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Critical Fandom: Helpless and Slutty

The archetypical stereotypes of women in fiction are everywhere, whether it’s a helpless woman being put into a situation where only a man can save her, eg. most fairy tales, and Super Mario to pick one modern day example, or the parade of other less than savoury characterisations of around half of our population. It’s not just in Japanese animation where free-spirited women are reduced to eye candy for the male, and even when capable are seen through the lens of drooling, nosebleeds and fights that tear their clothes off, though there are a worrying number of these in that field. It seems that sometimes even when the characters themselves are breaking free of their shackles the creators can’t help but hold them back.

It’s saddening, but not surprising, that female characters in fiction have been stripped of their personalities in the past to make room for the sex object our society apparently demands. In DC Comics’ New 52 universe, the re-imagining of Teen Titans veteran Starfire as a sex-obsessed, disproportionate mockery of a much-loved character was met with raging controversy. As much as DC Comics tried to wiggle their way out of this predicament by citing their target audience’s love for sex addicts with no personality other than a reaction to the men they share scripts with, this was egregious, and DC has continued to do stupid, stupid things ever since.

However driven by their libido rather than any other of the many personality aspects real people have however, Starfire is not helpless, she’s an alien with considerable power (which makes me wonder how having sex with humans would even be possible). Still, she is stripped of the qualities that make her appear like a regular human, something that male characters rarely suffer from, except maybe for the generic ‘destroy the world’ type villains that only exist because of lazy writing.

Helpless characters are a different, but still worrying beast. When a character cannot take action and is constantly displayed as passive, they are a weak character. Strong characters do things. Fairy tales have sometimes skipped even the possibility of this by rendering the female character unconscious, whether through a curse, or poison, so they can literally do nothing except for wait for somebody else to carry the story for them. The man rescuing the woman from certain death may be heroic, but the woman doing nothing at all to try and escape insults the intelligence of the consumer, and of the character, by letting the plot drive the characters and not the other way around.

Let’s put this simply. You get caught, you try to escape. If all it takes is one man to slay the dragon why couldn’t the woman do it? Why was she sat waiting in her bedroom for some self-righteous dudebro to stick his sword into something and not sneaking out the back window, or jumping on the switch that sends bowser into that lava pit he happens to be standing right on top of?

Characters should drive their stories. Simple.

By making it clear that this is bad writing, we can let content creators know what their audience is willing to accept. DC Comics cannot claim that their target audience wants their female characters to be blank canvases with bikinis on if their audience demands they are treated with the respect a well-established and compelling character deserves.

We can read comics while still seeing the flaws, we can enjoy the good parts and applaud the writing when it makes sense and respects the characters and the universe they are playing with, but we also have to be aware of the bad parts, and be critical with fiction as we are in real life. Women can be characters too, and if we are to believe that they are real people they have to act like fully-fleshed out characters. This means taking action when they’re in trouble, not fancying every man that touches them, and considering the fact that this is a person who thinks things through before they do something. You know, like a person.

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Cat Strickson

Cat Strickson

Cat, or Elly, or Eddy, or whatever name they're going by these days, is a British palaeontologist and fantasy author. It's a pretty awesome skill set, but it doesn't pay much right now. They enjoy science, history, vidyagames and all things SFF.

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