Lately, I’ve grown so tired of watching male “chosen ones” and “jerks with the heart of gold” save the day and get the girl. Representation matters, and girls want to be chosen ones too, and not just princesses in distress. Women are allowed to hate the world and be brilliant while reluctantly saving the day. And we should be able to see ourselves, our stories, and our fantasies reflected on screen too. I’m always on the lookout for female characters subverting generally male character tropes, and today I would like to tell you about some of them and why they matter.
“The chosen one” is perhaps the type of story I find most compelling. I mean, who doesn’t occasionally dream about being whisked away from your simple life, destined to do great things despite being just a regular person (or so you think). Unfortunately, most of these stories are about boys—Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins, Neo… But girls want to be special and chosen too. They need to know that they don’t need to only always be love interests or helpers. As such, characters like Buffy Summers as the chosen girl is very important, even more so because she’s distinctly feminine and likes girly stuff, despite all the problems with the show. Her fondness of shopping and dating doesn’t preclude her from saving the world. A girl can like frivolous and fun things and be passionate about her calling at the same time (not that there’s anything wrong with liking only fun things, either). If anything, I would argue that different interests make a character more well-rounded and is an altogether healthier message to all viewers, regardless of gender.
However, being a fighter of superhuman strength is not the only way to be powerful. In fact, all too often, our idea of a powerful female character is one that is physically strong. Therefore, I will defend Jupiter Ascending to the grave. Jupiter Jones doesn’t have any particular powers (unless you count her ability to control bees), but she has a kind heart and she’s a freaking space princess who is able to defend herself when the need arises, actually refusing the help of others.
Another character trope usually reserved for male characters is the archetypal “jerk with a heart of gold”. Aloof, sarcastic, and brilliant, they are generally beloved Doctor Houses and Iron Men. I have been searching for a female character equivalent for ages, and it looks like I’ve finally found one—Carmilla from the horror webseries of the same name. Carmilla waltzes into your life sneering at everything, refusing to be excited about anything, and generally maintaining an “I’m wiser than you” attitude. Vala Mal Doran from Stargate SG-1 deserves an honorable mention as well. Vala, while not exactly aloof or brilliant, is a generally untrustworthy con woman who nevertheless joins the good guys. Vala is also an interesting character because she starts out as a villain (albeit a rather comical one, without any real malice), but redeems herself and joins the good side.
Redemption arcs are very very rare for female characters, which is appalling. I’m not talking about outright villains either, but also “good guy” female characters who make a mistake or react in an unhealthy way to a terrible event. We should be able to see female characters make mistakes and deal with the consequences and come out of it stronger. One female character who finally does get this arc is Laurel Lance (Arrow, The Flash). Laurel’s storyline is really quite amazing. She loses her sister (twice), becomes an alcoholic but goes into recovery, and becomes a kick-ass vigilante herself.
Which brings me to “the tragic past” trope, that favorite staple in broody hero stories. Unfortunately, this trope most often involves fridged women, which is all the more insulting when the hero is a man because the dead woman is usually the only woman in his story, thus showing that in a superhero’s story, women don’t actually need to be in the story at all—they only need to fuel the hero’s pain. So, this trope does get at least a little better when the hero is also a woman. Apart from the aforementioned Laurel, there are actually several female characters that come to mind. Two of my favorites are Root (Person Of Interest) whose best childhood friend was murdered, and Phryne Fisher (Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries) whose sister was kidnapped and murdered. They’re both excellently constructed characters who subvert a lot of tropes. Root is a ruthless criminal with a questionable moral compass, working with the good side despite all that, while maintaining a steady stream of sarcastic one liners. Phryne Fisher is pretty much a female version of James Bond: she has an exciting personal history, a new lover each episode, and she’s a skilled fighter, driver and pilot.
However, with all that, I’m not saying that I basically just want female characters to embrace all the traditionally masculine gender roles and behaviors. Quite the contrary. The beauty of all the characters I’ve mentioned is that, while some aspects of their characters are male character tropes, they don’t eschew femininity altogether and their stories are still distinctly stories of women. They not only portray the characters’ love for beautiful clothes and shopping, for instance, but also show how these women are dismissed and belittled by society for liking girly stuff or discriminated against in their chosen field of work. Take, for example, Phryne and Buffy, both of whom have a penchant for pretty clothes. Phryne has to deal with men who dismiss her as a detective and refuse her help because “a lady shouldn’t trouble her head with things like that”, but she perseveres. She also encourages other women to take charge of their love lives and teaches girls to defend themselves. Buffy, despite being “the chosen one”, is not protected from misogynistic attacks on her femininity, jokes about “breaking a nail”, and being a cheerleader. She often can’t even get back at the jerks, but she has friends and family who support her, and she knows that she’s the only one who has to defend the world from supernatural evil. All these women are complicated and capable in their different ways, they’re not just “strong female characters”.
All the tropes in this post are usually reserved for male characters, specifically, male (super)heroes. In their respective arcs, these tropes contain an enormous potential for character exploration and development. They facilitate the development of complicated, multifaceted characters, who are almost always men. Women are most often only peripheral characters in superhero stories, so they don’t have to be well-developed, and we get stuck with “damsels in distress” and “strong women”. Therefore, it’s important for female characters to get these (super)hero arcs, because then they get to be the stars of their own stories. It would be even better if we could see female-centric stories that showed female characters of different racial identities as well as female characters who have a more complex relationship with their gender identity. Female characters should be complex characters so that the audience can see that women aren’t all the same, and, perhaps even more importantly, so that girls and women can see themselves and all the different ways they can be awesome.