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.|
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****|
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.