Ami has been saying some very smart things in her past few posts, and I’d like to build on them.
One of the fiercest criticisms I’ve gotten for my posts on female characters is the assertion that if I don’t just make the best of it and support whatever female characters we have, “the industry” is gonna make fewer of them. I think that’s not only untrue, but also a stick used against feminist critics who want better.
As Ami said, overwhelmingly positive reactions to problematic representations
also sends this implication and basically advertisement for these games/comics that they’re feminist, feature awesome women characters who aren’t done in demeaning, problematic, stereotypical ways, and that these things do it right. And they don’t, and I think it also tells the companies/industries that they don’t have to do anything other than have female characters, or token diversity, and people will be okay with it and try to make the best of it.
Supporting female characters for female characters’ sake might lead to more female characters, sure, but also doesn’t create a demand for *better* female characters. You’re gonna wind up with a shit ton of conventionally attractive straight white cis love interests with stereotypical character traits who get rescued a lot, because of the overwhelming popular cultural assumption that “that’s what female characters are/do,” just like you get artists picking up the spine-twisting poses from other artists because “that’s how you draw women”.
I honestly don’t think a lot of the boobs and butt poses, or women in bikini armor, are drawn by people consciously thinking sexist thoughts, I think they’re just doing What You Do. This is a female character, this is just the pose we’re used to seeing women in. We don’t think twice about drawing her like that, because it’s just how we’ve become conditioned to seeing women pose in the medium.
There you go, tons of female characters, but they’re all gonna look the same because that’s what the artists know how to draw, and they’re all gonna have the Woman Plotlines (romance! rape! babies! getting rescued!) because that’s how you write women. That’s not diversity or representation in any real sense. That’s just creating a category of “women” instead of integrating women into the category of “people”. This is the default we are given, and it’s fucking okay to criticize that. And if you cheerfully accept the baseline of female representation as “whatever dreck men feel like writing about women,” the most you’re going to get for diversity is the occasional author feeling smug and patting themselves on the back for letting one of their skinny straight white cis female characters be NOT BLONDE OMG or FULLY CLOTHED WOW or embrace a flimsy nonthreatening form of GIRL POWER TEEHEE. It’s okay to want more than that.
And it’s so fucked up to use “smile and act grateful and hand over your money or the straight white men in charge will take away the few bones they throw us” as a weapon against women who point out how dry these bones are and how we should have a reliable source of real food. We shouldn’t have to live in goddamn fear of not applauding a racist, sexist industry enough for any slightly tolerable female character. We shouldn’t all have to love the same shows and roles and character traits and plotlines just because they’re the only ones female characters are given.
Look, I get why you make headcanon and optimistic feminist interpretations of female characters. I do it too. But the fact that I can make awesome headcanon and reinterpret Susan Rodriguez as the coolest character in the series doesn’t change the fact that she was fridged twice because the author didn’t know what else to do with a love interest.
And, ultimately, no matter how many female characters I reclaim and reinterpret, it doesn’t change the fact that I’ve paid money for books that never thought their female characters were important in the first place. Books that never considered me their audience or female characters their heroes. Books that gave all their female characters stereotypically feminine traits and then made those into weaknesses in the plot. Books that robbed their female characters of chances to be heroes while giving those opportunities to every fucking minor male character that showed up. Books in which the female characters are sidelined and poorly written and treated like shit.
And sure, you can rationalize that the series is about tough situations and the female characters just so happen to be underpowered next to the male characters, and just so happen to be vulnerable and in the exact right place to blah blah blah, but, as Ami says, in the end, that’s bullshit.
Taken in a vacuum, you can justify every single instance of female characters breaking down in a key situation and needing the male hero to rescue them. Maybe they had a traumatic backstory, or they had nerves, or it was a stressful situation, or they hadn’t eaten very much, or that’s just their personality, or they had just spent 40 hours watching a Star Trek marathon, but in the end, it’s yet another female character who breaks down and needs rescuing, and add it all together, it’s thousands of stories where female characters break down and need a dude to save her. And each one can be handwaved or justified away by in story stuff, or that the character is “flawless”, and all attempts to analyze if this is a good choice or not gets dismissed, and then the next story is the same, and the next, and the next. And then we look back at our library of DVDs, video games and books and go “wow what’s with all the women who need rescuing?” and we wonder how this happened.
And you know what, I don’t have a solution to this problem.
It’s. Not. My. Job.
I am getting so fucking tired of posts that end in “… and that’s why we have to write our own!” or
"and that’s why we have to work extra hard to find and support female protagonists, no matter how many terrible portrayals of women we have to slog through along the way and no matter how many authors see female characters as an opportunity to shoehorn rape into the series!" or
"and that’s why we have to do our hardest to appreciate all the female characters we’re given in shows in hopes of somehow magically influencing the writers to give them more screentime and quality character development because there’s no fucking way they’ll interpret all the squee as “yes just keep doing exactly what you’re doing we’re not offended and there’s no reason to change"!"
It’s a fucking systemic problem. There’s sexism at every rotten level - sexism that makes sure men are more likely than women to get hired or published, sexism that makes sure male protagonists and authors are more likely to be marketed properly, sexism that makes sure even shit with proposed female protagonists gets beaten into having male leads, sexism that makes sure authors give less quality time to their female characters in the first place, sexism that leads to female characters getting broken and thrown away by their writers.
Do you understand how heartbreakingly unfair it is to put the onus of fixing all that on the fangirls?
To blame them for causing it in the first place?
To tell them the reason they’re having such a hard time finding female characters they love is because they’re either not trying hard enough, or because they’re hard-hearted misogynists who don’t care about female characters?
To tell them that it’s an equal playing field for male and female characters, and it’s just the fandom’s fault if the female characters don’t get enough love?
To tell them the reason things with male leads fail is because they’re bad but the reason things with female leads fail is because they just didn’t support it enough?
To tell them to shut up and see the best in really fucking problematic characters that may not even have any of the characteristics they’re personally interested in in the first place, but it’s not a problem or anything that male characters are given a different set of character traits that are favored by the narrative?
I’m not going to end this on a cheery note, telling you all to just try harder, or saying I love female characters I swear I’m not sexist and there are definitely some female characters I can endorse wholeheartedly many of them in fact don’t hate me!
I don’t feel the need to hedge my anger like that. I’m angry. I’m justifiably angry. Don’t you dare tell me to smile.
I’m really flattered I got quoted so much! o:
This is yet another really good post by Summer on the way female characters are often portrayed in fiction, and how telling women that we’re the problem for not liking the characters enough, or threatening us that if we don’t like them, we won’t get any at all, is really problematic.
I want to add to the above about how when people write women they seem to be unable to think of her outside of being a woman, and therefore put her into typical “woman plotlines”, put her into certain character boxes, pose her in certain ways, or have sexual harassment or assault happen to her because those are things that happen to women right? But when the writers aren’t thinking of the character as being a woman, when that “omg she’s a woman” switch is off in their heads, suddenly they can write women characters just fine. Some of the best female heroes that are beloved by women started out as male characters and were later changed to being women, such as Ripley, Samus Aran (pre Other M) and Fem!Shep. And it’s not because men are more interesting, it’s that men are allowed to be people, and exist in a variety of personalities, experiences, emotions, actions, etc…
A man might cower behind a rock and make a snarky remark about the giant monster they’re facing and how it was a lot bigger than they expected. A man might face it head on with superior weaponry. A man might use cleverness, or put together a makeshift device to defeat it. A man might talk to it, reason with it. He might be scared. He might have to fight through his fears. He might have previous trauma with the monster he’s dealing with. But for a woman, so often, it’s either break down crying because that’s just what women do, try to fight through her fears (because she must have fears), or solve her problems by using her sexuality.
And people don’t necessarily write it like that because they’re raging sexists who hate women. Heck, they might be women themselves who don’t consider themselves any of those tropes, but still end up falling into it when writing (I’ve done that before) because “that’s just what you do” when you write women. Because women are “marked”, we’re different from men who are seen as the default human and therefore allowed much more variety and options, and therefore we (consciously or subconsciously) tend to mark them in our writing as well, we give them personalities, roles, and situations that are “for women”. Even if they’re justified in stories, they add to the huge and ever growing pile of fiction where every other female character is portrayed that way too.
It’s not being a bad fan to notice this problem. The problem isn’t us, the problem is a sexist culture that constructs women as being necessarily and innately made of certain traits and personalities and flaws. And that’s what needs to be tackled, not telling people they need to try harder to like the very narrow types of female characters we so often get.