TV viewers of a certain age (i.e. mine) may be disturbed to hear that it’s been ten years since Buffy the Vampire Slayer ended. Apart from making me feel old, this statistic prompted Naomi Alderman to make a thoughtful Radio 4 show and accompanying article on the show’s legacy. While Buffy has been hugely influential, the article quickly concludes that one of its key components – the array of complex female characters – is not echoed in many modern works. Naomi Alderman argues that while strong female characters (Katniss Everdene, Daenerys Targaryan, Black Widow) do exist in modern movies and TV shows, they are invariably isolated from other women, and often end up in the boy, girl, boy groupings familiar from Harry Potter or Twilight.
This set me to thinking about my own work. After a long period in which I was scared to write female characters (particularly in first-person), I’ve been making up for lost time. My forthcoming Stew Magazine short story has a strong feminist slant and my story in the subsequent issue will also feature a girl protagonist. My recent novel is, similarly, written from a nine-year-old girl’s perspective, taking a heavy swipe at the “girlie-girl” culture of children’s toys and fashions. But in all of these works, I realised, my central character is also generally isolated from other female characters. The Stew stories are very short, of course, and can probably be excused. In the novel, however, the other female characters are all antagonists, obstructing the heroine or forcing her to adopt cultural norms that she despises.
This realisation was initially troubling for me. Had I, subconsciously, been acting out my own misogynistic urges in the story? I couldn’t really find any evidence for that in the rest of my life, and I could also see strong dramatic reasons for my choices. By isolating the main character from help, I ramp up the tension in the story and lead her to take increasingly desperate actions. The cultural perception of females as being less physically able than males (ironically) feeds into this, eliciting more sympathy and sense of jeopardy from the reader. You can see this same dynamic at play in The Hunger Games. Would that book even have been published if Gale or Peeta was the main character instead of Katniss?
A lot of current and forthcoming movies featuring strong but isolated female characters are based on YA books, and so are inevitably skewed by the YA readership (or at least publishers’ perceptions of this audience). Romance is a key tick box for Young Adult, and it’s generally a straight romance, which necessitates a male character alongside the female lead. Add a love triangle and suddenly you have the boy, girl, boy grouping again!
All this doom and gloom ignores the fact that there is plenty of product for young people out there that passes the Bechdel test. Although Marvel’s big screen superhero movies have a distinct lack of lead female characters, Buffy creator Joss Whedon has ensured a 3:3 ratio of women to men on the Agents of Shield TV show. And the other day, I discovered great female characters in the most unlikely place - My Little Pony - Friendship is Magic. My daughters are obsessed with this recent reboot of the cartoon show, which features a whopping 6:1 ratio in favour of the female ponies, with one “token” male dragon. Although her name could use some work, Twilight Sparkle is the pony who takes the lead role in many of the early episodes, and her skills at magic are shown to be gained through intense study. Unlike Hermione Granger, she’s not belittled for her commitment and intelligence, because without all that learning, the forces of darkness might quickly triumph. A female role model who saves the day because she does her homework? That’s girl power!
P.S. I’m reminded of this brilliant article imagining the Harry Potter series if Joanne Rowling had been prepared to take a few more risks and make Hermione the lead character.