Television Tuesday :: on fandom and female characters.

22 Nov

First, please read this tumblr post by drift partner. That is where the impetus to discuss this is coming from, because I was thinking “oh cool I’ll reblog that and add my thoughts.” But wait! It’s Tuesday. I can shove my thoughts in a blog post, because there will be many of them. And most of them are conveniently about television characters, because I have more intense feelings about those a lot of the time.

So. Here goes.

Maybe I’m not the girl to be asking about this kind of thing. I am not a classic ingenue, nor am I quite funny enough to be the funny best friend or imposing enough to be the evil queen, nor can I sing for crap, which means that all through my youthful amateur theatre career I played, essentially, small parts. The saying about there not being small parts is a joke. There are. You can feel it. But my way of thinking has always been: in real life people can be in the periphery of someone else’s experience but still be living their own story. In short, even characters without much stage/screen/etc. time have shit going on and sometimes it just has to be your job to figure out what all the going on is.

I wrote my stories. I fleshed out farmgirl Millie and sarcastic Suzie and the nameless kitchen wench (Scarlett, by my doing, because I had just seen The Prestige and I had a crush on her that I didn’t yet acknowledge as a crush). I knew what was going on in their lives besides just watching the main characters’ heterosexual love antics. And maybe it’s just that this habit has remained into my days of viewing media. Every female character, every single one of them, I try to see as more than just a chorus girl or a lust object. I try to understand their psychological motivations, to not write them off for isolated incidents where they’re less than their best, to give them credit. (Is this difficult? Yeah, sometimes. But even my least-favorite female character type, the misguided mom who just does not love her daughter in any way that makes the daughter happy [Betty Draper, Selyse Baratheon, etc.], is usually given at least sympathy. Occasionally I can’t forgive a set of actions or even appreciate them in an antagonist way, but I still try to understand where they’re coming from.)

The point of the post that drift partner was referencing, I think, might have been something along the lines of “it is hard to love female characters that are not well-developed.” Sometimes this is a case of the characters being so background that they are not given a whole lot to work with (I point to my beloved Bellefleur girls, of whom I’m pretty sure I am the sole defender/care about-er) and sometimes this is a case of the characters being ongoing plot devices (Trudy Campbell, bless her heart, that doe-eyed angel who was too often a prop in rapey Pete’s life; Susan from Friends, who was perpetually antagonistic toward whiny Ross and not given very many other types of emotional development) and sometimes it is a case, honestly, of fandom not wanting to pay as much attention to ~nuances with female characters. It’s possible for male characters with a few, if any, lines to become fandom darlings; female characters are lucky if they’re darlings when they’re the protagonists.

(Female characters are also, as a rule, much more likely to go unrecognized in cosplay, especially if they aren’t the main or most recognizable female character from their canon or if they are paired together and not with a boy; I will point you to the year we all cosplayed “Once More, With Feeling” and our group’s Buffy and Spike got about 20 times the attention that my Willow and everything friend’s Tara did. This is not bitterness, just factual observation.)

People don’t seem to take the time to fill in the blanks with female characters a lot of the time. They don’t take the time to see anything that they’re not immediately presented with. Even if the female character is only given a scene or two, people don’t try to imagine anything based on context clues about what the character might be doing later that day; even if the character is a plot device, people seem more willing to complain that “oh this character was written by a man who doesn’t understand and/or fetishizes women” than to go with more of those context clues and figure out things about the character that can help them love them. I point you to dear Kara Lynn Palamas, patron saint of the underwritten: in my circles, it’s fully accepted that Kara was a giant nerd, could kick your ass but wasn’t in her original life exactly scary, and was also Sapphic as all get out, but we have next-to-no information about pre-brainwashing Kara in canon. Did that stop any of us from loving her out of spite? No, but it sure stopped the majority of fandom from seeing her as anything more than a cut-rate henchwoman/sex toy and/or an evil bitch. Fandom as a whole does not have much of an imagination about lady things.

(Incidentally, this is not an essay about the problematically overwhelming male-centrism of fandom and its shipping habits – where m/m reigns supreme and m/f is adored as long as both the parties are pretty white people and there isn’t a viable m to hook the m/ up with, but f/f is ignored at best and scorned at worst – but that also stems from a lack of imagination, in large part. Stiles and Derek can look at each other and it means they love each other till their dying day, but Peggy and Angie [who are, incidentally, still one of the f/f pairings with more support than most] can literally move in together and nah, they’re just gal pals. Well, it’s imagination and sexism. But I digress.)

Another problem I’ve run across in fandom is that a female character is not her mistakes nor is she her terrible plotline. I can’t even tell you how many godawful plotlines, usually but not always romantic, characters I love have been dragged into. How many plotlines I’ve scorned. See also: the fallacy of the last two seasons of True Blood. See also: the very bad thing B&W did with poor Doreah. See also: most of the heterosexual romances on Agents of SHIELD. See also see also see also. While fandom seems to have no problem loving its male characters despite messy plotlines, it sometimes throws its female characters under the bus, especially in romantic contexts.

This is another example of the issue above, where complaining is better for some people than trying to think beyond. This might also just be a processing issue, because if I really love something, ain’t nothing gonna stop me, whereas a lot of fandom people are fully comfortable ragequitting. I cannot ragequit things. Believe me, if I could I wouldn’t have watched that godawful season seven of True Blood.(I know a lot of people who quit things when, or claim they’re going to quit things if, their favorite characters die. That always strikes me as a noble thought but something that comes from being previously lucky in their fandoms: if I quit something every time someone I loved died, I would never watch anything. I wouldn’t have finished Buffy, I would never have seen the last beautiful episode of Dollhouse, I definitely wouldn’t still be watching Game of Thrones (which as you all know I do sometimes with doubt and wariness, but still). Etcetera. But because I cannot abandon the other female characters for the loss of one, maybe because I’m so used to losing my female characters that I literally apologize to female characters I love when they die because it was probably my fault since I cared so much, I cannot imagine giving up on something that easily.) But I am also an undying optimist and where other people seem to look for reasons to hate female characters, I find it harder not to find things to love about them.

What gets a female character judged is much more intense than what gets a male character judged, a lot of the time. This is a list, by no means comprehensive, of reasons I’ve seen female characters hated on:

  • They were too stereotypically feminine.
  • They weren’t feminine enough.
  • They were too tough.
  • They weren’t tough enough.
  • They were “dumb.”
  • They were too much of a know-it-all.
  • They were too abrasive.
  • They weren’t nice enough.
  • They weren’t interesting enough.
  • They were trying too hard to be interesting.
  • They had opinions of their own.
  • They conceivably had social privilege.
  • They did something that could have been influenced by subconscious mindsets allowed them due to their social privilege (but probably wasn’t meant in a bad way).
  • They conceivably lacked social privilege.
  • They sought to go beyond their subconsciously implied social role.
  • They said or did one thing, one time, that someone didn’t like.
  • They were on a show that wasn’t exactly well-written in general.
  • They were dragged through the muck of an unnecessary romance.
  • They were threatening to male characters (and potential m/m relationships).
  • They weren’t pretty enough.
  • They were too pretty.
  • They were sexy.
  • They weren’t sexy enough.
  • They were queer.
  • They were too stereotypically queer.
  • They weren’t stereotypically queer enough.
  • They were WOC.
  • They were too stereotypically WOC.
  • They weren’t stereotypically WOC enough.
  • They weren’t well-developed.
  • They made a mistake.
  • They were too different.
  • They weren’t different enough.
  • They weren’t someone’s complete perfect idea of what they should be as a character, as a person, or as an idea.

In short: much like with women in real life, female characters can and will be hated for literally any reason. The basic fact that humans are flawed doesn’t stand, and therefore any divergence from what someone thinks is proper is seen as something criminal.

More important to me is the notion of it apparently being difficult not to hate some female characters. I can’t understand that. I personally, again maybe due to processing issues, find it more exhausting to hate even fictional characters most of the time. Even to have extreme antipathy. Sure, I enjoy hating Grant Ward and Bill Compton and Ramsay Bolton, I revel in the thought of their respective canonical deaths, but they’re villains. You’re meant to hate them. That’s the point. I literally cannot conceive of wanting to go out of my way to find reasons to hate fictional characters.

Maybe that’s the meliorist in me. Always believing there’s a good side to… well, most things. But there are times I miss my early days of highly insulated fandom, where the only things I saw from other people were factual breakdowns and image galleries, where nobody’s harsh judgment of a fictional character I loved sent me into a tailspin (“am I bad for liking them? AM I BAD FOR RELATING TO THEM? Oh god“) or made me angry enough to write an essay in defense of them or made me worry that expressing my like of the character would backlash. I miss when everyone had favorites and least-favorites, not favorites and mortal enemies. Cake of rainbows, etcetera.

–your fangirl heroine.




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