Why Complex Female Protagonists In Films Are So Much More Than Escapism


By Chell Stephen

There’s a cool important thing going around these days to the tune of “we can’t be what we can’t see.” It is, of course, not new or exclusive to “these days”, but the related conversations about women in film – both behind and in front of the camera, do happen to be reaching a new exciting height this year.

The Be vs. See phrase runs along the top of that discussion when we talk about female characters on screen, the subtext being – when we mortals view images, the effects reach longer and more subtly than we may realize. “Permission” to be a way can sometimes feel as granted or denied via a stranger through a screen.

We have all seen our share of female characters: The Downer Wife! The Too Hot Girlfriend! The Snarky Best Friend! The Tomboy Next Door! — wait, look at all those varieties of characters I came up with! Case closed for today I guess! But alas… no. Characters like these tend to not be the heroes of the story – they exist (not always but) more often to flesh out another person’s arc, to get the real protagonist from A to B.

When I first dreamed up Crystal – the “17-year-old asshole” (as I affectionately call her) and titular character of my short film, I had given precisely zero thought to how a female protagonist might appear complex, and therefore more real. I wanted a) to make my first short and b) for said short to feature my actor sister Kate, who is incidentally a woman, like me. And I thought it might be a fun writing exercise to create a character who I could barely stand. Hence, the complex female protagonist, Crystal!

The first image that popped into my head was one of pink spandex clad, red-lipsticked, high-ponytailed Crystal raging along the rural roads of Ontario shadowboxing, chewing out everyone she’s ever met. It made me laugh. It seemed like it would be fun and potentially rich in tension to have a heroine who aggravates every situation to its least desirable conclusion.

She can’t NOT say the worst thing, it is impossible for her. Fun, right? I thought so. But early drafts of the scripts contained a hair too much rage. She was bordering on one-note – nontraditional, sure, but not demonstrating enough complexity to keep things interesting.

I remember thinking – do I hate this character I made? And more importantly: can I write for a character I hate? But it turns out what I couldn’t do was stay mad at her – I felt for her. How does someone become so angry, defensive, aggressive and boastful? How does someone know… everything and nothing at the same time? It turns out, all these things tend to stem from serious insecurity and fear.


With the help of some my dear collaborators who read those early drafts, I explored other scenes where we could see Crystal let her guard down a little – feel her fear and show how “other” she feels all the time. This “other-ness” had been a central theme since the idea’s inception and I think it’s something we can all relate to.

The festival circuit for us included many awesome stops – a World Premiere at SXSW was a dream come true, and following that we were fortunate to play the New Mavericks shorts block at the Atlanta Film Festival – curated by the totally badass Christina Humphrey – which features films by “female directors with strong female protagonists.”

Later in our run we played the Bluestocking Film Series in Portland, ME – the only Bechdel Test passing festival, and one formed by my friend and college professor Kate Kaminski. Kate has made it a personal mission to spread the Complex Female Protagonist gospel and even has the awesome shirts to prove it.


After the Atlanta screening, a teen gal who’d been in the audience came up to me to say “Crystal is my spirit animal,” and my heart exploded. We women can be – ARE! – hard and soft, big and small, quiet and loud – everything all at once! It is one of the weirder and more awesome parts about the female experience. And as a filmmaker, being able to bring those nuances to life on screen is the most fun (important) and a total honor.

I truly think we can tell more interesting stories when we mine those nuanced, grey areas of life. We can find, create and set free characters of all kinds -but particularly women – who reflect the complexities of being a full person. Don’t make your female characters more complex because it’s what you “should” do. No good art comes from “shoulds”. Make your characters contain multitudes because that’s your job as a filmmaker.

And in a coffee shop in the valley The Downer Wife, The Girlfriend, The Snarky Best Friend and The Tomboy Next Door are all writing their own screenplays granting unspoken permission to women viewers everywhere to be as big, small, weird, gross, pretty, ugly, slutty, prudish, smart and stupid as they want to be.



Chell Stephen grew up feasting on music videos and teen dance movies in Toronto, Canada. After 7 years in Brooklyn directing music videos for some indie heavyweights as part of the filmmaking collective Think/Feel, she currently resides in Los Angeles where she writes, directs and edits all kinds of things. Crystal is Chell’s first narrative film.

Check out Chell’s links – www.chellstephen.com / www.crystalthefilm.com / www.thinkfeel.tv

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