Film is a lost media when it comes to representing the average woman. While ordinary-looking men are allowed to be stars onscreen, even romantic leads, female protagonists still require a thin, drop-dead gorgeous actress to play them. The best we can hope for is "quirky", like Juliette Lewis, or big and beautiful, like Queen Latifah, but forget combining the two, and definitely forget just average.
It's understandable, in a stupid way; people like seeing pretty people, for reasons I don't and never will understand, and the amount of backlash against a female actor who doesn't conform to standard is stunning. I don't even want to know how many times I've heard Twilight fans decry Kristen Stewart for being "ugly" instead of her acting. The risk of having an ordinary-looking woman destroys the fantasy world that viewers like to create for themselves. In an entirely visual medium, it's difficult to escape from this.
So why, then, do authors insist that their female characters be stunning, ethereal, gorgeous, sexy, beautiful, breathtaking? We're not forced to stare at an actress who has to diet or risk being fired for being too chubby for the screen, but yet, this ridiculous insistence on physical perfection for female characters continues. This I can't understand.
It's so bad that we have things like the Mary Sue Litmus Test, which marks various self-indulgent tropes that first-time authors are prone to giving their heroines. Amateur writers are ridiculed for giving their female characters violet eyes and cascades of locks like autumn sunlight, but the truth is, that's who we get in popular fiction. The descriptions may not be so purple, but they are there. 'Slim' and 'slender' are popular words to toss in as well, reminding our readers that this character is not fat, no sir!
Strong female characters are even worse off. I recognize that weak, one-dimensional love interests have to be stunningly beautiful, otherwise they have nothing to recommend to the hero. For those women, even if it's not overstated, we can assume that they are. But for female characters who are clever, intelligent, good at swordplay, talented warriors, or anything else that breaks the 'submissive female' role, assumption isn't good enough. The narration needs to tell us — and it will — that these women are not just talened, but exceptionally good-looking as well!
It's not enough to be a strong woman in fiction. If she isn't beautiful, she can't function at the top of her game. One of my favourite female characters in modern fantasy, Beka Cavish of Lynn Flewelling's Nightrunner series, suffers from this. In the first two books, we get glimpses of a young girl with fire-gold hair, who loves horses and fighting and wants to be a warrior; in book three, she joins the cavalry and becomes a talented commander. Beka has now reached Power Woman status; she handily defeats men in combat, and leads her troops through raid after raid with terrifying results. It's time, now, for what I like to call the Feminism Softening Moment.
Every strong female character will go through this. She must fall in love, and someone must call her beautiful; in most cases, she will deny the charge, often angrily, accusing her lover of lying to her. He will, then, insist that he is not lying, that she is beautiful, and only her strength and other non-feminine qualities (intelligence, wit, fighting prowess) stopped her from realizing that. Her tough facade cracks. They make love.
Without this moment, strong female characters are too threatening. Authors apparently believe we can't "relate" to women who are both powerful and physically unattractive, who reject both social and physical norms. If we can reduce them down to their beauty, however, then they're no longer a problem. Everyone knows that beautiful women are, at their core, sex objects. It just takes a few well-spoken compliments to turn this warrior queen into a quivering maiden. Not so scary, then, is she.
This is, I think, the same reason that a woman's chance of being raped or nearly-raped is proportional to her role in the plot. It makes me sick.
There are exceptions, though they are rare. In her Queen's Thief series, Megan Whalen Turner states outright that the Queen of Eddis is ugly, and the young man in love with her brushes it off saying he doesn't care. He doesn't deny it, he doesn't make up some nonsense about her being beautiful "to him" — he simply doesn't credit the importance of physical attractiveness. This was a shocking departure from the norm, and I can guarantee you that if the series is optioned for film, it will be ignored entirely. (Velvet in Enid Bagnold's "National Velvet" is explicitly described as an unattractive girl, but her movie counterpart is played by a young Elizabeth Taylor, for goodness' sake.)
Fantasy stories are the worst for this, but mainstream novels are just as guilty. When was the last time a heroine was acknowledged as plain? If she does have a fault, it's softened by words like "unconventionally pretty", or "not precisely beautiful, but interesting". I hate to break the bubble here, but there are women who are not cute, pretty, beautiful, dazzling, stunning, or any of the above. I am one of them. And not all these women are torn to pieces by their inferiority — which, in my opinion, shows tremendous strength, as we can't even escape from airbrushed magazine women on the printed page.