Save Our Stereotypes

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1953topsinsciencefictionI don’t want to destroy the damsel in distress. I don’t want to destroy the sleeping beauty. Or the femme fatale. Or the pollyanna. Or the ditz. Or the girl next door. I watch attempts to ban them warily, though I know the intentions behind the act are good. I know we’re tired of these tropes. I’m tired of these tropes. I tired of paying for books and movies in the hopes that maybe, maybe the one or two prominent female characters will command a real, meaty story. They almost never do.

I want badass grandmas and snotty teenyboppers who take up sword and shield, courteous, pastel assassins and studious, unlovely princesses. I want our storytellers to stop confining themselves to our present, sparse handful of stock characters; I want them to build stories around these girls and women instead of slotting them into the margins in roles they shrug at as “good enough.” I want the full spectrum of character and story explored, our current notions of who can be what exploded. I want honest-to-god creativity.

1952fantasticBut I don’t want to shove our worn (though not worn out) stock heroines and villainesses into the back of the attic for good. I see these arguments crop up with fair frequency–even amidst a cast of varied female characters, the one damsel in distress will be pointed out and denigrated. The Pollyanna is so boring, especially when compared to the strapping young warrior princess. The femme fatale who uses her dangerous curves is so expected. Obviously, I understand this fan fatigue. It’s most of what we’ve seen for years.

But banning them will not work. And making them out to be “unworthy” portrayals of women is short-sighted in the extreme. First off, it often boils down to a simple hatred of traditionally feminine traits–nurturing, sweetness, shyness, placidity–and while I don’t want our fictional women confined to those norms, nor do I want to replace them with traditionally masculine traits that are, in the act, tacitly acknowledged as superior. There’s nothing wrong with being sweet and kind and passive. There’s not even anything wrong with loving shoes and boys and disdaining homework, regardless of your nerdy disdain for Those Popular Bitches.

1949startlingstoriesukThat’s the heart of it, for me–these are legitimate stories to tell, even if we’re kind of sick of them. We need to expand and tell all kinds of stories, not limit ourselves to a piddling little collection of archetypes. But the thing is, that goes both ways. And while I admire the zeal of fandom’s current tide of feminism, I see, at times, a pendulum swinging to the other extreme. Not all the time, mind you, but when I encounter, “Oh my god, she’s SUCH a bore, she just sits there all day,” in response to, say, the classic Disney movies, I cringe a little. It’s a valid complaint (it’s not like those first Princess movies were revolutionary), but can we respect that these were heroines with their own stories? Can we respect that their sweetness and light are, in fact, positive character traits and that they had their own kind of strength? It’s not okay that that was the only kind of story that could be told. I’m not saying that. But I think, in our fervor, we forget to respect all kinds of portrayals, and moreover that these were all thousands of little girls had to sustain themselves with for many years. We forget that spitting on the past will not fortify our future. We forget that the femme fatale, the pollyanna, the sweetie-pie princess and the damsel in distress deserve a place at our table alongside a new breed of heroines.

I want us to embrace storytelling in its true fullness. I want to be able to love Snow White and Asha Greyjoy equally. Anything less is further confinement wearing a new face.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for this Juliet – as always, you keep offering my perspectives alternative to the ones I utilize that are insightful and instructive.

    I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed strong female protagonists, whether they are the fully realized individuals who are powerful characters (not necessary characters who are powerful) and embody what, we as an audience, have to come to emotionally connect with and female characters who are witty, forceful, and often leaders. However, with the second – I feel pangs of guilt, as often they aren’t much more than that.

    I’ve considered these feelings and have come to conclusions that I enjoy these characters strictly because I’m sick of seeing exclusively men in that role of the wise, strong leader (and other such parts) and seeing a female in that place is refreshing. However, it often feels like the “progressive update” is only skin deep, as if the character had the “Sex” option toggled from “M” to “F”. That reeks of an unwillingness to try. This is just one example of character updates where the sex is flipped but nothing else.

    Though it’s important to say, for every “updated” character that’s created half-heartedly out of some well-trodden tropes, far more new and fascinating characters are springing up still utilizing the very same stereo/archetypes as facets, instead of definitions. And thankfully, many of those characters are female.

    What I’m trying to say is, go read Mara, it’s amazing and she’s amazing.

  2. Juliet, listen carefully and you may be able to hear the sound of three rousing hurrahs coming your way from Tokyo. This needed to be said, and you’ve said it beautifully.

    I especially like this: “[Condemning stereotypes] often boils down to a simple hatred of traditionally feminine traits–nurturing, sweetness, shyness, placidity–and while I don’t want our fictional women confined to those norms, nor do I want to replace them with traditionally masculine traits that are, in the act, tacitly acknowledged as superior. There’s nothing wrong with being sweet and kind and passive. There’s not even anything wrong with loving shoes and boys and disdaining homework, regardless of your nerdy disdain for Those Popular Bitches.”

  3. Stereotypes are shallow characters who are in a work for a specific reason only. The smart-mouthed waitress who is there just to add a bit of color to a scene, for example.

    An archetypal character resonates on an emotional level. Sleeping Beauty is an archetype, and this character keeps appearing in different guises because she continues to resonate with readers.

    Stereotypes or stock characters main difference from a “real” character is how much of the character the author puts on the page. If the damsel in distress is so well written that most don’t recognize her type of character, then she’s not a stereotype or a stock character.

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