On -isms: The Female Lead

By | Thursday, July 31, 2014 1 comment
I just finished reading a prose book about some teen superheroes: Out Of Time
by Donna Marie Oldfield. (Full review upcoming on FreakSugar when I can finish writing that.) It's not based on any existing properties; it was just created whole-cloth by the author. It's clearly informed by the tropes of the superhero genre, which is obviously most common in more visual media like comics, but it wasn't trying to replicate the feel of comics.

Anyway, I got through reading the whole thing and it wasn't until after I put my Kindle down that I realized that the protagonist was female. I mean, she's clearly identified as a girl who just turned 18 early in the book, and all the pronoun references to her are decidedly feminine, but she was simply treated as a "the protagonist." She wasn't overly "girled up" (or whatever the phrase might be) to play off feminine stereotypes. There is one instance where she's dragged with two other female characters ostensibly for a shopping spree, but they don't actually go shopping and just use that as cover while they gather intel on the resident bad guy. Other than that, there's nothing really approaching a "typical" girly moment. In fact, even her romance with one of the other characters is shown with both parties being equally giddy/confused/romantic/frustrated.

She wasn't "a female protagonist", she was just "the protagonist."

And I'm reminded of the last superhero novels I read: Marion G. Harmon's Wearing the Cape series. (Which I reviewed here.) I'm reminded that I went through all four books in the series, and it never really clicked that the protagonists were women. Again, they're clearly defined as female, and there's a sequence in one of the books where Hope has concerns about a costume that was designed for her being overly sexual (one that she never actually uses, as I recall), but she was just "the protagonist." Even her relative weakness compared to her lover/mentor is mostly explained away in their age/experience difference, not her gender.

I look at these books about superheroes who happen to be female and can't help but be even more disappointed by what Marvel and DC are putting out. Oldfield and Harmon turned out solid superhero tales that fall in much the same mold as Marvel and DC type stories, but with the difference being that the women are treated as full-fledged characters worthy of their own titles. There's no gratuitous sexualization; there's no "women in refridgerator" moments; there's no "well, she can be the main character but needs to ultimately be saved by a man"; there's no "she's a superhero but only until she finds love and then she can settle into trophy wife mode"... These women are vulnerable in the ways that all humans are, but they have their own agency and character independent of any/everyone else.

I'm not familiar enough with the "superheroes in prose" world enough to know how typical Oldfield's and Harmon's approaches are. For all I know, they might happen to be complete outliers. But regardless, they're showing pretty conclusively that it's not impossible to write strong women superheroes without resorting to tired tropes and cliches and stereotypes. These characters don't have to be sex objects or perennial hostages or, at the other end of the spectrum, hyper-aggressive super-feminists that hate men to the point where they're really just bad caricatures because the male writers behind them are too scared to try to understand the notion of equality that actual feminism touts.

Why does it seem so hard for the most influential comic book publishers to really get that?
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The "why" is a complicated mix of "not *actually* believing on a granular level that women are just like male humans" and, as you say it, being too scared to break out of the safe, comforting mold of Disney stereotypes afforded to female characters. Princesses are saved and acquired, strong women are evil- and they are strong because something terrible happened to them, not because they were raised to assume leadership role, then did.

It's a child's perspective.

Regardless if it's expressed in frustration with "fake" geeks or refusal to keep a popular female character, it's the "boys only" clubhouse mentality being sadly clung to adults who should be able to do better.