A couple of weeks ago, I saw “The Nice Guys,” and while this isn’t a review of that movie (I’ll probably write that at some point in the future), it did get me thinking about the roles of preteen girls and where they stand in movies.
If you haven’t seen “The Nice Guys” yet, some of this might not make a whole lot of sense. What you need to know is that the main characters are Holland March and Jackson Healy (played by Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, respectively), and the movie plays out in a very buddy cop-meets-film noir way. Though not mentioned in any of the three short plot summaries provided for the movie on IMDB, March and Healy are aided in solving the mystery in a significant way by March’s daughter, Holly. (Is Holly named after her dad? Maybe.)
I like Holly March. She’s an intrepid kid, frequently defying her dad’s wishes in order to help with the investigation of the film (and there’s evidence to suggest, based on the way she drives him around despite being around 13 years old and her call at the beginning of the film reminding him that he has work that day, she’s been doing this for a while). She works in terms of plot because she makes it possible for March and Healy to actually find the girl they’re looking for.
The best part about her though is that she’s allowed to be like a kid.
I’ve noticed that when it comes to crime comedies or action movies, if you have a young female character, she has to fit in a very specific role. Who comes to mind immediately is Chloe Grace-Moretz’s Hit-Girl in the 2010 film adaptation of “Kick-Ass.” The movie (and comic) “Kick-Ass” is a deconstruction of the superhero genre, and I get it–that’s what Mark Millar does and that’s what movie adaptations of his work have done. At the same time, Hit-Girl isn’t that different from the tomboyish stereotype of these girls in the action genre. She’s probably around the same age as Holly March, and she actively helps her dad with his “work,” but that’s about where the similarities end.
Like most action girls (or Strong Female Characters), Mindy Macready isn’t like most girls. She’s not like most kids in general. She asks for butterfly knives as a present from her dad, and she’s been trained to be a killing vigilante (I think someone made a comparison when the movie came out between her and Damian Wayne, who had just recently taken on the mantel of Robin). She swears and makes fun of Dave Lizewski, even though in the end she does help him save the day (although, even being literally trained to fight since she was old enough to, she doesn’t actually get to deliver the finishing blow).
In order for girls to seem competent within the context of working with older, often male adults, they have to eschew their girlhood and their childhood and take on a mantel of an adult. They’re supposed to be scary and more capable than the men that they work with (even though at the end of the day, they’re still shown as being weaker). They aren’t allowed to be kids. I’m not saying this isn’t necessarily true of boys, too, but they don’t suffer from the same kind of treatment in these genres. You have variation. You have kids like Damian Wayne, but you’ve also got kids like Dick Grayson, too.
But Holly March isn’t a vigilante, and she’s not unbelievably good at fighting, or crime solving. She’s smart, and she knows where her dad hides the gun in the house, but when it comes time to use it, there’s hesitation. Just because a kid has the courage to try to stop a home invader who is threatening to hurt their friend doesn’t automatically mean they’re going to be capable of hurting that person.
Even as she does sneak into a party in order to help the investigation her father is running, she doesn’t stop being a kid. Throughout most of the movie, she’s wearing this necklace with a big ladybug on the chain. It’s such a weird, charming thing to see, and almost unexpected, given that the young girls that we’ve been seeing have been more and more like miniature Strong Female Characters than actual kids. Part of that might be the fact that a lot of the guys who are writing and directing these movies don’t actually know what little girls act like, which is on the one hand, understandable, but on the other hand, means that they never bothered to ask any of the women around them, “Hey, just wondering, what would you do if you were a sixth or seventh grader in this situation?”
“The Nice Guys” isn’t even a PG-13 movie; like “Kick-Ass,” it has a hard R rating, and for a good reason. I’m not going to pretend it necessarily treats women that great, either–in the first scene, a porn star ends up dying in front of some teenage kid, nude even though she was ejected from a vehicle. At the same time, the kid has the decency to cover her up.
It’s just kind of refreshing after a while to get to see a kid who’s, you know, a kid. Holly almost reminds me of a Girl Scout, but when did that stop being a good thing? Not every female character has to be armed to the teeth with a firearm and a scowl, and not every young character needs to be made to grow up too fast.