Saturday, January 4, 2020

Why We Need to Let Female Protagonists Just Be Protagonists

Have you ever noticed that people tend to be hypercritical of female protagonists? Specifically female protagonists in action or speculative fiction stories?


Let's talk about that.

This is something that I've been observing and thinking about for years, both as an author and a consumer. It is something that always kind of bothered me. However, the more I publish and the more I get into books and movies, the more I start to notice things.

Things that I find...nonsensical. Frustrating. Disturbing.

People have massive arguments and discussions surrounding female protagonists that simply aren't had when a male is the head of a book or movie or franchise. A single female-led story is bashed left and right for containing feminist agendas, for reinforcing gender roles, for undermining traditional family roles, for having a flawed protagonist, for having a perfect protagonist, and on and on and on.

It doesn't make any sense. To me, female characters are just characters. I don't place extra expectations on them. Why would I?

But apparently that's not the right thought-process. Apparently female protagonists must be held to impossible, contradictory, and sometimes flat-out insane standards.

It must stop, people. Let's take a look at all the ways we ostracize female characters and all the reasons that's messed up.

Why We Need to Let Female Protagonists Just Be Protagonists

1. Putting female characters in their own category. This happens on a regular basis and, while not always intentionally malicious, is pretty undermining. For instance, think about how often you hear the phrase (or even say the phrase): "She's a well-developed female character." Or "She's one of the best female character's I've read." Now think about how often you hear or read or say "He's a well-developed male character."

It's a stark difference, isn't it?

See, when people like a male character, they just say "He's a great character" or "he's one of the best characters I've read." They don't feel the need to clarify his sex. But, when it comes to female characters, they do.

There's also that whole issue of people who think that children's books with female leads are "girl books" meant for a female audience, yet children's books with male leads are simply books meant for any reader.

This is signaling that people view male characters as the standard. It also says that female characters should go in their own category where they are judged by a different set of rules and labels. And, unfortunately, these rules and labels are often nonsensical and impossible to follow, such as...

2. Incorrectly labeling female characters as Mary Sues or Manic Pixie Dream Girls. For anyone who isn't familiar, here are the basic definitions of these labels:

Mary Sue: A seemingly perfect female character who has little to no flaws, is often overpowered, and is naturally good at pretty much everything.

Manic Pixie Dream Girl: A sweet, eccentric, and often very "girly-girl" type who has no real purpose in a story except to help a (usually mopey) male character become a better person.

Critics of female characters love these terms and often throw them around as a broad, catch-all way to  put down a female character they don't like.

For instance, a very popular example of a Mary Sue is Rey from Star Wars. People like to call her a Mary Sue as a way to explain why she's not an interesting character to them. She picks up the Force easily, she's randomly a great pilot, and it is always understood that she will 100% win her struggle with the Dark Side.

But you know who else this describes? Switch the pronouns in the above sentence to "he" and you've got Luke Skywalker (from the original trilogy).  Rey is simply a less-whiny version of Luke.

And, yet, nobody bashes Luke for being a Gary Stu. They may not like him, but at least they take the time to explain why, rather than labelling him with a broad, sex-specific catch-all term.

The same goes for Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Any cute, confident, supportive female character is in danger of being termed a Manic Pixie Dream Girl simply because she has her life together and has decided to help a less fortunate character.

Now, to anyone who is about to grumble at me, I will say this: Yes. Yes, Mary Sue and Manic Pixie Dream Girl characters do exist as actual annoying tropes. Yes, these labels can be used correctly.

However, they often aren't. And that's not even what makes them so sticky and troublesome.

What makes these terms problematic is that they are labels that only exist for female characters.

There are absolutely derogatory terms for male characters ("boy scout," or "white knight" being used to describe flat, overly goody two-shoes male characters, or "Broody Boy" being used to put down the darker, more emo types). However, they are not used as often or as incorrectly, and they don't always carry a 100% negative connotation.

For instance, Finn from Star Wars is a total Boy Scout, but most people don't mind. In fact, many like him because of that trait. If people dislike Finn, they don't often use the term Boy Scout because it's not as widely known. Instead, they take the time to explain why they don't like him by using complete, logical sentences like all normal mature humans should ("He lacks any real character arc and his traumatic backstory doesn't seem to impact him the way it naturally would," rather than "I don't like him 'cuz he's a Boy Scout!!!!"

The same is not generally true for critics who label female characters as Mary Sue or Manic Pixie Dream Girl. They (often incorrectly) slap those labels on with very little provocation and little to no explanation.

3. Constantly scrutinizing their appearance. Ummm. Guys. I feel like it's obvious why this is bad, but it's still happening, so I guess we need to talk about it. Again.

Remember that time when the first Wonder Woman trailer dropped and people started going insane over her perfectly shaved armpits? It sparked all sorts of arguments about how this was either feminist or anti-feminist. People got so fixated on her hairlessness that they ignored the fact that you could see her armpit because she had her arms raised while fighting in battle like a badass. Yeah.

Or how about that time people got upset about Rey being "too skinny" to be a good fighter? Like muscle mass has anything to do with being able to use the Force....?

Or what about when people lost their minds arguing over how Brienne of Tarth wore normal armor rather than armor that showed off her boobs (AKA: "boob plate" armor)? I don't even watch Game of Thrones and I still heard about that one.

Or when people were arguing about what message it sends that Bo Peep wore pants in the newest Toy Story movie.

It's gross, guys. Women come in all shapes and sizes. Some shave, some don't. Some wear dresses, some wear pants. None of it has anything to do with how well-developed a character is, so there's no reason for us to be making any kind of an issue out of it. Stop trying to fit female characters into tiny boxes.

4. Not letting them have flat character arcs. Before we get started, let's define some stuff. A flat arc = a character whose personality and motives don't really change. Instead, they change the world/characters/plot around them. It's not a bad thing. A flat character = a character who has no real emotional depth or complexity. It is almost always a bad thing.

Take Captain Marvel vs Captain America. Captain America has a flat character arc: He starts his story as a good person who's being kept down and must fight not only for himself but for others, too. He's an incredible character and I, like many others, absolutely love him.

Captain Marvel has pretty much the same arc: She starts the story as a good person who's being kept down and must fight not only for herself but for others, too. And, yet, so many people bash on this aspect of her character because they think it's pushing the "feminist agenda" that women are perfect, unflawed, and above needing to change.


You can't be okay with flat character arcs for male characters, but get upset when female characters have them. You can either always find flat character arcs socially problematic or never find them socially problematic.

Be consistent, please.

5. Pitting them against each other. You've heard the squabbles. "Moana is better than Rapunzel because she don't need no man!" or "Cinderella is a superior female character because she's not afraid to be 'feminine'!"


You know it's possible to like multiple female characters at once without tearing other ones down, right? Even if there's a female character you love and one you don't, there's no need to pit them against each other. Simply discuss why you like or dislike the individual characters without mudslinging or stepping on other character's necks. It's not hard.

This is a weird trend because we really don't do this with male characters, do we? There's not a lot of "Aragorn is better than Legolas because he's more ripped and 'masculine'!" or "Superman is better than Batman because he's able to settle down with a woman and Batman isn't!"

Soooooo. Maybe stop being so weird about comparing female characters?

6. Pitting them against male characters. Did you know that you can like a male character and a female character at the same time. *gasps* Yep. You can! Please refer to the point 5 because yeah, all of that logic applies to this point.

7. Generally criticizing them for things you would never criticize a male character for.  When you're about to go all hypercritical on a female character, ask yourself: "Would I apply this same nitpick to a male character?" This is important to do because female characters are often subject to very specific criticisms. Aside from the critiques I mentioned above, here are some other female-specific standards:

  • People get into arguments over a female character marrying vs being single because clearly that's forcing an agenda, yet marital status is not generally a concern when discussing male characters. 
  • People get weird about female action heroes being mothers ("They're enforcing gender stereotypes!" or "Look, this is how all female characters should be!"), but nobody batted an eye when the entire plot of the Mandelorian revolved around him taking on the role of a father.
  • People tend to nitpick a female character's profession ("They just made her a mechanic to fulfill an agenda," or "Making her a babysitter is heteronormative"), but how often do people take issue with a male character's profession? 

Now, before you get me wrong, I need to make something very clear:

I am not saying we shouldn't critique female protagonists (or female characters in general). We should. But we should be critiquing them the way we would any other character. After all, some female protagonists suck, some are amazing, some are just mediocre. Call it like it is and move on.

My point is that we should not be holding female characters to insane standards, double standards, or pretty much any other standard that we wouldn't use for other character types.

Put simply: We need to let female protagonists just be protagonists.

Stop putting every female hero under a microscope unless you plan to treat every single hero you read or watch in the exact same manner.

*takes deep breath*

Okay. I think I'm done now.

What do you think? As always, I'm very interested to hear your thoughts! All I ask is that you please keep your comments (both to this original post by me and to any posted comments by others) respectful. Thank you!

Related articles:
The Do's and Don'ts of Writing Strong Female Characters
Writing Awesome Male Characters: What You're Doing Wrong
How to Identify and Obliterate Sexism in Your Novel
7 Tips for Writing Characters of the Opposite Sex

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  1. Great points, Hannah! I don’t hear your perspective shared a lot, but I think you’ve just voiced the truth for a lot of us. And if I may shine a ray of hope: I believe the loudest critics, the kinds you’ve been discussing, are still a minority compared to the way most people view female characters. Sometimes the fringiest critics have the loudest reviews and get the most attention. But I believe there’s many us who share your perspective and just want to read about believable characters, well written, without them being held to the fires of agenda-saturated criticism. Thanks for daring to write this!

  2. Very well-written article, Hannah! Thank you for taking the time to write this. It reminds me of a conversation I had with my little brothers where they were concerned about a certain author having a lot of female characters. They did not like that and I kept telling them that it didn't matter. The female characters were well-written and awesome! Just because the author had more female character than male characters didn't mean anything and shouldn't.

  3. I enjoyed this article, and it made me pause to think about how I think and talk about characters. Thankfully I'm not so deep in any fandom that I've been caught up in the hoopla over Gal Gadot's armpits or any of that, though I do remember a few debacles here and there in the nerdverse.

    I have learned there is a relatively small but very loud contingent of humanity that lives to be unhappy, and will stir the pot on principle. They are not exclusive to any demographic or interest. It's easy to assume they're just miserable and want others to be miserable, but I don't know if it's that simple.

    I do know that there will always be those who complain, and complain at the top of their lungs. There are those who will create art exclusively to push an agenda one way or another. For my part, I'm content to remain somewhat blissfully ignorant of trends and create my characters for what I write as they appear to me in my head.

    It's been said that reading can seriously damage your ignorance, and that's technically true, but only technically. Education CAN damage your ignorance, or it could reinforce it, depending on what you learn. I can educate myself on popular trends and get myself twisted up over whether it's "proper" for my characters to shave, or I can just tell a good story.

    You can educate yourself into idiocy if you learn all the wrong things. You can be so educated you're useless for practical matters. I'd rather not educate myself on popular trends according to this or that group, and be content to tell a good story. If my characters buck this or that trend, so be it.

    We as artists in society get caught up in trying to make rules based on principles confused by our cognitive dissonance. Surprise, surprise, we end up never being happy that way, because we trade enjoyment of art for its own sake with checking art against our rules, without realizing our rules are based on double standards and contradictions.

    Tell a good story, first, and critique art on that principle. If we forget trying to force agendas into our stories, and forget trying to judge art based on our agendas, we'll be better for it.

  4. Great post! It's actually something I've been thinking about a lot recently, particularly about Rey and Luke. I actually think Rey shows more personality than Luke does in his first two films :P
    Another common double standard is to do with fighting. People get so worked up about a female character beating a male character in a fight because this is "unrealistic", even though male characters regularly take on multiple opponents at once, go on fighting after a head injury, or something similarly unlikely. I mean, if we're going to argue for more realistic fight scenes, why shouldn't it apply to both genders?

  5. I think the policing of female characters over accuracy is hilarious because we're all so very different. There's no way a writer can satisfy every female viewer in one TV series or movie. Just because our personal ideals aren't being represented doesn't automatically make the character a poor one.

  6. I get upset when the filmmakers are in your face with the feminist stuff. Both those who are for and against it need to let female characters be female characters, I agree. I see the feminist stuff more in movies than books at the moment, and am hoping that this is a phase that dissipates quite quickly.

  7. I've thought so much about this! And I'm ecstatic that you posted this. People need to know that at the end of the day characters are characters and judging them with equal standards irrespective of their sex is a right even figurative beings, that we create, deserve. I hope to publish my book and I would find it offensive if someone called me a 'great female author'.

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