Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Token Female Character

Scroll down for a SNEAK PEEK of the cover art for Honor Among Orcs!

I grew up watching a lot of cartoons -- it was the golden age of Saturday mornings and After School television, in my humble opinion, with shows like Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles and Gargoyles and Biker Mice from Mars. I was such a sucker for those beastly male bands and their solitary friend in the outside world, who was, it seems sometimes, ALWAYS a woman. April O'Neil, the lab assistant turned reporter. Elisa Maza, the police detective. Charlene Davidson, the mechanic.

It's easy to consider, and even treat these women as throwaways. The Token Female Character in a male-dominated world. There just to pretend like they were considering girls as an audience, or at least not ruling them out of possible co-existence. But these women served a valuable, even indispensable role in the story. They were the connection with the rest of the world, the protector and keeper of the secret of their existence, the partner in their continued adventures. Sometimes they needed saving, sure, but mostly they provided a lot more benefits to the team than the team gave them back. And not only that, they were the lens through which we saw the reasonable acceptance of the other. They were the stand in for all those little boys who imagined discovering the sewer lair of mutant-monsters-who-fought-for-good.

Think about that. For a period of time in the late 80's and 90's, it was totally legit story telling to allow a woman to be the lens through which we, as the audience, experienced something new. Imagine if it still were! Imagine if the live action Transformers movies had, in place of Shia's hapless Sam Witwicky, included a street-smart female mechanic as the main character through which we met and befriended these strange aliens (and not just the love interest and sexual object for Sam).

Oh, we still see it sometimes -- Jane in the Thor films, for example -- but often times, instead of the woman being a bridge for the Other, instead of being a capable every-man lens through which we're watching the film and experiencing something new, she's now relegated to the role of love interest, or T&A for the male audience. And we're INTENSELY critical of her character. Why is Thor interested in Jane Foster at all? Who needs Lois Lane when Superman could be with Wonder Woman? Or worse, we see books and movies where, because that lens through which we experience the Other is female, the entire story is classified and sold solely to a female audience -- as if men could not possibly have any interest -- or even, never made at all because "no one wants to see an action movie with a female lead."*

But why? Where did this idea come from? If we were all raised on these cartoons "for boys" with April O'Neil and Elisa Maza, and those cartoons certainly had no lack of success, why should the same formula not be totally legitimate now in modern film, television, and movies? Why do we need Sam Witwicky when we could have Charlene AKA Charley the Biker Mice From Mars Mechanic? Are we more accepting of the Lady-as-Lens when she's facing off with an OTHER which is so strange we can't imagine any feelings beyond friendship? And if so, why? Or is it just that now we're more accepting of a Lady falling in love with a Beast/Monster/Mutant, and so the Lady-as-Lens isn't safe anymore, because of some potential idea of sexual attraction? But why does that matter, either? Why does a romance invalidate female characters as capable everyman stand-ins?

I'm not going to lie, one of the things I wanted to see MOST in Gargoyles was Elisa and Goliath finally getting together. I would have had no problem seeing April pair off with one of the Ninja Turtles, either -- though I'm not sure about the mechanics, for either pairing. But I also didn't have any problem with women and men as friends, creating and building community between them that had nothing to do with sex or romance. In fact, I think it's underrated, and we could use a lot more of it in our television, films, and books.

But of course, I say this as someone whose next book, Honor Among Orcs, is another beauty and the beast story** that doesn't shy away from the romance. And speaking of which -- Tune in THURSDAY (Thor's Day!!!) for the fabulous and fantastic Cover Reveal for the first book in the Orc Saga! And check out this sneakiest of peeks in the meantime!



*There are exceptions to this too, characters like Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, for example, which is definitely a property that's geared to appeal to a male audience, in spite of the protagonist's gender. But look at how Hunger Games is marketed. Would we be merchandising with cover girl if Katniss had been a boy? If Peeta had been the protagonist instead? You could change the perspective from which the story is told -- send Gale to the Arena instead of Peeta, and written from Gale's Point of View, and still have told the exact same story.

**TMNT, Biker Mice, and Gargoyles are ALL 100% beauty and the beast stories, imho. What is more OTHER than human sized mutant animals, or mythological monsters?

12 comments:

  1. I was a total Michelangelo/April fan, and I watched the show with my brother because they were there! I didn't care about the rest of it. But I loved April! And I just assumed Lois and Superman HAD to be together. And, did you watch Reboot?

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    1. I didn't watch Reboot! But I am totally Lois/Clark forever.

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    2. You SO should watch Reboot. It was awesome! And I am also Lois/Clark forever!!!

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    3. I have read one of Robin McKinley's Beauty and the Beast retellings but I don't remember which one it was! I did enjoy it quite a bit, though!

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    4. I will put reboot on my list of things to watch! is it on netflix instant play?

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    5. I'm not sure...some of the episodes are rather hard to come by. I have found a few episodes on Youtube, which will give you a good idea of the "flavor" of the show. :)

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  2. Great article! Even if little boys weren't rooting for the Token Girl to hook up with one of the "monsters," clearly having the women as main characters didn't detract from the popularity. I agree that today's TV and movies seem to be lacking in the area of women who can be strong and hold their own while not losing their femininity.

    Did you see any of the short-lived Gargoyles spin-off called The Goliath Chronicles? It wasn't as good, but it had a lot of potential, if the network had let it last more than half a season. There was one episode that involved an alternate future in which Elisa and Goliath were married. It was actually a bit of a tear-jerker.

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    1. I did not see that episode, though I'm pretty sure I saw some of the Goliath Chronicles themselves. I did pick up the comic books, though, and there was definitely some more Goliath and Elisa stuff going on there. (I'm going to go find that episode now, though! because that au episode sounds FANTASTIC.)

      But yes, it wasn't just about the hook-up either, it was just about being able to see myself being thrown into those situations and being part of something awesome and cool and secret with the boys, you know? (I should have talked about Dinosaucers and the Secret Scouts, too, though in that one there were 4 high school kids, one of which was a girl, and the sister to one of the boys. Man I loved that show.)

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  3. ...wow. This is one of those things I've seen a ton (watched a lot of TMNT and some Gargoyles as a kid) but never realized. It makes perfect sense, though. Tokenism or not, those female characters served an absolutely essential role. Nice analysis. ^_^

    Though this does now have me thinking about how, in one book I'm plotting, the only female character who has a romance plot *is* the beast, as she's not human but the guy is. Hrm.

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    1. I would actually love it if we saw more gender-flips of the beauty and the beast concept. It seems to me that so often it's up to women to see beneath the beastly exterior to the heart of the person inside while the beast just gets to fall in love with a beautiful and sweet woman who is super easy to fall in love with, thus requiring little actual effort to see beneath the surface of anything, outside of learning to love HIMSELF.

      Which is pretty much a crappy message for dudes and ladies alike, sadly, though it doesn't at all change the women-as-bridges-to-the-other concept.

      Also I want to write Gaston-learns-his-lesson fanfiction immediately.

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    2. You should read Robin McKinley's "Beauty."

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