Strong Female Character: Looking through the cinematic lens as an Arab woman film critic
It’s pretty rare to come across a book where the majority of the words have you vigorously nodding along in your local coffee shop, seeing your childhood self reflected on the page, but this book will do just that.
Hanna Flint’s debut book, Strong Female Character, is a deeply personal reflection on how film and cinema have developed over the years, especially for racialised women, with Hanna linking this back to key events over the course of her own life.
It’s half memoir and half cultural commentary with an abundance of humour, honesty and emotion. Each chapter title is a quote from a film that aptly describes the content of that particular chapter, a finishing touch that boasts the breadth of knowledge and experience that this author has for cinema.
If you ever wanted a trip down memory lane when it comes to the world of film from one of the industry’s top critics, then Strong Female Character is definitely the book for you.
"The warmth of Hanna Flint’s writing and the insightful analysis of the creative industries will ensure that this book will serve as a time capsule of sorts for the film industry, whilst making readers laugh and cry"
Kicking off with Origin Story, Hanna uses the first section of the book to recount the early days of her childhood.
As kids, we all want to see people who look like us on the screen but if you’re a young Arab girl in the 1990s, this representation was pretty hard to come by.
Flint talks about how important Disney’s Princess Jasmine was to her when she was a child, to see a Brown girl like herself on her TV screen. And as someone who also watched Aladdin on repeat and saw Jasmine as my own fairy tale inspiration, it felt affirming to know other women like me were having similar experiences in childhood.
As Hanna writes, “Sometimes you don’t know what you’re missing until it’s right in front of you and here Jasmine was, in vibrant colour, confirming our existence.” Representation isn’t everything but it can go a long way in understanding and cementing who you are when you’re growing up.
The author also reflects on themes around Edward Said’s Orientalism with Western media all too often resorting to “exotic stories that mash up the cultures and customs of different Eastern regions with a big, fat, one-size-fits-all ‘Orient’ label.”
She links this back to MENA representation in film – on and off the screen – over the years and how people from our region are still portrayed in a very limited way as the 'Other.'
From actors choosing to revert back to using their perceived ‘foreign’ names, like Thandiwe Newton and Tanyaradzwa Fear, to how motherhood and fertility are portrayed on screen, Hanna explores origin and heritage by interweaving witty and moving anecdotes from personal experiences.
In the next section, Coming of Age, the reader is taken along the next leg of the journey, the beauty and messiness of the teenage years.
This is where the nostalgia really takes hold, especially in the sixth chapter titled What a Hunk where love, romance and nineties/early noughties romantic comedies are dissected and discussed.
The beauty of Hanna’s writing is in the comfort she creates for readers, speaking to you as if you were a lifelong friend rather than just a stranger behind the pages. And the film-infused lessons along the way, of course.
"The beauty of Hanna’s writing is in the comfort she creates for readers, speaking to you as if you were a lifelong friend rather than just a stranger behind the pages"
In this particular chapter, she looks into how young love is portrayed on screen while sharing stories of teenage boyfriends, crushes on big movie stars, and actors that she will find herself in the same room as an adult. “Yes, I did tell Robert [Pattinson] I had an Edward Cullen doll; and no, he didn’t call security, he found it rather amusing. They say never meet your heroes, but maybe it’s OK to meet your former actor crushes,” the author divulges.
As well as old-school films like Twilight and Clueless, themes of virginity and relationships are also explored in this section, which sees Hanna shine a bright light on her own experiences in a beautifully authentic way.
Adult Material is the third section of Strong Female Character and looks into how periods, beauty ideals, female pleasure and porn are represented on screen.
In the tenth chapter on femininity and beauty ideals titled ‘I can’t even remember to shave my legs’, Hanna writes about body hair and how this has been weaponised by the patriarchy in order “to uphold the tight parameters of femininity.”
As someone who’s also grown up with darker body hair, I have never come across writing that speaks about hair so candidly, especially when it comes to facial hair. “Suddenly, I was filled with the anxiety and humiliation of my eleven-year-old self after a boy in my class had said I had a moustache,” Hanna writes.
"Adult Material looks into how periods, beauty ideals, female pleasure and porn are represented on screen"
Like the author, my darker body hair means I do have thick eyebrows and get a bit of a moustache, which was rudely pointed out to me by a girl at school.
For many Arab women like me (and women in general), it will provide a reassuring respite to read words about body hair that we thought were just secret thoughts in our minds, whilst linking it to how women’s hair has been presented on screen over time.
The fourth and final sections of the book, Workplace Drama and Strong Female Character, take a critical lens on working in the film industry and how the dichotomy between how women and men are presented and talked about on and off the screen.
“Too often rape has been legitimised through male antiheroes and the lines between rape fantasy, eroticism and violent assault have been blurred to reinforce misogynistic ideas of manhood and the submissive position of women"
In the final section, there’s a particularly powerful chapter on misogyny, gendered violence and the #MeToo movement that Flint tackles with honesty – sharing her own experiences of sexual violence.
“Too often rape has been legitimised through male antiheroes and the lines between rape fantasy, eroticism and violent assault have been blurred to reinforce misogynistic ideas of manhood and the submissive position of women,” the author explains on the portrayal of rape in film.
Hanna recounts example after example of films that have continuously failed their female characters or actors, or both, ensuring that an intersectional lens is always taken to her analysis and the issue of gendered violence.
Strong Female Character isn’t just for fans of the cinema, there’s something in there for everyone, which is what makes it such a powerful and engaging read.
The warmth of Hanna Flint’s writing and the insightful analysis of the creative industries will ensure that this book will serve as a time capsule of sorts for the film industry, whilst making readers laugh and cry.
Strong Female Character is published by Footnote and is available to buy from September 29th.
Shahed Ezaydi is a freelance writer and journalist, specialising in opinion and features writing on politics, race, culture, and social issues.
Follow her on Twitter: @shahedezaydi