by Luv Mehta
Marge Gunderson is the protagonist of Fargo, if not necessarily the central character - she doesn’t appear until we’re past the half hour mark, and have been witness to the botched kidnapping that drives the element of the movie.
And even so, she’s not only the most memorable character, but also (and here’s the time for bold claims) the greatest female character ever.
Let’s answer some questions that come to mind when we talk about strong female characters.
Firstly, what makes a strong character?
Movies can be plot-driven, character-driven, or both. The Coens have a tendency to create a uniquely identifiable world, filled with characters who look, feel and sound memorable, and put them in situations that push and challenge them.
Jerry Lundegaard is a selfish, petulant and weak man who tries to cash in on as many opportunities as he can find to stave off debt. Carl and Gaear are ineffectual goons, the latter being dangerously violent. Put them both in the world of Fargo and put them in danger, and they lash out, setting a stack of dominoes that ultimately collapse on them.
Strong characters aren’t necessarily pure good, pure evil, complicated, or even just smart as hell - these three are some really stupid characters, and they’re some of the most memorable in movies! Strong characters don’t even have to be realistic - take classic Tarantino characters like Jules or Hans Landa, for example.
Strong characters possess distinct personalities that mould and change the plot, instead of changing as per their demands. Strong characters feel real. And when you see such a character, and have knowledge of the tropes that define them, it still doesn’t matter. Because you’re there with them, and you can swear they have souls.
As we’ll ultimately see with Marge.
Secondly, what is the need for strong female characters?
It’s a fact that the majority of genres in movies have primarily focused on male characters. Take action movies, testosterone filled fantasies at their flashiest. Take thrillers, with women often being either hapless victims or a mysterious and dangerous “other”, usually in the form of a femme fatale. And even despite these characterizations, they’re almost always ultimately looked at as objects of lust by a director-specific Male Gaze.
Even taking romantic movies into consideration, we see female leads pining for, and ultimately getting happiness in her life by getting a proper man. Contrast this with movies having male leads, where any romantic storyline often serves as a B-plot, ultimately with the woman acting as a reward.
Why does this take place?
A lot of scriptwriters and directors have been disproportionately male, since the inception of cinema. Creators always follow the write-what-you-know rule, which helps in infusing even the most foreign of settings with a sense of personality. The flip side to this is that men can't really properly identify with women without a lot of effort.
So, what is the need for female characters? Essentially, we avail of a more diverse range of characters and archetypes to be seen onscreen, which creates new avenues for storytelling.
Equally important, though, is the representation it provides for women. We watch movies to enjoy them, to be sucked into different worlds, to identify with the characters. People watch movies to understand themselves, and when people don’t find ourselves in movies as part of a trend, they feel ostracized and isolated, like some foreign element that doesn’t really matter all that much to the world.
And everyone deserves representation.
Thirdly, how are strong female characters portrayed in cinema?
When we think of strong characters, there are plenty to be found in the archetypes defined above, and plenty, plenty more characters that are as thinly traced as kindergarten doodles.
The problem lies in how femininity is used as a detrimental aspect of the characters, with their emotionality clouding their rationality and judgement. Femininity is usually shown as a weakness they ultimately face, interfering with their decisions and leading them to bad decisions.
A solution can be to transpose male tropes and apply them to women. Characters like Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley (or even Vidya Balan’s character in Kahaani) have their most definitive moments being moments of badassery and action, with plots of motherhood put in to give them moments of weakness and vulnerability.
Of course, this sets the precedent that tropes related to women are inherently problematic and can't make a well defined character just by themselves.
True, the landscape has immensely changed for women in cinema. However, looking at another recent character like Emily Blunt from Edge Of Tomorrow, where her gender is only the point of conversation in a nickname with a gendered insult and a memory of a love interest she doesn't want to focus on, you get the feeling that we still tend to rely on the same tropes, even now.
And finally, what sets Marge apart from the rest?
“There's more to life than a little money, you know. Don'tcha know that? And here ya are, and it's a beautiful day. Well. I just don't understand it."
When we first see Marge, she wakes up in a loving household with a doting husband, and proceeds to a crime scene left by the kidnappers. She discusses the clues with her subordinate, and gently corrects him when he makes mistakes. She's not concerned with showing off, despite her experience and intuition. She's concerned with teaching him how to make his investigative skills better.
When we last see Marge, it's after she shoots down and disables Geaar, freshly off another crime scene with a dead hostage and a bloodied wood chipper. She's clearly disturbed by what she sees, but it makes her stronger and more resolute, even as she laments how she can never understand why bad people do bad things for the most trivial of reasons. She then comes back to the comfort of her home, back in the arms of her husband, as the film gently ends with their optimism about their upcoming child.
Marge Gunderson isn't a masculine character in any sense. She's a cop who believes in pure good. She is pregnant for the duration of the movie, and nothing much is made of it. She's sympathetic with others, but despite making occasional mistakes in judgement, is by far the smartest character in the movie.
Marge Gunderson is an encapsulation of multiple tropes of femininity, and none of it makes her any weaker. She's a testament to the fact that you don't need to create strong female characters by making manly women.
And ultimately, that's a hell of a message to send.
We've reached a golden age in representation of women in movies - look at Carol, Room, Tangerine or even Star Wars in the past year. We've seen some of the strongest women in popular fiction.
But let's not forget about the kind woman in the Upper Midwest, that showed the world that women are strong because of their gender, not despite it.