Weak Female Characters

No recommended reading today—just some random thoughts I’ve had percolating.

When I was growing up, I didn’t really relate to female characters, in books or in movies.  As a girl, I was always excited to see them, but ultimately they were never my favorites.  Damsels in distress are, of course, not particularly attractive to little girls.  (It’s funny that you often hear about superheroes being wish fulfillment for little boys, as if little boys were the only ones who dream of being special or powerful.  I think that’s just part of the human condition, even if you’ve got two X chromosomes).  But personally, I’ve never really been a fan of badass female characters either.  They always tend towards being strong, hyper-intelligent, level-headed, and more competent by far then the men around them.  Which is okay, I guess.  In an abstract sense, I’m glad they’re there.  If you can only have one woman in, say, the Avengers, I suppose it’s great that she’s skilled and competent and integral to the plot.  But all of that badass-itude can get in the way of me feeling a human connection.  As a kid I sometimes found myself identifying more with sheepish male sidekicks, simply because I could relate to the feeling of wanting things you didn’t have, and suspecting that deep down you were’t quite up to snuff.  I suppose a female character with these obvious weaknesses would seem…well, weak.  Male characters are allowed to have weaknesses because there are more of them—a whole universe full of them (see: Star Wars, which is essentially an intergalactic sausage fest with one woman in it).  A pitiful male character isn’t some comment on the male gender as a whole, in the way it might seem with a female character.

As Sophia McDougall said in her great essay I Hate Strong Female Characters (oh hey, there is a reading recommendation in here):

Is Hamlet “strong”? By the end of the play, perhaps in a sense he is, but it’s a very specific and conflicted form of strength which brings him peace only at cost of his life. Richard II, on the other hand, is not only not “strong”, he’s decidedly weak, both as a human being and a king. Yet some of the most beautiful poetry in the language, the most intricate meditations on monarchy, are placed in this weakling’s mouth. He has no strength, but he does have plenty of agency. The plot of the play is shaped around his (often extremely bad) decisions. In narrative terms, agency is far more important than “strength” – it’s what determines whether a character is truly part of the story, or a detachable accessory.  [Richard also has] very simple things, even more fundamental than “agency”.

1)      Richard has the spotlight. However weak or distressed or passive he may be, he’s the main goddamn character.

2)      Richard has huge range of other characters of his own gender around him, so that he never has to act as any kind of ambassador or representative for maleness. Even dethroned and imprisoned, he is free to be uniquely himself.

Complex female characters do exist—not many, but they’re out there—and I’m willing to accept that my failure to connect with them may be, at least in part, my problem, and not theirs.   A friend of mine once pointed out to me that I like the very worst characters in everything—the people who seemed strange or evil or socially maladjusted or hopelessly inept.  That’s a fair point.  I’m more inclined to be drawn to characters because of their weaknesses rather than their strengths, which is probably a little unusual.  For example, millions of viewers worshipped the main character of that late, great show, Veronica Mars.  I wasn’t one of them.  I liked Veronica Mars as a show–it was cleverly and intricately plotted, and had a wide and well-developed cast of characters.  But I felt little attachment to Veronica Mars herself.  Which wasn’t her (or her creator’s) fault!  She was a fairly well-rounded creation.  She was smart and virtuous and tough.  She didn’t care what other people thought of her.  She could be vulnerable or sad sometimes.  She wasn’t a perfect person–she could be sharp-edged and untrusting. But she was devoid of human frailty.  She never made a bad or selfish decision, or said something stupid, or stood stock still unable to come up with a clever retort, or felt insensible fear, or did something truly pathetic, or experienced a petty emotion of any sort.  The one time I felt close to her was when I observed her listen to records for three straight days after she and her boyfriend Duncan broke up.  And then it turned out that that was all part of an elaborate ploy to steal a baby.

Thinking about this led me to wrack my brain to see if I had any favorite female characters, and I suddenly remembered one my childhood idols: Sailor Moon, of the anime series with the same name.  Without getting into the merits or the mythology of this TV series, I will say that it was about a team of evil-fighting, magical teenage girls, each with a special planetary-based power (Sailor Mars controls fire! Sailor Jupiter, lightning! Etc.).  Sailor Moon is probably the only instance I can think of where I liked the main character of the series better than any of the supporting characters.  This is possibly because Sailor Moon had the classic weaknesses of a supporting character comic relief sidekick—she was lazy, gluttonous, clumsy, a goof-off, terrible at school, and actually kind of terrible at life–but was, at the same time, the most powerful warrior in her universe, when she could get her shit together.  If she were the only female character, her various weaknesses might have been a problem for me.  But she was surrounded by other female characters, her similarly super-powered teammates, and all of them were more serious, focused, and talented than she was (but, through a twist plot mechanics, simply not as powerful).   Sailor Moon’s weaknesses didn’t arise from her being female so much as they arose from her being herself, and they went along with the fact that she was kind, compassionate, and fearless.  You could sympathize with her for being the weak link in a group of overachievers, and at the same delight in the fact that she was, bizarrely enough, the most important one.  For my young self, Sailor Moon was an irresistible combination of the one special snowflake with the power to save the whole world (as I fantasized I could be), and a total fuck-up (as I suspected I actually was).

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