Hanna Flint’s ‘Strong Female Character’ is this week’s must-read

Hanna Flint: Strong Female Character | Soho House

Containing impressions, memories and anecdotes from the formative movies she’s watched, our columnist’s first book is a female-driven tour de force through the world of film

Saturday 1 October 2022   By Hanna Flint   Photography by Amaal Said

When I sat down to write my first book this year, there was a Charlie Kaufman quote I printed off and stuck to the wall in front of my desk. Not a quote from any of his movies I adored, but from a screenwriting lecture he gave at BAFTA in 2011. ‘Do you,’ he said. ‘It isn’t easy, but it’s essential. It’s not easy because there’s a lot in the way. In many cases, a major obstacle is your deeply seated belief that you are not interesting. And since convincing yourself that you are interesting is probably not going to happen, take it off the table. Think, “Perhaps I’m not interesting but I am the only thing I have to offer, and I want to offer something. And by offering myself in a true way I am doing a great service to the world because it is rare and it will help”.’

Well, Strong Female Character couldn’t be more me. Across 300 pages and five parts, I’ve committed impressions, memories and anecdotes from my last 34 years on Earth to explore how the movies that I’ve watched, as a fan and a critic, have shaped the mixed woman of colour I am today. From Disney princesses to coming-of-age movies, erotic films and porn, motherhood, eating disorder archetypes and all the various representations of women that have evolved on screen, I’ve filled 19 chapters with (I hope) informed, witty and emotional observations about how influential cinema is on us individually as well as a collective. 

Whether it’s perpetuating stigmas associated with female pleasure or body hair – why do women in apocalyptic films like Mad Max: Fury Road have shaved armpits? – or the overreliance on “ethnically ambiguous” mixed actors to tick boxes for diversity without factoring in their heritage into the characters they play. As viewers, we tend to absorb these stereotypes and social positions as fact, rather than treating them as mostly narrow-minded fictions. 

As a mixed woman of British and Arab-North African heritage, I rarely (if ever) saw myself or my non-white culture on screen, and that contributed to the way I saw myself. In my youth, I was insecure about my mixed identity and wary of my MENA background because of the overwhelmingly negative portrayal of Arabs that continues to this day. Some of my favourite movies of the 1990s like True Lies and The Mummy were guilty of gross stereotypes that I only became aware of as an adult because of how accepted and normalised these Hollywood representations were. The longest chapter in my book is dedicated to this particular subject, so I apologise in advance if I end up ruining some of your faves, too.

Hanna Flint: Strong Female Character | Soho House
Hanna Flint: Strong Female Character | Soho House

Yet even with its blind spots, movies have always been a comfort to me and the cinema a place of solace more than aggravation. I mean, obviously, or I wouldn’t have worked so hard to make film criticism my reason to work. But Strong Female Character is also a celebration of the films that have broken the celluloid ceiling for those who identify as female, both in front of and behind the camera. As a young basketball player, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s directorial debut Love & Basketball gave me a strong female character in Monica to look up to. She is, as I write, ‘beautiful and both mentally and physically strong, with her Black skin and athletic build putting her at odds with the typical skinny and white romantic leads of the era… a woman who wants love and whose vulnerability is just as powerful a part of who she is as her ambition to become a professional basketball player.’

More recently, I’ve had filmmakers like Desiree Akhavan providing relatable MENA women who haven’t got their sh*t figured out. Akhavan’s Shirin in Appropriate Behaviour is sexually adventurous without falling foul to the Exotic Other cliche that often gets slapped onto the characterisation of Middle Eastern women. She also has a threesome that shared a lot of the same awkward vibes as one I had in my twenties. But mostly, she’s allowed to work things out on her own in a romantic comedy without being forced into a relationship at the end: ‘being single forces Shirin to confront herself and her past relationship to realise new personal truths she was never going to discover while cuffed.’ As I discuss in the book, being single for most of my twenties gave me the time and space to work out my sexual needs, romantic desires, and build love for myself. Characters like Shirin reinforce the positivity of independent self-exploration.

Both these filmmakers have drawn on their personal experiences to offer relatable stories about womanhood that subvert the ingrained way we look at the female population. Through this movie-memoir I’ve strived to do the same as authentically as possible, because I am the only thing I have to offer, and I want to offer something. 

I hope Strong Female Character helps. Or at the very least, provides a few film recommendations to consider.

Hanna Flint: Strong Female Character | Soho House

Strong Female Character is available to buy in UK bookstores and online now. It will be available globally from 7 February 2023.

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