I read a novel recently that once again prompted me to reflect on a common and highly disheartening downfall of far too many awesome female protagonists/focal characters in literature, television, movies, etc.
The composition I delved into began as many other fabulous works do, portraying the shift in social, sexual, ideological, economic, and gendered thinking of a young woman on the cusp of adulthood as she matures into a strong, thoughtful, intelligent, independent individual ready to take on the world and kick some ass. The overarching premise and plot of the novel was excellent as well, with the surrounding characters and descriptions realistic and engaging to read.
‘Yes!’ I excitedly thought as I read through the first segment of the novel. ‘This is a wonderful topic to focus on, and I can’t wait to see what confrontations this character battles as she begins to shake up her self-identity and the world around her.’
But then, out of nowhere, tragedy struck in the form of a male character.
Now, before I go on, I should clarify: I have nothing male characters. Some of my favorite books, shows, and movies focus on male protagonists who I just can’t get enough of. But, what I absolutely dread reading or seeing is the introduction of a focal male character who completely overshadows or degrades the focus or general badassery of a female leading character. And, to the pain of my heart, that’s exactly what I witnessed taking place when I delved into the next segment of such a promising story.
The tragedy, I’m sure, is familiar to many readers:
First, girl meets boy. (Okay, I’m with you so far, no problems yet. The more the merrier, I say!) Soon after, they fall in love. (A bit predictable perhaps, but I’m a fan of love, so no complaints here!) Then, focus on girl’s accomplishments and goals slowly dwindle as the focus on their romantic life takes over. (Okay, I’m grumbling slightly, but I’m willing to hang on in the hopes that this is more of an interlude to the main plot line focusing on feminism and the growth of female self-identity.) Suddenly, girl stops critically thinking, participating, or otherwise asserting her strength as a female and instead does little but worry over the thoughts and feelings of her male counterpart, who may or may not take over (i.e., dominate) or otherwise overshadow the female character. (“What..? But…? Where…?” Much confusion and anguish for the loss of female character ensues.)
Thank goodness this doesn’t happen in every story with a strong female character, but unfortunately it happens in far too many of them. This is troublesome in twofold, I believe. On the one hand, it painfully undermines the prestige of the female characters and subverts them to a position unequal to their male co-stars/characters. It sends the message to female and male readers alike that while, yes, women can be strong, they are only so when alone and thus with no other option; once a man comes along, he can take care of it (and her).
Needless to say, this type of thinking drives me and I’m sure most other female readers (and I bet plenty of male readers as well) crazy. As if a woman can’t remain strong beside a strong (or weak) male character. Puh-lease.
And that brings me to the second problem: in addition to creating inequality among genders and subjugating women to a position of less power than men, it degrades female/male relationships, insinuating that the only possible outcome for a romance between the two is one where the male plays the hero and the female plays the sidekick.
It still boggles my mind that an author/writer can face this problem in her or his composition, and then simply do nothing about it, or fail to recognize it all together. But time and time again, it happens. Worst of all, perhaps, such portrayals are often found in young adult fiction, giving young adult women a skewed image of 1) what women are capable of, and 2) what equality in a female/male relationship should look like.
There are, or course, so many other problems that stem off of this one (like why it can’t be a woman who saves another woman, or two men who fall in love), as well as many other negative stereotypes and associations that come from this too common story arch for female characters (like why the woman can’t be the stronger of the two halves, or how one combines activism with a love life [whether you’re female or male]). However, the two aforementioned problems were ones that really struck me; I feel that these are two of the biggest hurtles still to be overcome and, if successfully dealt with, will undoubtedly aid in properly addressing many of the other associated issues. Or so is my hope.
All the best,
Paige O’Rourke | CALYX Intern