Posts Tagged ‘Hero’

Picture the scene: our competent, clever, kickass heroine has just undergone a significant emotional change. Maybe she knows who the killer is, or has suddenly learned that a friend is in danger. Perhaps she’s uncovered a crucial piece of evidence or identified a traitor. Or maybe it’s something more personal: the death of a loved one, a startling revelation, the prospect of an unpleasant choice, an unexpected setback, a heated argument with a sexy-yet-frustrating antagonist. Whatever the catalyst, our heroine is energised, angry, likely upset and probably needing to blow off steam. So what does she do?

She goes alone into a dangerous situation, bites off more than she can chew, and promptly finds herself so overwhelmed that the next thing you know, she’s captured, bleeding, unconscious, imperiled and generally up shit creek. While a male character in similarly dire straits will likely James Bond his way out of things via a sequence of improbable badassery – bullet-dodging, some deus ex machina assistance, a judicious application of poorly-constructed handcuffs and the inevitable revelation that being cornered was part of his plan all along – our heroine will, instead, be rescued by her handsome, protective male love interest, with whom she will then have some soulful eye contact and cuddling at the very least. And instead of feeling irked by this, the audience is meant to feel vindicated.

Why?

Because Prince Saves Damsel is one of the oldest tropes in the book, and not even the advent of Strong Female Characters (TM) has caused it to lose its power. Instead, we’ve simply warped it a little: the Damsel is now a Kickass Damsel, endowed with just enough agency, power and awesomeness to fool the casual observer into thinking that she, too, could potentially have her own James Bond moment. But ninety-nine times out of a hundred, she won’t: the odds are stacked against her, not so she can show her strength by overcoming them solo, but as justification for her forthcoming rescue. Crucially, her decision to go alone into danger is always praised as bravery or self-sacrifice – a species of gendered martyrdom – or else couched in a language designed to give the impression that, however foolish her actions might seem in retrospect, they were wholly justified at the time: by anger, by urgency, by the unavailability or physical distance of allies. Ultimately, though, these excuses are all just component parts of a narrative sleight-of-hand trick constructed for a single purpose: to make us forget, or to disbelieve, that the heroine was ever really a Damsel.

Let me break down the narrative logic:

In order to have a charged, emotional moment with her love interest, the heroine – who, for a whole different set of sexist reasons, invariably struggles with intimacy – needs to be rendered vulnerable in his presence. Simply catching her at a moment of personal weakness won’t do the trick: her issues are so deep-seated that unless she was actively dealing with some new trauma, she’d clam right up again – but generally speaking, that’s the sort of major collision you save for later in the relationship, ideally as the catalyst for spending the night together (as per the classic hurt + comfort = sex/spooning equation). Right now, you’re just trying to show that the sexy antagonist cares for her – but because you want to draw out their relationship, you can’t have them kiss or screw right away; instead, they need to connect emotionally, but in a situation that realistically limits their ability to get it on. Solution: send the heroine into danger, watch her get wounded, and have the love interest show up to rescue her, not because she called him in as backup, but because he secretly cares so much for her wellbeing that he was heading to help out anyway. And voila! Not only is her vulnerability and physical weakness excused, but so is his protectiveness and greater competence – the classic Prince Rescues Damsel scenario reconstructed, but in such a way as to couch the Damsel’s endangerment as strength and the Prince’s heroism as sensitivity.

In other words, the Kickass Damsel requires rescue, not because she’s inherently weak, but because her strength and independence are only sufficient for getting her nobly into trouble, not awesomely out of it. At the same time, her love interest’s traditionally masculine protectiveness is justified both by her imperilment and his secret affections: he becomes the Badass Prince, whose aloof, macho and frequently antagonistic/sarcastic persona is ultimately constructed around a chivalrous, knightly core. Over and over again, we limit the competence of our female characters by placing them in perilous scenarios, not to test their skills, but to show how thoroughly they still need to be rescued; to make them vulnerable enough to fall in love, because if we wrote them as being emotionally well-adjusted and romantically inclined from the outset, they’d be deemed too feminine (whereas if we wrote them aromantically, they wouldn’t be seen as feminine enough). And the thing is, none of these tropes are inherently toxic; it’s just that, overwhelmingly, we don’t seem to realise that the Kickass Damsel is a loophole character, designed to blind us to her patriarchal base by disguising her as a feminist icon, and so we end up lauding her as though she were something else.

And I just… I would like to see more recognition of this fact, and more effort taken to write action heroes and heroines who don’t fit this mold so completely. Like triple-choc mudcake, some tropes are fine as a treat, but sickening if over-indulged – and in either case, you should never mistake them for broccoli.

In what will come as a shock to absolutely no one, I have a contentious opinion to put forwards.

Tentatively.

I’m not a hundred per cent on any of this: it’s something I’ve been chewing over for the past while, and I’m writing it up because I’d like to hear what other people think. But this is not a definitive statement of my beliefs – rather, it’s an attempt to tease out an idea that may or may not stand up to actual criticism. Still, I think it’s an interesting problem, and I’m going to make an effort.

So:

As things stand, female notions of male sexiness in our culture are deeply problematic, particularly as relates to feminism. Traditional concepts of masculinity – and, by extension, patriarchy – hinge on the three P’s of strength: protectiveness, power, and physique. Feminism has sought to challenge this ideal, emphasising equality, intelligence and agency for both sexes. The P’s aren’t just for men, this argument goes, but even so, they need not and ought not be the defining characteristics of society. Women have taken charge of their own sexuality, and feminists are fiercely – and rightly – determined to protect that agency. And yet, when it comes to male sexuality as coveted by women, it doesn’t seem like much has changed.

To be clear: I am not saying that feminists have never argued against traditional notions of male sexuality, nor that they’ve argued badly. In that respect, what I’m saying isn’t new. But what has struck me recently is the extent to which the three P’s are still used as the basis for male sexiness in narratives written by feminist women – and worse, that the sexiness of female characters is frequently expressed as the ability to provoke those characteristics in men. I do not excuse or exclude myself from that statement. Part of what has prompted me to sit down and write this out is the fact that, in planning romantic and/or emotional encounters between various of my characters – something I do to do help me fall asleep – I’ve been hitting a wall of cultural preconceptions. Like it or not, I have a learned version of sexiness stored in my head, a set of rules to which I’ve subconsciously been adhering, but recently – perhaps because I’ve been thinking about feminism and writing – I’ve started to see that they’re there, and to poke at them.

Here are some of the tropes I’m talking about:

1. A strong female character surrounded by men who find her attractive and a smaller number of rival women will demonstrate her strength by showing up one or more of the women in front of the men, frequently through a refusal to behave in a traditionally feminine (negative) way. This proves she is better than the other women, and therefore more deserving of male companionship, because she does not Play Games.

2. A variant on the above, where the strong female character is picked on by other women in the sight of one or more men who find her attractive, such that her dignity in coping with the situation and/or her subsequent stoicism in refusing to complain about it becomes proof of her strength. In this instance, it is important that the male observer(s) remain concealed and not intervene, ostensibly to show that the woman is strong and can deal with things on her own, or that the man respects this about her, but in reality to ensure that he is later able to confront, comfort and offer to protect her.

3. Male love interests who are physically dominant, who always initiate the first kiss, the first touch, and who might go so far as to hold the heroine’s wrists or push her forcefully against a wall. This would perhaps be less detrimental if it weren’t a default setting – if we saw a comparable number of narratives, or really any number of narratives, where the woman was physically dominant, the first to initiate everything, who pushed or held the man. Instead, the reigning logic says that male dominance is sexy, while female dominance is wanton and potentially pitiable.

4. A more chaste version of the above, but still with sexual overtones: the protective male character who, in response to whatever plot-specific necessity, will grab the heroine, carry, push or embrace her in the name of ensuring her safety, such that the heroine must reflect positively upon and ultimately be made grateful for his physical strength. Again, this would be less detrimental if the reverse situation was equally as popular, but where male protectiveness of women is permitted, female protectiveness of men is seen as emasculating.

5. A strong heroine is shown to be strong by her decision to confront the villain alone, always for noble or altruistic reasons, so that we cannot suspect her of being headstrong or rash. Inevitably, she is injured or overcome in the subsequent confrontation, such that she must be rescued, healed and comforted by a male character, whose protectiveness of her is (of course) sexy. This shapes the heroine as decisive, brave, competent and selfless while still allowing her to be a damsel in distress.

6. A male love interest must be two things: traditionally strong and non-traditionally sensitive. If he is just strong, he is a villain; if he is just sensitive, he is the geeky best friend who lusts after the girl and never actually gets her. (Sidenote: this is one of my LEAST FAVOURITE TROPES EVER.) The combination of strength and sensitivity is explained by trauma in the man’s past, such that the female character, even if she’s the ostensible protagonist, is ultimately bound to a narrative arc designed to orchestrate his redemption. Note that the female character will probably have trauma of her own, but because she is female, her behaviour is never bad enough that she needs redemption: instead, it makes her stoic, so that the male character, as part of his own emotional development, can comfort and protect her.

And so on.

The thing is, though, that what I’ve just described are some of my favourite narrative devices – and I’m not alone in that. It actually hurts me to mock them, on which grounds I’ll beg bias and say that, despite the way I’ve painted them above, they can be done well, to a purpose, in a way that genuinely works. But the problem I’m trying to identify isn’t that such tropes are being used badly. It’s that they’re being used exclusively. They enforce the idea that the only viable definition of male sexiness is the traditional definition of male sexiness. This is tempered and excused in the narrative by the fact that the woman is strong, too, and maybe the man’s a bit sensitive, but what it excludes is the idea that women protecting men is sexy; that men who are just sensitive are sexy; that any alternate permutation is sexy.

I understand the popularity of these tropes: I really do. They appeal to me, and on some level, because I am a product of our culture, I can’t help that. At best, they represent a balance between traditional masculinity and feminism: scenarios where women are strong and competent, but in ways that allow for male protectiveness without emasculation. It’s the perfect compromise. Everybody wins! But at worst, the definition has become a subconscious default, and not one possible option among many. Men can’t be sexy in different ways, this trope says, any more than female strength can be derived from sisterhood, rather than the ability to keep up with and/or impress men by the adoption of traditionally masculine traits. There is only one proper way, and we ought not question it.

In the end, I’m left thinking about this ad, wherein the perfect man is discussed with no small degree of irony. In these tropes, men are shown to be a faultless combination of everything – strength, support and sexiness – while women derive their agency, not from their own selves, but through their ability to attract a man who is strong, supportive, sexy. And when that happens, it stops being female agency, and starts being female worthiness. And that is, I believe, entirely antagonistic to feminism.

So, people: what do you think?