Guest Post by Yakov Merkin: The Dark Side of “Badass” Women

Tuesday , 18, July 2017 29 Comments

A week or so ago, I saw the official Star Wars Twitter account share a poll, asking which character fans were most excited to see in the upcoming Forces of Destiny series of animated shorts, which, incidentally, reminding me that it even existed—I’d heard a mention of it a while back, but had completely forgotten. So I looked at the poll, and the provided image, and it quickly became apparent, even before I looked more into it, what this actually was. Put simply, the Forces of Destiny series is meant to “celebrate the female heroes of Star Wars.” This is said as though it was something desperately needed, like Star Wars‘s heroines had previously been ignored or marginalized. (Actually, a couple of male characters will be appearing—Chewbacca, BB-8, and Wickett the Ewok. Yes, just the ones that essentially don’t talk.)

This has been par for the course, since Disney acquired Star Wars. We’ve seen it in both movies released thus far, the Rebels television show, as well as in the new comics, books and the upcoming game Battlefront II. Female characters, specifically “badass” female characters, are being pushed heavily. They are very much in the forefront as the primary characters, and have essentially become action heroes. One can speculate as to the reasons for that, and there is a very fair politically charged reason that comes to mind, but truthfully, that isn’t what bothers me the most. What truly bothers me, as a lifelong Star Wars fan, is that with all the focus on these characters, making them the central characters of the new movies and comics, making a new show solely dedicated to them, and with constant talk about how great and important it is to have these characters, is leading to inferior characters. This, of course, is only magnified by similar-minded people in the media and in the Star Wars fandom. This hitting us over the head with the character they deem as “important,” simply because they are female, seems to have become the goal, as opposed to creating great characters, and the quality of the new characters—both female and male—suffer because of this.

I cannot be the only one who has felt that many of the recent female characters have been, simply put, bad characters. We need look no further than Rey, the star of The Force Awakens. Much has been said regarding her possibly being a Mary Sue (though I’m personally giving her the benefit of the doubt until The Last Jedi comes out—I have not become completely pessimistic yet.) She was fairly bland, boring, and could very easily have been a male character, defined primarily by her physical capability (both in the film and in promotion), and in many of her actual actions. That of course isn’t to say that we can’t have a physically skilled, take charge character who is female, but there is nothing there that necessitates being female. She also is yet another reluctant hero character, notably one way in which she is most unlike Luke Skywalker, and she really never makes a true choice to fight for something greater than herself until the end of the film, after getting caught up in the action. (She did offer to help Finn on Jakku, but had no plan to do more than that until the plot forced her into it.) But she was “badass,” (I really want to nuke that word) could handle herself in a fight, pilot like a pro, and win a lightsaber duel against someone who (as far as we know) has more training. She very much fits the archetype of “strong” female character (that is, physically strong), and that’s it. And many people hail her as a great character, citing that as the reason, rather than something deeper about her as a person.

Even worse is Rogue One‘s Jyn Erso. If Rey was a bland character, Jyn might as well be a plank of wood. Yet another reluctant hero, Jyn is dull and sullen throughout, and she only deigns to get involved because the conflict has a personal connection to her. At least Rey had some moments of wonder and excitement. Jyn is even more a victim of the “action girl” archetype, taking out armored stormtroopers in close combat single-handedly. Because being a “badass” makes her an awesome character, right? Wrong. She, too, could just as easily have been a male character. On her own, she defeats armored, highly trained stormtroopers with a blunt weapon. She shows little to no emotion, or compassion for others, apart from her father. There is nothing about her that could be described traditionally feminine. Furthermore, both she and Rey have essentially no strong emotional connections with other characters, specifically romantic ones. We get a tiny hint at the film’s end from Jyn, with her embracing fellow rebel Cassian Andor near the end, but then she dies, ending any possibility of character growth.

However, as anyone who’s a really fan of Star Wars knows, the series has never suffered from a lack of female heroes. Going all the way back to the original trilogy, Princess Leia is one of the three main characters, and proves to be quite a competent character. She stands up to both Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin while very much at their mercy, and, despite seeing her home planet destroyed, retains her composure and plays an active role in her rescue. Not by single-handedly mowing down stormtroopers, but by being clever and getting the heroes out of a tight spot. She remains focused on the grand scheme, on the larger fight. In the following two films, she takes on a primarily leadership role, making the few times she does make use of physical violence all the more impactful. It was great.

I write this, and think about these characters, I realize that I can’t remember any lines spoken by the female protagonists in the recent two films, not without effort. On the other hand, I could easily quote lines spoken by Leia, or even Padme, from films I haven’t watched in some time.

Before we move on and contrast them with great female characters from Star Wars past, apart from Leia, who I already discussed, I’ll briefly touch on several of the other Disney era characters this new show will spotlight. The only other film character, Maz Kanata, is a non-character; essentially a plot point in the movie, she suddenly needs to be “celebrated,” as part of this series, with no discernible reason other than that she is a female character. We also have three characters from the Rebels animated show. One, the token black character, Ketsu Onyo, is a non-character as well. She appeared in maybe two episodes, and is another “badass,” who only reluctantly helps the heroes. The other two, Hera Syndulla and Sabine Wren, are actually leagues above the others, which follows with something else I’ve noticed in the last several years, that we get better characters from the television shows, because they have more time to develop them. Hera is the type of female character that they really should be pushing as a strong female character. She’s the leader of the rebel team in the show, and the writers even refer to her as the “team mom.” She is the heart of the group, fighting for something greater than herself because it is right, and doesn’t fall into the “action girl” trap. She contributes via her leadership and piloting skills. Sabine, while an “action girl,” gets more depth in the show’s more recent season, as we learn of what caused her to choose to fight the empire, and the sacrifices she made to do the right thing and save a family that would not appreciate her actions, and opens up about how much this sequence of events both hurt her and drives her current actions, a level of emotional openness that we do not see in male characters. They give me some hope that at least some aspect of the modern Star Wars juggernaut remains capable of writing decent, if not good, female characters, whose character comes first rather than the fact that they’re women who can kill bad guys.

This doesn’t need to by the case, however, and it shouldn’t be. Star Wars is more than capable of creating great female characters who are strong without needing to “prove” that by beating people up, characters who have depth, have emotional connections to others, who play to their personal strengths, and, most importantly, could not be easily replaced with men.

Princess Leia, of course, is the most obvious, and I don’t think I need to go into what has made her a great and timeless character more than what I wrote about her above. Leia didn’t need to be described as a “strong female character,” because she was just a great character, beloved to this day. But moving beyond her, we have fan-favorite Mara Jade from the old EU books, who quite possibly had one of the greatest character journeys of anyone in Star Wars. And, to use a more recent example, Ahsoka Tano from the 2009 Clone Wars animated show, who, after her initial introduction, was feared to be another Jar-Jar, became one of my favorite characters in the franchise. We see her grow from a (somewhat irritating) and brash kid to a confident Jedi Knight, going through many trials and tribulations along the way, and developing strong relationships with many people. She then returned in Rebels as an older mentor figure, taking her development to another level. She was, of course, and extremely skilled in combat, as a Jedi, but that was always just one of her skills, not her entire character. Even Padme, from the much-maligned prequels, is a much better character than what we see now; her character was impaired by some combination of Natalie Portman’s acting and George Lucas’s directing, but in concept, she was a character who could’ve been as memorable as a Leia or Mara Jade, and Clone Wars did serve to improve her in that respect. These characters, while partaking in action, are not defined by that or any other “male” characteristic, and we see, multiple times, that these characters develop emotional attachments to others as well as demonstrate significant degrees of empathy.

All of this is another example of people with an ideological agenda placing that over what should be the focus for creating entertainment, great characters. None of us care whether a story’s heroes are male or female, and I would venture to say that most of us enjoy heroines or various types, including the ones that do ride into battle, but we want characters who are truly people, who are not dull, violent entities that could just as easily be men. In a desire for “strong” female characters, these creators have taken a traditional masculine form of strength and stuck it on women, because that’s the only kind of strength they know of. And while male characters that are more defined by physical or martial strength, that often comes with character flaws, such as emotional detachment, selfishness, and they often make poor choices. But these “strong women” are portrayed as all but infallible, because, in the minds of some, making mistakes makes a character not “strong.” I have since watched a number of the Forces of Destiny shorts, and in all of them, the featured female character does something action-oriented to save the day. No mistakes are made. The episodes themselves range from alright to cringe-inducing.

It’s not openly evident what we lose when so many female characters (it often feels like all of them) are like this today, but it is something that should not be overlooked. Just as when many people these days speak of “diversity,” whether in fiction or in real life, it’s only skin deep. Diversity of thought, and even diversity of character, are not wanted. In much mainstream fiction, we are losing that variety of characters, which, ironically, hurts women most of all—the ones that those behind this trend decided needed it. When all of the female characters they see in the fiction they grow up with act like men, present unrealistic depictions of what women are physically capable of, and don’t show women that make strong emotional connections with others, what is that telling them?

If this trend continues, we’re not going to get any more characters like Princess Leia, at least not in the vast majority of mainstream science fiction and fantasy. Moreover, because the female characters in modern Star Wars, among other things, are becoming bland like this, it inevitably also negatively impacts male characters. Because they couldn’t let them be too interesting and take the attention from the front and center “badass” women. In The Force Awakens, Finn has a bit more going on than Rey, but still is not a character that has made a significant impact. And as for Rogue One, the character that stood out the most, had the most personality, and, for lack of a better term, life, was the droid.

This post has focused on Star Wars, but it is merely part of a larger trend. The order of the day is to portray women as perfect action heroes, which makes them boring, in addition to showing that the only sort of strength they acknowledge is the traditional masculine form, which is why we end up with characters that in every way except for their appearances, are male. And since the women are presented as perfect and always right, male characters are crippled. Either they need to be portrayed as inferior, or they will act in so similar a manner that they are barely distinguishable from the females. And there is no sign of this changing any time soon, at least in mainstream entertainment. At this point, calling it “increased representation” for women feels inaccurate, with “replacement” of men looking more appropriate. See the Ghostbusters reboot and the just announced 13 Doctor on Doctor Who for more examples of this.

Fortunately, there are fresh, new alternatives, both in science fiction generally as well as more specifically Star Wars-like or Star Wars inspired stories, from those of us involved in the #PulpRevolution and SuperversiveSF, stories that prioritize excitement, interesting plots and great characters over pushing an ideological agenda, authors including Brian Niemeier, Jon Del Arroz, Nick Cole, and myself. We’ve already seen alternative versions of sites like Twitter and Wikipedia in Gab and Infogalactic, and we have Alt-Hero coming down the pipeline in response to the current state of comics. This is the time for the SarWarsNotStarWars alternative.

Yakov Merkin is the author of A Greater Duty. You can follow him at his blog and on Twitter.

29 Comments
  • Xavier Basora says:

    Yakov

    An excellent reflection and i’ve noticed this too inHunger Games. I call it the Kantniss Evergreen malady.
    That character really outraged me at tbe end of the book. She’s basically an ungrateful psychopathwho simply doesn’t or devrlop any depth.
    In the Romance languages someone like that is antipatic (the opposite of simpatic or in French sympa) which is much stronger than offputting but you get the idea.
    I also susprct thstvthe strong woman obsession comes from a wifil ignorance of history. As if there were never any strong women until the suffragetes came along.

    Great post and I look forward to comments from the other posters

    xavier

  • MegaBusterShepard says:

    It’s funny I distinctly remember one of the reasons Disney gave for buying Marvel and Star Wars was the lack of any brands that appealed to young boys.

    I do hope they realize that by sidelining male heroes and properties that the male demographic will slowly walk away from them.

  • Nathan says:

    I think Hera from Rebels is done better than most of the Star Wars action girls, mainly because she is portrayed in more motherly terms than the battle debutantes of the rest of the cast.

    • Yakov Merkin says:

      I agree. Hopefully she gets more screen-time in the final season. I may have mentioned it in the post above, that I have more hope for quality Star Wars in the TV format, because it allows more time for character development and they seem much more willing to experiment with new, more interesting things. Rebels is ending after season 4, if I remember correctly, so it remains to be seen what’s happening in that vein afterward.

  • Rawle Nyanzi says:

    One, I believe it will reach the point that “prestige” cultural products (film, TV, even video games) will become so saturated with SJW messaging that people will walk away from them in large numbers.

    Two, I believe that at least some of that audience will go to books for their entertainment fix — not necessarily our books, but books by indie authors who don’t hate them. I know that I’m getting more entertainment from classic sci-fi and fantasy than from today’s films and TV shows.

  • Salamandyr says:

    This is a great essay.

    Unfortunately even a lot of authors I would think were sympatico are writing “strong female characters” instead of the kind of male heroes (and the women who love them) I want to read about.

    A recent Sensor Sweep linked to a review that was essentially “No, no, this female protagonist is okay”, and my reaction was “I don’t care. We don’t need more female protagonists, we need men to root for”.

  • H.P. says:

    I was debating the relative merits of Rey with PC Bushi via Twitter last week (as we seem to do many weeks), and he criticized Rey for showing up the male characters in TFA.

    That, it strikes me, is a criticism of those male characters, not of Rey. The problem isn’t the presence of badass female characters, but the lack of badass male characters.

    As I’ll discuss a bit later this week, REH’s Conan stories never lacked for women with moxie, but then Conan was never the type to pale in comparison.

    • Salamandyr says:

      However, as the OP noted, the male characters are written down, in order for them not to overshadow the female protagonists. So Finn can’t even be competent at things he ought to legitimately know better than Rey, like fighting. Tough guys can’t even be tough enough to overpower a 130 pound girl when they outnumber and have the drop on her.

      Conan never lacked for powerful, well drawn female characters, but the writer never tried to get us to believe they could bench more than he could.

      • H.P. says:

        It will be interesting to see what they do in the next movie. Finn is setup to be the comedic sidekick. He pretty much has to be the third wheel. Poe has the ability and the presence to be the lead but was absent from most of TFA.

        I mean, is it really that improbable to defeat the world’s worst soldiers and an emo little punk?

        • Andy says:

          As a wrestling fan I often fall into analyzing stories from a wrestling booking perspective and what’s going on with the The Force Awakens reminds me a lot of how WWE handles Roman Reigns.

          Like Reigns, Rey is getting a massive, sustained main event push despite not having earned it and they’re trying to justify it by having every other major character in the movie put her over.

    • Robespierre says:

      I agree.

      We need more strong male leads – actual heroes.

      ERB stories are loaded with small yet courageous young women who are willing to pick up a weapon and defend themselves – partly because they live in such a harsh environment. But the women, and most of the men and beasts are outmatched by the leading hero whether Tarzan, or John Carter, or David Innes or others. The heroes are muscular, masculine and courageous but are also highly intelligent.

      And the heroines are not only brave, they are also morally upright and fiercely loyal. They are feminine and beautiful – with hips and breasts to match – and they are monogamous and in search of their mate. And most shockingly of all, they are maidens, i.e. virgins.

      And many of Burroughs’ heroines would rather slice their own wrists than get raped by or mated to some villainous thug.

      They are the kind of women a man could willingly die for – would willingly face a saber tooth tiger or a four-armed giant green man.

      What a contrast to the sexless, anti-romantic super girl or the promiscuous anti-monogamous (and by extension, anti-family) hussy of today’s SFF No Man’s Land.

      • Yakov Merkin says:

        Very well said.

        So many modern “heroes” are not heroic, as well, and those are the ones not upstage in essentially every way by “strong female characters.” What used to be (and, in my opinion should still be) considered positive virtues have been systemically eroded and derided, and we’re seeing the negative effects of that in both works of fiction and the real world.

    • deuce says:

      Right on, Robespierre. Conan encounters a similar — who knows? maybe even virginal — heroine in THE HOUR OF THE DRAGON. He promised to marry her and reiterated that promise as soon as he won back his kingdom. Karl Edward Wagner tried to insinuate that Conan didn’t mean it. I call bull$h!t on that.

  • Bruce says:

    In the last Star Wars, the girl’s mom dies after she comes out of hiding to make sure the death squad chasing her knows how she really feels. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. These movies aren’t aimed at us, but they are consistent.

  • S1AL says:

    While I’m all for criticizing Disney’s action-princess twaddle, the flip-side is the Marvel movies. Black Widow is an action hero chick, but she has definitively feminine moments, especially in AoU and Civil War. Wanda Maximoff is a thoroughly feminine character. The worst part of Iron Man 3 (really saying something) was trying to make Pepper into an action heroine. For all the complaining about the Gamorrah/Nebula cliché sister scene, it was a decidedly feminine moment.

    I think you’ll see an ongoing decline in enthusiasm for Star Wars that isn’t paralleled in Marvel movies as a result.

    • Andy says:

      It doesn’t help that Star Wars seems to be creatively suffering just as a general thing. Ever since the prequels, it seems like the reception to a new movie goes from an initial euphoria (“New movie is definitely better than the last one was!”) to a gradual realization that maybe it’s not that great after all and all the hopes get pinned on the next movie coming down the line.

    • David says:

      worst part of Iron Man 3 (really saying something) was trying to make Pepper into an action heroine

      I have been pretty happy with the Marvel movies as well, but that particular bit still bugs me. The movie spends some time showing us Tony Stark is a hero even without his armor, which is fantastic. And then the movie shoots that idea in the foot by leaving super suit-less Tony to be saved by Pepper.

  • Tesh says:

    Tangential to all of this is what I think of as the “tribal identity” problem. I think it does a great disservice to tell people, either explicitly or implicitly, that they have to find heroes who look like them and/or have the same plumbing as them.

    Some of my real-life personal heroes look nothing like me, and some of my favorite fictional characters are also not much like me at all. I like them for the “content of their character”, not the fact that I can imagine myself in their shoes.

    I think that the tribal identity impulse to vilify the Other and lionize the Kin, regardless of what choices are made, is extremely dangerous, ultimately stunting empathy and corroding any proper sense of absolute morals.

    • A. Nonymous says:

      Concern trolling.

      • Vlad James says:

        No, I absolutely agree with him.

        An inability to empathize or identify with characters who DON’T share your skin color or genitals is a symptom of a tribal savage.

        It’s noteworthy that whites never have trouble watching and enjoying shows with Asian, Hispanic, or black characters, or admiring them. On the flip side, I have talked to many blacks who categorically refuse to watch great shows because “there are too many whites and no one who looks like me”.

        • TPC says:

          It’s noteworthy that you just made that up. There are extensive examples of whites having trouble with characters that don’t look like them. And I don’t mean making white characters black/Asian, etc., but the exact discomfort you attribute to blacks (even though there’s extensive black nerd-dom based on watching and enjoying shows with people not-black all over them).

          • Vlad James says:

            What are these supposed “extensive examples”? If they’re so “extensive”, surely you could cite a single one?

            If you’re going to accuse others of making things up, it would help not to be such a blatant liar.

            Anyways, considering the incredible popularity of any number of black shows (“Empire”, “Family Matters”), black movies (“Straight Outta Compton” being a recent one) among whites, it’s clear that whites have far less difficulty empathizing with black characters than vice versa.

      • Tesh says:

        Aye, I’m not trolling at all. It’s a serious problem I see in the culture at large, and it’s been seeping into fiction for a while at an accelerating rate.

        When everyone is camping out in their own little gender/skin color/religious/political hidey holes, only interacting with others via attacks and allusions, society breaks down.

        The push for inclusion of women and whatever other “identity tags” (gender, skin color, nationality, whatever) instead of just telling good stories is killing SFF. It’s Message Fiction, just written about what people look like, how their chromosomes manifest and who they sleep with instead of heroics and interesting decisions.

        • TPC says:

          It’s complicated. The SJWs are extremists with a slender thread of a good point, which is that representation does matter. Having some over none is important. The problem comes when representation is sliced into finer and finer niches instead of flowing naturally.

          A sci-fi story set in the Reconstruction South could have black people in it reasonably as something naturally flowing from the circumstances. But sticking some black people in a Japanese village in 1770 for “representation” of the kind SJWs always end up screaming for though, is stupid and offensive to both blacks and Japanese. Or all the nonsense over Dunkirk recently.

          I’m totally going to see that movie because I want to see Britain that-was and be heartwarmed.

          • Vlad James says:

            No, representation in fiction does NOT matter worth a damn, and you’ve already capitulated to SJWs by agreeing with them on this point.

            If every single important character in a story is white (as they are in the vast majority of the great stories ever told), there is no problem with that, and non-white readers, provided they are not mentally deficient savages, need to accept it.

  • Vlad James says:

    “Great female characters” are sufficiently rare, in my opinion. Even with having watched about 3,000 films according to my online tracking, it’s hard to come up with examples, especially from famous works.

    Princess Leia was a decent, acceptable character.

    The new crop of generic, faceless, perfect, unbeatable, cardboard cut-out, utterly boring male protagonists given a genital change into females are absolutely dire, however, and make the decent characters of yesteryear look great by comparison.

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