Recently, an article (“The five most pathetic female film characters of all time” by Lindy West) popped up on my Facebook feed, outlining West’s choice of “most-standy-there female movie characters.”
West goes on to point out female characters in movies who are “boring, old-timey, textbook damsel[s]-in-distress” with entries like:
-Valerie (Amanda Seyfried) in Red Riding Hood (described as “nubility personified/human Keane painting/tube of lip gloss made flesh…[whose role is to] Stand there. Wait to be rescued. Weep. Stand there some more. Quiver under the male gaze. Reapply lip gloss.”)
-Buttercup (Robin Wright) in The Princess Bride (“could Buttercup maybe DO something once in a while besides brush her hair and contemplate suicide because she and her boyfriend broke up? The woman is a blue silk sausage casing stuffed with whines.”)
and, of course:
-Bella (Kristen Stewart) in the Twilight Series (“Limp bag of tears waits for marriage to have sex with her undead boyfriend; is paralysed by grief every time he goes in the other room.”)
Ok, now even I can’t support a character that falls apart as soon as their man leaves (“You’re just… lifeless, Bella.”) but does that mean that you can never have a “weak” female character?
Now, having previously gone to a very liberal, very politically active university (we were in DC after all…) I have known my share of feminists, from radical to lipstick. I’ve also known a couple of people on the “feminism is subjugating men” side of the equation. Likewise, I would define myself as a feminist, by the fact that I support “equal political, economic, and social rights for women” What I have a problem with, however, is the idea I have found circulated in some groups that the only way to be a feminist is to rebel against what society has decided are “traditional” female roles. While I do fully support equal rights for women (which I don’t believe should shock many people reading this) I also like makeup, am currently wearing a dress, like to cook, and plan on taking my fiance’s last name once we get married (for at least social situations). Does the fact that I genuinely enjoy “traditionally feminine” things mean that I can’t be a feminist? If anything, how is telling women they have to like “traditionally masculine” activities to be acceptable any different from telling them they have to like “traditionally feminine” activities?
Now, there are so many different arguments you can go off of from there (“traditional” roles are really fairly modern, men and women are different, but equal in their different ways, feminism is losing site of its original goal, what have you) but my point through all of that is: How is forcing a character to be strong just because she’s a woman any different from forcing a character to be weak?
I fully understand not wanting weeping, standy-there female characters. But I don’t think that, over all, is a problem with the characters being female. It’s a problem with the fact that standy-there characters, in general, are boring (and many times annoying). A protagonist that doesn’t make any decisions and lets the rest of the story carry them along isn’t much of a protagonist at all. Male or Female. The “damsel in distress” (or her male equivalent) is not often cast as the main character of interesting books. Why? Because she doesn’t do anything. There isn’t much of a plot to be written when your main character is sitting up in a tower waiting to be rescued (at least not if you aren’t planning on doing some psychological drama about the effects of isolation, which I could actually see being pretty interesting).
Day 1: Sitting in tower. God I wish I weren’t in this tower.
Day 2: Still sitting here, you’d really think someone would come help me. Oh well, still hate it here.
Day 3: Sitting against the opposite wall now. I passingly considered trying to make a ladder out of sheets, but I think I’d rather keep sitting here and whining about being stuck in a tower with no one to save me.
Male or Female, I don’t care, I would get fed up with that character (and that book) very quickly.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting people rely on stereotypes for any of their characters. A female character shouldn’t be weak and emotional just because she’s a woman any more than a Latino character should eat nothing but tacos just because they’re Latino. But there are people in the world that can be weepy messes. As an author, you are perfectly allowed to have one in your story.
But I can also promise you, at least 99% of the time, being a weepy emotional mess is not all that real person is. Perhaps they’re battling depression. Perhaps they cry at the drop of a hat, but they are a genuinely good, happy person. Perhaps they used to be more balanced, but something happened to make them think that’s how they should act to be accepted. Don’t feel the need to make your character something they’re not just because it’s something that could be seen as a stereotype, but don’t make that trait their entire personality either. If you dig a little deeper, you will find so much more to them that will keep them who they are (weepy) but make them so much more than a one-note stereotype.
Some people fall into “traditional” stereotypes, there’s a reason they’re stereotypes after all, but people are complex. If you can capture that complexity in your character, you don’t have to make them something they’re not to not be “insulting” Let’s face it, making a character “un-stereotypical” but, again, just that one simple trait, it isn’t any better.