I write a lot of fiction, and read a good amount of it, too. So it’s hard not to think about characterization a lot.
“Is it sexist to portray women as…”
Well, there’s the thing.
“Is it sexist to portray women as…”
There it is. Plural. Implying that the broad brush is being loaded up with a hefty dose of Misogynist Mauve and poised to paint a very, very broad stroke in order to portray a large, diverse group of people.
Some women are outspoken, some are soft-spoken. Some won’t leave the house until they’re dressed to the nines, some will throw on yoga pants and a t-shirt and feel great. Some are kind, some are mean, some are athletic, some are out of shape, some can fire shotguns and some abhor weapons… and between and beyond all these extremes are millions and billions of in-betweens that describe some women, but certainly not all women, too.
So, “is it sexist to portray a woman as…”?
Maybe, maybe not. Much like men, women are quite human and may possess several positive or negative personality traits. Like a man, a woman may or may not be a good person.
You just have to watch it, because many of the women in our media – on TV, in movies – are essentially the same handful of people. Many of whom are shrill, nut-cracking, shrieking harpies. This is hardly a representative sample of all women, who, let me remind you once again, are also regular people.
So, really, when feminist thinkers are upset at the portrayal of a female character in a film or TV show or video game or even novel (hey, literature ain’t perfect either), it’s not an overreaction over one character. It’s because, more than likely, we’ve all seen that same two-dimensional female character before, submitted for our viewing/reading/whatevering pleasure, often by a man, and we’re tired of it. Male characters get to be diverse all the time, so why not females? (Yes, I am aware that we do have good examples of female characters in many forms of media, but the males are way, way ahead.)
Of course, there’s the other side, too. A lot of people have ideas about what makes a positive, strong female character, some ideas that I disagree with. I don’t necessarily think strong female automatically means the one that physically kicks ass. There are a lot of ways to kick ass, lots of ways that other people don’t even see sometimes. Let’s talk about Firefly, because everyone loves Firefly! I love Firefly so much that I would gladly trade three or four seasons of Buffy for more Firefly. (Lest anyone accuse me of giving the Whedonverse a free pass, let me assure you I certainly don’t – but that would be for another article, and Firefly is pretty darn well-put-together.)
When we think of the strong, kick-ass female characters in that universe, often it’s Zoe and River that come to mind, because they know how to dole out the harshness – which is great. Both are well-developed characters with real emotions and real motivations. Then there’s Kaylee, who is one of the least violent members of the crew, certainly, who often balks when given a gun, who likes frilly things and strawberries, but is also one heck of a mechanic. Firefly fans are a pretty smart bunch, so Kaylee doesn’t get a lot of hate for her fun, lively, and non-violent ways. But in other situations I see often that the girl who can’t or won’t fire a gun is the weak one, the pathetic one, the one who just can’t get it together in a crisis. The wimp, the useless one, it goes on. But why? People like this may have so many other things to offer us.
In real life, there are a lot of women and men like this. And that’s okay. It’s okay to not be good in a fight, and it’s okay to be good in a fight. It’s okay to like pink, or not. No matter who or what you are. When it comes to characterization – and real people! – it’s important to be able to think beyond archetypes and stereotypes.
Women, like men, are positive, negative, but mostly are in-between. Everyone is in-between, everything is in-between.
And if we saw more of the three-dimensional, in-between female characters in media, we’d have a lot less to complain about.