So, here we are; the final part of my series about sexism in nerddom. We’re going to wrap up with a look at nerd narrative. I feel like nerd culture is at a point where it’s floundering for a firm grasp on portraying women. People are trying, but they’re also still ascribing to old standards and clinging to old stereotypes, making progress really slow and making what I think of as the “Free Female Protagonist” ridiculously rare. Defining that Free Female Protagonist, as I see her, is what I’m going to try to do here. Fair warning: I’m going to do it in a round-about way, mimicking how I came to the idea. More fair warning: in order to do this, I am also going to sound like a petty bastard quite a bit… Let’s get started!
The Not-So-Obvious, Narrative Kind of Sexism
I hate River Song.
I understand it’s a point of contention for Whovians, and I’d also like to point out immediately that I have enjoyed a lot of Steven Moffat’s work and respect him a lot as a writer. However, I’ve never liked River Song. And, initially, it was because of massively ham-fisted character bias; Moffat clearly loved her so much that he wrote a scene in which she made a Dalek beg for mercy. Maybe character bias is just my pet peeve (it is one of the 3 Great Fiction Sins), but that’s not the only reason I disliked River.
And I didn’t realize it until I was at a friend’s place a few years back, watching an episode with her. An episode that cold-opened with a long, panning body shot of her set to sexy music.
Now, unfortunately, I’m horrible at talking and I was a total idiot a few years ago. So, instead of trying to figure out why that intro was weird to me, I blurted out, “She’s not that attractive,” literally the first observation in a series that would ultimately lead to a non-offensive point.
My friend, very naturally, got offended for Alex Kingston. I tried to explain that she isn’t ugly—clearly she isn’t—but that it was weird that they were doing a long shot of her from toe to head with sultry saxophone. Not because Alex Kingston isn’t sultry sax worthy, but because…
… was that even the appeal of River Song???
At that point, what I understood about River came from “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead.” And what I took from those episodes was, “She’s extremely witty.” “She takes charge in difficult situations, which is awesome.” “She knows the Doctor really well and is also a time traveler—very intriguing.”
Essentially, what I took from those episodes is that she was a character… who had a lot of appeal that wasn’t centered around her being a sex object. And, of course, River could be sexy as well—River could be whatever she wanted to be. But River wasn’t calling the shots and neither was Alex Kingston (as far as I know). As far as I know, Steven Moffat was calling the shots. And the shots he decided to call that day were, “She’s a sex object.”
An extremely stereotypical sex object.
And that’s when I started to hate River Song. This must sound incredibly nitpicky, but, in my eyes, this was the start of River Song not being an actual character. This was the start of her being what I think of as a Catch All—a non-character who does everything that’s right and great and awesome by the sheer will of the writer… possibly because the writer doesn’t know how to make said character a person. This kind of character is everywhere (the perfect badass, cart-wheeling with guns blazing in both hands right before defusing the bomb with “00:01” left on the counter) and side-stepping a rant about how much I hate Catch Alls, I’ll get to the point; River isn’t that bad, but she was still suddenly thin and obvious.”I bet River knows how to hack / program / work this thing no one else understands.” “I bet that—unless it’s time for the Doctor to figure things out—River will.” “I bet River can kill a Dalek, single-handedly, without breaking a sweat.” And, for me, that all started with her, on top of everything else, also having to be a femme fatale, one of the many stereotypes I hate.
But I didn’t convey this well at all to my friend years ago and kept quiet about it for the time it took to casually figure it out.
But then, this graphic happened:
I know. It’s not finite evidence that I was right about her being a Catch All—this graphic highlights a completely different set of flaws with the majority of Moffat’s run. But those flaws came as absolutely no surprise to me; this graphic, linked to me years later, only pointed out other reasons I didn’t like River without realizing. All she cared about was the Doctor, much like Amy; for a supposedly strong, independent female character, most of her screen time was spent fawning over him. And she did this despite their love not being well conveyed at all; she loves the Doctor not for a concrete experience that we’re shown (as we actually are with Amy)—she loves the Doctor because we’re told she loves the Doctor and that he loves her. And all of this resonated with my notion of her as a non-character—a talking plot device.
But it took forever for me to see it because she’s one of countless female non-characters who exist throughout all of fiction. I’m talking about nerdy things and fantasy because it’s what I do, but the fact remains that there are go-to, male-centric ideas about / approaches to female characters that persist—and result in strange, subtly off characters like River. Women will cling to men in a story and never interact with other women. Often there aren’t many named women in a story, and if there are, they will, like River Song and Amy Pond, be fixated with a single male character. The Bechdel test highlights these standards very, very clearly. If you don’t know about it, you should check it out and you should absolutely take the test for all of your writing (even beyond sexism, it’s just an awesome reviewing tool for your work). Subjecting some of your favorite stories to the test will also be eye-opening.
But all I’ve done so far is tell you what the Free Female Protagonist isn’t. And, I’m sorry, but I want to reinforce that more to make my point clear. So one more stop into the world of comics to talk about the idea that …
Women in Comics Are Strong Because They’re Like Men
It started with Captain Marvel.
There was absolutely nothing wrong with Carol Danvers taking the mantel of Captain Marvel; arguably (to the very casual comic reader’s eye), she is more popular than Mar-Vell by far. I’m sure that an avid reader already has a list of reasons why I’m wrong, but I’ve seen a ton of Carol Danvers everywhere and almost no Mar-Vell in my time with comics. Besides, “captain” is a title and there’s no reason a woman can’t be a captain. So I was all for it. I’ve always loved Carol Danvers. Again, I’m not an avid comic reader, but she’s always been one of my favorite Avengers.
And then “Thor” happened.
Now… I am not upset at all that the new Thor is a woman—I think that’s awesome actually.
But I do think that it’s weird that the new Thor’s name… is Thor. Because “Thor” isn’t a title. If she was the new Captain America—cool. That makes sense. But “Thor”… is Thor’s name… Why do I not know the name of new Thor?
And, immediately, I know that this also sounds super nitpicky, because this is a step better than “She-Hulk” and “Ms. Marvel.” And maybe she does have a name. And maybe (hopefully) her name will be plastered on the cover of her new series and not… Thor’s name. But I can’t help assuming that won’t happen. From a business standpoint, I’m sure there’s a depressing, sexist branding conflict there; “But people won’t read a comic about girl Thor unless she’s heavily related to Thor!” At best, I’m assuming she’ll just take over in Journey into Mystery, which doesn’t make things much better.
And that’s the entire problem I’m getting at: the “new Thor” is still not where we need to be because she’s so heavily tied to Thor. Maybe that sounds odd, but my point is that there is still, and always has been, another way to write a female mainstream superhero.
Make a mainstream, female super hero who is completely independent of a male super hero.
I will not make the argument that this undoes the progress that Carol Danvers makes as Captain Marvel—to me, that still works and is awesome. However, it seems like Marvel is searching for their Wonder Woman (the closest to an exception that I can think of)… and missing the fact that Wonder Woman is named Wonder Woman and not “new Superman.”
But I think that this is part of a strange suite of choices that comic writers seem to make every time they try to establish a strong female lead. Does she have a male super hero’s name (Thor)? Is she being related to a male super hero in any way (She-Hulk, Batwoman)? Is she scantily clad? I’m absolutely sure there are exceptions and I’m not sure that all of those choices are consistent.
But I’m also absolutely sure that, outside of (possibly) Wonder Woman, there is no completely independent, non-male reliant, big name, super hero comic female lead who is not doing time as a sex object. I don’t want to undermine the progress that has been made, but it’s time for the jump; it’s time to try to make a new, actually independent female super hero. Not new Thor. Not Star Duchess (it sounded funnier than Star Lady).
In short, it’s time for people to just try writing…
The Free Female Protagonist
What she isn’t:
- A non-character who does everything right.
- A scantily clad sex object (unless she’s honestly a character who wants to be sexy—she should be able to choose, after all).
- Attached to a male character who is established as stronger.
- Named after a male character.
- Obsessed with a male character.
What she is:
A woman. A woman written by a comfortable, brave writer.
Let’s have Madame Galaxy—a lame name off the top of my head. Let’s have a super hero with no ties to anyone and her own origin. Let’s not start her first issue by having her shouting about how she’s just as strong as a male super hero because that would immediately be awkward floundering; let’s just have her be a woman and awesome and let that be enough. Let’s embrace her relationship issues instead of glossing over them because she’s a human who will undoubtedly have relationship issues (especially if she’s straight because comic writers and artists clearly aren’t afraid to show women waking up next to / making out with other women—that’s very obvious at this point). And let’s flirt with the idea of maybe—maybe somewhere down the line having Madame Galaxy heading her own team of other super heroes with absolutely no male supervisors or Super- / Bat-peers to help her.
That is all I want. And it doesn’t seem like it’s happening enough. Thus, this article.
I want to see just Wonder Woman leading the Justice League. I cannot tell you why—I just think it would be awesome.
I want to see more characters like Korra from the Legend of Korra, who stands firm as one of my favorite protagonists of all time at this point.
And, whether my kids are boys or girls, I want them to have a collection of obvious female role models to look up to in nerd culture—without having to seek them out. And without having to lose them the way I lost Samus.
That is never going to happen if we don’t start writing those characters ourselves. So, to you, reading this, fight those standards. Start with the Bechdel test. Don’t settle for being typical and comfortable; write women who are not damsels. Not femme fatales. Not bewbs in armorkinis. And don’t avoid writing them because damsels, femme fatales, and women who like armorkinis can’t or don’t exist or shouldn’t have their stories told for some reason. Try to avoid writing them because women are always more beautifully complicated and real than need, sex, and metal tits.
Well, that was a monster of a post. You can totally look forward to me kicking back for a short while. I will keep focusing on writing, but my next post is going to be a status update on my projects, centering around that totally full Progress Bar you might have noticed at the top of my page. I’ll talk about that and what comes next in the middle of the month! Until then, thank you for the read.
And, as always, write well.