I spent the weekend at ConCarolinas. It’s a marvelous SF/fantasy con located in Charlotte NC. It’s my home con since it’s only 20 miles from my house. Let me tell you, there’s something seriously nice about getting to play with my friends all day and still sleep in my own bed at night. Even if I only get four hours of sleep, it’s still My Bed. But I digress…
One of the panels I served on was called “The Rise of the Heroine: A look at the best (and worst) female protagonists, past and present.” When I’m assigned a panel, I always try to do a little reading up on the current wisdom, just to have something interesting to say. But in doing the research, it suddenly occurred to me that I was somewhat bothered by the fact that we even had to have a panel about female characters. There certainly wasn’t a panel called “The Hero: the best and worst male protagonists in speculative fiction”. There never is. Because we’re still all buying in to the idea that female characters are unusual and rare and endangered. In 2009, 61% of fantasy readers were women. In 2010, that number jumped to 85%. Roc, one of the biggest fantasy publishers, has only one successful male series protagonist – Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden. I’m told by someone who has the inside word that they’re not even especially looking for male series characters at Roc. So with this kind of information at hand, why are we still looking at female characters the way we do?
Let’s look at some of the common problems that plague female characters.
Women are too often used as catalysts to drive the hero into his mission. Romance is an overused motivator – the hero’s lover is kidnapped/threatened/enchanted and the hero has to go out in search of whatever he needs to rescue her. It’s great that love is the power, but I’m somewhat over the idea that there’s always a woman who needs rescuing. Frankly, when I was a kid I played at princesses same as lots of other little girls, but that faded as soon as I realized that the boys got to run around the woods and shoot their bows and have sword fights. Action’s always more fun than standing still, so it’s little wonder that female characters who twiddle their thumbs waiting for their salvation aren’t interesting. That waiting makes the woman an object, not much different from the Ark of the Covenant. Except that the Ark could, at least, defend itself once the lid was removed. Many times the woman is unable to do anything except pine away in her tower (or sleep in a glass coffin in the woods.) A better use of this catalyst would be for the woman herself to take a hand in her own rescue. Chew through the bindings, slip out the tower window and climb down the wall before the villain realizes she’s gone. I wouldn’t mind seeing that scene – the hero charges in, fights and subdues the villain, then the villain’s eyes widen in horror as he realizes the prize has run off and there’s nothing to bargain with any longer. Not to mention the hero’s dismay at knowing he hasn’t really rescued anyone. Hijinks ensue.
Then there’s the death catalyst. The hero is driven by the loss of his mother/daughter/lover. Bambi doesn’t toughen up until his mama becomes some shadowy hunter’s dinner. It’s a little scary to think of how many mothers start out Disney stories already dead (and makes me concerned about Walt’s feelings toward his own mom.) I’m reading a book right now in which the protagonist is searching for the man who killed his daughter, and while the story is very good, it’s still leaning on that age-old prop of the hero’s broken heart. It’s a little discouraging to know that with far too many stories, the only value my gender has is in making the man miss me.
What about woman as decoration, or reward? In The Lord of the Rings, Arwen is not much more than a pretty prize Aragorn can win if he survives the war. Queen Guinevere, in the musical “Camelot”, despite her saucy behavior and flirty talk, isn’t even tough enough to run away when she knows Arthur’s soldiers are coming to arrest her. She instead lets herself be taken, certain that either Lancelot will save her, or Arthur’s heart will soften before any real damage is done. I have to wonder what she was thinking as she stood on the pyre. Oh wait, she wasn’t thinking – she was busy letting her hair blow in the breeze. How much cooler was Rapunzel in the recent movie “Tangled”? The handsome thief climbed her tower and tried to romance the seemingly innocent girl, but she konked him on the head with a frying pan and tied him up. That’s the kind of heroine we need to see more of.
The audience for the panel agreed that we needed to shift the paradigm. No more milkmaids sitting around waiting to be rescued, no more princesses in towers brushing their hair until the hero shows up. No more letting the villain kill women just so the hero can feel empowered. As writers, we can take care to create characters who are multi-dimensional and real – not just the women, but the men, too. Men cry. Women fight. I wish for a day when the panels I see at cons have nothing to do with gender, and everything to do with character alone. Drop the stereotypes and change the world!
I know this can be a tough subject, so my loins are girded. Tell me what you think.