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Jan 21

Afro Commentary: My Niece Deserves Better (Female Characters)

GSB_Editorial-Women-Characters

I have a dilemma. As an uncle to a 5 year-old girl who will not only break a lot of hearts when she gets older, but is intelligent, creative and fiercely independent, I find it will be difficult to introduce her to geek things as easily as it was with her older brother. There are no “gateway” characters that are a positive enough influence for her that would not take a lot of explanation or draw a degree of ire from her parents. In fact – when you come right down to it – truly well written female characters that are a positive influence have become somewhat of a mixed bag in a post-feminist era, with a lot of blame (and some praise) to go around.

Princess Leia - Star Wars

Princess Leia – Star Wars

I am sure many of you are already going “You’re full of crap, Private! You have Wonder Woman, Princess Leia…” and others I am sure you are rattling off the top of your head, and to an extent I agree with you. However, I want to point out a couple of subtle, yet very distinct issues with these two examples. Despite Wonder Woman being a positive influence overall, in the last 15 years her character, books and appearances have given her such a rewrite that she has become extremely one dimensional (i.e. a man-hating, battle hungry bitch). Not exactly a role model for a girl under 12, or any girl for that matter. With Princess Leia, although she was given a no-nonsense attitude with matching blaster, she is ultimately relegated to being the damsel in distress and a love interest for the heroes (which would have been awkward if she ended up with Luke.) These are just two of the many examples of the now cliché concept of a “strong women.”

“What the hell is wrong with that” you are probably asking, and here is my problem with it. The text-book “strong female” character has boiled down to this: A typical (i.e. not well developed) female character with an extraordinary trait or two that makes them more appealing to men while appeasing the female audience because she can stand toe-to-toe with the males. The character either hates men, is extremely bitchy and/or doesn’t take no for an answer; however the conclusion of her storyline is either she dies, ends up a damsel in distress or a love interest for a male character, or just fades into the background. No real progression in her character nor any real involvement in the plot, other than showing how bad ass she can be. Ever since it was rumored that Wonder Woman was to be in Man of Steel 2 (I refuse to call it Batman vs Superman because of the ridiculousness of the title), I was afraid she would be treated similarly to how she is now. Among all the information that has come out since Gal Gadot was announced to play the Amazon princess, it has been disheartening to learn that she may not even play a significant role in the film. Even worse, it appears she will be written in the usual 1-dimensionally fashion (we are talking about Zack Snyder afterall.)

“So what are you looking for in a female character” you are probably asking. Simple: One that is well written and developed. Thats it. A character that is developed just as well as male ones, whose actions and input matter just as much as others. It’s cool if she can kick a lot of ass or tote a gun like a sharpshooter, but she needs something more. She needs to be like every other real woman; she needs to have flaws, faults and adversity. She needs to have a personality with all its nuances and complexity. She needs to be real. You may think that exists already and you are partially right, when you take into consideration of many genres and mediums of media.

It is important to make a distinction between a “strong” female character and one that is well-written and positive, since there are not many examples in the genres of science fiction or fantasy. Even though the 1970’s promised a new era of women’s liberation, we do not find nearly as many well written females in properties as there should be. That is disconcerting, considering over 50% of the general population of North America, Europe and Japan – where the majority, if not all, of the geek media we consume comes from – are female. The female fanbase in geek culture has risen considerably since the 1980’s. Women are no longer “outsiders” to the culture as they were once viewed as, but as equals in it. Should there not be an amount of characters that reflect such a shift in paradigm?

Ripley and Newt - Aliens

Ripley and Newt – Aliens

It’s really a shame, because in the instances where we have well-written females they have been all well received. From Ripley – which was a happy accident considering she was originally supposed to be a he – to Buffy, Brienne of Tarth to Sarah Manning, Storm to Batgirl, all of these characters have been memorable. They may be strong willed, have powers or at the peak of physical prowess, but these traits are not what make them interesting. They have depth, emotions and complexity like any person. They have made mistakes as well as being the best at what they do. That is what made Wonder Woman an interesting character until after Kingdom Come was released. Yes, she was a bad ass fighting Amazon princess, but she was also compassionate, clever and the voice of peace. Her identity was not her sword and shield or her lasso, but that of a woman who meant the bridge a gap between cultures. Her identity was, ultimately, the embodiment of what it means to be a woman. Kingdom Come changed this, where she was written to be more of a stereotypical “strong” woman (with a rare, but welcomed reprieve by Gail Simone’s run). The New 52 replaced her origin story – which symbolized her femininity and the connection with her fellow Amazons – and replaced it with a cheap knockoff where Zeus is her father. She is not the only one who was significantly changed in the DC universe during the New 52, with characters like Catwoman, Black Canary and Starfire becoming husks of their former selves. As I have commented in the past, this is most likely due to DC’s infinitely collective “intelligent” decision making process of having their characters “edgy” and “not being able to be happy” as heroes. What a way to be the model of modern storytelling there, guys.

So, where do we direct an angry mob of pitchforks and torches at for this lack of well-written female characters in the science fiction and fantasy genres? It goes without saying there is a considerable amount of sexism involved in the development of media. Paul Dini’s recent comments regarding his stint on Green Lantern: The Animated Series and Young Justice on Kevin Smith’s Fatman on Batman podcast shed a light on such discrimination. His experience dealing with Cartoon Network on these shows when it comes to action animation – and I am going to pull a Kanye, here – media execs do not care about girls watching their shows. They prefer their female audience to watch My Little Pony and shows that would “appeal” to them, while dumbing down content for the boys. The execs worried more about dumbing down characters and throwing in more action and stupid jokes to sell toys than focusing on developing their characters in YJ. Characters that included several females that were interesting in that series. Still, I don’t think this reasoning alone can be the blanket answer for the deficit.

Emma Swan - Once Upon a Time

Emma Swan – Once Upon a Time

A good portion of the blame can also be shared with the lack of female creatives and producers of these geek properties. Yes, there have been strides made in Hollywood and in comics to include women writers, artists and producers, with many of them giving us such great stories. I am a big fan of Gail Simone’s work on various DC titles and Jane Espenson has written and produced for such great shows such as Battlestar Galactica, Torchwood: Miracle Day and Once Upon a Time. Julie Plec (along with Kevin Williamson) has created The Vampire Diaries, which has become one of the CW’s highest watched shows. These three, among others, have developed stories which have not only strong females, but females that are very well written.

Yet, within geekdom there is still a severe lack of women creators and creatives. The blog Culturally Disorientated did a statistical analysis back in May of last year of the 26 top watched geek shows from the prior season, and their findings were sad but not surprising. Out of the 26 shows, 77% were run by males while only 11.5% were run by females. Couple this with the recent Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film’s annual “Celluloid Ceiling” report – which gauges the amount of women employed in the top film productions for the year – found the amount of women working on movies in 2013 dropped to 16%, which is below 1998 totals. There is a certain untapped potential of characters and stories that more female creatives could bring to the table.

Despite the sexism and lack of female creatives, I feel there is something more that needs to be addressed when it comes to developing well-written female characters. Specifically, there is a lack of perspective that many writers fail to realize when it comes to writing women. During an interview with Neil Gaiman on the anniversary for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, he responded to a question on how he would write the daughter of the titular character. “I always feel like the wrong person to be asked that question” he began, “because people say ‘well how do you write such good female characters?’ And I go ‘Well, I write people.’” This quote struck a chord with me, since I approach writing characters the very same way. Many writers approach developing characters for their stories and not people. There are personalities to consider when developing characters. There is psychology involved. I feel most truly successful creators – whether it is conscious or not – do not just tell a great story, but treat their characters as if they are people. This is what I feel is an underlying issue when it comes to developing well written, positive female characters. And it is not difficult for male creatives to do, as Gaiman, Joss Whedon and others have demonstrated.

Korra - Avatar: The Legend of Korra

Korra – Avatar: The Legend of Korra

However difficult it is to find well-written female characters in geek genres that I could potentially introduce to my niece, it is not impossible. Marvel has developed some rather positive role models that are well developed, from Storm, Black Widow and Spider-Woman to Captain Marvel (aka Carol Danvers) and the newly introduced Ms. Marvel. DC still does have Wonder Woman – how can I not introduce her, really – as well as Supergirl, Power Girl, Batgirl and Batwoman (even though her parents may not appreciate the last one). There is Princess Bubblegum from Adventure Time, The Powerpuff Girls, Korra from Avatar: The Legend of Korra and Merida from Brave as well. And as she grows older, there are countless books with well written female characters, as well as Buffy, the girls of Firefly, Aeryn Sun of Farscape, Starbuck of Battlestar Galactica and the clone club that makes up Orphan Black. However, until she reaches an older age I will have to settle for her watching My Little Pony, getting her into Adventure Time and Brave when I can, while buying her the Goldie Blox sets.

My wish though, is that when my niece gets older she will have a more diverse range of female characters to enjoy, that are more well-written than what is offered today. That these stories captivate her and give her characters she can look up to or identify with. Hopefully a change will come within the major conglomerates, so that the media we consume reflects a more fulfilling experience we should be getting. Is that too much to ask? I personally feel it’s not.

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  1. mauricem1972

    It is sad really. In some ways female characters were better in the 1970s than today. Hopefully as more female writers get into the field the gap will narrow a bit.

    1. Jonathan "The Private" Stone

      There was an editorial on a similar subject that brought that point up… that when strong female characters appeared in movies in the 70’s – 80’s, they were well written and anomalous. Now strong female characters fit the same cliche model, copying the strength without associating what made those characters good in the first place.

  2. Stacy Whitman

    You address comics and movies/TV, and I agree that women and girl characters need significant work there. Geena Davis’s institute is bringing awareness to the issue, but nothing’s really changed in YEARS. There are a few good examples in TV to point out when your niece is ready, but with emphasis on FEW. Like Abby from Sleepy Hollow, etc.

    But I’d suggest not to neglect the awesome girl characters that can be found in SFF books. Part of the reasons we even have as many girl heroes as we do is because the most commercial of the books (not always the most complex of characters, though) have been made into movies and TV shows. For when she’s a few years older (5 is still a bit young for full-on middle grade novels, though some of these would make a great read-aloud), I’d suggest all of Shannon Hale’s books, The Sisters Grimm by Michael Buckley, The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex, and the Kiki Strike books, just off the top of my head. Looking at my book lists, I’d also include Ninth Ward by Jewel Parker Rhodes, Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu, Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin (GREAT read-aloud!)… and more. And even more when she hits her teens.

    (Which reminds me that I’ve been meaning to create a girl-power book list for just such discussions.)

    The problem is that movies and TV are much, much more visible for geekdom, and so the problem persists, until the facets you’ve discussed get addressed.

    1. Jonathan "The Private" Stone

      You’re right, it hasn’t change… BUT it does not mean it can’t. It’s an issue that people need to keep bringing up on the net, on podcasts and other avenues of discussion. It’ll also help to promote and keep buzzing about creatives who put such attention to their characters, female and male alike.

      And you are also correct. Where the other media neglects writing well-formed female characters in these genres, in books it is a completely different story. I am happy about that and hope this same treatment can be carried over into adaptations more often (many times they do not.)

      We must keep the heat on!

      1. Stacy Whitman

        Completely agree–we definitely must keep the heat on. :) I am all over the ones that get it right, and try to engage critically with the ones that come close but don’t quite make it (for example, I’m not as happy with Almost Human as I am with Sleepy Hollow, both on the gender side and the racial diversity side). Hollywood is starting to pay attention to social media around the time of the airing of a show, too, so I try to remember when the show airs, which is honestly hard. Geeks are usually the first adopters of tech, like streaming video, and I usually have no idea when a show airs–it just shows up in my queue.

        1. Stacy Whitman

          Thought you’d get a kick out of this, which has been going around Tumblr: a project in which superheroes are being drawn from little girls’ imaginations of their own characters: http://bettersupes.tumblr.com/.

  3. Luna

    Great, well- written article. You touched on two topics that really bother me. Firstly, the idea that strong women/ female characters either hate or don’t need men. This is an outdated concept out of some 1970’s bra-burning video. No matter how strong one is– physically and emotionally– we always benefit from the support of friends, family and partners. A strong woman does’t “need” a man– but she may choose a male partner to enhance her life through emotional support and being a good father to the children they might have. As the daughter of a good father, and honorable man and a gentleman– don’t get me going on the lack of respect for the role decent fathers play in the raising of children. I think you can kick butt and cook dinner, not be taken advantage of…and like and respect men. I am not feminist– I am a humanist. I recognize and accept the differences between men and women and the we can compliment eachother and learn from eachother.

    Secondly, a thousand times yes– not enough female writers in the scifi and fantasy genre. …but I believe this will change slowly, but surely. My favorite new female character is Abbey from Sleepy Hollow. The show is nuts…and most of the time I don’t know what is going on– but I don’t care. I watch it for the great chemistry between Nicole Behari an Tom Mison– as well as the relationship between Abbey and her sister. Abbey is strong, flawed, intelligent, thoughtful and has developed a soft spot for Ichabod in this crazy world of demons and democracy. I love her. …and this is a topic for another blog– but it is refreshing to see a show with such a diverse cast that is not about their diversity– they are just a group of people living in the same town fighting the same fight. Perhaps we need to make this progress with female characters well– to see them as people before we see them as women. I do like a cool chick with a sword though…

  4. Carl

    H, Thanks for the interesting article; very thought provoking. My first thought upon reading this was that the same character flaws you describe in women sci-fi characters/heroes are the same for men as well from a character flaw aspect. I do think that the visual sci-fi/fantasy medium, cartoons and comic books, has grown in leaps and bounds over the fare that was offered when I first became interested (late sixties). Your niece is five so a lot of the heroic characters may not be age appropriate in the form that we enjoy them. Some of the Saturday morning offerings portray the heroes in a more kid-friendly way. My grand-daughter, who is 3 (yes, grand-daughter) is into Doc McStuffins and all things Disney. Speaking of Disney, they are portraying their female characters in a much more inspirational perspective. Check Frozen and Brave for recent examples. Again, great discussion, keep them coming.

  5. Tim The Film Guy

    Great Post. Totally agree.

  1. GSB After Dark: Strong Female Characters » GSB Podcasts

    […] episode is a follow-up to The Private’s Editorial My Niece Deserves Better (Female Characters).  And we were happily joined by Victoria Schmidt and Christina Janke. You may know Victoria from […]

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