Today I had one of those thoughts that's kind of stating the obvious so there's little need to write it down, but it was in response to many people implying it wasn't true so I'm writing it down. It has to do with female characters.

A few months ago, for instance, I came across a thing showing a sort of "evolution" of Disney princesses. How in the early days we had passive girls who waited for their prince like Cinderella and Snow White. Then we had the girls who were proactive but still had stories that still ended with her getting a man like Belle and Ariel, and then we got the girls who were in it for themselves like Mulan and Tiana (who some complain has to get a job when the white girls get to be queens). What strikes me about that is that yes, you can always point out trends in Disney movies, but there's an implication here of the girls improving towards some ideal.

Evolution often gets spoken about that way too, and it's just as wrong there. Like people often think of evolution in terms of nature perfecting something when that's not how it works. It's just branching out into many species that are all workable in their niche. Like people often show charts of earlier versions of horses leading up to the horses we love that are so streamlined and awesome. When really, there used to be many different types of horses across the entire world, and now there's only one. It's a fine type, of course, but the evolutionary tree is not in healthy shape when it's narrowed to one twig. You want to have a lot of different types all doing their thing.

So what does that have to do with Disney princesses or female characters? I feel like they get talked about the same way, as if female characters are competing to be the one representative. Once we find one better than the last she replaces her in this constant search for the character who "gets it right." And I feel like this is something that's more intense when it comes to female character than it is with other minority characters, even though they're facing similar challenges and do get similar criticisms.

Belle isn't a stage of development leading up to Mulan, she's just a different girl in a different story who has qualities a lot of girls can still relate to and still has lessons to teach. Recently I also saw something lr complaining about Katniss Everdeen and asking when we would get a *good* female heroine (maybe one who was also "strong") which Katniss apparently wasn't in the poster's eyes. I can't talk about that series too well because I'm at this point halfway throught the second book but I really found myself questioning what this person wanted. I mean, some of the criticisms I just didn't agree with. Like one person to me seemed to feel that while Katniss started out strong her strength was undermined by Collins giving her a character arc where she grew and learned. (One person seemed to feel she was always being compared unfavorably to Peeta by other characters and the text but so far I just don't see that at all. And it's even sort of ironic since THG very much uses the modern trope of giving the girl qualities that were historically given to the boy/man and vice versa.)

Anyway, it seems to me that Katniss is a strong character in that she's got a clear personality driven by clear motivations and temperment. She seems like the believable product of her experiences and natural personality, and so far she hasn't done anything that seemed OOC based on what I know of her to serve the plot or whatever. I can't think of any major decisions she's made that weren't her own. Maybe it was unfair, but I did wind up feeling like Katniss was being compared to some ideal where she would always fall short because no character can be everything. You have to pick the limits of the character and the story you're writing (seriously--the themes and ideas of the story are going to inform the characters) and stick to it. It's not that I don't think it's sometimes a good idea to look at trends or limitations that are given to girl characters as a group, but that's different than judging one character.

The reward comes not from finally getting the girl we can all like, but in having a myriad of girls to choose from that encompass tons of different characteristics and flaws. It's just sometimes it feels like when people talk about girl characters instead of looking at them and saying "I love her, I like her, she's okay, she's boring, she's funny, hate her, she bugs me..." it's more saying, "Not her. Not her. Not her. Not her." Of course sometimes you'll get a "Her!" but when you frame it that way there will naturally be other people who say, "Her? WTF? Not her!"
jlh: Nellie McKay (music: Nellie Mckay)

From: [personal profile] jlh

So true, this weird evolution into the ideal thing. It seems like a big SJ thing, to not have given up on the Progressive Ideal, when the Progressive Ideal is actually incredibly Christian, imperialist, racist, ableist, and sexist in certain ways. It's weird.

And I find that to be true in all of these ideas of "not X enough" where X is feminist or black or gay or whatever. We do act like there is an ideal that everyone should be striving toward, instead of the ideal being about diversity itself, about that meaning that there are lots of people saying lots of things. But all the frameworks we use run on popularity, and popularity very quickly winnows the voices down to a very few because the gatekeepers can't pay attention to much more than a few things at once, and they want them to all be saying the same thing so they can write a trend piece: X says A, Y says, A but also B, Z says C on the other hand, and a little bit of B. It's nutty. Life isn't a trend piece in a magazine or a five page paper for your cultural studies class.

(So much shitty cultural studies floating around. SO MUCH.)

It's like, boy bands are built to appeal to lots of different girls. But at the same time, the music press generally are trying to figure out which of them will be the "breakout" and once that happens the rest fall by the wayside, and in a sense the girls who liked JC or Chris or Joey best "lost" while the girls who liked Justin best "won" (and the girls who liked Lance best "won" in a different way). Or like how we start out with all these different candidates, that get winnowed down incredibly quickly during primaries not because their message isn't getting through but because the money people only want to back a winning horse--it matters less what the candidate is actually saying; the money people are trying to buy access to power, not trying to support a message they agree with. And in a mass media climate you can't run a campaign without a lot of money.

So in that sense, the best, most self-actualized girls are the ones whose favorite princess is Mulan, instead of thinking about princesses as having different characteristics that appeal to different girls.
six_of_one: (Gabby)

From: [personal profile] six_of_one

It may be that there two different things going on here. The first I absolutely agree with, that characters be viewed on their own merits within a work without having to symbolize anything outside the work, that diversity in portrayal of female characters is a good thing, and that there should be more female characters and more diversity.

However, the works these characters are in exist in a social context, and society changes, however slowly. Whether or not I agree about Disney princesses (I've probably only watched one Disney movie in my life), they were created in specific times and places, and to some extent, reflect a society trying to grapple with women's roles and statuses in those times and places. People are probably hard-wired to see trends and to group things together, e.g., women in refrigerators, Smurfettes, etc. (see Without being aware of the particulars of the conversation about Disney princesses, I still wonder if this isn't what is going on with those who want characters to measure up to a "perfect" standard. People experiencing the revolution of rising expectations want to see characters who reflect their aspirations. For many reasons, the characters they get fall short and it makes them angry. But, of course, you know all this.

It's sort of the way I talk about women in Harry Potter books not being paragons of female empowerment despite so many and the author insisting they are, and someone coming along and saying, yes, but in the Ring Trilogy books, women were hardly present at all, and mostly as objects of desire or awe. In her view, HP women represent Progress. So, I suggest that in the A Song of Ice and Fire books, women are powerful and motivated for their own sakes, but for my friend, they still don't quite represent an ideal she'd like to cheer and pass on to her kids. She may want a perfect female character. For me, such a thing can never exist, so I appreciate what's there in a book context, but still criticize the depiction in a social context.

In a social context, there will never be a perfect female character any more than there will be a perfect male character. The target is always moving. Perfection would seem impossible to define as a standard, because while its perception is socialized (men are supposed to want a shorter blond woman with childlike features as a mate, for example), it is realized on a personal level (that standard doesn't work for a whole lot of men).



sistermagpie: Classic magpie (Default)

Most Popular Tags

Powered by Dreamwidth Studios

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags