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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Females characters just as interesting as male characters

    A few years back, Kate Beaton did two strips of her comic about a group of “Strong Female Characters.” Those characters were aggressive, angry and superficially powerful, but still neatly fit into the old “women are from Venus” stereotype. They sublimated themselves to an incredibly weak male lead and were ludicrously, pointlessly sexualized. If that isn’t a perfect take on the state of female characters in media since second-wave feminism crashed and fizzled, then I don’t know what is.

    When I talk about the dearth of strong female characters, I’m not saying that they don’t punch enough dudes or punch hard enough when they do, but rather that so many of them either have their goals tied to or their plot taken over by the straight white male protagonist.

    So many writers seem to think of strong female characters in terms of their ability to throw a punch that they end up not noticing when said characters are being failed on a narrative level. TVTropes.org has an enormous collection of what it calls “faux actions girls” — female characters who are passed off as powerful and competent, but when push comes to shove, don’t ever actually do anything as far as the plot is concerned.

    Correcting this defect is a matter of story structure. The definitive work on story structure, Aristotle’s “Poetics,” says that all narrative is action, and all characters are derived from their actions. So it would seem to follow that the strongest female characters are the ones whose actions drive the plot.

    Writers need to evaluate whether their female characters actually do anything to push the plot forward of their own volition or even exist in any significant manner in the story. If not, they should find something for them to do.

    A very easy way to do this is just to genderflip characters in the writing process, changing male characters into female ones. It not only ends up adding female characters without falling into the stereotypical tropes and clichés might be tempted to use when writing about women, but some great characters have been created this way, like McCoy from “Streets of Fire” or Ripley from “Alien.”

    And when new female characters are added, writers should be sure to give them their own schtick. Their major defining characteristics should not be that they are “the Girl one” because, believe it or not, women are not mysterious, ethereal sylphs defined by some underlying mysterious femininity, but actual three-dimensional human beings with unique thoughts and desires.

    They can be serious or silly, boisterous bruisers or pencil-necked poindexters, but above all else, they must be their own people first and foremost. The fact that the Smurfette principle is a thing — where singular female characters are added for reasons of demographics but left completely flat — shows how many people completely forget that.

    This all sounds relatively simple to grasp, but the infamous Bechdel test shows how astoundingly media fails at this task. In order to pass the Bechdel test, a movie must include two named female characters who have a conversation about something other than a man. Most movies fail this test spectacularly, and that’s pathetic.

    Including more female characters with a wider range of roles and more plot presence is not some “social justice warrior” agenda. Rather, it’s the lack of female characters that constitutes, to some a degree, an “agenda.”

    “White straight male” is the default for characters. Adding some element of diversity to a character’s identity often necessitates restricting that character’s narrative possibilities, either for fear of offending someone or because “women don’t act like that.” And those are notions advanced by those who want to keep media visibility limited only to that hegemonic demographic, as well as likely a few well-intentioned misfires that fell straight into those mistakes.

    Female characters can be just as interesting, just as diverse and flawed and awesome and well-rounded, as male ones, it just requires smashing up the blocks we have placed inside our collective cultural ideas about what female characters — and, by extension, women — can be.

    —Tom Johnson is a film & television studies junior. Follow him @tbok1992

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