“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” provides a crash course on making a likable protagonist
Writing a feminist protagonist in a film feels like it should be easy on paper, but in reality, few pull off the feat seamlessly.
For writers, there are two ways to approach this issue; the easy way and the hard way. The easy way to write a female heroine is to, simply put, write her as if she were a stereotypical man.
This strategy is most commonly seen in action films, The Bride in Kill Bill, Ripley in the Alien series are two famous examples. Both are great characters for great movies, however, if I were to say they provided some nuance to female protagonists, I’d be lying.
Let’s examine the hard way then. The hard way is to write a female protagonist who is a strong character, but she can’t be too strong (otherwise she’d be a ‘Mary Sue’). Promoting feminist ideas would be ideal, however, it’s difficult to pull off without shoving those ideals down the audience’s throat. There are several other hurdles to overcome, not to mention that you still have to make the character likable.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye did many things well, but the character of Tammy Faye herself, played excellently by Jessica Chastain, was one of the film’s most defining aspects.
Before I begin, I’d like to point out that I am aware that the film I’m discussing is a biopic. Some may dismiss how Tammy Faye’s character is based on a real person, so the elements of her character aren’t to the credit of the writer Abe Sylvia.
As a retort, I’d say that how a character is presented is all up to the writer regardless of what kind of person the real-life counterpart was. Easily the production could’ve mishandled the portrayal of Tammy Faye, lest we forget how the media portrayed Tammy during her downfall.
Instead, we get a character with a big heart and a big smile. A change of pace from other contemporary main characters — usually they need some kind of edge to them.
Tammy doesn’t have that edge, she just does what she believes is right, and sometimes that alone is enough to get the audience on your side.
Tammy is a feminist but she isn’t presented as an outspoken activist. Again, she says what she thinks is right to people — mainly men — who think that she ought to know her place as a woman.
The film takes place at a time and in a place where respect for women, the LGBTQ+ community, and AIDS patients specifically is all very low. Tammy stands as a voice of reason not only through her words but also through her actions.
All of this seems even more heroic when contrasted with Tammy’s husband Jim. When the couple first meet, they are about as picturesque as a couple can get.
They’re honest with one another, give each other motivation and are very affectionate. As their lives progress Tammy stays the same, however, Jim slowly begins a descent into disreputability.
Tammy stands up for herself in the face of sexism. When Jim (who is a closeted homosexual) is faced with the same level of bigotry, he lets it go in favor of furthering his career. Tammy remains honest to the people around her while Jim begins manipulating Tammy and his sizable audience.
Tammy is there for Jim at his lowest points while Jim seems to see Tammy at best as a tool, and at worst an obstacle. This dichotomy isn’t complex but it is very effective in making Tammy appear even more heroic. With all this said, however, her character does have her critical flaws.
Once again, while this is a biopic, it is still important to examine the shortcomings of Tammy because while she certainly has her moments of strength, there too are many moments where there is too much weakness on her part.
Her biggest issue as a character is that she never leaves her heinous husband Jim. He manipulates her, berates her, at one point in the film he is to blame for Tammy’s drug addiction, the list goes on.
Tammy does confront Jim on a few occasions but she remains loyal to him. Loyalty is by no means a poor character trait for a protagonist, but at some point, loyalty goes too far. Jim deserved to get dumped and while yes, Tammy does eventually push through a divorce, this is long after the damage Jim caused had caused Tammy a great deal of hardship.
Despite that critique, I still enjoyed the way Tammy was written. It’s often difficult to cheer on such a happy-go-lucky protagonist but this film found a way to make me root for Tammy.
The writing wouldn’t have been nearly as effective without Jessica Chastain’s performance, so she deserves plenty of credit. Writing likable characters is hard, writing feminist characters in a way that doesn’t unintentionally degenerate the cause is even harder. When it’s accomplished though, the feat deserves praise so that it can be further replicated in the future.