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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

And Then There's the Girl: "Women Characters" vs. "Characters that are Women"

For the Blog Against Sexism Day...because I'm a crowd following sheep. :-)

Women Characters vs. Characters that are Women.

I have a confession to make. I tend to dislike women characters.

Give me a moment to explain.

It's not that I don't like women. It's not that I don't like characters that are women.

But I don't like "women characters".

And there *is* a difference.

Ever see a group of male characters, all representing different aspects of humanity. Race, culture, personality, stage of life? And then there's one woman?

THAT is a "woman character". A character who's sole defining characterization is as "the woman".

Like Thundercats, for example. I loved that cartoon as a kid, still do, but let's look at it more closely.

You have one old ghost guy who's the elderly mentor/grandfather figure in Jaga. You have one architect/intellectual/wise older brother figure in Tygra. You have one young, brash, heroic but kind of dim main character in Lion-O. You have the token black guy as the strong gruff mechanic in Panthro. And you have the two cheerful "Thunderkittens" in the kids, Wiley-Kit and Wiley-Kat.

And then you have Cheetara. What the hell was Cheetara's purpose? To be the woman and look hot in the leotard while being vaguely maternal? She could run fast and was dimly, conveniently psychic. But where the male characters at least had some stereotypical, shallow quality to serve as their personality (grandpa/big brother/brash hero/gruff strongman/playful kids), she had *nothing* but feminity to define her.

Why is there one woman (well, technically two, but Wiley-Kit was a child, and thus intrinsically genderless in portrayal), where is the "intellectual" woman? Where is the brash leader woman? Where's the pseudo black or asian or hispanic woman?

Why does this *one* single, pseudo-white woman represent my whole damn gender? And why doesn't she get one sole other defining personality trait besides "being a woman".

It's stupid. Because, and this might get my ass kicked, feminity is *not* all that we are. It's one part, but that's it. Our sex isn't even that important to our DNA.

We have forty six chromosomes containing all of our genetic material. Forty six. Forty four of these chromosomes are autosomal. They're the same for men and women. Two chromosomes are sex-based. Two. Out of forty-six. That's one pair out of twenty three. And of that pair, barring anomalies, one is always an "X". Men and women differ by *one* chromosome out of forty-six.

So why is this one chromosome so important in terms of characterization then?

Why not define other traits first and *then* pick the gender? I'm not saying gender shouldn't affect the characterization. Gender/sex is important in our society, we're raised in ways that encourage certain traits and behaviors and that shouldn't be ignored. Like race/ethnicity, they *are* important to the character.

That's the point. They are *important* to the character, they are not the character in and of themselves. They are one of many facets to a person.

It is possible to create interesting characters while starting with a gender concept, many female characters of DC Comics came about through wanting to create a female counterpart to male characters. Like Supergirl in her first appearances. But what made Supergirl a good character wasn't that she was a female version of Superman, it was her kindness and bravery. It was how she chose to live at an orphanage for a long time, helping make things better for the orphans she lived with. And that's more than just being "the girl".

But too often people just think that being "the girl" of the group is enough. And it's *not*.

I blame the Justice League and Justice Society in one sense. As they're groups with only one woman. The Justice League/Superfriends made for a very corny, cheesy, but entertaining show for kids. And people watched that and thought, okay, it's enough to have a group with only one woman.

But they missed one important fact. The Justice League could afford to have this token woman because she was an iconic character with years of characterization behind her. Whether one likes her or not, she had many years of her own comic book (as well as a tv show. :-P) to establish/develop her personality beyond just being the "token woman".

If you have characters that are only established in a group setting, you need to do things differently. You shouldn't have just one woman. You have to give your women characterization beyond just "the woman".

While I tend to prefer early X-Men to later, I have to admit, there's one thing that they definitely improved on over time. When the X-Men started, it suffered from Thundercats Syndrome. It had the sarcastic leader, the rich pretty boy, the scientist, the kid, and the woman. But the team expanded, gained more women, the female characters became more evolved. Storm, Rogue, Kitty, Jubilee and so on and so forth are very strong, developed characters in their own right. Even the original token girl, "Marvel Girl" herself, evolved into a more complex character.

That needs to happen more often. And characters should be created as whole beings, gender, race, and everything as part of a *whole*.

No more "Women Characters", let's have more "Characters that are Women".


  • At March 08, 2006 7:50 AM, Blogger Elayne said…

    Very nice diatribe against the token female! Maybe my Blog Against Sexism Day post should be about conventions that purport to be about Women in Comics but they always mean female characters instead of real women involved in the industry. :)

  • At March 08, 2006 10:18 AM, Blogger Ferrous Buller said…

    Ahhh, yes - the token female character. What a long and storied history she has! :-T

    Of course, the trite explanation is that superheroes have always been aimed at young males and thus have always focused on male protagonists. Women have usually been relegated to secondary roles: damsels in distress, love interests, maternal figures, etc. So have other forms of action-adventure story-telling: i.e., scifi, heroic fantasy, noir crime, etc.

    Drifting further back, a lot of heroic tales have focused on the exploits of men: e.g., Beowulf, Arthurian tales, The Iliad and The Odyssey, etc. More modern stories which derive from these works have largely continued that tradition. One of the things which struck me about the recent Narnia movie is that it reminded me: Susan and Lucy didn't get to do a hell of a lot in it, did they? :-/ While one of the liberties Peter Jackson took in The Lord of the Rings films was he greatly expanded the roles women played - though they were still pretty secondary to most of the men.

    Guess us dudes have always dug telling stories about our violent ways where we're front and center! ;-)

    "Knights were still thugs who enjoyed beating the crap out of each other. But now, they wrote poetry about it and expected ladies to admire them for it."
    -Terry Jones, "The Crusades"

    The "chaste warrior woman" is an intriguing exception to that rule of thumb: here I use the Greek goddess Artemis as a template, though there are other examples (like Wonder Woman herself). Typically the CWW is beautiful, skilled at combat, and in some way aloof or removed from men, if not outright hostile to them. [Artemis turns a dude into a stag and sets his own dogs on him for accidentally spying on her while she's bathing - that's just cold. :-]

    She is usually (though not always) celibate; but in particular, she is almost never a mother. It's as if endowing her with battle prowess - typically seen as masculine - disbars her from reproducing, as though the two are mutually exclusive. In some cases, the CWW has to disguise herself as a man in order to fight, making explicit her "de-feminization."

    Still, things have improved: we grew up on the likes of Superfriends and Thundercats - which as you point out, basically each have only one token female; today's kids are growing up on Justice League and Teen Titans, which have more female characters and a more diverse mix of personalities (i.e., more women know how to throw a punch :-) - none of whom have to pretend to be a guy. Furthermore, you have more female creators out there than you used to. So progress is being made. Maybe not as fast as some would like, but social evolution always goes slowly.

    [Though I'm not sure genetics is the best basis for discussing gender differences - or rather, for complaining about sexism due to shared genetic makeup. We are also 96% identical to chimps. So a 2% difference in DNA due to that "flipped bit" may actually be seen as quite significant.]

    Happy Blog Against Sexism Day! :-)

  • At March 08, 2006 5:54 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    elayne: that sounds like an interesting post! I'm looking forward to reading it.

    Ferrous: Thing is, often even secondary female characters actually get to be "Characters that are Women". Characters that aren't solely determined by their gender.

    Lois Lane for example. Arwen and Eowyn didn't get a lot of development in Lord of the Rings, but to be fair, neither did the men. Characters were not really J.R.R's strong point.

    And women in the Iliad and the Odyssey were certainly not just "token women". Greek Myths in particular have very strikingly developed female characters in the Goddesses, Antigone, Ariadne, Medea, Clytemnestra, and so on.

    There's a difference between females in secondary roles and tokenism. Teen Titans and the modern Justice League are good examples though as to development onward...but remember: Hawkgirl, Wonder Woman, Starfire, Raven, et al, are characters older than I am.

    (While it's true that we're 96% shared DNA with Chimps, we're still 100% shared DNA with other humans. The sexual chromosomes actually get folded into each other, acting as one. This is why people can be Hermaphroditic, with XXY or XYY without many of the problems that having three of any other chromosome pair will cause. The Y chromosome has almost no actual useful genetic material. And there are people with only an X, who are still biologically women. The only chromosome that differentiates men and women doesn't really determine much of *anything* DNA wise...and sometimes people with XY chromosomes, do to odd biological conditions actually develop and are born as female. So in that case the genetic difference is really nil. :-))

  • At March 09, 2006 1:00 AM, Blogger Kitty said…

    Alison Bechdel mentioned this in a writeup of cartoon women stereotypes - her example was Smurfette, where it's one woman in a sea of men, usually there to be a mother or sacrificial figure.

  • At March 09, 2006 12:05 PM, Blogger Ferrous Buller said…

    Kalinara, of course you're right: there's a difference between secondary characters who are women vs. token female characters - sorry if I sounded like I was conflating the two.

    Personal definitions differ, but I view a character as "token" if (A) their purpose in the narrative seems to be purely symbolic, rather than feeling like a real character; and/or (B) said character is defined solely by a single characteristic (race, gender, etc.), rather than having a real personality.

    I don't remember Thundercats well enough to debate the merits of Cheetara, but they followed the classic five-character sentai team lineup; and nine times outta ten, your "Pink Ranger" was your token female character... :-)

    But I also remember Niko from the Galaxy Rangers fondly, even though she was the sole female on the team and had the passive / "girly" psychic powers. So just the appearance of being the token female doesn't necessarily make it so...I hope.

    Your mention of Greek myths reminds me of a discussion which came up back when we were reading the Oedipal plays: the question was whether Antigone was some kind of proto-feminist (for defying the king's orders) or a traditional female (for fulfilling her social obligation to her family). There was also some question of her being a "token" female (in the sense of being a symbol, not a person) or a "real" character.

    And I'm not sure if your comments about genetics reinforce or refute my basic point: that relatively minor differences in DNA can have huge implications, so maybe they're not the best basis for discussing gender differences.

    Sidebar: for some reason, every time I see your name, I want to type "Kalimari." I'm not sure why, but it makes me giggle... :-)

  • At March 09, 2006 12:18 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Ferrous: I would say your definition of the "token" role is pretty similar to my own.

    Though I'd go so far as to say Power Rangers does tend to skirt the boundaries of tokenism. There are a lot of stereotypical females, but they usually don't represent the only female perspective in the group.

    They *are* still heavy with stereotype, though. But already, with more than one female perspective, I do think it adds some leeway. Usually it's 2 main females to 3 to 4 guys, not a perfect ratio, but better I think.

    I stand on the side of Antigone=proto-feminist but I *am* an optimist. :-)

    And I'm pretty sure that I'm using the genetic material thing to disagree with you, but it's probably best to just leave that side of it alone. :-P

    And hee. Kalinara-Kalimari...close enough. If you slip up a few times I won't be upset. :-)

  • At March 10, 2006 10:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Your post made me think of another thing - even now, when we do have so many more active characters-who-are-women (a definite good thing), how many cases are there, in comics, cartoons, and the like, where a woman/girl is the leader of a group of mixed sex? There are certainly examples of women leading groups that are exclusively female--the magical girl/Sailor Moon formula of Anime comes to mind--but when the group has both men and women in it, whether the subordinate characters are tokens or not, the leader is almost always male (and usually white).

    Some exceptions I can think of, off the top of my head, are Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and MAYBE Naruto (where you have Tsunade, a woman, as the leader of the Ninja Village...someone who is both physically strong and a healer). Even in something like Teen Titans, the leader is a white male. I may have to write up a post on this....

  • At March 10, 2006 10:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Urgh - wrong URL in my my name, there. My blog is

  • At March 10, 2006 1:14 PM, Blogger Ferrous Buller said…

    Antigone: From what I recall of my class's discussion, it basically boiled down to "Who or what represented the 'higher' authority in the play? Was it the king, as the patriachal authority figure; or was it the social customs which Antigone observed?" I think our final conclusion was that social custom superceded the king's orders, and thus Antigone was fulfilling her familial duties: a conclusion supported when Creon admits he's wrong and changes Antigone's death sentence, but not before she has already committed suicide.

    Ultimately, it seemed like a moot point to me. Antigone risked her life in order to do what she felt was the right thing for her brothers, when everyone else was too scared of the king; and she ended up paying for her choice with her life. Attempting to reduce it down to some sort of statement - that it was either in defiance or support of patriachal power - seemed to demean the very real courage she displays, IMHO. Would we look down on a mother risking her life to protect her child because "oh, she's just fulfilling her socially-imposed role?" Of course not! Same thing here, I thought.

    [Granted, maybe Sophocles intended it to be a statement about a woman's duties. But who cares what he thought? ;-]

  • At March 10, 2006 5:34 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Tamakazura: That's a good point really. Jenny Sparks used to lead the Authority, and Storm was the leader of one of the X-Teams for awhile, as I recall.

    Birds of Prey had a few male associates that followed Barbara's orders. And Young Justice ended up led by Wonder Girl, with former leader Robin in an advisory position.

    But yeah, the cases of a female leader in most mixed-gender teams is pretty rare. It'd be nice to see more cases in which leadership is shared, egalitarian or actually in the hands of a female leader.

    ferrous: It's an interesting dilemma, I suppose part of why I consider Antigone a "feminist"/"proto-feminist" character isn't so much her defiance of the patriarchy but in how she continued to make her own decisions and take power into her own hands. She buried her brother, protected her sister, and even died by her own hands instead of waiting for a slow death (or rescue). I've always considered the core of feminism not to be so much "fighting the patriarchy" but to be simply free choice and respect. Considering that, I'd definitely call Antigone a proto-feminist. :-)

  • At March 14, 2006 12:30 PM, Blogger Ferrous Buller said…

    kalinara: Hmmm, interesting definition. I guess I tend to look at feminism in terms of larger social issues - i.e., what society allows men and women to do - than in terms of individual actions. Because we always have free will: what changes is (A) what society condones and (B) how we choose to exercise it. Getting into debates over what qualifies as "active" vs "passive" behavior can be thorny.

    E.g., in Antigone's case, one could argue she was being "passive" because she was simply fulfilling her social obligations to her family, rather than exercising her free will; i.e., she was just doing what was expected of her (albeit under dangerous circumstances). Or you could just as easily argue she was being pro-active, for all the reasons you mention.

    Again though, I think dwelling too much on the issue of whether or not Antigone is some sort of proto-feminist detracts from the courage and initiative she displays. And we both seem to agree Antigone was commendable for her actions, so that's cool. :-)

  • At May 31, 2007 11:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…


    You hit the nail on the head! Sometimes I wish I could write a comic where the standard superhero team introduces itself; "Hi! I'm Buzz, the wise white male leader!"

    "Hi! I'm Chip, the white male computer geek!"

    "Hi! I'm Tiny, the white male muscle with the ironic name!"

    "Hi! I'm Betty, the token woman!"


    Sometimes, I think we're getting past this and then I read The Losers, which features four guys and one woman, who's basically there to give the white male leader a love interest and add some sex appeal to the comic. Then there's Platina, Wonder Woman, Invisible Woman, and my favorite Jean Grey. Don't get me wrong; Stan Lee was miles ahead of most writers when it came to women, but I still remember a scene from the early comics, where the four main X-men are goofing off around the breakfast table, and then Jean comes in the kitchen door.

    "Thanks for making breakfast on Cook's day off, Jean." said the Prof. Apparently, the mutated X gene gives you all sorts of powers, but you need two X chromosomes to make a meal.

    Hey, at least he thanked her.

    Blue Jean


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