The Issue with Female Characters

Bioshock Infinite: Burial At Sea - Elizabeth

What should come first: the character or the story?

Justin Knight

By Justin Knight @StoicWriter

These days, in any medium out there such as video games, films and even comics, there is what is becoming an unhealthy interest in female characters and the call for them. While it is fair that there certainly has not been many main female characters in the past (the number is now growing), they come with what seems to be a requirement that they be "strong independent" female characters and they inspire younger women readers out there. This may seem like a noble cause, but what those who campaign for such characters seem to forget is that having such characters -- and having them publicized as such -- potentially cause the story to suffer due to whatever press attention it attracts, especially if the character goes through rough treatment. There always seems to be an outcry from the usual suspects when a female character in any particular story is put through some kind of physical hardship, or even unfairly treated in some form. The terms "sexism," "misogyny" and even "mansplaining" are thrown around like weapons as a way to shut down the conversation, even though the term "mansplaining" itself is highly hypocritical and sexist towards men.

As for male characters? There certainly are many of them, but are they "strong independent" characters as we are lead to believe? Independent? Sure, as most of them -- like The Punisher and Max Payne to name but two -- certainly are loners, but while they may be strong in a physical sense, mentally they are not. Both have lost families to horrific events and carry this pain and loss around with them like anvils, unable to shake them. This can certainly be argued that it is their driving force. However, if a female character of any type is put through some sort of hardship, it nearly always tends to result in some form of a protest that the character is being ill-treated. It's always noticeable that there are worse examples of such things that have happened to male characters that are either glossed over or are seemingly not worth mentioning.

A fine example of this is Batman: The Killing Joke, one of the well-regarded and often talked about stories in the Batman universe. At the beginning, Batgirl (AKA Barbara Gordon) is shot by the Joker and paralyzed from the waist below. She would eventually reinvent herself as the wheelchair-bound character Oracle, assisting Batman in his fight against crime with important or even vital information, but later on is able to walk again and resume her role as Batgirl. Even though she regained the use of her legs much later in the DC universe, there are those who were quite critical of the characters' treatment in the story, such as Gail Simone. She not only included the event in her Women in Refrigerators list, but has had a heated discussion or two about it over Twitter, as well as author Sharon Packer, who has also been critical of the story in her book Superheroes and Superegos. Batman: The Killing Joke's original writer, Alan Moore, also expressed regret as to how he treated the character in the graphic novel and does not look back on it kindly, but it did win the Eisner Award back in 1989 and continues to be an influence in the character's history to this day. Online feminists kicked up a massive stink when artist Rafael Albuquerque previewed a variant cover for Batgirl #41, showing the main character being held by the Joker with a look of absolute fear on her face. While it was a fair criticism that the cover should not be on a comic aimed at younger readers, DC were effectively bullied online to remove it until Albuquerque himself requested it be pulled. An amusing irony to the situation was that much later after the fuss had ended, voice actress Tara Strong -- who had voiced the character in the animated series, tweeted that she liked the picture.

Batman: The Killing Joke Trailer

The Killing Joke has been adapted into an R-rated animated film due for release soon. Various fans of the character gave the film a hostile reception online, but it is amusing to notice that these are the sorts of people that will happily point out this kind of thing, plus other examples of harm done to female characters. However, they rarely point out examples of when Batman had his back broken by Baine and then thrown from a building, Superman being savagely beaten to death by Doomsday, or even Wolverine having the Adamantium ripped from his bones by Magneto. It comes across as being such a double standard that leads you to believe there are those who walk around wearing blinkers on their eyes.

The current elephant in the room, though, is the upcoming GhostBusters reboot with a female cast, and that storm is one that will simply not die out. Those that have been critical of the reboot have been branded as "Sexists" or "Misogynists." The trailer has racked up almost a million dislikes on YouTube at the time of this writing, and even the director of the reboot, Paul Feig, went on numerous rants on both Twitter and in the news about how he felt about the criticisms. The media went along with helping this view that sexism was to blame with ridiculous articles such as two from Salon and BuzzFeed in an attempt to shame those who criticized them. Interestingly enough, the more reasonable voices on this came from those on YouTube. Chris Ray Gun, Comic Book Girl and The Amazing Atheist all made some interesting observations, particularly around the fact that previous reboots like Robocop and Total Recall also received negative responses from fans. They also pointed out that there were probably trolls (or idiots) involved in the large amount of dislikes against the Ghostbusters trailer. Comic Book Girl, when pondering out loud whether the viewer should see the film or not, concluded with "probably not."

Comic Book Girl analyses new Ghostbusters trailer

These videos all made good points on the matter, but the video from The Angry Video Game Nerd aka Cinemassacre really caught everyone's attention. He explained why he was not going to even see the film, or review it for that matter. He was then attacked on social media quite vigorously for his views, even though some of those views were similar to Comic Book Girl's.

AVGN refuses to see the movie

The sexism slant on the YouTube dislikes were later challenged when the trailer for Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare also generated a huge amount of dislikes. Amused onlookers waited for a response from the media, and one opinion came from Polygon's Ben Kuchera himself. He tried to spin the dislike ratio as showing "a dedication to the franchise," seeing the negative comments as "It's the nature of the beast." Sexism was not mentioned once in the piece, perhaps because it had finally dawned on him (and those like him) that the sexism narrative maybe wasn't true.

As for "mansplaining"? That word is thrown around every now and then as well, most infamously in issue #30 of Wonder Woman, but it's most notorious use is also its most amusing. During the questioning of Senator Mitch Fifield at the Australian Senate, the conversation reached the point where Senator Katy Gallagher took issue with Fifield's tone and accused him of "mansplaining". At first, Fifield was confused about the meaning of the term, but when it dawned on him he spun it around on Gallagher quite brilliantly and accused her of hypocrisy. Gallagher ended up making herself look like a fool in public, and the clip went viral as a result. However, Gallagher unwittingly revealed two things in that exchange: not only was she a sexist and hypocrite herself for using the term, but she also proved that sexism does indeed swing both ways.

Mansplaining? Really?

When it comes to any form of entertainment media, sexism can be found anywhere. The question is, are you looking to see if it is there? Or are you looking because you want to find it? The latter appears to be the approach a lot of modern feminists have taken when seeing something they don't like. A character mistreated? Sexism! Dare to argue with a feminist on social media? Misogyny! See a prom photo you don't like? It has to be sexist! There was a good example of the uproar when the lesbian character Lexa was killed off in the series The 100. It seemed to back up the fact that they want all female characters to be strong, invincible and independent, but it is simply not the way storytelling works. A perfect and flawless character is not easily related to. In the case of The Killing Joke, Barbara Gordon's fate was one that proved that not only does the war on crime take no prisoners, but a bullet really doesn't care about your gender. Ghostbusters 2016 has proven, in the long run, that using the words "sexism" and "misogyny" as a way to deflect criticism against what looks like a really bad film only work until a contradiction -- such as the Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare trailer -- comes along. It shows that these people throwing words around so freely are indeed talking utter crap.

Load Disqus to comment