rights are currently available, though DreamWorks just bought the film option on Rowell’s well-loved earlier YA bestseller, Eleanor & Park.) Fangirl has nothing to do with cancer, but it does feature a teenage protagonist who’s like Hazel in the sense that she’s sympathetic both for her strengths and for her weaknesses. The book centers on a pair of twins, Cather and Wren Avery, headed off to college together. (It eventually emerges that the mother who abandoned them in childhood had only picked out one name—Catherine—so she split it between them.) Wren is the more outgoing and daring of the pair, the twin who bobbed her hair to stand out, the twin who’s experienced with boys, the twin who insisted on not rooming together in college, because like the squirmier member of a couple headed for a breakup, she wants to see other people. Cath is the quieter twin, the one with social anxieties and a lot of discomfort around the opposite sex.
She’s also the one with the vast online following for her capably crafted fan-fiction, centering on an internationally bestselling series of books about a boy wizard at school, fighting a world-consuming evil. The Simon Snow series is a fictionalized stand-in for the Harry Potter books, but even more designed for fan-fiction: The Draco Malfoy equivalent, Simon Snow’s roommate Baz, is his worst enemy, but in Cath’s version of the story, they’re reluctant partners, then a passionate couple. As the Simon Snow series winds down, with millions of readers worldwide eagerly waiting on the final book, tens of thousands of fans find their methadone in Cath’s unauthorized online stories.
Rowell captures a number of facets of the college experience in Fangirl: the awkwardness of leaving home, getting to know a roommate, navigating the party scene, dealing with demanding teachers, leaving a high-school significant other behind, being challenged and pushed, meeting and being energized by likeminded creative people. Cath is compelling not because she’s a Strong Female Character, inapproachably confident and capable, but because she’s so awkward in the book’s opening chapters. She’s trying to deal with losing her lifelong companion to other friends, trying to let go of the need to help parent her manic-depressive single dad, and above all, trying to leave Simon Snow’s familiar, emotionally heightened world and deal with the real one.
But what Rowell really captures, with excruciating, compelling clarity, is the sense of infinite possibility that comes with the first semester of college, before friend groups, majors, courses, and coupledom start to get locked down. Movies like Dazed And Confused and Superbad capture the last bittersweet moments of high school, and plenty more films address the adventure of college, but it’s rare to see a story this focused on the first weeks of college students finding their feet between those two poles, and the split between excitement and dread in an environment where every choice, even the smallest one, feels like it’s shutting down other choices.
The problem with so many women in film is their lack of nuance, the way they get pushed into familiar support roles: the nag or the nurturer, the trophy or the obstacle. Cath stands out because, like a real person, she has different facets, depending on who’s looking. To her most dedicated fandom, she’s a godsend, a creative force ranked near the author of the actual Simon Snow books. To her jaded older roommate Reagan, she’s a wilting, timid virgin who’s afraid of her own shadow. To Levi, an easygoing guy who hangs around Reagan and might or might not be one of her boyfriends, Cath is an appealing mystery. To Wren, she’s a burden. To their father, she’s a support system and a bit of a worrywart. To her writing partner Nick, she’s a strong editor full of smart ideas. To her creative-writing teacher, she’s a potential superstar held back by a crippling reliance on other people’s worlds.
The book focuses on Cath’s struggle to manage her anxiety and decide what she wants, and it develops a strong throughline as she comes out of her shell. But in the process, it draws a character who’s strong not because of who she hits, shoots, or stabs, but because of the ways she learns how to define and claim her own identity. More helpfully for a film, Fangirl creates a highly internal character who’s still screen-friendly, in the way she’s characterized more by actions than by her thoughts.
One thing that makes Fangirl fascinating is that Rowell navigates the love-triangle idea not as a matter of two boys jealously crowding and growling over a girl (as with Twilight and its followers), or a female character trying to pick between two Highly Symbolic Dudes by way of defining her destiny (as with Reality Bites and so many conceptually similar stories). Cath sees both Nick and Levi as potential boyfriends, but they’re completely unaware of each other until the final pages. They aren’t competing over her; the only conflict is in Cath’s attempts to uncover what she wants, to learn who these potential partners are without creating expectations, and to decide what she’s comfortable with. Without using hot-button terms like “rape culture,” Rowell touches on the way teenage girls have to navigate their own highly varying comfort levels around consent and contact in a one-size-fits-all culture of early and insistent sexualization. Fangirl isn’t political or strident about sex—like Fault In Our Stars, it’s tender, personal, and a little wistful about first loves. And it goes further in intelligently exploring the ways girls can build up safe, protected fantasies around sex, while sometimes feeling uncomfortable with the reality.
Fangirl is smart about the clash between fantasy and reality in general. The fundamental clash between Cath’s inner life and her outer one feels thoroughly zeitgeisty: It’s about all the appeal of the Internet, where Cath has a powerful outlet for her creative urges, and she feels loved, accepted, celebrated, and secure. And it’s about the concomitant fear of the real world, where she feels perpetually threatened by choice, in her writing as well as her life. It doesn’t come with a simplistic After School Special moral about the Dangers Of The Internet; it acknowledges what both sides of Cath’s life bring her. It doesn’t even draw a sharp line in the sand about fan-fiction; a well-thought-through conversation between Cath and her writing teacher lays out the pros and cons of dabbling in other people’s work. Fangirl avoids easy answers and broad stereotypes in general. And film could use more of that from both genders.
Like other Movie This Book recommendations, Fangirl could be tackled as either a big-budget or a small-budget venture. Like Fault In Our Stars (made for $12 million) and other recent low-budget, profitable YA adaptations like The Spectacular Now and The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, Fangirl takes place entirely in the real world—it could be shot inexpensively on a handful of interior sets and locations, with a few university establishing shots for flavor. But producers looking for something bigger, bolder, and safely in keeping with modern-day YA fantasy have a hook too, in the form of the Simon/Baz stories Cath writes. Rowell devotes plenty of space to showing readers exactly what Cath’s fantasies look like, and they’re action-and-romance-oriented fantasy in the spirit of the Harry Potter books’ magical confrontations. It’s easy to picture a filmmaking team ruining the Fangirl film by focusing much too hard on the fictional fantasy, and pushing Cath’s real-world story off the screen in the process; even if they got the balance right, it’s even easier to picture an overeager trailer editor focusing on the fantasy, and selling a version of the film that doesn’t exist, guaranteeing a disgruntled audience.
But in moderation, the fantasy segments of Fangirl could be something like the brief fantasy segments in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, illustrating the protagonist’s state of mind and paralleling the struggles she’s going through in real life. They could help break up the story and add a little sizzle, while acknowledging that fantasy can be a compelling drug. They aren’t, strictly speaking, necessary to the story, but they represent a possible option.
And the idea of options is what makes Fangirl such a solid story. Cath is never locked down into being one simple thing: Her life, like anyone’s, is a Choose Your Own Adventure that’s a little scary in its possibilities. Young-adult fiction, and young-adult movies, are overstuffed with Chosen One characters who are special, unique snowflakes by accidents of birth, or magic, or both. I argued in our Divergent breakdown that it’s really time to let that particular trope go as well. Here’s a fresher option: a character who’s special because she has a unique real-world identity, because of her creativity, and because of who she ultimately chooses to be. She’s complicated, dynamic, flawed, and working to overcome her flaws, instead of just “strong.” And that’s a type of strength viewers, and readers, are more likely to recognize as reflecting their own lives.