By Dylan Byrne & Braden Gary
British director Edgar Wright, known for films like Shaun of the Dead and Baby Driver, is associated with fast-paced films and a unique style of visual comedy. Over the past two decades, Wright has gathered critical acclaim and a large fanbase. However, his films suffer from weak female characters. Edgar Wright has a pattern of writing seemingly independent women who shift to only serve the plot of male characters, oftentimes contradicting the female character’s motives. This pattern not only weakens his stories but also perpetuates an antiquated notion that women serve mens’ best interests.
In Edgar Wright’s first movie, Shaun of the Dead (2004), we see this cycle of seemingly strong independent women begin. At the start of the film, Liz, Shaun’s love interest, dumps him. She does not feel that he is mature enough for their relationship. She makes it quite clear that she doesn’t want to see Shaun anymore. What follows is a zombie apocalypse, and Shaun sees this as an opportunity to “save” Liz and prove to her he is mature and responsible. You can guess what happens. Shaun manages to “save” Liz, and as pictured above, the two live together happily ever after. The two characters ending up together is not inherently a problem, but what is, is the distinct lack of character given to Liz. For example, Shaun’s terrible decisions lead to the deaths of all of Liz’s friends. The film makes it clear that Shaun is not a great leader, and his actions are a good example of gender performativity. Incredibly, after watching Shaun be a terrible leader, seeing her friends die, and barely escaping alive herself, Liz decides that Shaun is the one for her. The original issues that drove her to break up with Shaun are decidedly swept under the rug. The movie is certainly not a testament to Shaun’s own growth of maturity. He acts immature throughout the entire film, and a couple of “brave” acts of heroism is all it takes for Liz to take him back. There is nothing shown that motivates the audience to believe that their relationship problems have been dealt with at all. It is clear that Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, the writers of the film, had no real interest in writing a dynamic female character. Liz is simply an object meant to be won back by the protagonist. She is simply the goal of the film. She thinks poorly of Shaun, until the plot demands a happy ending.
In 2010, Edgar Wright co-wrote his 3rd feature film, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, a high concept action/comedy adapted from the comic series of the same name. The comic series by Bryan Lee O’Malley is known for unwinding gender cliches, but Edgar Wright’s adaptation fails to carry that torch. The story revolves around Scott Pilgrim, a bassist who has to battle his girlfriend’s “seven evil exes”. Not only does his girlfriend, Ramona’s, past love life drive the entire plot, but she has a very quick and noticeable character shift after they begin dating. Before Scott meets Ramona, she is built up to be a cold, dangerous, and powerful woman. However, after their first extremely awkward date which Ramona didn’t even want to do, she falls in love with him. She then follows him around from scene to scene with no personal goal besides aiding him. This picture is from the final battle of the film where the final evil ex, Gideon Graves, has captured Ramona and holds her as a trophy. This image of Gideon on a pyramid with Ramona seated next to him like a pet is representative of Edgar Wright’s women problem as a whole. Rather than acting as characters with their own goals and motives, someone like Ramona is just something to fight over, and they don’t shy away from it either (Jusino, 2017). At multiple points in the movie, the characters clarify that they are fighting for Ramona, and in the scene from the picture Gideon even asks Scott directly “You want to fight me… for her?” The image of her with Gideon also emphasizes a critique against the film, and that is significant others are treated like trophies rather than people in the film with many of the characters fluidly swapping relationships for no apparent reason. Ramona isn’t the only woman in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World who lacks independence or character, the three most important women in the plot end up doing exactly what is best for Scott’s character.
The second most important female character of Scott Pilgrim vs the World is Knives Chau. Knives are Scott’s ex-girlfriend whom he cheats on for Ramona. From the beginning, Knives embodies the stereotype of the submissive “lotus flower” stereotype. She is a quiet and awkward 17-year-old girl who is in love with Scott. As a character, her only defining trait is her obsession with Scott. In the final scene in the film, as shown above, Scott is faced with a choice between Knives and Ramona. Even after admitting to both of them that he cheated on them, Knives tells Scott that he should be with Ramona since she’s the one he’s been fighting for. This shift completely disregards her character and instead makes her a facet for the male protagonist to get what he wants. For the entire movie, Knives obsesses over Scott and even devises a plan to kill Ramona, but at the very end when Scott needs to wrap up his story and “get the girl”. Because Scott’s story needs to be wrapped up, Knives shifts to supporting Scott’s decision. This sort of decision-making in writing shows a complete disregard for the point of view of the female characters, and in effect normalizes this male-centered worldview. Although Knives plays a stereotype and her character is centered around her breakup with Scott, she had her plotline and revenge arc against Scott and Ramona. When Wright builds up that potential for a female character to have a satisfying ending, it becomes even more disappointing when it falls through. Additionally, characters like Knives and Ramona show traits of emphasized femininity, where traditional beauty and passivity are at the forefront of their characters.
Although there are many other women throughout Scott Pilgrim vs the World that display Edgar Wright’s shortcomings with writing women, the last major one is Envy Adams. Envy is Scott’s “big” ex-girlfriend whom he dated months before the film starts. Even more than Ramona, Envy is built up to be a badass, heartless rockstar who dumped Scott years before to date someone else. Envy is one of the more promising women in Scott Pilgrim vs the World (from a character perspective), yet her final scene reflects Edgar Wright’s other writing mistakes. Initially, Envy embodies a powerful and independent woman who even invites Scott to her new show just to mess with him. But again, Wright’s pattern of writing women displays them with initial independence, just for their story to be sidelined for the male protagonist’s story.
The picture above is from Envy’s final scene. The scene takes place after Scott defeats Envy’s boyfriend, Todd. At this point in the film, Wright wrote Envy to be threatening and harsh, yet after Scott kills her boyfriend, she completely changes to fit what is necessary for Scott’s story. Instead of getting mad or emotional, Scott calls her Nat, her real name, which causes her to feel for and understand Scott. Although this moment offers closure for Envy and Scott’s past relationship, it completely sidelines Envy’s plot and struggle of just losing her boyfriend. This moment reflects Wright’s pattern of poorly writing women since it shows a complete disregard for the emotion of the women if the male protagonist needs a positive character moment.
Edgar Wright’s 2013 sci-fi/comedy, The World’s End is a story about six characters stuck in an alien apocalypse together. This was Wright’s 4th feature film and 3rd time writing with actor/co-writer Simon Pegg who plays Gary, the inappropriate and childish protagonist. Although Gary’s foul language and misogyny are intended as a joke, with the others putting him in his place, his relationship with Sam (left) echoes the same writing problems Wright had in previous scripts. Although Sam is completely independent of the group of men, she is used as a facet for conflict between the men. Halfway through the film, Gary and his friend Steven (right) both profess their love for Sam and fight over her. Although not the central plot of the film, the entire B-story revolves around Gary’s fight for Sam’s approval against Steven. Again, this shows Wright’s pattern of introducing seemingly independent women just for them to become an inspiration or fuel a man’s plot. “She basically only exists in the film to give them something to fight over” (Jusino, 2017). In the end, Sam rejects Gary for his childish personality but then ends up falling for Steven, which is just as predictable knowing Wright’s writing. Although this film doesn’t pick the side of the protagonist, by showing Sam falling for Steven, it perpetuates the idea that women who initially oppose romance will eventually accept it and fall in love with whichever male character initially wants that romantic relationship.
It’s the year 2017. Thirteen long years after Edgar Wright’s first movie, Shaun of the Dead (2004), and Edgar still can’t write a decent female character. The pattern of an independent woman turned simply to an object of male desire and plot advancement continues. In this film, Baby Driver, Debora initiates the relationship between herself and the protagonist, Baby. However, past showing interest in Baby we learn virtually nothing about Debora throughout the film. She tells Baby early on about her dream to get in a car, and just drive away from everything (Jusino, 2017). The audience doesn’t even learn what is making her want to get away from the world. We understand she hates her job, but none of her friends or family is ever brought up in the movie. The summary of her character is liking Baby and wanting to get away. Even after realizing he’s involved in some type of crime, she doesn’t hesitate to join him on his way to escape. She had only been on two dates with Baby before she faced death, and this doesn’t stop her from idolizing Baby or waiting for him while he’s in prison (pictured above). Overall, Debora is a very weak female character, even by Edgar Wright’s standards. This depiction of Deborah in Baby Driver iis a very narrow stereotypical view of females in film/media. As Julia Wood, a professor of communication studies puts it, “most [women] are depicted as passive, dependent on men, and enmeshed in relationships” (Wood, 1994). Debora fits the archetype laid out by this quote. She has very few active character moments, most of the time she is simply following or waiting for Baby, and she is only connected to the plot through her relationship with Baby. We learn nothing about her except that she will do whatever it takes to be with a guy she barely knows. Stereotypical depictions of passive women such as this have real-world consequences. Audiences internalize the messages shown on screen, and it can affect the way we see the world (Jones, 2019). The only reason Debora is in the film is to be the object of desire for Baby. She acts as his reward for fixing his past mistakes. Debora, herself, has no needs or wants other than Baby.
Moving on from Debora in Baby Driver, Darling is also a female character used purely to drive a male character to his goal. Darling is a badass woman who takes what she wants (quite literally). By her side throughout the film, is her husband, Buddy. Darling clearly follows the spicy Latina stereotype that we learned about in our class lectures over representations of women of color. Besides that, she could’ve been an excellent villain for the film. Instead, her death sparks a very typical revenge plot. Buddy blames Baby for her death, and this drives the climax of the movie. If Edgar Wright had been more socially aware he may have decided to flip the revenge plot. It would have been much more interesting to see Darling’s character fleshed out, and to have her seek revenge for Buddy’s death (Jusino, 2017). Rather, the only starring Latina gets killed off, and we get a by the numbers revenge plot from a white male character. Darling is yet another female who only services the story for their male counterpart. Even the way her death is viewed is through the gaze of Buddy (pictured above). Darling’s death was a missed opportunity for an action movie trope to get flipped on its head.
We’ve spent this essay building a case that Edgar Wright movies have a pattern of depicting strong independent women only to subvert them to the whims of the male plotline. Pictured above are Simon Pegg (left) and Edgar Wright (right) himself. These two are responsible for writing two of the movies we’ve discussed and, of course, Wright directed all four of them. In 2015, Pegg admitted that one of his and Edgar’s weaknesses was writing women (Barton, 2015) Pegg goes on to say they have a hard time achieving an authentic feel to their women characters. This sort of “writing what I know” rhetoric is often used to excuse men writing stories almost exclusively for and about men. However, Pegg genuinely seems bent on correcting his past mistakes. Recently he’s called for more women voices in Hollywood, and he’s open about his past issues on writing female characters (the ones we’ve been discussing). Pegg has been much more conscious about what projects he takes on. When speaking on the film Lost Transmissions, he says, “The reason I did this film, aside from the beautiful script, is the fact that Katharine was directing. And obviously there needs to be more opportunity for lots of different diverse voices in cinema, and not least women (Harkins, 2020).” Pegg’s input is accurate when put side-by-side with UCLA’s Hollywood Diversity Report which shows that only a quarter of writers are women (Hunt & Ramón, 2021). It seems that Pegg is doing his best to move forward, and help change the industry for the better. Only time will tell if Simon Pegg is truly through with treating women as secondhand characters.
Edgar Wright, on the other hand, is much less vocal on the social issues surrounding his movies. Baby Driver, his most recent film, was not a progressive masterpiece. However, Edgar Wright’s upcoming film, Last Night in Soho will feature two female leads, and his writing partner will be Krysty Wilson-Cairns (1917). Working with a female writing partner would hopefully give a new perspective, expanding Wright’s ability to create complex female characters. Last Night in Soho will likely be more socially conscious of the female perspective, but it does not excuse his earlier work. If Wright truly wants to make Hollywood more inclusive, his best course of action is to address the flaws of his earlier works. With Last Night in Soho releasing soon, it’s important to recognize that creating one socially conscious film isn’t enough. Wright needs to engage in the larger conversation surrounding representation in Hollywood.
Barton, L. (2015, May 28). Simon Pegg: ‘I find it very hard to write for women’. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/may/28/simon-pegg-i-find-it-very-hard-to-write-for-women-man-up-tess-morris.
Harkins, D. (2020, March 2). Women deserve a greater voice in cinema, says Simon Pegg. Scotland | The Times. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/women-deserve-a-greater-voice-in-cinema-says-simon-pegg-h6dk7bltj.
Jones, N. M. D. (2019, February 20). Inside the Fight to Dismantle the (White) Gods of Hollywood. Bitch Media. https://www.bitchmedia.org/article/the-wrong-kind-of-women-male-gaze-excerpt.
Jusino, T. (2017, July 25). Dear Edgar Wright: We Need to Have a Chat About Women. The Mary Sue. https://www.themarysue.com/dear-edgar-wright-we-need-to-have-a-chat-about-women-baby-driver-spoilers/.
Winkle, V. (2015, May 28). Simon Pegg Calls for Better Roles for Women in Movies. The Mary Sue. https://www.themarysue.com/simon-pegg-women-in-movies/.
Wood, J. T. (1994). Gendered lives: communication, gender, and culture. Wadsworth Publishing.
Hunt, D., & Ramón, A. (2021, April 22). Hollywood Diversity Report. UCLA, 28-29. https://socialsciences.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/UCLA-Hollywood-Diversity-Report-2021-Film-4-22-2021.pdf