Justine Larbalestier has a post about "how many readers seem to hate female characters more than they hate male,"
spurred by Sarah Rees Brennan's post about how we all "tend to be harder on women."
A long time ago (10 years-ish), my best friend told me that based off the characters I had written, either I had a huge problem with women or she did. Ironically she is now the one who jokes about being a misogynist, but then again I was writing Mary Sues
. I've thought about the whole problem of female characters - especially written by female writers - a lot over the years.
I write mainly male characters. Never an all-male cast, but mostly male characters. I continue to struggle writing women. Part of this, I'm sure, is because a lot of the things I liked growing up were really male-dominated (I mean, this show
is what shaped my adolescence, for better or for worse). Not a whole lot of impressive female characters in sight - except, of course, in Xena: Warrior Princess, which I still love (my favorite character is Callisto the psychopath
, in case you're wondering). Xena Tangent
: Xena was so much cooler than Hercules: The Blah Blah Blah. I don't think it was because all the major characters were women, because I didn't even realize that until a lot later - it was more like, all the major characters were interesting characters who had hella rollercoaster lives and developed as people and all that. Xena and Gabrielle got so far beyond hero and sidekick, probably because Xena used to be evil and Gabrielle wasn't just comic relief. I suspect this happened because the hero-sidekick motif is very male and the writers didn't know how to slide Xena and Gabrielle into it. And because they were travelers they couldn't sit at home and talk about men to fulfill their own gender motif. So the writers actually had to make characters! Wow!
First off: what does it mean to "like" a character? Is it the same thing as "liking" a person in your real life?
I. Liking Characters: The Art Critic.
There are some characters I like watching that I wouldn't ever befriend in real life, and there are some characters that I appreciate for being richly developed, interesting characters even though if they were real, they'd be pretty despicable people (like Schillinger on Oz). I am of the opinion that if all the characters are richly developed and interesting, a good deal of this female-character-backlash goes away. Sometimes this looks really difficult. HBO shows make it look really difficult because just one of their major characters would totally blow the minds of the suits at the big networks. But making characters that are all at least believable as people and not as cartoonish stereotyped instruments of social control is not actually that hard. Good Example:
Law & Order, The Original Series. I like all the "A.D.A. babes," and especially Abbie Carmichael (who says things like "That pathetic excuse for a woman has a hole in her soul" and "I've got a solution that'll make everybody happy. No deals for anyone. Let's hang 'em all."). I don't think Dick Wolf & Co. work very hard on the lawyers or detectives - or the murderers and witnesses as far as that goes - yet they always come across like actual people and engaging, workable cogs in the big Law & Order wheel. Fontana was a racist dick of a detective but he was still a good character.
- Most everybody on Battlestar Galactica is three-dimensional, interesting, engaging, and at least a little bit sympathetic. Even the "bad guys" have tangible reasons for making their choices. Everyone's a plausible human(oid) being.
- You don't have to have a lot of women on the show for those women to be good characters. Sons of Anarchy basically only has Gemma and Tara, both of whom are good characters that the show couldn't survive without. Gemma is extremely flawed but that's what makes her so fun to watch.
Law & Order, SVU. I realize I am in the minority here, but holy crap, I hate every character on this show except for Fin and Munch. They're the only ones who have any real life to them, any possible soul. Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler are ridiculous as characters. Utterly ridiculous. Not because they're "bad people", but because they're unrealistic, stereotypical, over-written characters that never develop and never pay their dues, karma-wise. Their flaws are "romantic" flaws. Olivia gets too attached to victims; Elliot punches perpetrators. In the real world, both would be fired. They defy my ability to suspend disbelief. They weaken storylines that are already on life support. That is bad characterization, and it may actually be caused by trying too
hard to make "complex" characters.
- A lot of times, female characters on male-dominated shows are just plain bad characters. I don't like Cameron on House; my mother doesn't like Cuddy on the same show. It wouldn't help if they were gender-switched - Cameron, for one, already has a male counterpart (his name is Chase) who I also don't like and is equally vapid. House and Wilson are the best-written characters on the show. I don't think anyone would argue with that. We can argue about why Cameron, Cuddy, and 13 are written so shallowly, but the fact remains that they are written shallowly.
- Sometimes all the male characters are also terrible. CSI: Miami and Bones are my examples of that one. Nothing on God's Good Earth will help Calleigh Duquesne or Horatio Caine. Of course, these shows are also immensely popular, which means I am out here on a limb saying WHAT THE FFFFF.
- And female characters on female-dominated shows are not necessarily works of art either. Meredith Grey? Carrie Bradshaw? Ally McBeal? Right. Meredith only became interesting to me when she started showing serious mental and emotional "flaws" because that's when she became an actual character.
II. Liking Characters: People's Choice Awards.
But when we get into things like fandom wars and fandoms like Harry Potter, I realize that "good characterization" is not at hand. This is all about the knee-jerk, sometime-immature gut reaction to a character that often remains to the end - whether they're well-made, realistic, three-dimensional characters or not. For example, Cally on Battlestar Galactica is a complex, many-motived character. I also disliked watching her character because she was so anti-Cylon, and that kind of blind prejudice - while sad, and true, and understandable - is a real turn-off for me, and I was never going to cheer "for" Cally the way I cheered "for" Athena and Helo, for instance. That's the kind of reflex that fandom gets into wars over.
And in this case, I think what's going on with readers/viewers hating female characters that they would like if they were male can be mostly explained when you consider that it's mostly female readers/viewers who hate female characters. No, this isn't the reason I disliked Cally, but it is why I used to dislike Starbuck. [Yes, I disliked Starbuck! But good characterization won me over and now I love her!] I used to think this was self-hate/jealousy (and part of it probably is) but then I started wondering if male readers hate male "Gary Stu"s - the male equivalent of the Little Miss Perfect Mary Sue
. I suspect that a fair number do. I mean, they hate those all-star male athletes with the supermodel girlfriends and the championship rings. I will submit, however, that women are probably much more likely to fall into the trap of comparing themselves to female characters, because that is what we are supposed to do, measure measure measure. So yes, this winds up tying to self-hate and jealousy, but in more roundabout way. Harry Potter Tangent
: We call Ginny a slut because she's popular with boys. We wouldn't hate Gino if he was popular with girls, no - not because Gino is a boy but because we can't be said to have "lost" a "competition" with Gino. We might call Gino a manwhore. But there's no reflexive high-school-mean-girl dynamic triggered by what Gino accomplishes or how handsome Gino is.
So to remedy this problem, a lot of times creators try to make ultra-"relatable" female characters, so their female audience will think the female protag is "just like me." But that's asinine. The only female character I ever related to was Laura Ingalls. You know why? Because there was a big deal made in the early books about Laura having brown hair and being jealous of Mary's blonde hair. And I'm a brunette. So, so arbitrary - and because of this fickleness the gamble of relatibility is very likely to fail. For example, I hate Jo in Little Women. I know I'm supposed to relate to her, but I related to Amy. She was girly (I wore a lot of pink) and was the youngest (and I was always the youngest in any group). Oops, turns out she's "evil." See? So then you get what Bella Swan: no defining characteristics, so every girl could see herself in Bella. But that's exactly the wrong direction to go. Don't whittle your characters down to some lowest common denominator! Define them more! Make them deeper! Don't worry if your readers can't see themselves in those characters! If they're strong, three-dimensional characters, it won't matter!
This is how part II relates to part I: Good Characterization Heals All Wounds. This does not mean making them all "kick ass."
Like I said above, Meredith became interesting to me once she became flawed. I mean, hello, she was already the wunder-surgeon despite never needing to try who all the guys were in love with. She "kicked ass," all right. Didn't do a whole lot else. And then her mother died and she tried to commit suicide and pulled away from McDreamy and sniped and she became truly flawed, not just Hollywood-makeup flawed (Of course, by then the whole show was in such a massive downhill shitstorm that I stopped watching anyway, but that wasn't Meredith's fault). I didn't like Elizabeth in Pirates of the Caribbean for very churlish reasons (why is she
so super-cool? it's not like she does anything
) in the first two movies, but she was my favorite character in the third because she seemed to be taking such huge leaps forward as a mature adult. I love the part where they're at the pirates council thing (it's been a while) and Sparrow sees her and is basically like, "fuck me." I was like, in your face, Jack Sparrow! Elizabeth has come into her own, bitch!
And I realized that I was really just waiting for her to become a fully-realized person, not just a token girl. Sometimes this never happens. Sometimes cookie cutter token girls remain just that, and while they're in so-called "development limbo," they're not people in any meaningful sense. They're blow-up dolls.