Last weekend, I attended a writing panel at Phoenix Comicon entitled “Trope Talks: Kickass Female Characters.”
During this panel, four authors talked about the proverbial “kickass woman” archetype, and whether or not there’s a difference between a kickass female character and a strong female character. Spoilers: there is, duh.
I’m not going to say that this isn’t something we should discuss. Heaven knows that while the kickass female character has become more common in the last few decades, we still have to explain to certain writers and readers that a single female character in revealing body armor does not fill a book’s feminism quota, thank-you-very-much, especially if her only introduction is a paragraph describing her boobs.
But that’s not what I want to talk about today. Today, I want to talk about the other side of the coin–if it is now okay to have kick-ass female characters, why are we not striving to have non-kickass male characters?
For the same reasons that women can now wear traditionally masculine clothes, but a man can’t wear dresses or skirts without becoming an object of ridicule. For the same reasons that women can now become lawyers, firefighters, semi- truck drivers, but any man who decides to become a stay-at-home dad is labeled un-masculine.
The more you think about this issue, the more insidious it is revealed to be: misogyny is so deeply rooted in our culture–and in our psyches, which grow from the soil of that culture–that we still denigrate any person who dresses or acts in a traditionally feminine way, male or female.
Basically, what this boils down is this: instead of granting all women equal status with men, we are instead giving some women the opportunity to elevate themselves to that status, to prove their worth by acting like men are expected to act.
This can be seen in the way many of us confuse “kickass” female characters for “strong” female characters. “Kickass,” i.e., masculine, female characters are celebrated, while female (and male) characters in more traditional feminine roles are thought of as weak. They’re certainly not worthy of protagonist status (with the obvious exception of the romance genre). They might be there as cooks and healers when our more masculine characters need some nurturing, or even worse, “damseled” or “fridged” when someone needs a shot of motivation, but our heroes will quickly leave them behind as soon as the plot moves elsewhere. They are very rarely present for major plot points, and they certainly don’t drive them.
As though any character–male or female–who chooses to protect the children or care for the wounded is somehow less of a person than those fighting on the front lines, and therefore less worthy of having their story told.
Why do I need feminist male characters?
Contrary to popular belief, gender equality will not be reached when women are allowed to act like men. That is an important milestone, to be sure, but it is not the whole picture. Women should also feel free to act traditionally feminine–staying home to raise children, wearing dresses and skirts, feeling free to show their emotions–without feeling like they are less of a person.
How do we know when we have reached this point? Ironically, it’s when men are allowed to do all of these things without being derided or treated differently. I mean, what does it say about our feelings about women that men who portray traditionally female characteristics are called wusses, pansies, and, perhaps most telling of all, pussies? Can you think of any commonly used positive word to describe such a man?
Due to this, I had a hard time coming up with a name for such a male character type. Think about it–what is the opposite of a kickass male character? A weakling. A wuss. “Feminine male character?” No– all of these have negative connotations. Sensitive? closer, but that only covers a small portion of what I’m getting at here.
In the end, the best I could do is “non-kickass male character,” which certainly leaves something to be desired.
The fact that we don’t yet have language to describe this means that it hasn’t even entered into our collective conscious. How can we legitimize something that we can’t name succinctly? We’re so focused on elevating women (fictional or otherwise), that we don’t even see the bigger picture, and that’s one bad case of tunnel vision.
Thing is, fiction has power to affect our world, maybe more power than any other aspect of of culture. It sets a paradigm not for how things are, but how things should or could be. Sometimes, all it takes is creating something that fills a void to highlight the fact that void existed in the first place. Consider Netflix’s adaptation of Marvel’s Jessica Jones. How many female anti-heroes existed before the whiskey-bottle-smashing Jessica waltzed onto the scene? Not a lot, at least not in mainstream media. But you can bet more like her are on the way.
This is true for adults, but even more so for children, whose developing brains are still mapping their internal models of the world. And what do we show them? Little boys watch superheroes, and little girls watch princess movies. Even when there’s crossover, kids of both genders are quick to code the gender-roles portrayed.
Ironman doesn’t cook, clean, cry, or talk about his emotions? Okay, I better not do those things, either.
How can I include more feminist male characters in my writing?
I do think the fact that we can now distinguish between a “kickass” female character and a “strong” female character is a step in the right direction. We now recognize that female characters lie on a spectrum, and they don’t necessarily have to be “kick-ass” to be considered “strong,” though they certainly can be. They can also be caring, intelligent, emotionally connected, active, and properly motivated.
It’s also important to realize that both genders can display a spectrum of all these characteristics. Is he a hard-core mercenary assassin? Great! That doesn’t mean he can’t love to cook–and doesn’t a gleaming kitchen sooth those savage, blood-soaked memories?
These thoughts are all very jumbled. This is mostly a reaction to something I’ve noticed about both fiction and the world in general: is there a woman-related problem? How can women fix it?
Why is it that women–fictional or otherwise–are the ones who have to shoulder responsibility? Why is the question always focusing on women, and not on men?
I’m hoping that all these thoughts may evolve into something more cohesive over time. As that happens, I will post follow-up articles as necessary. Until then, I’d love to hear your thoughts.