If you did a google search of “female protagonist” what do you think among the first images would be? What female characters are representing the entire scope of heroines? What are the in common traits that agree with triumphant femininity?
Before you go searching, write down your thoughts first. Who is the first person you think of when you think female protagonist or heroine? What traits make them heroic or a great character?
Ok, now go search. What do you find? Does it match your view of heroine, of protagonist? Why or why not?
Give some serious consideration to that just for a moment before reading any further. What makes a good heroine? What separates them from other female characters or even from male characters? And where are your views on this formed?
What Seperates Heroes from Heroines?
Let’s start with the biological divide on this one. There are real physical differences between men and women that go deeper than genitalia. One you might be less familiar with is how women tend to have a better eye for color than men, while men tend to have an easier time with depth perception and distance. This is just one of many biological differences, and it’s a valuable one to bring up not only because it highlights the subtle differences in men and women, but it also harkens to the sociological narrative of hunter-gatherer societies. Men hunted in society, and they needed to have range and focus for this. Alternatively, in the hunter-gatherer society, women gathered and tended to things at home and could spot ripeness in fruit among many other feats.
While there’s bound to be exceptions to these “rules” (for example you can find some women who shoot better than men, or men who do have a refined eye for color) the patterns we see warrant our attention of the differences between men and women.
But what difference does any of that make to our discussion of hero and heroine?
I believe there’s a reason why we separate hero and heroine into different categories, and that reason includes but also goes beyond biological sex…or at least it ought to.
Gender Swap and Sexualization
In the screenshot of my google search, you’ll see that Tomb Raider is featured at least three times. Despite your feelings on the Tomb Raider games, it’s hard to dispute that Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider franchise is heavily inspired by everyone’s favorite Trilogy: Indiana Jones. Both are action-packed protagonists with smarts and strength, battling rival archaeologists and even supernatural/esoteric foes. Uncharted is another honorable mention here as being a spiritual successor to Indiana Jones, but its story focuses on a male lead.
The problem lies not in the adaptation of Indiana Jones into a video game franchise, but the execution of this hero building. What we all know from the Tomb Raider franchise (movies and video games) is that it’s Indiana Jones premise with sex appeal. That might seem like an unfair caricature, but we all know the memes, “artistic” choices, and even promotional arts that set on this franchise early, solidifying it as a female lead meant to be oggled.
Though Lara Croft is a champion heroine of the video game world, her inception can be reduced to two mechanisms: gender swap & sex appeal. Neither of those character creation mechanisms are new to you and I, and if we think critically about each, we’ll find that these are rather lazy techniques for chracter construction.
Take gender swaps. The 2016 Ghostbusters is perhaps the best worst example of this. The movie invested solely on the premise that we’d get the same fun premise but with a female cast that loosely alluded to the original cast. But this wasn’t sufficient for the greater audience. Why? Because great films are not solely written on the “what if we switched this sole detail” instead of composing a new fresh story and premise. Perhaps the only accomplishment of modern cinema in effectually using gender-swap was in the Loki series, though I’d argue the payoff of the female Loki only came through in the romance that Loki has for himself (symbolically the pinnacle of narcissism, which this character embodies).
As for sex appeal, I imagine a minority disagrees with me that dressing a character by way of sex appeal is a lazy and crass means of attracting an audience. That same minority either is begging like a hungry dog for the softcore pornography that Hollywood delivers to us, or lives in a twisted reality where sex appeal equals power. Let’s look at Emilia Clarke’s character, Daenerys, from the screenshot. While Daenerys has this very dramatic reversal of power–literally being used as a sex pawn before becoming a powerful mother of dragons–I ask the audience to consider if some of what is loved about Daenerys is the explicit content that was used to sell her character. We are bombarded with nudity of this character from season one, and while some might argue that this was to sell her humble and powerless state (after all, she’s used by everyone in the beginning), I would also argue the audience has been sold to see her as a sex object through and through (not unlike the other characters in the story).
A caveat I’ll make here is that writing a sexualized character in order to provoke an appetite of the audience has a subtle difference than writing a character that is sexualized by others or uses sex appeal. Sexualizing a character (without loaded, explicit, or pornographic means) has less to do about illiciting a base response from the audience, and more to do with telling a story of the character. If a character does use their appearance or seduction to get what they want, then this is storytelling. If a director/author takes off a character’s clothes for the audiences’ pleasure, they’re trying to seduce the audience with little finesse and dignity.
Prudish as some of this criticism may begin sounding, my intention is to shake us all and keep hammering a question I think we’ve grown indifferent towards: what makes a heroine different than a hero?
A Different Fitting Spandex
Wonder Woman is a commonly championed heroine of womanhood represented in the realm of comic crime fighters, and for good reason. Wonder Woman is not easily made into a male counterpart, nor was her inception a knock-off of another character. For starters, she is Amazonian, belonging to a real Greek myth of a sole female warrior society (a myth that is worth its own lengthy discourse).
She is also the first woman of the Justice League, though her roster within the team never seems like a compelled insertion, but more of an intentional addition that adds to the story and inter-character dynamic. At times she takes the role of a “queen” in the Justice League or fits a romantic storyline (based on which storyline you follow with whichever justice league member falls in love with her). But more than that, her contribution as the heroine to the team often comes across as a gentle confidant, a caretaker, a sort of matronly role of a nursing mother figure. While she fights with just as much ferocity as her male counterparts she is distinct in her femininity, not merely a gender swap or soley an insertion for sex appeal. She provides something unique as a heroine.
Compare that to Captain Marvel from the Marvel universe. This heroine is unabashedly Marvel’s brainchild of the ideal heroine. The music selection, the cast, all the elements of the Captain Marvel film underscore that this is Marvel’s chief feminine protagonist, a symbol of triumphant womanhood. Though Captain Marvel’s characterization doesn’t seem to provide something unique to the Avengers films or even in her standalone film. She is a superman like figure with a spunky and even flippant attitude. Perhaps her character is meant to portray the possibility of, “what if Superman was a woman” which is a prompt that has potentiality. But what we see in her story is spunk and arrogance without a message. Tony Stark’s insolence is comical and gets him in trouble, and Gamora’s head-strong personality also gets her into trouble while also being a personality that pairs very well with the rest of her cast.
When Captain Marvel arrives to the “Justice Leage” of Marvel, the Avengers, she doesn’t provide anything unique as a heroine. Even if we were to say, “well, she’s the superman that has arrived to the Avengers” we still see a lot missing in her own narrative and personality that made Superman interesting (ie, being invincible and realizing his vulnerability through emotion, his struggle as an orphan and identity as a Kryptonian-Earthling, his struggle with rage, vengeance, and power, the list goes on…)
Even Black Widow provides more to the Avengers in terms of femininity, while also possessing the same spunk and attitude (although subdued by comparison to Captain Marvel). But Black Widow is interesting because she knows she is underestimated. Her sex appeal makes her seem powerless at first to Tony Stark and then to the Russian mob in Avengers, and then we see a reversal when she shows her finesse. Even her lacking of a superpower runs parallel to the trope that women are typically seen without strength; this underestimation provides her with an advantage as we see not only does her finesse make up for this lack of superpower, but she is able to extract information even from the trickster god Loki when she is thought of as weak.
Again, we sometimes think of heroines as beefy, muscular feminine counterparts without giving much thought to what femininity provides to a story or even a broader cast. These typified Amazonian females can work in a narrative and in a cast, but too often these stories and characters attempt to celebrate femininity without giving serious thought to what that femininity brings to the table and becomes integral with the plot and character dynamics.
The last point I’d like to close on with heroines is motherhood.
To continue on from Black Widow, we see a character robbed of motherhood. This is mentioned more than once in the Marvel universe of the Black Widow indoctrination, and it’s not an insignificant detail. The sterilization of these young women says a lot to the audience and provides a lot of narrative potentiality for the creators. For one, the sterilization of these young women speaks to a universal problem of abuse, of treating women like tools instead of as people. Instead of mothers, they become killers. Robbing them too of their motherhood also robs them a little of their womanhood, and this is typified with how little empathy we sometimes we see from the Black Widows. And we can’t forget about the component of grief and sense of trauma that Natasha faces, both of which compel her to remain in the life of “superhero” when she has a wish to get out and be normal; she feels she is a damaged good and without the potential to start a family shies away from settling down with the Hulk, perhaps even feeding into her desire to sacrifice herself for the soul stone.
Motherhood is a compelling force to create memorable and inspiring heroines as the distinct and unique experience of bearing, giving birth, and nurturing a child is a universal plight with its own obstacles to overcome. To look at the popular movie Encanto, Luisa is a compelling character who has an infinitely memorable song that has become a rally cry of all mothers; mothers know the struggle of bearing a great deal of burdens and pressures. But Luisa actually is emblematic of the strength of femininity, of the skill of multi-tasking typically attributed to feminine characteristics, as well as to an untapped strength when a mother feels threatened or distressed (ie, the all too famous image of the mother lifting a car off her child, supposedly the inception of the character Hulk).
Femininity and motherhood also showcase the heroine’s capacity of creativity and tenacity. I think this is especially well done in the new movie, “Shut-In”, which features a single mother who is locked in a closet and faced with the struggle of caring for her two children against this barrier, all the while attempting to protect her children from a predator. The mother from shut-in is a rich heroine who shows her flaws of impatience and even cynicism but overcomes her external obstacles through innovation while also conquering her inner demon of addiction through sheer determination.
A similar movie that showcases motherhood–albeit not directly through a protagonist who is a mother–is the movie Run, Hide, Fight. A young teenage girl finds herself at school when a mass shooting begins to take place. In this movie, she not only is tasked to survive this harrowing circumstance through her father’s skills of survival (an ex-military hunter). This character endeavors to rally her fellow students to survive and even change the heart of one of these shooters. The elements of prophetess or console that are seen in the heroine and motherly archetype are exemplified in this character as she does not show her prowess in external combat, but shows her capacity of helping others with their inner combat as she compels those who cower to take up courage and those who callously oppress to also take courage against evil.
Give Us Our Mothers, Give us Our Heroines
I’m aware that highlighting the traits and heroines we have mentioned above leaves room for criticism of, “is your definition of femininity and heroine merely narrow?”
To which I would respond, yes, thankfully it is.
Although we shirk from the word “categories” we must concede that our fields of study (both hard sciences and humanities) are filled with categories. Although dogs and cats share a lot in common, the two provide different things in the animal kingdom, with different traits, each within themselves a narrow definition that excludes the rest of the animal kingdom. This is not to say that man and woman are different species, but as soon as we speak of “masculinity and femininity” we must realize we are speaking in categories. The categories might seem confining, but they actually clarify and can even encourage.
This distinction of heroine versus hero is meant to provide some precision to this itch that society has for more female protagonists. With the gender-swap of many comic book heroes should come a deep reflection on what it means when we create these counterparts, what parts of femininity we are celebrating when we insert these female protagonists. If the motivation is to achieve a quota of feminine heroes, the outcome will most certainly be shallow. If it is meant for sex appeal, then I’d argue we haven’t created a heroine but rather have drawn a sex tool.
99% of male heroes exemplify muscle and confidence. I believe what this can positively provide a male population is to endeavor towards adopting a discipline that leads to strength and a wrestling of inner demons that gives way to a clear mind of leadership and certainty. We typically lose sight of what virtues the hulking trope of hero is attempting to show us, but with a bit of scrutiny we can discern what the externals of these heroes are teaching us in terms of worthy virtues to be pursued.
Likewise, our heroines should be conceived of with a similar intention. Any external or behavior we seen in our heroine ought to show something virtuous and worthy of pursuit. While it’s fair for women to set out on a pursuit of discipline and confidence, I would argue we shouldn’t stop there as we take into consideration of what opportunities and traits are unique to femininity. Heroines need not only be literal mothers, but the spiritual motherhood of counselor, confidant, and prophetess (a speaker of truth) I think is unique to the heroine archetype that we could endeavor to see more of.
Ultimately, let’s give some careful consideration to what our heroes and heroines are attempting to provide us. Throughout history, these protagonists have served to be cautionary tales of tragedy or emblematic figures of triumph. Let’s pay attention to where these heroes and heroines of our present-day lead each of us, what they inspire and celebrate, and how we can create fresh and unique heroines and heroes for today’s media.