I love female superheroes, I love female heroes with tragic backstories and redemption arcs. Basically, I love female heroes. They’re great because they don’t conform to traditional female character roles of being quiet damsels in distress, and they show women as complex characters with stories and goals. However, while they break the mold of traditional female character narratives, these characters still overwhelmingly conform to heteronormative societal standards of beauty, gender presentation and sexuality.
So, while we should celebrate all awesome female characters, we should also be mindful of the heteronormative ideas that these characters reinforce and what type of character could challenge them even further. To put it bluntly, I want to see butch queer (super)heroines, but they‘re near impossible to find.
One immediate problem that arises when discussing female characters in general, but especially in terms of things like their gender presentation and clothing choices, is that a character by herself doesn’t really decide anything. She doesn’t have any autonomy. She was created by someone who controls her whole being. Unfortunately, that someone is most often a straight man, which, unless he‘s mindful of heteronormativity and the male gaze, influences the way he perceives the female character. As such, I think, it‘s quite telling that most of the female characters we see, even if they defy traditional narrative tropes, are still almost universally (hyper)feminine and they are pretty much always heterosexual. This makes them more appealing to the male gaze and they’re more likely to be less threatening to straight men and heteronormative society.
Another issue is quite simply that the standard white thin heterosexual beauty doesn’t represent a lot of girls and women, as Luce wrote a while back. The image of a thin, traditionally beautiful, powerful heroine also serves to enforce the idea that you can do anything as long as you still conform to heteronormative standards of beauty, gender, and sexuality. Additionally, it sets up unrealistic standards for girls and women, requiring them to be both great at something they do as well as appear (effortlessly) beautiful and appealing to men.
There is also the problem of the queer-coded villains. It is perhaps a trope that’s more often applied to male characters who are made more feminine, thus seeming like stereotypical feminine gay men. Such queer-coding of evil characters, of course, serves to vilify LGBTQ+ people, but in addition, feminine men are probably not a straight man’s power fantasy. They are seen as “not real men” and as such, these characters are easily vilified. However, it doesn’t work the other way around for female characters—in other words, female villains aren’t often made more masculine. In fact, more often than not we see the evil seductress trope when a hypersexualized, hyperfeminine female villain uses her sexuality as a tool to get what she wants. She sometimes uses her sexuality on women too, contributing to the evil bisexual trope. Obviously, a hypersexualized female character is more appealing to the male gaze, but she is a villain, so we are conditioned to hate her—for taking control of her sexuality and using it however she wants as opposed to “saving herself for the man she loves”.
Therefore, a butch queer heroine would not only represent a group of people who are almost unseen on TV, but giving her a narrative setting her up as the hero we’re meant to root for would also help challenge heteronormative standards, as well as a lot of negative tropes concerning LGBTQ+ people.
Sadly, such non-conforming female characters are very rare. From the vast amount of TV that I consume, I was able to find only one such protagonist—Korra from The Legend of Korra. I remember loving her the first time I saw her because she was this boisterous tomboy who loved demonstrating her bending abilities. This is a cartoon aimed at children, of course, but even so it is so refreshing to see a heroine who isn’t dressed in tight pants, heels and a low-cut top. And to top this gorgeous picture off, by the end of the show it becomes apparent that Korra is also bisexual. Unfortunately, a female character who isn’t conventionally feminine/attractive might not be very appealing to a male creator/viewer, who is usually okay with a character being queer as long as she is stereotypically attractive so her attraction to women is “hot” and can be fetishized. Such a feminist butch queer heroine who rejects the “I’m not like other girls” tagline is very threatening to heteronormative male-dominated society, since she would prioritize herself and other women instead of living for just her male love interest’s attention. So, regrettably, it’s not surprising that men, who dominate the TV/film industry, are unlikely to create characters that hit all the anti-heteronormative points.
Lowering my requirements and looking for any butch female characters, queer or otherwise, I was able to find two more—Brienne of Tarth (A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones) and Toph (Avatar: the Last Airbender/Legend of Korra). Both of them defy both traditional gender presentation and gender roles. Brienne and Toph are heterosexual, but I think such characters are also important to challenge the notion that one’s gender presentation must be related to one’s sexuality.
I find Brienne’s characterization especially fascinating because, despite her strength and skill, she still isn’t accepted among knights and warriors because of her gender and is deeply traumatized because of her unfeminine (“ugly”) features, leading her to become awkward and unsure of herself. In contrast, other female warriors described in the series seem to be quite comfortable with their roles as lady fighters, but then, they are not described as manly or ugly, which just goes to reflect the message that, as a woman, you can get away with defying traditional gender roles as long as you fit the appearance standards of femininity. In this regard, Brienne’s story may appear to be catering to the male gaze, showing men and women that ugliness destroys you and lowers your worth even if you’re extremely good at something and all you deserve is pity. This is exacerbated by the fact she does fall in love with men and thus is seeking their approval both as a knight and as a woman. If Brienne were queer, it would counteract this issue a bit, since at least she could be thinking about ladies when it came to love and queer women are often looking for different qualities in a partner than straight men are. However, Brienne’s story is not over yet, so here’s hoping that, in the end, she’ll be able to stop caring what men think of her, achieve her goals and serve as an example that you don’t have to be beautiful to win.
Toph is an interesting character as well. Despite being heterosexual (as far as we know), she doesn’t really care what men (or anyone) thinks of her and she doesn’t care about relationships. In fact, she goes on to have two children with two different men whom we never meet, which something pretty much unheard of on TV (especially children’s). She is shown not to have been a good mother. She also always does what she wants. And she isn’t vilified for any of it. Toph could probably not break the heteronormative standards any more if she were queer.
I believe that anything that challenges traditional ideas about gender, sexuality, and beauty should be included in the fiction and media that we consume. However, we have to be mindful and critical of characters who break some of these tropes, but may be reinforcing other tropes, such as traditionally feminine heterosexual female characters who are given narratives usually seen in male characters. We need to expand this diversity further and include characters who don’t conform to feminine heteronormative standards to represent this group of people, as well as to show that you can be good at something, be accepted, and succeed without having to fit into a traditional mold. Characters such as Korra, Toph, and Brienne are a start, but we need more.
So, tell us, do you know any other gender-non-conforming queer female (super)heroes? Share in the comments!