We live in a world where media is taking a new step forward. After years of male-dominated story-telling, women are finally being placed as protagonists in mainstream media. It’s getting almost as easy to find action and adventure shows set around female characters as it is to find female led romantic comedies.  As a result of that, however, we have to be aware of how these women are portrayed. It’s great to see women on screen, but simply placing them in lead roles isn’t a guarantee of good character.  If we want to have good female characters, we have to hold them up to high standards.

As I said before, women have not always had great representation in action and adventure shows. They might have been included, but the show was usually focused on male characters. Paul Dini, creator of Harley Quinn, and writer for classic shows like YOUNG JUSTICE, confirmed this in a 2013 interview with Kevin Smith on Smith’s FAT MAN ON BATMAN podcast.

“That’s the thing, you know I hate being Mr. Sour Grapes here, but I’ll just lay it on the line: that’s the thing that got us cancelled on Tower Prep, honest-to-God was, like, ‘we need boys, but we need girls right there, right one step behind the boys’—this is the network talking—’one step behind the boys, not as smart as the boys, not as interesting as the boys, but right there.’ And then we began writing stories that got into the two girls’ back stories, and they were really interesting. And suddenly we had families and girls watching, and girls really became a big part of our audience, in sort of like they picked up that Harry Potter type of serialized way, which is what The Batman and [indistinct]’s really gonna kill. But, the Cartoon Network was saying, ‘F***, no, we want the boys’ action, it’s boys’ action, this goofy boy humor we’ve gotta get that in there. And we can’t—’ and I’d say, but look at the numbers, we’ve got parents watching, with the families, and then when you break it down—’Yeah, but the—so many—we’ve got too many girls. We need more boys.'”

It’s not too surprising to hear this, since change in media is always difficult.  I can especially remember the sharp divisions of ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ shows in my childhood.  However, that’s no longer the case.  The current world is one filled with men proclaiming love for MY LITTLE PONY, and girls going to conventions dressed as Loki and other male heroes (hell, some men go dressed are Harley Quinn). Its become far more accepted to be a fan of anything now, and because of that, there’s no stigma for anyone liking anything.  As a result, gender definitions have become blurred in fandom, and so focusing on a single gender is a viewpoint that clearly isn’t acceptable anymore.

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Clearly.

So media outlets are faced with the prospect of creating a variety of different characters to appeal to an extremely diverse fanbase.  This includes strong female leads or these outlets risk being called out-of-date, or worse, anti-feminist.  However, this also means a wider audience to please, which has led to what I call the ‘boy-friendly’ female protagonist–women who are placed in the lead role but exhibit qualities more in tune with a  male audience.  Recent examples are Jyn Erso from ROGUE ONE and Korra from LEGEND OF KORRA. Both characters are presented as tough characters, more then capable of fighting and handling their respective villains. It’s unquestionably great to watch women be treated as equals on the battlefield and be seen as strong figures.  However, the story often works to keep them centered in that role and doing so can rob them of other characteristics.

SALON and Channel Awesome’s Doug Walker have both criticized ROGUE for having little character development, with Walker going as far as saying Jyn is a cut-and-paste of FORCE AWAKENS’ Rey. Jyn does display many of the problems inherent with a focus on being a tough character above all else–she expresses no interest in the larger picture of the rebellion at first, and her reason to join (the loss of her father which becomes an unconvincing speech about hope) doesn’t feel true to her character. Worse, her actions put her at the whim of the writers, who are already more focused on an event (the stealing of the Death Star blueprints) instead of developing their characters beyond their assigned roles. As a result, Jyn’s progress feels either lifted from Rey or not properly thought out. Jyn loses her parents to the Empire and grows up in a way that makes her a hardened character that looks out for herself (similar to Rey). The audience doesn’t see this progression, which robs us, and Jyn, of effective character development (which Rey did get). She is pulled into the Rebellion with the slim hope of finding her fathe and advancing their cause is just a fringe benefit.  Then after finding and then losing her father, Jyn fully joins the Rebellion, encouraging the formation of the Rogue 1 Squadron with a speech about hope.

READ: Interested in a character with hope? Read our review of FAITH #1.

That speech is where the problem lies.  Jyn has spent most her life, and time onscreen, putting herself first.  She has just lost her main reason for hope, and is rebelling against the very people that brought her into their war. Yet she gives a speech about hope. Why?  It’s clear Jyn’s hope was finding her father, and now, that’s gone. Yet here she is, telling the Alliance that she previously didn’t care about, “Rebellions are build on hope.” Jyn had no interest in the Rebellion before, but now she’s telling them what they should stand for?  It falls flat because Jyn never showed any interest in the Rebellion beyond using it to find her father. Now, they’re planning to give up instead of going after the men who killed him, and Jyn can’t have that.  So she makes a speech about hope, trying to keep them on track so she can get what she wants. Unlike Rey, who had her own interests but was willing to put them on hold when a greater need came up, Jyn manipulates others to get what she wants, ignoring the greater need.  It also harms her character, because the writers need her to be the heroic focus, but ignore the real reasons behind her actions.

Female Protagonist 1

If Jyn made a speech about getting revenge, it would fit better with her character. It would even fit with the film, since many of the Alliance members have likely lost family to the Empire. But doing so would show her (and the Rebellion) as selfish and uncaring to the Alliance’s bigger ideals. The plot requires a heroic female, so they try to mask her dark side with fighting prowess, a rebellious nature, and a moment of hollow heroism. It’s an attempt to keep her both as the hero we should admire and in that ‘boy-friendly’ mode for the story. But that doesn’t change that Jyn is fighting for herself, not the Rebellion.  Her own goals are what matters, and we, as the audience, are supposed to embrace her as a strong female protagonist because she fights and acts tough.

READ: Are female populated universes a gimmick or not? Find out here!

A character similar to Jyn is the title character of LEGEND OF KORRA, the sequel series to AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER. Korra is the newest Avatar, a succession of beings capable of controlling the four classic elements. In contrast to Aang, the previous Avatar, Korra is quick to fight, headstrong, and impatient. This was a good move by the writers since it avoids making Korra into a rehash of Aang and presents her with a new set of challenges. Unfortunately, it leads to other problems as well.  Korra’s flaws are not truly addressed in the first season. She starts with the goal of learning to control air, which requires peace of mind and is based on a style of intricate movements, but she abandons it after two episodes to participate in an AMERICAN GLADIATOR-style bending sport using her powers (which she uses aggressively and without finesse). Throughout the season, we don’t see her training again, but at the end of the season, she gains control of air because she was under stress. This is especially bad because Korra could have learned to temper her flaws by embracing air since it requires patience and thought before action-qualities Korra lacks. Yet she avoids learning this to keep with her aggressive style and simply gets the ability after doing nothing to earn it. Its another example of writers sacrificing character growth and development for a plot that needs to happen and a rigid character mold.

These problems continue in the second season, where Korra’s impatience causes her to inadvertently start a civil war between the peoples of the Water Tribes (who dwell on the opposing North and South Poles). As tensions rise, we see Korra try to force peace, largely because she is ineffectual at diplomacy, all the while refusing to accept her role in creating the conflict. When war does break out, Korra tries to gain help from Republic City, but the president won’t send military aid since he (correctly) states that the City has no involvement in the war and therefore cannot risk lives. Despite his diplomatic aid, Korra literally attempts to steal the army, and then to get help from other nations, before eventually coming to the realization that she has indeed, caused the war. When she does, however, her mentor Tenzin has this response.

Korra This is all my fault.
Tenzin No, don’t blame yourself. This is Unalaq’s doing.

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Stupid, Tenzin, Stupid.

Korra finally has a moment of self-awareness and growth, yet her mentor quickly shifts the blame away. It not only paints Tenzin as a poor mentor, but it also gives the idea that no one around Korra believes she can overcome her flaws, so they constantly comfort her and aid her by doing what she can’t do for herself. Again, this is because the plot requires her to be a hero, even as Korra is portrayed like a child with incredible power with no one truly willing to temper her. Personally, I was instantly struck by memories of THE TWILIGHT ZONE’s IT’S A GOOD LIFE, about a little boy with god-like power that was showered with praise because everyone feared him.  Korra is a more moral version of that character here; I was waiting for someone to say, “It’s a good thing you did that, Korra, real good.”

Eventually, Korra does have growth and learns to empathize and relate to others better, instead of forcing solutions through power.  But these changes come close to the end of the series, with many fans complaining that they should’ve come much earlier in the show. Yet, the overall plot shows Korra as a strong female protagonist, again, because she fights and has great power. But her impatience, lack of growth, inability to learn, and childish behavior are not qualities that girls, or anyone, should emulate.

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The fascinating thing about Jyn and Korra is that both characters embody typical male qualities (toughness, a rebellious nature, fighting prowess) while eschewing anything remotely feminine (caring, a willingness to learn, patience). These may look like women, but these characters are men in disguise, designed to give the illusion of female empowerment by executives obsessed with catering to a male audience. Worse, while they show flaws, they are ignored because the plot they’re in needs them tough and unchanging. Proper character is sacrificed to fit a mold and that’s not acceptable.  It’s not enough to simply give women a gun or powers and slap their image onto a movie poster. They need to be fleshed out enough that their flaws are acknowledged and learned from, not hidden so boys can enjoy them.  And we, as the audience, need to be aware of the difference between a poster and a character.

(In Part 2, I examine female leads that can appeal to both genders and are more well rounded)

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3 Comments

  1. Eric Nierstedt

    October 24, 2017 at 5:38 pm

    There is one important fact you left out Mr. Nreiziev…the correct spelling of my name.

    Reply

  2. Ahsim Nreiziev

    October 24, 2017 at 4:26 pm

    Very much this.

    I would add that Mr. Niedstedt doesn’t seem to be able to grasp subtle Character Growth. For example, the Korra from “The Guide” is CLEARLY distinctly different from the Korra in “Peacekeepers”, just 4 Episodes earlier. That, in itself, is Character Growth — and it isn’t rolled back at any point either, as some claim Korra’s growth at the end of Book 1 was.
    Speaking of Book 1: Mr. Niedstedt doesn’t seem to have been paying attention, as it’s clearly shown what process Korra goes through to learn Airbending. She learns the Airbender Forms through what he so derisively described as an “AMERICAN GLADIATOR-style bending sport [where Korra] uses her powers”. Of course, she misses the spiritual connection, so even though she knows the moves she can’t actually BEND any air. So, why was she able to in her fight against Amon? Well, Aang answers that at the very end of the Season, doesn’t he? When people (at least in the “Avatar” world) are at their lowest point, they are most open to the Spiritual side of their lives. Having her bending, on which she predicated her entire Identity, be taken away; and seeing Mako, who she was in love with (or at least she thought she was…..), about to suffer the same fate, was enough for her to tap into her Airbending capacities. Of course, she still learned Airbending in an almost Physical way — by pushing her body and her mind to, and past, their limits — so she wouldn’t have learned to not charge head-first into conflicts she aims to solve. Hence her part in the Civil War [which, by the way, WAS caused by Unalaq; Korra just made it a little bit worse]. Aang giving her her Bending back also underlined the importance of Spirit-related training to her, so it makes perfect sense that she would leap at the opportunity to learn from him. And even though he was an Evil Bastard, it turns out that Korra WAS right in that his training was the training she needed at that point.

    Of course, I suspect you know all of this; I just wanted to point out some further discrepancies in the original author’s article.

    Reply

  3. Kay

    August 29, 2017 at 9:57 am

    In Korra’s case (see Colleen Etman’s article,) you’re glossing over Korra’s feminine qualities just because she’s *mostly* tomboyish. She’s better with kids than Asami, has cried around 10 times throughout the series whether out of fear, sadness or joy (reuniting with Aang’s grandkids,) with said tears rarely being silent like Asami’s handful of quiet cries, plus the encounter with Amon in “The Voice in the Night” not only justifies Korra’s return to pro-bending (because she’s in over her head,) but also breaks down that her toughness is a FRONT (as does Zaheer in Book 4) and Book 2’s ending was very much about her taking a non-aggressive stance to resolve the issues from meditating into her spirit form and peacefully using spiritbending to dissolve Unavaatu to civilly ending her relationship with Mako. This article’s reminding me of James Cameron’s mansplaining feminism to Patty Jenkins that she pointed out that women can and should be allowed to be *anything* just as a male character can, so Korra’s too complex to be written off as just a “boy” character, ffs.

    Reply

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