So if there’s one thing I’ve focused on a lot in my six years of occasionally blogging, it’s female characters. Because aside from my own writing, I’m a huge consumer of media, I’m a feminist, and I care a lot about the way women are represented across media. So: female characters. I think about them a lot. And thus, non-shockingly, of the roughly seven billionty blogs that I read regularly, a fair amount discuss female characters.

This makes me happy: a lot of other people care, too! And it’s interesting. Reading other people’s thoughts have helped me sharpen and figure out my own, become a more active watcher/reader, and has given me recommendations that have led me to new shows/movies/books that I’ve loved. I’ve also had some interesting discussions when I’ve disagreed, but generally, I come away with a lot to think about. My opinion is: analyzing female characters = super cool.

Except for this one thing that I keep seeing with depressing frequency: explaining why one female character is awesome by talking about the flaws in another lady from the same genre. Or in other words, writing as if two female characters (often both generally pretty good characters, who are flawed in different ways) are in a competition to prove one of them is more awesome than the other.

Why? Why must we do that?

(Note: I’m not linking to specific posts from here because I’m talking about trends I’ve seen, not trying to call out anyone in particular.)

Vote KnopeThe first time I started to write this blog post (it’s gone through four drafts now) it was in response to a whole rash of articles I’d run into about how great Parks & Recreation is (and it is!). And specifically how great Leslie Knope is (omg SHE IS). And how that’s great, because Liz Lemon over on 30 Rock is a mess. Wait, what?

They’re both the central characters of NBC, Thursday-night comedies. And Tina Fey and Amy Poehler both were on SNL, and are friends in real life. People are used to talking about them as a unit. But unless you’re comparing specific facets of the two shows, why frame it as one character being better than the other? For that matter, if you aren’t talking about both shows to begin with, why detour into it just for that purpose?

I’ve also seen Community’s Britta Perry thrown into this mix occasionally. And here’s the thing: one of my closest friends really identifies with Britta. Another of my closest friends really identifies with Leslie.1 But I actually think it’s super awesome that there are two very different female characters, both hilarious, so that two very different (but both hilarious) friends of mine have characters they can identify with.2

And just to drive home the point, here’s a video of Amy Poehler being awesome and refusing to fall into the sexist trap of pitting characters, shows, or her actual person against Tina Fey, because they are friends and they are both funny:

[Description: a video in which Amy Poehler calls an interviewer out for referring to her and Tina Fey both being in an Emmy race as a catfight, repeatedly asks him to stop trying to get her to say mean things about her friend, and generally refuses to play his sexist reindeer games. Did I mention she is great?]

This is not an isolated issue of 30 Rock vs. Parks and Rec issue, though. I ranted about it on twitter a couple of months ago, when I ran into a cool blog post about how great Jane Foster of Thor is. And while Thor didn’t do much for me as a movie, I do like that Jane was a scientist devoted to her research above all. What distressed me was that someone immediately commented to argue that actually, no, the better female character from a superhero last summer was Peggy Carter of Captain America. Which again, why? Because they’re both women in superhero flicks? The characters have even less to do with each other than Liz Lemon and Leslie Knope, but the comment was definitely a case of “this character is better than that character.”

Ellen RipleyAnd then, more recently, I ran into the same thing again, in an article about how great Ellen Ripley is. And you know what? Ellen Ripley is pretty great! The Alien franchise is pretty great! But the article took a long detour through explaining how much Sarah Connor sucks. But, um. Sarah Connor doesn’t suck. And even if you think she does, her sucking doesn’t make Ripley a better character. The fact that they are both women from lady-led genre franchises does not mean that if you like one, you can’t like the other.3

Look, I am down with criticizing the Terminator franchise. And superhero movies. And 30 Rock, which I generally enjoy, but which also sometimes makes me go, “Yiiiiiikes,” and wince. I think critique is generally a good and important thing, yes, even when it’s critiquing a thing I enjoy. But critique can also fall into nasty narratives of its own: in this case, acting as if women have to be in competition.

They aren’t. They don’t have to be. Instead of talking about which awesome action heroine, or which hilarious sitcom lady, or which superhero’s ladyfriend is greatest… well, why not enjoy how many of those characters there are? Instead of fighting over who gets one slice of pie, let’s enjoy the fact that the pie is getting bigger. Pieces may have slightly different flavors, and some may still be undercooked or not to your taste, but the pie as a whole can still be delicious and filling. And wow that metaphor got overextended.

The point is: this isn’t Highlander. There can be more than one awesome female character at a time.4 Not all of them are to everyone’s taste, and denigrating one does not make another seem more awesome. But it does fall into the sexist tropes of thinking of all women as being in competition, and that one representation of women is enough. Neither of those things is true. Let’s please not write as if they are.

  1. It would be nice at this point if I could say I identify as Liz to make this triad complete, but I don’t. Actually, I don’t identify with any of the above. Hmm.
  2. I can only imagine and empathize with how frustrating it must be for non-white, non-straight, non-cis folks to find characters to identify with that strongly. The increasing representation of women is good. But there are a lot of ways it hasn’t even begun to expand yet.
  3. Completely unrelated detour: my sister and I refer to this as “Birds vs. Monkey,” a line gleefully shouted in the midst of the movie Rio. It’s a useful phrase for when fans of Media Property X seem to be locked in a battle to the death with fans of Media Property Y, as if it’s physically impossible to like both X and Y. You see this a lot among boyband fans.
  4. And it would be great if there were more than one awesome female characters per franchise… well, we’re getting there.
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7 thoughts on “On Female Characters: This Isn’t Highlander. There Can Be More Than One.

  • April 27, 2012 at 7:17 pm

    This is perfect.

  • April 28, 2012 at 9:44 am

    Love the article. In response to footnote 4, I agree with your general point but there are exceptions. The two that spring to mind immediately are Buffy/Angel (Buffy, Faith, Cordelia, Willow, Fred and Anya are all very different and very awesome) and Firefly (same goes for Kaylee, River, Inara, and Zoe). Other franchises could learn from these examples.

  • April 28, 2012 at 10:05 am

    @Loch Nessie: Thanks!

    @Michael: Oh, there are a few out there, for sure. (Parks & Rec has plenty of awesome women, for example.) But way too often you’ll run into situations like the Avengers posters, where I’m sure there are other women in the movie, but the team is advertised as five guys and one woman.

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  • May 18, 2012 at 12:10 pm

    And in fact, at the end of the 30 Rock live episode a few weeks ago, Tina Fey *did* call out to Amy Poehler (who was in the episode) and tell folks to watch Parks and Rec.

  • May 18, 2012 at 12:11 pm

    (though I guess that was recent and this video was a while ago)

    Anyway, all I’m saying is that it’s great to see friends supporting each other 🙂

  • May 29, 2012 at 10:06 pm

    That moment on 30 Rock made me make flappy hands of glee at the television. 😀


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