What makes a good heroine?

I feel like I see more complaints about bad female characters in media than there are female characters in the first place. The takes on Rey alone would fill several Wheel of Time-sized volumes.

I got into an interesting discussion the other day about the clothes women wear on TV. Do they shed their femininity when it’s time to fight the baddie? Or do they just put on pink pants?

Princess Peach, from the Mario movie, in her pink ballgown, beside herself in her white and pink motorcycle outfit

Personally, though, I find it exhausting that anytime a female character appears on any screen at all or in any book, she has to be a controversy. First you get the misogynists calling her a Mary Sue, then you get women rushing to her defense, then you get other, lefter women, saying “well that’s not ACTUAL feminism.”

Maybe she doesn’t have to be actual feminism, you know? Maybe she can just be a woman with problems that she deals with over the course of the movie.

Of course, sometimes the makers of the movie really are taking a misogynist cut-out of a woman and spray painting her in a color they think is feminism and rolling her out. I wouldn’t put it past them. But even when they do that, there will be women who see themselves in her.

Because, the thing is, we’re all very different. Some of us relate to Eowyn, some to Galadriel. Some want to be any woman Shohreh Aghdashloo has ever played. (Even the evil ones? Especially the evil ones.)

For this reason, it takes some very bad rep for me to look at a fictional woman and start picking her apart. Mainly, I’m glad she even gets to be there. I’m glad this isn’t the Star Trek of my childhood, where there were always exactly two women and they didn’t even appear in all of the episodes. 

(My dad always insisted that on every Trek series, there was one woman who was basically a potted plant. She had no personality and no role except to be hot for the male nerds. This always rubbed me the wrong way because—even though there was truth to it—I’d still rather have her there than not. (Also, Seven of Nine and T’Pol were not only appealing to the male nerds, let me tell you that.))

So, let me explain a bit what I think makes a good female character, but before I do, a caveat: I would always rather have her there than not. She is always representing somebody. I’d like to see film in particular try a little harder with its heroines, as well as many male authors. But I don’t want to see anybody canceled for trying.

Mary Sue vs. Flesh and Blood

I kinda hate the term “Mary Sue.” A lot of guys who use it don’t really seem sure of what they’re referring to. Or they think it means “any woman who is too powerful or badass.”

But what I do think female characters need to have is complexity. Being entirely successful at everything is one note. What has she struggled with? What has she achieved? I absolutely love masterful characters who are in fact amazing at everything—but if they are, they have a backstory that got them there. I want to see that. 

Film has a lot to cram into ninety minutes, but we somehow see skinny average guys train to fight the hero in that amount of time, so give women the same credit. What drives them? (Please, not just “being in love with a man” —not that that’s not a thing that happens, but we have seen that enough.) What are they scared of? What do they want?

So take Eowyn. What does she care about? Her people. What does she fear? A cage. What does she want? To help save Rohan. She’s complex, balanced between her duty to her people and her heroic drive to fight.

Eowyn, practicing with her sword, in a brown jumper with her sleeves rolled up

I don’t want to see Mary Sues cut out of movies. I don’t want to see them constantly torn down. I just want them to get a prequel movie so we can see what made them so badass.

Butch vs Femme

“Not Like Other Girls” is a justly hated trope. This is a woman who is good at lots of stereotypically male things, dresses in a masculine way, and most pivotally, hates other women. She is proud to not be like other girls, and the male characters in the show are free to hate on other girls to prop her up. She probably learned to shoot a gun from her dad or brother, and she thinks lipstick is for sissies. If another female character appears in the whole movie (doubtful, at this point), she’s a weak shrinking violet whom the NLOG hates as adamantly as the men do, because women, amirite?

These women absolutely exist in real life, which is the worst part. They have learned that hating other women and siding with men in everything can win them a certain degree of power from the patriarchy. They’re not always butch in real life, but they always reinforce the patriarchy, and that’s why we hate them.

But I think it’s very important to recognize that it’s not the leather jacket or the pistol that makes this woman a bad trope. It’s the disdain she has for other women and the things that they like.

I absolutely love a butch heroine. I lust after them. I want to be them. I will trail fangirlishly after Kira Nerys and Zoe Washburne and Bobbie Draper till my dying day. 

The difference between that and a Not Like Other Girls lady is that the good ones don’t hate other women. They don’t hate girly stuff—it’s just not their bag. Kira is friends with Dax. Bobbie looks up to Avasarala.

Some people find these girls unrealistic. To which I can only say, meet more women. Yes, a lot of women can fight! Insofar as action-movie combat is realistic at all, they shouldn’t have all that much more trouble than the men. Training can overcome a lot of weight and upper-body-strength disadvantages. And beyond that, guns are something of an equalizer. Once it’s no longer the Middle Ages, women aren’t any any disadvantage at all.

But isn’t it secretly undermining feminism somehow for the badass ladies to be butch all the time? This was the subject of the twitter conversation I had. Do women always have to be mannish in order to be heroes? Is that a rejection of actual womanhood in favor of just putting an actress in a man’s clothes and role?

Well, I’ll admit there’s a tendency there in action movies because . . . well, what kind of person is in an action movie? Generally a very physical type of person. Even if she likes girly stuff most of the time, she’s going to put on pants for the purpose of the movie, because pants are what most women wear when they’re going to get dirty. 

And personally, I don’t think it’s a rejection of actual womanhood because lots and lots of women are like this. Actual womanhood is not feminine, if femininity is defined as the narrow thing the patriarchy has historically allowed. We aren’t all into being pretty. We don’t all like skirts. And shrinking back from combat? I’m sorry, that’s not a feminine trait!

But it would indeed not be great if femme women got no representation. I would not like that. So I’m all about pretty women like Buffy, Kaylee, Arwen, Elsa, or Troi. Women who could stake a vampire and then reapply their lipstick.

We have two little problems here with this kind of woman. First, if it’s an action movie, she’s not really dressed for it. We can overlook this, I mean, it’s fiction. She can kick somebody with her heels on. Or, possibly better, she can be good at a thing that is not fighting. I often prefer this, as a woman who is not good at fighting. She could be an Aes Sedai, good at magic. She could be Harrowhark, good at bones. There are female hackers and engineers and researchers and scientists and spies. I love them all.

The other problem is that sometimes there is a lot of overlap between what our culture thinks is feminine and what our culture thinks is sexualized. So the second the heroine puts on lipstick, she’s . . . oops, now bad rep in a whole other direction because we just told girls their only power exists is in being hot.

If it seems like a catch-22, that’s because it is. It’s a trap. Any possible rep you could ever do would be bad rep if it were the only rep that existed. If your book were an instruction manual, the only one they would ever receive, to tell little girls how to live.

Personally, I’m still unlearning the idea that it’s bad to be sexy. On the one hand, if it’s a power you have, it shouldn’t be banned! On the other, men without imaginations often can’t picture a woman doing anything else for the plot but seducing the guards at the door, and that’s a problem for sure.

So What to Write?

It’s the easiest thing in the world to hang out on social media and pick apart female characters. It’s as easy as picking apart real-life women, a thing people also spend way too much time doing. But writing a good heroine? Not so easy.

I think the job of creating a character that could be believable, and feminist, and a good role model, and also nuanced and complex, is beyond anybody. Or rather, trying to put it all on one character is impossible. That’s the whole idea of the Bechdel test: if you have one heroine, you’re not representing women! You’ve only got one.

So the most important thing is to have more than one woman. You can have one who’s badass and tough and wears leather and throws a punch, and another one who wears pink and can hack into a government database or do magic. (If you want to humor me, you’ll have them kiss.)

Next, you have to give your ladies backstories and struggles and arcs and everything a good male character should have. I think some guys who write movies write the whole thing in their head, and then think “whoops, I need a woman” so they throw one in without really doing the same amount of work the male heroes got. Inner conflict drives plot, so if you leave that out, the story will be the weaker for it.

After that, the world is your oyster. I don’t think we should be limited in the kinds of women we write. We should have sexy women and nerdy women and women who like leather and women who like flannel. 

And don’t feel bound by Types. Take an archetype of a movie woman, and then change something. Age her up 20 years and give her grandkids. Make her collect Polly Pockets. Don’t let yourself fall into the false dichotomy of “girly girl or tomboy.” Most of us are a bit of both. Eowyn was a fighter, not a flirt, but she wore some lovely dresses.

Most of all, I just want to see one tenth of the energy spent promoting and loving good heroines as I see for tearing down bad ones. When I finally see myself, or something like myself, on a screen or in a book, I don’t like to see that girl called names. Not “potted plant” or “Mary Sue” or “fake feminist.”

So, on that note, who are your favorite fictional women? What do you love most about them?

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