Posts Tagged ‘Protagonists’

Come in. Sit down. Pull up a chair. We’re going to play a game.

Here’s how it works: I give you a simple¬†character description, and you tell me which particular character I’m talking about, as well as the one specific TV show they’re from. Your only hint: these are all protagonists or ensemble main characters. Ready? Let’s go:

  • straight white male detective, an abrasive maverick with a tragic past
  • straight white male doctor, an arrogant maverick
  • straight white male conman using his powers for good
  • straight white writer, solves crimes and writes novels about it
  • straight white political aide, snarky but beloved
  • straight white female detective, brilliant with a tragic past
  • straight white lawyer who secretly fights crime
  • straight white maverick lawyer, sketchy past
  • straight white¬†male supernatural creature, tragic past
  • straight white male antihero, drives a signature vehicle

Congratulations! We’ve reached the end of round one. Now that you’ve got your eye in, are you ready for round two? I sure hope so! Let’s give it a try:

  • straight black female detective, tragic past
  • bisexual white female leader, survivor and strategist
  • bisexual white male supernatural creature, antihero
  • straight Latino male supernatural creature,¬†hero
  • straight Asian female doctor, solves crimes
  • gay black male detective, brilliant and untragic
  • bisexual black female lawyer, maverick¬†antiheroine
  • gay Latino male action hero, supernatural issues
  • straight black female political maverick

There will not be a round three.

I mean, I could introduce a bonus round about secondary characters, but hopefully, I’m getting the point across: that whereas there are multiple shows whose protagonists answer to the descriptions given in round one, there’s really only one right answer for the equally simple clues provided in round two. Because for all the furore about how shows these days are nothing but an exercise in forced diversity – for all the fear that straight white guys are somehow being banned from stories forever and ever, amen – they’re still the dominant species, and all you need to do to prove it is ask for multiple examples of any one of the types of person supposedly meant to have ousted them.

One of the more common arguments raised by anti-diversity advocates is the futility of tokenism – the idea that giving a single show¬†a black female lead for the sake of filling a quota is both insulting and unnecessary. And I quite agree: tokenism isn’t the answer. What we want is to reach a point where there are so many black female protagonists – and queer protagonists, and protagonists of every other type and variation listed above and a great many more besides, in every permutation – that none of them could ever again be reasonably viewed as a token anything. Because, in this scenario, when writers are considering who could be the protagonist, they’re giving equal consideration to every type of person, and not just forcing themselves to look, however briefly, beyond the narrow, familiar confines of an historical default.

A quick math problem, before we continue: if you have ten¬†apples, and I have three, and we both start shaking the same, communal tree to get¬†more fruit, and the end result is twenty apples each, have you actually lost anything? No, invisible apple friend: you have not. I might have gained more in the short term, but as the end result is a fairly-earned equality, any assertion on your part that my apples were stolen from you – that you are being deprived, somehow, of the all the apples you might’ve had, if¬†only I hadn’t come along – is kind of insincere. And if your response is to try and burn the tree down out of spite, the better to ensure I go hungry next season? Well, then, you really don’t understand how apples work, do you? The ones I’m holding have just as many seeds as yours, and once I’ve gone and planted them,¬†I’ll have access to even more trees than before, and an even greater incentive to make sure they grow big and healthy. Sure, you could spend all your energy trying to sabotage my fledgling orchard, because destruction is far, far easier than creation, but come the next harvest, I’ll still have a crop of shiny, delicious apples to eat – and if you’ve planted nothing in all that time, then brother, I don’t have to burn down anything in order to watch you¬†starve.

Where was I? Oh, right: diversity in narrative.

See, when anti-diversity advocates start talking about¬†the narrative¬†implausibility of particular¬†characters as a means of explaining¬†why, in their opinion, certain types of people just can’t be heroes, they forget the point of stories. We have, quite literally, an entire genre of films, books, comics, games and TV shows dedicated to showing us how¬†normal, mediocre straight white guys – literal everymen, as proudly proclaimed in their blurbs and trailers and other forms of promotional bumpf – can rise up and¬†save the world and the day and get the girl, even when they’ve had absolutely nothing going for them and no pertinent skills before that point. It might happen through luck or hard work, through outside help or unknown possession of a secret destiny, or sometimes a combination of all four, but it does happen, over and over and over again, with the cosmic¬†regularity of sunset, and do you know what? Regardless of whether we love or hate or meh those individual stories, everyone who watches or reads or plays them understands, at base, that a certain degree of implausibility is the fucking point. The idea isn’t to create a hyper-real explanation as to why John Doe is suddenly the only man standing between Earth and alien annihilation, although it’s always nice when the¬†worldbuilding rises to the occasion:¬†the fundamental point of the everyman as hero is to make us, the everyday audience, feel as if¬†we could be heroes, too.

But make that hero queer or female and something other than white, and the same guy who moments ago was cheering on every single everyman ever played by Shia LaBeouf in Transformers¬†and Eagle Eye and Indiana Jones and Constantine¬†is spewing rage on the internet because of the Ghostbusters reboot and Star Wars and who knows what else, because women aren’t funny or interesting and why would you ever try to make them the protagonist? Listen, fucknuts: the only real¬†joke attributable to Adam Sandler is his own career, but I didn’t see you weeping on Reddit when he was inexplicably greenlit for another two hours of cinematic dickslapping in the Year of Our Lord 2016. Leslie Jones could do nothing but read the entirety of¬†Pride and Prejudice aloud on camera while¬†cracking improvised jokes about the characters and drinking champagne,¬†and it would still be a million times funnier than anything that’s ever starred Rob Schneider. Granted, that particular comedic bar is so damn low, you could use it to drag the Marianas Trench, but the point is that the plausibility police were nowhere to be found when James McAvoy learned to be an assassin with the help of a¬†massive sentient loom, a tank full of wax and Angeline Jolie’s collarbones, but are suddenly screeching the heavens down at the prospect of there being More Than One Girl in Star Wars.

I mean, look: it says a whole fucking lot about this debate that the many female characters displaced by¬†Trinity Syndrome¬†– which is to say, female characters who are demonstrably strong and skilled and unique enough to merit protagonist status, but who ultimately play second fiddle to whichever lucky everyman they’ve trained/fallen for – are never subjected to the same level of plausibility-scrutiny as actual female protagonists. Nobody objected to the fact¬†that Trinity was an awesome hacker-leader-fighter in The Matrix, because she was also Neo’s love interest, and hot: they could safely view her through the lens of his success, and thereby rest easy in the knowledge that the story wasn’t really about her. The kind of man who objects to Rey, but not Trinity, isn’t bothered by the contextual implausibility of female competence, no matter what he says: he just wants to know that, whatever prowess the female characters have, they’re still going to come in second to a white guy they later bone down with, or at least kiss. Female exceptionalism therefore becomes allowable only in a context where the various impressive skills a woman has acquired over a lifetime can be first mastered and then improved upon by any moderately talented white guy in a matter of days. But if you take that guy away – or worse still, make him a less adept sidekick or enemy – then suddenly it’s the end of the goddamn world and a blight on plausible storytelling.

So let’s just set the record straight, once and for all: we don’t want an end to stories with straight white male protagonists; we do want¬†to boost the number of stories starring other types of person, and maybe – given the massive historical imbalance between those genres – give them a bit of time in the spotlight, too. We don’t want to promote bad stories over good for the sake of diversity, though we do want them to be judged fairly, which here means allowing us¬†the freedom to create a range of diverse stories without that diversity being automatically dismissed as either tokenism or a pandering irrelevance, or else used as an excuse to put the narrative under a microscope, the results to be read as a harsh pass/fail on the viability of any such future stories. We do want to openly celebrate diversity, in much the same way that farmers celebrate rain after a long drought: we’ve had so little for so long, can you blame us for wanting to shout about it?

Well, I mean. Obviously, if you’re an anti-diversity advocate, you can and will. You’re just not going to have much in the way of moral highground to support you, and maybe – just maybe – it behoves you to consider what you’re really fighting against. If rebooting a franchise with someone other than a straight white guy in the leading role is a¬†purely cosmetic – and therefore, in your estimation, meaningless – change, then why do you feel so personally¬†threatened by the prospect of someone doing¬†it? If your real objection is to tokenism, and not to well-crafted characters from diverse backgrounds, then why aren’t you advocating¬†that writers include more of them, not less? If your selection process for worthy stories is truly wide-ranging and meritocratic, then why does it skew so heavily to only one type of writer and one type of protagonist?¬†Why do you find it so hard to believe that stories can be both diverse and worthy? Why are you so resistant to the idea that well-executed diversity is itself a form of good storytelling?

If narrative representation is such a paltry, meaningless thing ask for, then why are you so terrified of losing it?

We know why, is the thing. The real question is: do you?

 

In the past few days, Zoe Marriott, Sarah Rees-Brennan,¬†Holly Black¬†and Cora Buhlert have all written awesome posts about the problem of reviewers dismissing female characters who aren’t to their tastes as being Mary Sues, with added discussion of what the term actually means, why male characters and/or authors aren’t held to similar standards, and the awesomeness of ladies. All of them have made excellent points. Zoe Marriott begins by saying:

When I read reviews, I see the term Mary-Sue used to mean:

1. A female character who is too perfect
2. A female character who kicks too much butt
3. A female character who gets her way too easily
4. A female character who is too powerful
5. A female character who has too many flaws
6. A female character who has the wrong flaws
7. A female character who has no flaws
8. A female character who is annoying or obnoxious
9. A female character who is one dimensional or badly written
10. A female character who is too passive or boring

This is, quite obviously, a contradictory list, as Marriott is at pains to point out:

Take another look at the list of complaints against so-called Mary-Sues and you will see one thing all of them have in common.

‘A female character.’

What many (though not all!) of the people merrily throwing this phrase around¬†actually mean¬†when they say ‘Mary-Sue’ is: ‘Female character I don’t like’.

That’s it. That’s all.

Following on from this, Holly Black expands on the dangers of using the phrase beyond outside its original context:

The problem with using this term outside of fanfiction is simple: the world of a novel has always configured around main characters. They are at its center and, often, they are the best at stuff. Kirk is, for example, is the best with romancing the green-skinned ladies. He’s also the best at leading. Spock is the best at being smart. Scotty is the best at keeping the Enterprise from being blown to pieces by the actions of both Kirk and Spock. Their skills are important and it’s unlikely that anyone is going to come along and be better at those things than they are.

So when a book is about a girl who is the best at something and about the boys (and/or girls) that love her and how she defeats the bad guy, well, that’s because¬†she’s the protagonist.¬†It is good and right that she be at the center of the story.

For example, I have seen complaints that the protagonist always wins the love of the main male character. What’s problematic about that is, well, of course she does, because if she’s the protagonist then whoever she loves¬†becomes the main male character by virtue of his connection to the protagonist.

Sarah Rees-Brennan makes a hugely important distinction between female characters who are realistically self-deprecating and those who aren’t allowed to like themselves, saying:

I am not saying that all girls in books or real life should never be insecure. I know I’m insecure about a bunch of things! And I have loved an insecure fictional lady many times…

I just don’t want to read about fictional girls who¬†can’t¬†think they’re awesome. I don’t like reading about those characters and I don’t like the mindset that produces them. The fictional girls I’m talking about aren’t meant to be depressed (I’d like to see more actually-depressed characters in literature: they can be heroes too)–they’re meant to seem normal, and likable.

I do not want to read about girls who think they’re worthless. I do not want to write about girls who think they’re worthless. I do not think I’m worthless.

Nobody has to like a girl, fictional or otherwise. But words like ‘annoying’ or ‘Mary Sue’ are both used as shorthand for ‘girl I want to dismiss.’ We’ve all read about characters who seemed overly perfect, or who had flaws the narrative wouldn’t admit were flaws, and those characters¬†are¬†irritating. But I’ve seen just as many fictional boys like that as fictional girls (with the caveat that boys tend to get more pagetime, so they get more explored) and those boys don’t get seen in the same way. As I was saying on twitter a couple days ago, I want characters to be flawed and awesome: I want them to be flawesome.

Finally, Cora Buhlert makes an important point about the hugely exclusionary tests designed to expose the flaws of Mary Sue characters:

The term ‚ÄúMary Sue‚ÄĚ has become completely overused of late. Partly this may be due to the various¬†Mary Sue litmus tests¬†that are available online and according to which pretty much every character is a Mary Sue. I just did the test for a female character in a realist novel of mine and even that character, with no magical powers whatsoever, scored 40 points. That‚Äôs not to say that such tests aren‚Äôt useful, within reason. But plenty of traits listed as Mary Sue symptoms in these tests are perfectly legitimate, as long as they don‚Äôt all occur at once.

Take a moment to click through to the test in question and eye a few of the questions. What quickly becomes apparent is that, as per Marriott’s list, correlation and causation have been deeply confused in the issue of Sueness to such a degree that many people now mistake – well, I was going to say the symptoms for the cause, but given the scope of the test, that metaphor doesn’t really work. Calling a character Mary Sue in the current climate on the basis of their having a traumatic background, an interesting name and an affinity with animals is equivalent to calling an old woman with a wart on her nose, a knowledge of herbs and a black cat a witch in the context of actual witch-burning. By which I mean: people are so terrified of accidentally countenancing the presence of a Mary Sue that they’ve started trying to identify them by sight, with predictably bad results.

The term Mary Sue began in fanfic, which is all about personal participation in other people’s narratives. It’s an awesome way to learn the ropes, make friends, test ideas, participate in fandom and generally have a good time, but self-insertion is more or less the point: not because all original fanfic characters are avatars for their authors, but because the whole point of fanfic is using your own ideas in someone else’s world. Extending this argument to original fiction is therefore inherently problematic, not least when reviewers and Sue-tests alike start sneering that such-and-such an author only did X because they thought it was cool, so obviously it’s a case of self-insertion.¬†And it’s like, what? Did you honestly expect me to sit down and pour my heart into something I didn’t think was awesome? Writing stories we think are cool is sort of what authors do. We think, ‘Time-travelling lady space pirates? Hell yes!’ – ¬†and then we go and do it. You might have different tastes, which is fine! But let’s be very clear on the matter: writers don’t insert themselves into stories. Stories insert themselves into us.

But the most damaging aspect of reviewers calling original characters Mary Sues is the fact that, precisely because of this lingering self-insertion argument, it only ever happens to female writers. By way of example, compare the description of George R. R. Martin’s Daenerys Targaryen – ¬†a silver-haired, purple-eyed, impossibly beautiful teenage queen born in exile with three dragon companions, legions of suitors, an abusive childhood and a prophetic destiny – with the contents of any Mary Sue checklist you care to name, and she’ll probably register at close to 100%. But what sort of critic is going to imply that George R. R. Martin, a straight man in his sixties, must secretly want to be a thirteen-year-old girl? A fairy unhinged one, is the answer, and even though Google can probably turn up a couple of examples to prove me wrong, the point is that all this dialogue about Sues tends to center on YA and UF novels – stories which, as Buhlert notes, are written predominantly by women.

But wait, I hear you cry, that’s not a fair comparison! Daenerys isn’t Martin’s only character. She’s one protagonist among many.¬†Well, and I suppose that female authors only write about women? That they feel no connection to their male characters, and that no matter how large the cast, it’s only ever the leading lady who matters? (Anyone who answered yes, go to your room.) This is the other problem with calling Mary Sue on original works: it’s a scenario in which the author has created¬†every single character. This is wildly distinct from the traditional fanfic setup which birthed the term, in which a single, original protagonist would be catapulted¬†into an existing narrative. In those instances, that single character literally becomes the extension and embodiment of the writer’s will – a whole different kettle of fish to creating a cast from scratch. To quote Holly Black again:

The Mary Sue warps the story; the female protagonist is the story.

Which means that, if we want to play the Mary Sue card constructively – if we want it not to be sexist, applicable just as equally to the works of male authors as female, with Gary Stu put into equal usage – then we need to consider the trope for what it really is: the ultimate example of poor characterisation. Gama Stues – as I’m now going to call them, in the spirit of equality – do not grow. They come to their roles as static, perfect characters, capable of angst and internal monologues but without ever actually changing. Regardless of the genre trappings – because neither do I want to assume that Stues are solely the products of SFF – they are, contextually, so beautiful or¬†desirable¬†that everyone falls in love with them at the slightest provocation; a description which, as Cora Buhlert points out, is textbook James Bond. Their skillsets are deeply convenient to the plot, which by itself makes perfect sense, but are distinguished in this regard by being either so broad as to verge on the ridiculous, acquired with an ease that’s wildly disproportionate to their difficulty, or unreasonably inexplicable given the character’s origins.

They are, in short, badly written – but bad writing is a manifold thing, expressible in near-infinite variations. Tropes employed badly by one author might prove successful for another; the same is true of literary styles. And while I appreciate the tendency for particular characters to drive us up the wall, particularly when we detect similar themes emerging across multiple stories, pinning a label on just the women – let alone one that’s been hastily appropriated from a different context – does not constitute intelligent critical analysis. If you feel justified in disliking a certain story, then show your working. Don’t just say that someone is a Stue – tell us why.

It really is that simple.