The Collapsar publishes new poetry, fiction, and nonfiction every other month, and new culture writing weekly.

Where’s My Emotional Male Lead? By Maryann Aita


Netflix might be the most intimate partner I've ever had. I watch something on Netflix most days, as I imagine a lot of us do. I will spend an hour-and-a-half deciding what to watch, only to put on an episode of 30 Rock or Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt for the ninth time. I add emotional dramas and documentaries to my "List" when I know I'm never going to be “in the mood" for them, but tell myself I might be one day. Netflix knows this. It always throws my queue of films up on the screen, but loads the "Watch it Again" category slyly underneath.

On the rare occasion when I defect from a Law & Order: SVU marathon or an Arrested Development re-binge, Netflix’s matching mechanism is usually on point. Even with the recent switch to binary thumb ratings, their predicted percentages are often eerily accurate, which is why I'm so disappointed every time Netflix thinks I might like “Movies Featuring a Strong Female Lead.”

Although Netflix allows for a broad definition of "Strong Female Lead”—from lady protagonists suffering from serious mental illness to Cat Woman to a short film where the lead is a cartoon female clone of a clone of a clone, etc.—their lack of criteria is frustrating, as if the category is merely a repository for movies that pass the first rung of the Bechdel test (i.e., there are two female characters.) And for that matter, why is Moana—recently added to the Netflix's streaming options—not in this group? Because it's a children's movie? If anyone needs strong role models in the media, it's children.

Overall, though, the roster reaches well beyond the realm of Hollywood romantic comedies (but, don't worry, there are some of those, too) and includes foreign and LGBTQ films, a variety of genres, and a range of character types (i.e., they are not all superheroes). The diversity of the category is perhaps the best thing about it, even if it does yield a certain grab-bagginess. But it's not what's in the category that makes me want to offer obscenities to the Netflix classification-creation gnomes; it's the category itself.

Categories are designed to exclude. The “Strong Female Lead” group (including “Comedies Featuring a Strong Female Lead,” “Westerns Featuring a Strong Female Lead,” “Gritty Westerns Featuring a Strong Female Lead,” and “Danish Dramas Featuring a Strong Female Lead,” among others) might filter out films with poorly written female characters, but the language of the category is more sinister. Strong qualifies female, implying that women do not already possess the quality. But strong female is redundant. 

Forgiving its astonishing vagueness (are we talking mentally strong? physically strong? difficult to break? weightlifters? smells?), and assuming strong means resilient and tough, the real issue here is that categorizing some women as strong inherently categorizes others as weak. Granted, some hamster-on-a-wheel algorithm is not the most precise of litmus tests. And, if Netflix categories are at all like iPhone redesigns [1], it’s possible that very few women were involved in creating them in the first place. (In their defense, Netflix boasts a 60-40 male to female employee ratio, which is not so bad, I guess.) But what other gauge do the nearly 100 million Netflix users have?

By placing strong next to female—even if we’re only talking about fictional characters—we're implying that some women are not. As a woman, I’m sure I’m expected to make my argument unassailable. (After all, I did compare Netflix to a hamster on a wheel, so I must literally think that). I could throw some science down about women’s higher pain thresholds and the miracle of childbirth, or I could point out that women across the world—across time—have endured misogyny in all its incarnations: wage gaps, twice the instance of depression, sexual harassment, disenfranchisement, rape. I could go on: women have been shunned for menstruating, stoned for adultery, and murdered for “witchcraft.” But I shouldn’t have to argue that females, like most people, are resilient, complex, and not “weak.” So I won’t.

Women are inherently strong. I understand that female film characters have long endured the same stifling expectations as their less glamourous human counterparts. Women, not just in film, are stereotyped as weak, fragile, indecisive, submissive, complaisant etc. Netflix’s category is a response to a history of films lacking female characters who ignore convention and act on their own desires. Breaking these stereotypes and portraying women as complex intellectual and emotional characters is important—because that’s how they actually are.

Although Netflix's label is meant to distinguish well-written and -portrayed female characters (and not to label real women), language matters. Categories can easily disempower one group over another. “Gifted” children, for instance, enjoy the privilege of knowing they are special. What about the non-gifted ones?  Are they any less important? Or should we only invest our time in bassoon prodigies and calculus wizards? 

Language is a powerful psychological tool, one we often take for granted. A 2012 study by Boston College and the University of Houston found that using the words "I don't" instead of the words "I can't" fostered a sense of empowerment in participants. Those who used "I don't" were far more likely to persist with their goals. Even with a single word, people can take control of their decisions instead of being limited by what the external world imposes.

And that's the biggest problem with the Strong Female Lead category: it's been imposed on women and only women.

In an early episode of 30 Rock, protagonist Liz Lemon (a “strong” female lead?) argues that the word “cunt” is so offensive because there is no male equivalent to it. But “cunt” is far from the only word that people use to refer to women for which no male equivalent exists. Women are simultaneously infantilized and made fragile when we refer to them as “chicks.” Act like a lady is a command often uttered when a woman is acting in a “masculine” way. The implication is that women are at once more sophisticated than men (e.g., expected to eat without making a mess) and lesser than men (e.g., cannot lift heavy things).

The real question I have is: Where is the “Strong Male Lead” category, Netflix? Is it unnecessary because men, especially leading ones, are inherently strong? [2] Then why aren’t there any “Male Lead” categories? If “Strong Female Leads” warrant a label, shouldn’t “Emotional Male Leads" [3] get the same treatment? There are no “Mysteries with Introspective Male Leads,” no “Romantic Comedies with Goofy Male Leads,” no “Danish Dramas Featuring Contemplative Male Models.”

Because, in an androcentric culture, there’s no need to distinguish the norm. Nobody refers to George Washington as our first white male president, but we learn in history classes about the first female pilot, the first woman on the Supreme Court, the first Latina woman on the Supreme Court. We jump at the chance to label a “first female” anything.  It should not be news that every episode of second season of Jessica Jones is directed by a woman. That shouldn't surprise us, but it does, because there are still so many firsts ahead for women. So many battles to fight. Perhaps we could fight one less in acknowledging that no matter what our Netflix boyfriends’ might suggest, we are not a category. We are women. And we are strong.


[1] iPhones were made larger and larger in part because so few women were involved in the design. Eventually, someone pointed out that women tend to have smaller hands, which was a consideration when making the iPhone 7.

[2] Counterargument: Rob Schneider’s body of work.

[3] How can Netflix accurately place any Nicholas Sparks films without such a category?

Maryann Aita is a Brooklyn-based writer and performer. Her work has appeared in The Exposition Review, Big Muddy, Breadcrumbs and others. She reads and performs her work across New York City. She has an MFA in writing from Sarah Lawrence College and a BA in psychology from NYU. 

Writing is Pretty Much Constant Failure: Nathan Knapp Interviews Vincent Chu

Brubaker and Flota vs. 1986-2016: The Best Albums of the Last 30 Years, Part 8