There’s been a lot of fuss about female characters in fiction on the Internet. Video games are sexist, books are sexist, movies are packed full of sexist characters, and good lord, don’t even get me started about comic books. All of the fictional women everywhere are horribly exploitative characters who exist solely to heft gigantic sets of boobs around the story and wait to be rescued by the heroic men.
Or at least, you’d be tempted to think that, if you hung around some of the more vocally “feminist” corners of the Internet.
Now, honestly, there are a lot of bad female characters in fiction. There are tons of women in books and movies and whatever that exist only to be saved and/or woo’d by men, and tons more that get tarted up and trotted out solely to tantalize male readers. ‘Fridging women is a thing that happens, and I think it’s a fair complaint when it gets pointed out, most times. It would be nice to see Wonder Woman in some pants, and we really should get Power Girl in some sort of supportive truss before she permanently injures her back.
But, you know, we’ve been working on that for a long time, and even though there’s still a lot of lazy writers and problem children out there, we’ve seen a lot of improvement in the treatment of women in various media. Despite this, there’s still seems to exist a vocal contingent of women critics who just will not be made happy. Here’s a couple of examples:
Ellie, The Last of Us
The Last of Us is a really good game. Like, really good. It’s got awesome characters and an amazing story and great graphics and it’s tense and scary and just a super good game. (If you’re a non-player like me, you can still check the game out through Let’s Play videos on YouTube. Here’s a good one.)
The Last of Us was basically a 20-hour long escort mission and even I know the escort missions always blow. They blow because the character you’re escorting is invariably useless (otherwise they wouldn’t need escorting, I suppose), except the character you’re escorting around in The Last of Us, Ellie, is rather happily not useless. In fact, she’s apt to jump in and save your ass in a fight by stabbing the hell out of people who grab you, and there’s a whole part of the game where the main character, Joel, is down for the count due to a bad case of skewered through the guts, and Ellie has to escort him, protect him, take care of him, and fend for herself while he heals.
By the end of the game I was fairly sure Ellie only brought Joel along because she needed directions and someone to loot the upper shelves. Of this particularly cool character, Cracked.com writes,
Ellie from The Last of Us is immune to an apocalyptic virus, learns new weapons faster than Neo, and has stabbed more enemies to death than Wolverine. But as soon as the guy turns up, she dissolves into tears and nursing. She could be machetifying a rapist cannibal into sashimi, but if the hero arrives she’ll instantly collapse into helpless tears, safe in his arms. Because that’s exactly what happens.
The anonymous author admits that Ellie is a badass, and she is. She’s useful throughout the game (except for the “can’t swim” part, which was just a mildly dumb way to include some puzzles, but still). She’s got plenty of backstory, emotional depth and motivation. She’s a pretty fully-realized character. And yet, people are still snarking over her. And worse, it’s for a perfectly human reaction.
During the course of the story, Ellie finds herself on her own and trapped by a gang of thugs who intend to do some awful things to her, so she endeavors to escape, like you do. In the course of escaping, this scared 14-year-old murders her way through a pile of bad guys, only to find herself in a showdown with the leader of the gang. They stalk each other through a burning old restaurant, beating the piss out of each other the whole way, until Ellie finally defeats the guy, barely, by the skin of her teeth. At this point, Joel turns up, and Ellie collapses into his arms in tears.
Which, let’s be honest here, folks, is a perfectly normal reaction. She just did a whole bunch of horrible things to other human beings in order to survive a terrifying situation. She’s allowed to freak out now that the danger is passed. That’s what people – women and men – do in real life when they survive through frightening circumstances. When she’s done with her freak-out, Ellie sucks it up and gets back to business, because that’s how real people get through life.
The Black Widow, The Avengers
Back in 2012 this little movie came out. It’s kind of obscure, so you might not have seen it. It was called The Avengers? No? You should see it. It was good. Anyway.
One of the star Avengers was, of course, the Black Widow, Natasha Romanoff. I was pretty happy with Natasha as a character in this movie. It would have been really easy to write this character as a sultry sexpot and leave it at that, but that’s not how it worked out, because Joss Whedon. Natasha stands toe to toe with the male heroes and kicks every ass that looks at her cross-eyed. She even buffaloed Loki, the god of lies and trickery. She was a really great, strong, fully fleshed-out, female character.
Unlike with Ellie, I can’t really point to any one article or blog post hating on Natasha, but based on commentary scattered all over the Internet, this character was all sorts of “problematic.” (Here’s a few posts to look at: 1, 2, 3, 4.)
Very few people outright hate how the Black Widow was handled in The Avengers. All the criticism for this character seems to devolve into “She’s really cool, just not cool enough.” A lot of complaints I’ve read revolve around Loki calling her a “mewling quim” and how that relates in various ways to the generally subpar, somehow anti-feminist tone of the movie and why the character isn’t “cool enough.” Many other forum or blog comments or blog posts mention the fact that the Black Widow is the only female Avenger (“the Smurfette Principle“), which I think might be a more valid criticism if the movie weren’t already so busy. I mean, honestly, that movie was full. I’m not sure where you’d tuck another character.
Another criticism deals with how Natasha snowjobbed Loki. From Cleolinda’s blog post,
Although I was really disturbed during that scene with Loki when I realized that her “skills” weren’t actually sexual seduction–they involved her making herself vulnerable enough to emotional and/or physical torture that men would stop guarding themselves and start monologuing their inner thoughts. I don’t know if it was a good disturbed or a bad disturbed.
Once again, Black Widow allows a man to play on her apparent vulnerabilities and weakness, and in doing so, tricks him into admitting his plan.
But this time, as she turns away, you realize the vulnerability wasn’t faked. She wasn’t in control the same way she was in that earlier scene. Loki got to her. You see it in her expression, and you see it again later.
Except… I’ve watched this scene over and over (It’s a favorite movie. Don’t judge me.), and I’m not seeing this “you realize the vulnerability wasn’t faked” thing that they’re talking about. I took the whole thing for an act on her part, particularly after she turns around again, all business, and thanks Loki for cooperating. I thought that was the whole purpose of the Chair Fu scene – setting up the fake-out in the Loki scene.
And even if it wasn’t, if the point was to show that one scene was an act – the Chair Fu fake-out – and the other wasn’t – Loki – I’m not necessarily sure that’s bad. I mean, if anything, it would make the character even tougher, right? The fact that she would be both capable of and willing to cut herself to the bone to accomplish what she needs to with Loki just makes her even better at her job. That’s a kind of strength that you almost never see in any character.
Finally, a lot of people point out how Natasha was curled up in a ball having a very quiet little nervous breakdown after being nearly killed by the Hulk as some kind of “See, that’s what I mean, always making the wimminz weak” moment, to which I can only reply: Jesus Christ, people, that was the goddamn Incredible Hulk. I’m not sure that Marvel even has another character who can reliably go toe-to-toe with the Hulk, let alone beat him.
Much like in Ellie’s circumstances, after nearly being bitch-slapped into a greasy red smear by the Incredible Hulk, you’re absolutely allowed to take a minute and go change your shorts, okay? Guy, gal, whatever – you’re allowed to snivel. That’s the Hulk. He did this to Loki and beat the shit out of Thor. Twice. In the same movie. And again, when Natasha was needed, she got up, knocked the dust off, and went back to work.
Equal isn’t good enough?
Here’s problem with quibbly little criticisms like this: what it’s showing people is that being a strong, capable, fully-articulated person isn’t good enough for a female character. She can’t be equal – she has to be better than everyone else in all circumstances. She can’t have human flaws. She can’t be frightened, or upset, even when it’s warranted. She can’t be human. She has to be some kind of goddess-like Mary Sue.
Guys, that’s not better than a “damsel in distress,” that’s arguably worse. When you fuss at good female characters, for quantifiably stupid reasons, you’re holding women to a higher standard just because they’re women.
We’re not aiming for female characters in fiction to be better than men. We just want them to be as good as the male characters.