Thursday 15 August 2013


Hello, my duckies! Welcome to Thursday and yet another rant from me. What can I say - maybe the editing brings out that ranty side of my nature? It's as good an explanation as any. But this topic has been teasing my mind for a while. It was really brought into sharp focus by a fantastic quote from a blogger called Shin that I saw reblogged by Sarah Rees Brennan and Holly Black. Thanks so much to Holly for giving me the original poster's details! And thank you, Shin, for inspiring this rant.

Content warnings before we start: mention of sexual violence and forced marriage/pregnancy ahead.

Everyone knows how I feel about the term Mary-Sue. If you managed to miss that, you can catch up here and here. I think it's fair to say that regardless of the discussion about this online (which was amazing and diverse and fascinating, and involved all kinds of talented ladies) the term is just as popular and just as likely to show up in reviews as ever. Everyone hates Mary-Sue. She's supposedly this overly perfect, flawless, wish-fulfilment character who gets what she wants all the time with no meaningful struggle and is beloved by everyone within her fictional universe (unless that person is manifestly evil or jealous).

Now, leaving aside questions of who exactly decided that perfect characters with an element of wish-fulfilment are a deadly sin when they're female, but A-OK when they're James Bond, Jason Bourne, Captain America, Batman, Superman etc. etc. the use of the term Mary-Sue comes with an obvious assumption attached: if characters like this are simply unacceptable by definition, then there must be other types of characters out there that are OK. After all, not every single female character ever written can possibly be a Mary-Sue. Even the people who cling to the term Mary-Sue as if it was their long-lost twin would not dispute that.

The Mary-Sue is a 'fake girl'. A plastic girl, an unrealistic girl, a perfect girl. Her opposite number in that case must be a real girl. A human girl. A realistic girl. An imperfect girl. Fictional ladies whose failures and flaws are right there on the page. Ladies who cannot be dismissed as 'too perfect' or 'wish fulfilment'. Let's call this type of character a Sarah-Jane. 

Now, because Sarah-Janes are in total contrast to the Mary-Sue, defying all the traits that are supposed to make a Mary-Sue unacceptable, then the Sarah-Jane, by definition, must be acceptable. I mean, obviously they're not as tightly defined as the Mary-Sue type, and because their major trait is that they're realistic, they're going to vary a lot. But they must be the kind of character that readers want to see. The kind that readers will embrace. The kind that they will at least give a chance.


Yeah. No. It turns out the vast majority of talk about Sarah-Janes - realistic, flawed, prominent female characters in fiction - *still* centres on what is wrong with them, and all the reasons they are SO ANNOYING for... not being perfect?

No one likes Mary-Sues. But it seems like no one really likes the Sarah-Jane, either. Whenever there's a portrayal of a heroine who actually acts like a real person, a real young adult, the vast majority of discourse about them within their own fandoms will focus on how unlikeable, nasty, selfish, immature and *gendered insult with connotations of promiscuity here* they are.

Just what does a Sarah-Jane have to do to avoid being an annoying, immature w****?

Based on my reading, here is a list. Pay attention now! 

Heroines must be mature. Your fourteen to eighteen year old character needs to have the kind of lucid, logical, emotionally self-aware thought-process that would normally be expected of the Dalai Lama. It doesn't matter if she's a kid! It doesn't matter what turmoil she's going through! She needs to pull herself together! Any signs that she doesn't know exactly what or who she wants in her life, that she might change her mind, not exactly understand her own feelings, or still have some growing up to do? Whoops - she is an immature and annoying w****.

She must be utterly selfless. No heroine may ever make a decision which puts her own interest above another's - especially should that other be a man. She must never make a decision which causes her to inconvenience or hurt another, particularly a man. If she does this your book must severely punish her. And I mean severely. We're talking horribly disfigured in a fire, rejected by everyone she loves, beaten and left for dead punished. She must unreservedly realise the error of her ways and apologise and be shown to have learned her lesson. But having done so, she should never realise just how pure and selfless she is/has become - that would make her an annoying martyr w****.

She must get an A in relationships. If a male in the story has an interest in her - even if he never actually has the guts to tell her, or show her how he feels, even if he generally treats her terribly and gives her no clues that said interest could possibly exist - she must immediately figure this out and immediately know exactly what she thinks and feels about him and tell him kindly, nicely and gently. If the reader favours him, it doesn't matter if the character does or not - she must 'give him a chance'. If more than one boy expresses an interest this is even more important - her feelings are irrelevant and must take a back seat to making sure that neither of them could possibly be hurt by having to wait for her to make up her mind, or her eventual decision. She must never go out with more than one boy at once, even if both boys are aware of this and OK with it. And she must pick one of them eventually and give him Twu Wuv 4Eva. Fail in any of these and she is a selfish, annoying AND immature w**** (bonus points!).

Heroines must be smart. Preferably very smart. However, they and the rest of the cast must be unaware of this at all times (unless a potential love interest is offering a compliment, in which case OMG he's so perceptive and sensitive LET ME LOVE HIM). While excelling at most subjects (except maths) she must never singled out by teachers or other students as gifted academically or seem to take pride in being clever. She must never hold the plot up by failing to 'get it' before the reader does, even if the reader actually had a lot of information that she does not - but at the same time, she must never show off her brains by being right when others in the story are wrong, even if the plot has given her ample cause to do so. If she does, especially if her rightness is a cause of embarrassment for male characters, she should die in a fire, the cocky know-it-all w****.

Heroines must be attractive. But not too attractive. Naturally slim and naturally pretty, but not aware of it. A heroine must never take pride in her appearance, or make an effort over it (although it's OK if another female character pushes her into a make-over, or a male one if he's gay). There should always be at least one scene in which a heroine compares herself unfavourably to a female friend or rival, or else she'll be seen as vain. There must be no scenes of toe-nail painting, trying on outfits, or hair-fluffing in which the heroine seems to be enjoying herself, unless the heroine is adequately punished for caring about her appearance later on (preferably by a hero laughing at her ridiculous FEMALE habits, or angrily pointing out how shallow she is, how dare she). Heroines may slap on thick black emo make-up in order to make themselves *less* attractive as a sign of mental turmoil, but never because they just like it. Heroines may dye their hair, but only to bright red, black, or maybe pink. Again, this may only be a sign of mental turmoil. If they do it just because they like the colour, then it's attention-seeking and w****ish. Natural brunettes or blondes who get colour treatments or highlights in order to enhance their attractiveness are right out. We wouldn't want anyone to think that our heroine was a conceited w****!

Heroines must be brave. But only on other people's behalf, never her own - that makes her an unrealistic w**** because everyone knows there have never been any women warriors, or fighters, or brave people, ever. Women are only given bravery by the power of LOVE. She must never be reckless, enjoy fighting. or put others in danger; a hero may charge heedlessly into battle for honour, glory and idealism, but a heroine better only be there because she wants to protect the ones she loves. And then only if her love interest consents to it. And she promises never to put him in danger by getting in danger herself. Remember, having thoughts, feelings and wants that run counter to your love interest's makes you a selfish and immature w****.

This is only a short list, mind you. There are many other ways in which a heroine can mess up, but frankly if I kept on, we'd all be here all day.

This is all clear, right? Doesn't it seem just easy-peasy to create a realistic, flawed, yet likeable female character who readers will embrace? No? Oh good, I'm not the only one. Seriously, how could *any* character, male or female or other, live up to all this stuff? And yet these are the criticisms I see aimed at Sarah-Janes over and over again. It seems Sarah-Jane must be EXACTLY as perfect as the Mary-Sue is criticised for being, if she wants to avoid hate. The only difference is the criteria of perfection she must aim for.

Selfishness and immaturity are disturbingly often found endearing in a male character, signs that he is broken and vulnerable and just needs luuuurve, even if he hurts everyone around him. Self-doubt and the inability to make up his mind, going out with two girls at once, acting cruelly toward the heroine, ditto. A male character who murders people for purely selfish reasons will still be forgiven if we get a hint of a tear in his eye. A male character who directs violence or sexual violence at vulnerable characters will be judged 'unable to help it' so long as we get a few shots of his sad and lonely childhood.

Loki killed 80 people in two days and the fandom screams LET ME LOVE YOU. Loki, you poor baby, if only you had the care of a good woman I am sure you would stop slaughtering people and attempting to murder aged Holocaust survivors! None of it is your fault! I can't believe they put that horrid muzzle on your beautiful face at the end of the film, it's so UNFAIR.

Precious misunderstood baby with a heart of gold.
Despite the calls for 'flawed', 'realistic' and 'not-too-perfect' female characters, girls in fiction don't get to make mistakes or cause suffering, regardless of the reason, and expect forgiveness. Even unavoidably hurting or inconveniencing others in order to defend themselves or make themselves safe is not allowed. If they do and they don't get punished and learn from it in the story - 'leaning from it' basically means 'being shown to be utterly broken and destroyed' - a whirlwind of hatred descends. In order to deserve a place in a story, a place in our attention, girls in books and on TV have to SUFFER. They need to be flawed but not TOO flawed and - most important of all - punished and repentant for each and every perceived lack of perfection.

Tessa Gray had two boys fall in love with her. Her fandom (and it is her fandom - she's the main POV character) screams THE W**** MUST DIE. Being abducted and threatened with forced marriage, rape, and forced pregnancy are not punishment enough for deliberately ensnaring those poor helpless boys! Suffering the ultimate loneliness of the immortal, watching the ones she loved die around her? That was NOTHING. How dare she escape unscathed? How dare the story let her off, scott-free? She ought to have had her face ripped off, her eyes gouged out, and maggots poured into her mouth TO TEACH HER A LESSON.

Nasty, conniving, selfish, slutty w****
Sarah-Janes may never do anything bad, never hurt anyone or do anything wrong at all. They may display enough flaws to be 'realistic' and escape being labelled a Mary-Sue. But people will still vaguely dislike them anyway. The underlying attitude is: Why are they here? Why do they need to exist? Why are they talking? Doing? Being?

Why is this GIRL in the room taking up oxygen that my beloved tortured hero/antihero/villain needs?

Whoa, whoa, whoa. What am I saying here? Am I implying that people who critique characters in these ways and using this sort of language may, in fact, be sexist? That despite being well-spoken, geekish and intelligent, people who react to female characters in these ways may be acting on the promptings of unconscious, internalised misogyny which basically means no female character can ever measure up against the male ones?

No! No, of course not. It's not that everyone doesn't LOVE female characters! Of course they do. They ADORE them. They're totally Feminists - spending all your time hating on female characters is totally Feminist - because *these* female characters... these are bad, you see. It's the writers fault! They always create BAD female characters - female characters that no one could possibly like. That's the problem. All these female characters are rubbish.

This one is too loud, too cocky, too over-the-top, too powerful - a total Mary-Sue. This one is too stupid, too useless, too passive - she's a Mary-Sue too. OK, this one may NOT be a Mary-Sue, but she thinks she's perfect when she's totally not, and what is up with how long it's taking her to make up her mind who she should spend the rest of her life with? This one is a w****, clearly, since she kissed two boys in one book. This one is OMG just SO immature and ANNOYING who does she think she is, getting all up in her love interest's face and telling him off when he is a poor sweet misunderstood darling who deserves so much better?

If writers just wrote better female characters, this wouldn't be a problem. Not perfect female characters! God no. We hate Mary-Sues. But... you know, BETTER female characters. Ones who are realistic... in different ways. Hey, that's the perfect female character, right there! We love her. Yes, she's a minor female character who has no significant relationships with any of the main characters, only gets two lines and doesn't really do anything meaningful within the plot but SHE is AWESOME.

Oh, except for in that episode where she got to be the main character once. She was an annoying b*tch in that one. But that was the writer's fault! They wrote her wrong! See! Not sexist - we're not blaming the character! We're blaming the writers.

Can you tell, Dear Readers, that seeing these attitudes over and over again makes me tired? Really tired? Deeply, sometimes-wondering-why-I-even-bother tired? Female characters who don't make enough mistakes are Mary-Sues and hated. Realistic Sarah-Janes who make mistakes are equally hated. They just cannot win.

What do female characters have to do to escape being called w****s and b*****s? To escape being hated? Ripped apart? It really seems like they have to stop existing. Go away. Get out of the stories and leave all the space and oxygen for the guy characters, who are so much nicer and better and more lovable, even when they're mass-murderers. That's the only way.

There is something seriously messed up about this, guys.

I am not in any way suggesting that everyone has to like All The Girl Characters. I don't! I have many times thrown a book across the room because a character (of any gender) has annoyed the cr*p out of me. I criticise characters all the time. I pick them apart with my friends and my writing group, analyse why this person was too stupid to live, why these characters could only exist in an idiot plot, why this person was presented to the reader as a good guy but acted more like a villain and got away with it because they were clearly the Author's Pet, and why these characters were unconvincing because they seemed to be reacting to what the writer wanted more than what they actually knew in the story. It's also true that oftentimes when a character is advertised as a Strong Female Character she turns out to be a caricature, and yes, that's annoying, and we need to analyse why that keeps happening. All that is GOOD stuff.

Criticism is good.

But hate is not good. And that's what I see on the net when I look for discussion of female characters - so much hate that it gives me a visceral little shudder.

When you dislike a female character because you feel she is badly written, or unrealistic, or her unacceptable behaviour is sanctioned by her writer in the narrative, that's that. Those are your feelings, and they are valid. Share them. Talk about what is wrong with the character in your eyes. But why do you feel the need to label her a w**** and a b****? Why write reviews where you praise every male character in detail, adding that you just can't stand all the female ones in a footnote, as if it went without saying? Why start Tumblrs dedicated to enumerating each and every way that a female character is imperfect and tearing them down? Why are you so seethingly furious that the female characters took up narrative space that should have belonged to someone - anyone! - else that you must write fanfics in which they are judged and rejected by everyone they loved, and flung out into the snow, and then horribly die?

The way the debate about female characters is framed, the language that is used, the sheer intolerance and lack of interest in their existence, comes from a place of hate. Disturbing and unjustified hate, aimed at female characters NOT BECAUSE OF ANYTHING THEY HAVE DONE, but merely for being female. This is a problem. We all need to open our eyes and admit it exists - maybe even within ourselves - before it can begin to get better.


Alex Mullarky said...

Such an interesting point Zoe. Girls do have it hard in fiction. And it's always at the hands of other girls. Remember that Mean Girls quote?

You have GOT to stop calling each other sluts and w****s, it just makes it okay for GUYS to call you sluts and w****s.

Zoë Marriott said...

Alex: I've always really liked that quote, but lately it's been bothering me, and I finally realised why. It's because it implies that it doesn't really matter if girls attack each other, unless it causes guys to join in. But it does matter. It hurts us all when we use this language to describe each other, when we apply these unfair double-standards to each other. When I see a woman attacking a female character online I think about all the other women in fandom, young women, seeing that, and learning through what lense the world sees them and how they can expect to be treated - how they should treat others too. It's not OK.

Holly Black said...

SOURCE for the awesome quote about Sebastian and Tessa:

Zoë Marriott said...

Thank you, Holly! So glad you saw this - I felt really bad about not being able to find it.

Anonymous said...

I never liked Loki. I much prefer Thor.

Great post! It's made me think about how I see female characters.

Zoë Marriott said...

Sam: Heh! Ironically I *do* like Loki - but as a villain. I'm fond of charming and charismatic villains precisely BECAUSE I don't confuse them for fuzzy teddy-bear sugar woogams who just need love to be converted to good guys. Which is where I differ from many in fandom.

Unknown said...

Thank you for writing this! It was a great informative read and it also put alot of things I've been thinking, but not eloquent enough to say, into words.

I'm becoming more and more aware of this and it's making me analyze my reasons for liking or disliking female characters. I realise that I was guilty of this before and it's quite shocking picking apart my reasons for this (which were very weak and loaded with bias).

As I'm more aware of this and as someone with 2 little sisters, I see that it's become run of the mill to vehemently hate a female character the moment she does something we don't like and yet we repeatedly give the male ones second chances.

Now I always ask my sisters "But why do you hate her so much?" in hopes that they can come to the realisation themselves

The Clockwork Princess scenario is a perfect example because I loved Tessa and I thought in the end, everyone (especially her) suffered and they managed to piece together some well-deserved happiness. Only to get to forums and see SO MUCH unjustified hate for her.

Zoë Marriott said...

Nekocandii: Me too! I love Tessa to pieces - such a great character. All the things that everyone always says they WANT in a character. Brave and strong, but also vulnerable and flawed. After crying myself into a mini-stupor reading CP2 and then going online in the hopes of finding others to talk about it with, I felt like someone had reached out and just slapped me in the face when I saw the fan reaction. That really brought it home that the only acceptable outcome for a lot of people would have been for Tessa to be rejected by Will and Jem and die horribly so that they could somehow fall in love with each other. Arghgh!

Grechen said...

I think there is also something to be said that we rarely surround female characters with other female characters who are friends. If other women do enter the story they it is normally in an antagonist role and the dislike/problems in that relationship stem from the boy or man in question. From the very foundations of the story telling it is implied that women cannot work together, that we cannot be friends because we must always be in competition for men. I believe story-telling gives us cues on how to frame our own roles and currently stories staring one female character with no female friends is setting us up to tear them down, because that's what women in the stories do.

mary said...

My third time trying to comment: blogger seems to hate livejournal! I just wanted to tell you how much I've enjoyed these posts, and that I will be very careful about throwing around the term "Mary Sue" in future.

I'm here from twitter, btw.

LucyIsAWriter said...

Can I just say, I love you?

So I'm here from a different part of geekdom, having seen this reblogged on tumblr, but this is so legit. It reminds me of a discussion I was having with someone about the new 52, the DC comics reboot, and I mentioned that Wonder Woman is still my favorite superhero, that the new writer has taken the mythos in a really fun direction while staying true to WW's spirit.

And they were like, "Really? I always felt like Wonder Woman was a Mary Sue."

Like, wtf? Would you say that about Superman??? Would you say that about, I dunno, Jason of the Argonauts? Wonder Woman is mythic hero formed by the gods to be a perfect warrior. And she has the coolest stories, but the spirit of Wonder Woman is someone trying to balance Justice and Mercy, someone who is determined to use her power for good, who is 100% committed to truth. She can't lie, and her relationships are complicated.

Yes, Wonder Woman is wish fulfillment. So are ALL the classic superheroes! If you think she's a Mary Sue, you're missing the point.

Zoë Marriott said...

Grechen: I think you have a really good point there. It's that Bechdel Test thing. The fact that we even have to HAVE a Bechdel test, and that such a tiny percentage of films pass it, shows how little value is placed on women's friendships, women's relationships, women working together. Buddy movies and bromances and a boy's relationship with his dad are celebrated and lionised. It's no wonder women feel left out.

Zoë Marriott said...

Mary: Ach, so sorry about that! But thanks for commenting anyway :)

Lucy: Yes, you certainly can! Thank you. And I absolutely, 100% agree. Comments like that utterly miss the point. How on earth does a superhero magically transform from a superhero into a Mary-Sue the moment they have a breastplate instead of a codpiece? Gah. It's like how Percy Jackson is a great, flawed, likeable hero but Annabeth? Basically Percy in female form? Oh, she's SUCH a Mary-Sue! WAKE UP, PEOPLE.

Chrysoula Tzavelas said...

I came across a conversation the other day referring to Mae as a whore and I was just... what? what? what? Partially because... you kind of want to believe that intense fans of an author will... share some of the author's values? And that's obviously not true (Twilight, HP), but calling Mae a whore and drooling over Alan was just Oh My God mindblowing.

I worry about this a lot. I want to write female protagonists readers like. But that almost seems like a doomed proposition. Even getting past the 'you can't please everybody' it seems like if female characters do have a personality, or if they have issues, it's like... like the author isn't allowed to KNOW those are problems? Sorry to draw on my own stuff but in my first novel the protagonist relates (in a minor scene) how she went through a phase of not wanting to be a 'bad girl' like the mother who gave her up for adoption obviously was. I tried hard to make it clear that the narrator knew this was not a great attitude to have but there were still discussions of my 'slut-shaming' raised. Like, if I have a character who actually imbibes some of our socialization about women who have an unwanted, unwed pregnancy, and who regurgitates it in a limited fashion, unless she is massively punished for it, it's considered to be what the author actually thinks. So-- in your original post you talk about Katsa and somebody argues about how angry Katsa is. Pretty sure that person or somebody like her would claim that Katsa's author thinks Katsa is just fine!

Long story short, yes, Sarah Janes get punished too, because I suspect just as with Mary Sues, the people who hate them assume the author is just using them as a mouthpiece/self-insert. Depth is not allowed. Look at all the posters and covers where you can see the T & A at the same time. Squash those women flat, please.

Rebecca Herman said...

Loki pretty much went past "needs a hug" into "insane evil bad guy" sometime before Avengers.

The actor is still really hot, though. If he were played by an ugly actor, I don't think he'd have fangirl defenders...

I've seen the term "Gary Stu" used to refer to a male character that is like a Mary Sue, but it's usually used for characters in books/movies/video games not primarily aimed at females. I played World of Warcraft for years and there were several male storyline characters that players would constantly complain were "Gary Stus."

Isabel said...

Thanks for talking about this Zoe! I wish everyone could read this post, it would make such a huge difference in the way people view and talk about female characters.

Zoë Marriott said...

Chrysoula: That's an attitude that really gets me. Buying into the author's world wholesale, falling in love with the characters, longing for more... all the while hating and despising the female characters. If you hate those girls so much, why on earth do you *keep reading*? When characters get on my nerves, I put the book down! But of course, it's because these girl characters they hate haven't actually done anything wrong. They're not despicable. They're good characters, interesting characters, characters within whose heads it's fun to be for a while. It's just that as soon as the readers surface again the DIE GIRLS DIE socialisation kicks in again and they simply *must* hate all the female characters, while it's still OK to love the male ones. Messed up, man.

Rebecca: I agree that Hiddleston has the face of an angel. But personally I find him attractive because I've seen him on TV being interviewed and he seems like a charming, well-read, intelligent, warm man with a great sense of humour. If he was even a fraction as big of a douche in real life, I would NOT be sighing over his dreamy photos. I surely cannot be alone in this? On that Gary-Stu point - I do know about this, but put simply, it's just not endemic in the same way that Mary-Sue is. Mary-Sue is EVERYWHERE. Hate for Sarah-Jane is EVERYWHERE. Sexism harms both men and women. It truly does, I believe that. But it generally harms women more, and more often, and more profoundly because it elevates men to a position of privilege and actively pushes women down. Gary-Stu is just a rather uneducated complaint about some male characters. It doesn't come with that hatred and vitriol which harms both critical discussion of female characters AND the actual women who create and love them.

Isabel: Well, no one post (especially from a little known YA author) can reach that many people, I don't think. I'm enjoying having these discussions, though! Changing the world half a dozen people at a time!

Rebecca Herman said...

Yeah, if he acted like a douche IRL, he would definitely not be as attractive. He seems really sweet and funny. There are actors I can't stand anymore because of how they act in real life....

katie said...

I think part of the reason that girls and women hate on female characters in books is because sometimes they don't just enjoy the story or really get into the author's world--they want to step into that character's shoes and take that place in the story. A character like Bella Swan is kind of a blank slate, without a strong personality or much depth, so in reading her story, it's easy for me to imagine myself in her place, with the two hot supernatural guys fighting to be your boyfriend and this exciting, exclusive world of supernatural powers etc. When you have a strong character like Katsa, who has a very particular worldview and who makes choices based on her opinions, it's a lot harder to imagine yourself in her place. On one hand, I think it's a great compliment to the author, because they have created a character that is realistic and complicated and believable. On the other hand, having a really kickass female character opens her up to schaudenfraude and the mean girls attitude that they have to put you down to make themselves seem better. Girls and women are reading these epic series and they're spending =years= getting to know these characters and their world. How many times have you seen them talking about how much they love the male characters from these books, about their literary "boyfriends?" It follows that there would be some antagonistic feelings towards the female character who actually gets to live in that world and have that guy be her actual boyfriend. There are definitely guys who get caught up in fictional worlds and obsess over the stories and characters, but it doesn't seem to be in quite the same possessive way that some women do. If that makes sense.....

Zoë Marriott said...

Katie: That's kind of my knee-jerk reaction to it too, that it must be about readers not wanting a girl who isn't THEM to get too close to the boys they love. But I think that comes from a similar place of stereotyping, and the reason I say that is: in that case, why the hate for Bella? Why the hate for other 'Mary-Sue' characters? If these readers just wanted a featureless meat-suit that they could use to snuggle up to their crushes in the story, then the Mary-Sue type (perfect, beloved, wish-fulfilment) would be the *preferred* type of character. And she's not. No female character seems to be able to gain approval. Which argues to me that something deeper is going on.

BeeCycling said...

I've been seeing this attitude in fandom for so long. I've left groups over the unwarranted hatred of female characters who have done nothing wrong, or nothing worse than any of their male counterparts. It's sickening that it's still so widespread.

Zoë Marriott said...

Becky: The more prominent, strong, interesting, real-seeming female characters we get, the more hatred there seems to be. People don't even understand where this hatred comes from inside them; it's an instinctive feeling that Women Are Taking Over. That so much of it comes from girls and women is tragic. We do it to ourselves!

G.M. said...

As one of your "duckies" far away in Canada, let me comment with one section (that Heroines must be attractive) in your long rant. The majority of women and teenager girls aren't naturally slim. And most women look better with a little more weight than less. In my YA fiction, the 17 years heroine is proud to be a little overweight (BMI about 26. BMI stands for Body Mass Index) and she enjoys toe-nail painting with her best girlfriend. They toe-nail paint each other. We may not all like Mary-Sue or Sarah-Jane, but we do like Zoe and that's why we visit this blog. Best wishes.

Zoë Marriott said...

Giora: Oh, I know! I'm certainly not, and I'm hoping to write my own plump heroine in the next few books. But heroines who aren't naturally tiny (and yet constantly worrying about and denigrating their figures) are very rare, and usually get greeted with a lot of hate. Hence the rant :)

ERose said...

I do think there are a lot of books that trap themselves into writing the kind of female character I can't *stand* and I think it all starts with the trope that female characters are not allowed to know their own worth. I specifically think of Bella Swan and Sookie Stackhouse. It goes like so:
She can't know her own merit, so the readers must deduce it from the size of her Suitor Collection.
The notion that not one of these men would rather find a different girlfriend than be part of a Love Dodecahedron or whatever needs justification, so she has to somehow be more special than any other girlfriend they'd find (ie: all women in the book's world).
Again, since the woman must be oblivious to this, the men have to explain it, so we end up with a bunch of conversations where the male characters talk about *why* she's the Most Special.
I mean, I'm essentially being told over and over again by all of the men in the book that this is ideal womanhood. And at the same time, I'm faced with a character who has to make up the cognitive dissonance of underrating herself and still believing she knows better than all the people constantly making minute observations of her behavior to point out how awesome she is.
So basically she has to be falsely modest, pathologically insecure, really dense or flat hypocritical to maintain the required premises. And she has to spend a lot of time behaving that way in order to interact with all those men, leaving little room for other kinds of character development.
So you get to hear how much everyone else likes her, but to make sure she never seems conceited, she spends most of the book being really irritating.

Zoë Marriott said...

ERose: Oh, I know what you mean! The heroine can't *recognise* at any point that she's anything other than ordinary - physically or mentally - because that would make her unlikeable. Cocky. So the writer uses the male characters to tell the reader about the heroine 'objectively'. Sadly, one hero will not do that job, because it might mean that she is just that one hero's preferred kind of patholotically insecure. Which means *every* male character must luuurve her and ennumerate all her amazing qualities, emphasizing that she is is Objectively The Best. What you have to recognise about this character is that she's the product of a writer desperately trying to create a likeable heroine who won't get any hate. And failing. While the male characters in this girl's life may get to make mistakes, act badly, do thing that hurt the heroine or others, the writer is so aware that their heroine is living on sufferance in the reader's mind that they never allow her to develop or grow or mess up, or really DO anything. If she did, you might not like her. She can't have confidence, or speak up, or mess up. You might not like her. The writer is frantically trying to abide by those unspoken rules that the heroine can't take up too much oxygen in the story. But in doing so, they write a story in which the main character is the least interesting character. Even though the story is ostensibly about her, it's really about the other characters and their feelings for her, and their angsty backstories, and tortured-ness, and the heroine is just there to get you, the reader, access to them. And despite all this effort, you still find her incredibly annoying precisely because she's so bland and featureless!

Anonymous said...

I've read two books with fat main heroines - Rae Carson's Girl of Fire and Thorns and Mary Brown's Pigs Don't Fly. In both stories, the girl is generally regarded as worthless, both by herself and society at large. Then she's forced to go on an adventure and after a while she looks at herself and discovers she's become thin (and, incidentally, drop-dead gorgeous)! While I liked the stories individually, taken together I find this idea of proving oneself worthy of beauty seriously disturbing.

Zoë Marriott said...

Droewyn: I haven't read Pigs Don't Fly, but I have read Rae Carson's Girl of Fire and Thorns and I loved it. I'm not sure I took that idea away from it - that the heroine proved herself worthy of beauty. Was she beautiful, at the end? I'm not convinced she was, or that she thought she was - or even cared. Plenty of people tried to flatter her about the way she looked after she lost all that weight, but I thought she was impervious to the flattery because she'd learned she was worth more than that. Having said that, though, it would be nice to read a few more books with heroines who start out fat, feel OK with it, and stay that way.

Anonymous said...

Have only started reading this post (am eating lunch at computer while trying to get ready for classes which somehow start next week), and I ADORE it! Brilliant feminist thinky thoughts. I came over here via Seanan McGuire's link (Love her work), and am now going to check out your work (which sounds fantastic), and will be back to read more/comment more, I promise. But THANK YOU!

Zoë Marriott said...

Ithiliana: Thank *you*! I also love Seanan McGuire's work, so this is a lovely compliment :) But don't get crumbs on your keyboard - so difficult to get them out.

ERose said...

Zoe - Oh I agree that it's a common and understandable snare. I really wish more authors understood that a lot of heroines are unlikeable precisely because of how hard their author tried to keep people from hating her.
No one I know likes having a great story interrupted while the heroine is irrationally insecure for a few pages. You hate her in those books *because* she hinders the story. It's fine for a heroine to have doubts, but they really need to be consistent with the rest of the story and her character. You also really need to properly develop other characters and give them their foibles and doubts, otherwise the heroine constantly becomes "that girl."
I think it's too common to sacrifice good character development in service to making every heroine Miss Congeniality of All the World. We hate *real people* who try too hard to make everyone like them, so why would we like someone we only get to know for a few hours of reading?
It bothers me how many authors just make it easier for people to hate their heroines by failing to recognize a Catch-22 when they see one.

Zoë Marriott said...

ERose: I think authors fall into the snare for the exact same reason that readers fall on female characters like rabid wolves the moment they step out of line; authors themselves feel the promptings of that internalised misogyny telling them that this heroine is too loud, too pushy, too cocky, is taking up too much space etc. and authors themselves live with the kyriarchy. No reader likes these heroines that turn themselves into pretzels to be likeable, but no writer deliberately sets out to write a character that way, either. Quite often we write a character who is entirely different to that, and then come under tremenous pressure from beta-readers, agents and editors to change them to MAKE them likeable. We're told 'She's not vulnerable enough!' or 'She's too hard!' or 'She doesn't feel realistic!' I've been there. After seven rounds of edits you're so desperate to get approval you hardly know who you've written anymore. It's the same system oppressing all of us and our characters (and even the editors and beta-readers) sadly.

RogueFiccer said...

I can't stand Tessa because I think she's 2D, annoying as hell, and basically Clary dropped into Cassandra Clare's idea of late 1860s London. I can't stand most of the characters in her novels for reasons that would take up more space than I have here, but suffice it to say I despised Sebastian less than I hated, loathed, and wanted to kill Jace and Clary (but especially Jace). Tessa's more of a Mary Sue than a Sarah Jane, but YMMV.

Katy S said...

Excellent post. I've reblogged to Now is Gone. I do wish you have either a BlogLovin' or e-mail subscription form, since GFC is supposedly going away about three months ago... so I don't trust it. I've heard the term "Marty Stu" coined for male characters such as you mentioned. I rather like that :-)

Lacey Reah said...

It's like that old saying goes: you can't please all the people all the time." If there is one character that someone loves, someone else is bound to hate her. That's just the way it is. Characters are like people that way. ;) I often like characters with flaws but I've read other reviewers hate the same characters I love for the same reason's I love them.

Zoë Marriott said...

RogueFiccer: Well... sorry, but you've sort of proved my point for me there. Sebastian is a child murderer and an attempted incestuous rapist who wants to kill everyone or turn them into half-demons. Yet you find him less loathesome than... Clary. Who just wants to save the world, spend time with her boyfriend, paint pretty pictures and hang out with her mum and new stepdad. Yeah. The fact that you also hate Jace, for other reasons that you don't want to go into, doesn't really lessen the cognitive dissonance for me there. Have a think about why Clary's flaws (her recklessness, maybe?) or what you perceive as her lack of flaws (I don't know, maybe you feel she's superpowered?) engender so much more hatred from you than the flaw of smashing a child's head in with a hammer. If you really *think* about that, and about the points raised in this post, maybe you'll discover something about yourself and where that knee-jerk reaction came from.

Katy S: I had no idea what BlogLovin' was, so I went and did some research, and I've added a widget. Thanks. And thanks for reblogging, too.

Lacey: That's true, but this phenomenon is a little bit different than that. We're talking about near universal hatred for female characters based on 'she's so annoying!', and near universal adoration for male characters despite their being rapists and murderers. Something much deeper and more worrying than 'you can't please all the people' going on there.

Tabitha Ormiston-Smith said...

Well I have to acquit myself here. The protagonist of my novel, Gift of Continence, is fat, lazy, stupid, incompetent at everything, completely self-centred and an utter failure at relationships. Nevertheless, I think I've succeeded in making her a likeable character.

Zoë Marriott said...

Tabitha: This post wasn't meant to be me having a go at writers who create competent, slim, clever characters. It was meant to be a critique of why readers (often female readers) direct hatred at female characters for not living up to impossible standards, while fawning all over male characters who act like jerks. Nevertheless, your character sounds pretty interesting - good luck with your book.

Cicely said...

This post is fantastic. There's so much hate for female characters lately, especially in fandom. Like how in Supernatural almost every recurring female character was killed off (partially as a result of the fandom hating them) apart from Charlie, who is a lesbian and as such not a sexual threat to Sam and Dean. Seriously. I think she's the only recurring female character who hasn't been killed. Oh yeah, and Krissy, who's a kid. It sucks.

But I know that I'm guilty of doing this myself sometimes, which makes me want to reassess my reasons for doing so, because it is really not on.

Zoë Marriott said...

Cicely: Supernatural fandom was one of the ones I was thinking about. I'm not really into that fandom, but maybe looking at it from the outside makes it more clear to me just what is going on. Trying to work out WHY is the disturbing part. Do we women really hate ourselves that much?

Alex Hayman said...

I love, love, love this post, and it says all I've ever wanted to say on the subject and more. I hate this idea that female characters (especially, I think, in YA) aren't allowed to exist.

As a teenage girl, I hate being indirectly shamed, through the endless criticism of every female character in every form of media ever, for daring to exist, for daring to take up space, for daring to not apologize for putting myself and my needs and my dreams first. It's as though being a teenage girl is such a terrible crime that we somehow need to repent for it, and that we owe the world and the patriarchy for being grand enough to cope with our presence in a world where we aren't wanted.

So thanks for writing this post- I can tell I'll be rereading it many, many times.

Zoë Marriott said...

Alex: Thank you. I'm so glad that I managed to express these feelings that I and so many others have had - frustration and just complete boredom with the way that female characters are treated. We exist. We're fifty-one percent of the population. Our thoughts and feelings and actions and words MATTER. We do not need to apologise for existing or for not being men. We are not a niche group, dammit. We are people.

BeeCycling said...

Thought you might find this op ed by actor Anna Gunn about the vitriolic hatred of the character she plays on Breaking Bad. Very familiar!

Zoë Marriott said...

Thanks, Becky! That's really interesting :)

Kate McMurry said...

Zoë Marriott, this post is absolutely brilliant! I found it through a tweet from one of my followers on Twitter, and I am going to retweet and email this amazing blog post to everyone I can. Thank you so very much for inspiring this vital discussion.

Zoë Marriott said...

Thank you, Kate :)

Laura Mary said...

Wee bit late to the party but thought I would comment anyway! I feel your weariness Zoe :-(

It's bullying in fictional form. Girls (and lets face it – it *is* mostly girls) are completely unrestrained in their efforts to tear apart fictional characters, because who does it hurt anyway? They’re not real. Celebrities are fair game too. Lets make websites about how much we hate that girl off that show, what does it matter, she shouldn’t have got famous if se couldn’t take it.
While we’re at it, lets make a facebook page about how much we hate that girl in our class with the really weird hair. I’ve never spoken to her but everyone hates her so she must be a bitch.

In my experience this venom some girls seem to have for each other is prompted by absolutely nothing. There is no rhyme or reason to it – it’s like they have a cauldron of hate just waiting to be poured on anyone – and anyone will do. The first hint of annoyance is enough to set it all off.


Can you tell I spent 7 years at an all girls school?

KashyaCharsi said...

Getting an A in relationships reminds me of the visual novel School festival, where the Tsundere love interest yells at the heroine that she is stupid not to figure out that his jerkassery towards her means interest. You can find my detailed comment on the Nightmaremode site below the article Love interests: Arianna Belle-Essai, the teacher's vixen. Arianna also grinds my gears for reasons detailed in my comment.

Unknown said...

This was a great post! Thanks so much for sharing. I certainly do see the similarities, now that you mention it ;) Humor is my armor, I suppose.

Zoë Marriott said...

S.E.: I think it's really encouraging that so many of us are individually and collectively noticing this bullcrap and calling it out. The more you know!

Unknown said...

This is a fantastic piece and I absolutely agree. I'm in a fair amount of fandoms, and I really have noticed that flawed female characters are definitely despised. I've noticed this in particular when part of various anime fandoms: for example, going into "Naruto" I was told over and over that I was going to hate the main female, Sakura, only to find that she was one of the most developed and human female characters I have ever read. Often, the female characters in the media we consume is labelled as "weak" or "useless" or both (simply for showing emotion), and without proper evidence. I really do suspect internalised misogynism - and that we are FAR more forgiving of males for expressing the same amount of emotions, or having the same amount of flaws. A great "litmus test" is to see "Let's say this character was a male. What would he be like? Will I like him now?"

I also found a Tumblr that may be of interest to you: This is a tumblr purely for the defense of often-hated characters, the majority of which are "annoying female characters". It makes me very happy.

Zoë Marriott said...

Amy: I agree about Sakura. Naruto and Sasuke are both equally 'annoying' at the start, and they all develop and change... but Sakura gets no credit for this, while everyone drools over Sasuke's morally questionable antics. Ooh, great link - thank you! And I think you might like the links to the Mary-Sue blogposts (you can find them in the left sidebar, up at the top).

magicbunni said...

What's scary is that this post implies the only acceptable way to write a non-Mary Sue (or hated woman) is to write her as a side note. Sort of what Molly Hooper was originally intended to be in Sherlock.

Thinking on that, my question becomes are women essentially being erased in our fandoms as a result? I mean... by us? By fellow women? Are we removing ourselves from the narrative so that we too are 'good'?

Unknown said...

I just found your blog recently when I was annoyed over a criticism that went - "Sigh. Mary Sue." - that was it. No specifics, no details, no nothing. I was looking for a quote I had once read refuting the whole criticism, and couldn't find it, but I found your blog so I was thrilled. Thank you so much for both your articles on Mary Sue and this one on Sarah Jane. I have linked to all three of them on my tumblr blog urging people to read them, and I will continue to boost the signal because more authors who want to write female leads need to have this kind of armor/weapon in their arsenal. A zillion kudos to you.

dramatic owl said...

I love everything about this essay. Everything. Thank you for sharing it. (Here from tumblr)

Calli said...

This is an amazing piece that has voiced a lot of the unrefined thoughts swirling about in the back (and front, occasionally) of my mind. You verbalized this much better than I could, I'm so glad I found this. Thank you so much.

Blackmanga said...

Seems to me the solution is to write more female characters the more they whine about it. Give them females until they're sick of it, until they eventually stop being self hating sexists.

What I have zero respect for is female authors who are scared to write female characters for fear of being slammed and labelled Mary Sue so refuse to do so. That's letting ignorance win.And ignorance should never win.

Misty Hernandez said...

Finally, a decent human being! Man, I can't tell you many times I wanna strangle the shit out of fandoms who hate every heroine for (they might deny it but...)solely being the heroine! Granted, I know there are some people who dislike a certain heroine just because of her character type but damn, even the bravest heroine gets a lot of retarded hate from fangirls. A Heroine could never get away with anything.

Like Yui Komori from Diabolik Lovers. She is hated for being weak, submissive, shy and naïve. Or just plain innocent!(Note: Diabolik Lovers is an otome game (visual novel targeted at girls) and it is about a bunch of sadistic vampires. It has been adapted into an anime but I would suggest you read some detailed game reviews or play the game if you know Japanese or just watch subtitled gameplays on youtube before watching the anime.)

And then there's Yuuki Cross/Kuran from Vampire Knight who is brave and knows how to fight but is a slut for sleeping with both Zero and Kaname. Oh my freaking goodness fangirls, get a grip! Yes, I can agree that her actions may have been hurtful to them but at least it was out of love for both of them.

And whenever I run into a fanfiction with an OC created with heroine hate, I get so pissed I want to beat the crap out of those authors. Especially if their OC is a Mary Sue or is not that much different than the heroine (Can't they be original?)!

Feisty Fighter Heroine? Awesome!
Damsel In Distress? Awesome!
Sweet and innocent Heroine? Awesome!
Experienced and Sensual Heroine? Awesome!
Smart and Geeky Heroine? Awesome!
Atheletic Cheerleader? Awesome!
Shy and Naïve Heroine? Awesome!
Outgoing and Friendly Heroine? Awesome!
Girl Next Door? Awesome!
The Popular Girl? Awesome!
Normal Girl? Awesome!
Weird Girl? Awesome

Every Heroine that can be defined as a Sarah Jane is great! The Heroine hate needs to freaking stop!

As an author/writer on Wattpad, I sometimes worry about what would people would think about my female characters. I worry if I become a Professional author, my heroines and other female characters might suffer the same hate. I feel sorry for these artists who put a lot of effort into developing their heroines. Do these OC writers have no shame?

Also if anyone is interested in my writing, I go by Booglehead on Wattpad and Lady Indicolite on Quotev (I'm currently inactive on that sight though.)

I'm so glad I found your blog!

Misty Hernandez said...

Oh and...

Tomboys? Awesome!
Girly-Girls? Awesome!

I forgot to add these types to the list.

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