I Want More Terrible Female Characters

Double standards are everywhere in geek cultures. Most of them are easy to spot in such things as clothing and armor options for genders. Such standards extend into character archetypes as well. A very well known trope that is often reserved specifically for women is the Damsel in Distress trope. We’re all familiar with this, but one character archetype that seems to skip women is the Jerk With A Heart of Gold.


This example is all over the place for men: Walter White from Breaking Bad, practically every playable character from Grand Theft Auto, etc. These characters may have some redeemable qualities or good motivations, but their overall demeanor is rather negative. Maybe they commit crimes to get to their goal rather than using more savory techniques. In the case of Breaking Bad, Walter White is a drug dealer, but the audience still wants things to go well for him.The GTA protagonists are hardcore criminals who commit murder on a regular basis, among other crimes. In this case, the audience may feel a connection to the protagonist because they are the playable character; it makes a certain amount of sense to sympathize with the entity on the other side of the controller. However, this can’t be the only explanation.

Negative qualities aren’t confined to criminal characters, though. Tony Stark is a great example—he’s very reckless and is often condescending and rude. Despite this, it’s undeniable that he is a crowd favorite. This strikes me as odd, because I can’t imagine why we all like a character that acts this way. Specifically, the dissonance with accepting these characters is that it only applies to fictional characters. To put it another way, most people wouldn’t accept this behavior in real life, much less cheer it on. If your boss or co-workers spoke to you how Tony Stark does, it probably wouldn’t be enjoyable. In fact, many people would put in some effort to have them removed from the office. Dr. House and many incarnations of Sherlock Holmes tend to have the same affliction.


Come to think of it, Robert Downey Jr. tends to play a lot of insufferable characters.

To refocus, the prevailing double standard here is that male characters are given a pass to act however they choose, but female characters who behave this way are not. The men that act this way are “badass”, but the women that do are referred to by much more derogatory terms. This attitude, unfortunately, seems to stem from reality. There’s a societal expectation for women to be nice and pleasant that doesn’t seem to be in place for men. This is most likely what causes different comedians to experience different reactions. It is why Ellen DeGeneres is considered funny and charming, but Sarah Silverman gets criticized for being rude and sarcastic—all while Daniel Tosh is praised for a style similar to Silverman’s.

My problem with this double standard, and why I choose to request more mean female characters than fewer mean male characters, is that it limits the amount of stories that can be told. When Grand Theft Auto 5 was released, there was a sizable discussion about the idea of a female playable character. There were multiple characters to use this time around, but all three of them were men. Why not a woman? Eventually people started asking: how would the game change if you played as a woman? Many said it wouldn’t make much difference; you could still commit the same crimes, etc. And while I agree that they could make a woman just as physically and mentally capable as the men, the game, at least in terms of plot and character interactions, should most certainly change. In some games, certain nonplayable characters will have specific reactions depending on what character you’re using. As a fantasy example, if there is a character who hates magic users, they may not sell items to your mage. If games want to take any sort of realistic approach to writing, it must be considered that our treatment of genders is far from equal. This isn’t fair, but that’s my point. The nonplayable characters would likely treat a female character differently than its male counterpart, which could lead to branching events and storylines. I fully believe that women are capable of revenge, snarky conversation, and general reprehensible behavior; but I feel that there would be different range of motivations for the playable characters available because of this. A plot wouldn’t have to be about trying to (re)assert masculinity. Women can pull off the same feats as their male counterparts, but they shouldn’t just be men with a female model swap.

Presented with no further comment.

Presented with no further comment.

This train of thought leads to ask: what if there was a female GTA protagonist? What if Tony Stark the weapons dealer was a woman? How would the public react to this? As previously stated, there is a societal conditioning to think less of women who are powerful and arrogant enough to declare themselves the most powerful person in the world. I would like to believe that the public not only could handle such a character, but would enjoy and appreciate one.

Let me be perfectly clear here: I’m not talking about women as villains. We have plenty of evil female characters. (It would be nice to see some that aren’t strictly defined by their sexuality, though.) I’m referring to characters who get to be an unrelenting jerk that we still cheer for. Additionally, these characters shouldn’t be the same tired tropes we’ve seen before such as Evil Seductress or Straw Feminist, which are women who use their sexuality to bring men down and women who are the man-hating feminist stereotype, respectively. They should be well-rounded with various thoughts and ideas, and if they lean a bit more towards evil than good, that should be all right. They should get to be strong and brave, etc, but also have fun and be selfish.

As I said, I’m not saying the character archetype should be done away with. Honestly, sometimes it is fun to play the jerkass and get away with it. Plus, these characters, more often than not, exist in real life. We’ve all met snarky or selfish people of any gender; why not show that in our games? I just think it would be nice to have the opportunity to see this path outside of the male gaze. This would work on two accounts: Women would appreciate being able to see and play as women who were not just Noble Mothers or Supportive Girlfriends, and men would learn a lot from a well-written female lead who just happens to like being a jerk more than being polite.


21 thoughts on “I Want More Terrible Female Characters

  1. Thank you for this article!
    I come to think of Sharpay from High School Musical. I don’t know if she is a favourite with the crowd but I like her very much. She knows what she wants and takes it (see the songs “Up to the top”, “Fabulous”, “I want it all”), not really caring for the people around her or if she does then she is interested in how they suit her plans (Zac Efron’s character as boyfriend for prestige reasons, her brother for better performances, etc.). And if I remember correctly she doesn’t get “punished” in the end by becoming an outcast or something of the sort . . .
    If she is also a favourite with the audience/fans, would she be the kind of character you’re looking for?

    • Glad you appreciated it!
      Unfortunately, I haven’t seen High School Musical, so I don’t have proper context. But, if fans do like her, it sounds like she could be!

  2. I totally agree with you. A female Tony Stark (renamed Natasha) is actually part of Marvel’s alternate universe canon, and I would love for that story to get developed.

    Revenge has a pretty good terrible female character. The main character, who’s basically a female Edmond Dantes, is ruining a bunch of people’s lives, but we sympathize with her rationale for doing this. On top of this, her main enemy is also a woman. The one drawback is that I’ve noticed both women are super emotional, and it always feels like the writers are trying to make them less cold (something I don’t think they would do if it was two men trying to take each other down).

    • I would love to see a developed story for Natasha! Sounds like it would be interesting.

      Those characters from Revenge sound interesting. But that drawback sounds disappointing. Being emotional is cool, but I wouldn’t mind seeing a completely cold character.

  3. I was just thinking about this topic the other day too! Admittedly, I wasn’t thinking games, since it’s not my thing, but I was examining some of my more beloved characters – a few are mentioned in this article – various Sherlock Holmes interpretations, Tony Stark – and realised that pretty much all of them fall under the ‘jerk with a heart of gold’ archetype and, predictably they’re all men. In some cases, I’ve loved these characters since I was a kid, I wanted to be like them when I grew up. I’m starting to think that it’s incredibly unfair that I didn’t have any such female characters to look up to.

    I’ve been trying to come up with a female ‘jerk with a heart of gold’ and I’ve mostly come up empty. I agree that Emily from Revenge is pretty cold, although good point about her being emotional too, and I’ve been enjoying the show but quite recently – erm, before I continue I should warn for SPOILERS, so skip the rest of this paragraph if you don’t want to know – recently, she was shot through the stomach and decided to give up her revenge plans, but then found out that as a result of the wound she won’t be able to become pregnant and it was the reason she decided to continue her revenge after all. I get that being unable to become pregnant is a huge thing, but the way she reacted to it and it being the sole reason why she changed her mind, it really irks me. I mean, first, adoption, and second, she didn’t need such a reason before – like, it all started with her father’s wrongful imprisonment and death but as the show progressed I started feeling that she really enjoyed being mean and hurting all those people, while still maintaining the moral high-ground somehow (it’s more questionable this season, I think, but I still root for her) and that was so awesome and refreshing.

    The only other similar female character I could come up with is Olivia Pope from Scandal. She’s an awesome character and I love her and she can be pretty ruthless/cold when doing what needs to be done, but she’s also totally emotional (to be fair, most of the characters on that show are totally emotional, even though they pretend to be cold and monstrous). Though it has to be said that she still does what needs to be done despite her emotions, and I like that, but it doesn’t really fit with the archetype. And she’s never outright mean to random people for no reason, like Tony Stark and Dr House.

    An argument could perhaps be made for some ladies in The Good Wife, such as Alicia Florrick herself (she’s undergone some incredibly amazing character development since the beginning of the show), Kalinda (she kind of fits, but I feel like she’s more the handsome-dark-mysterious-silent-brooding-cold type) and some recurring opposing council lawyer characters, but I generally feel like they’re too nuanced and rather far away from any archetypes, which is obviously a good thing, but beside the point for this discussion.

    • I love that we’re getting more and more examples of good characters in television lately such as in Scandal, etc. I really think it’s an effort in the right direction. It does seem like creators are waiting to really push for a honestly jerky lady.

      But as you said, nuanced, creative characters are typically better.

  4. I am currently trying to imagine Sarah Silverman as a super heroine of a video game protagonist. It’s an interesting idea in my head.

    If you’ve ever played Final Fantasy X, I think Lulu comes close to this idea. She is continually rude throughout the game (although there are brief moments where you see a softer side) and she’s unapologetic about it. Now that I think about it, Paine from FFX-2 resembles that character mold as well.

    I think this relates to the whole #banbossy #dontbanbossy debate – people don’t appreciate “bossy” women in media and they usually get criticized. Skyler from Breaking Bad is a good example of this.

    Her character is fascinating, but what is more interesting is the hate that she generated in so many viewers. If you get down to it, I think that hate may be partially due to her un-stereotyped nature; she’s not a type of character we see very often!

    I’m with you though – I’d love to see more women characters in the “Jerks with a Heart of Gold” category.

    • I’d play a Sarah Silverman video game haha. As far as seeing the softer side of characters, I don’t think that’s necessarily counter to my point. We do get to see Stark and House do “caring” things from time to time, it’s just that they typically aren’t remembered for these things as much.

      • Yeah – as I was mentioning that I think it’s almost necessary to see a least a hint of heart in characters so they don’t’ come across as utterly reprehensible.

        I may have to write Sarah Silverman fan fic now – something I have never, ever, considered before.

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  10. Yeah, there aren’t a lot of them out there, and it’s sad because of how much so many people would love more of these characters. Two that I like are:
    –Lilly Charles from “Pushing Dasies”
    –Shannon Mullins from “The Heat”

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  12. Terrible bad girls are still seen as unfeminine, especially those who are maneaters, playgirls, and philanderesses (female philanderers) while men in the same position aren’t since they are allowed to do anything, including throwing themselves at married or involved women like in Magic Mike, for instance.

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