Ways Female Characters Are (Still) Badly Written

Watching various movies and TV shows over the last several years, I've noticed that there are some odd things with how female characters are often written compared to male characters. They're frequently less developed, or constantly shoved into the same pigeonholes. I strongly suspect that many of these issues are a large part of the reason that the many female fans I've spoken to over the years end up preferring the male characters while not caring much for the female ones - they don't really relate to these characters that much, let alone see anyone they want to emulate; rather, they see themselves better-reflected in the male characters and usually find what they do to be more enticing. When the female characters actually do have fans, their fans often don't even like them for the traits that they actually have or show, but rather for the ones that fans project onto them or imagine that they have offscreen. (For example, MCU!Black Widow's alleged ability to scare people never actually appears in the films, at least not as of October 2018.)

In the interest of doing better and making female characters that are genuinely just as complex and engaging, here's a list of the odd things I've noticed in female characters over the last while. Of course there are exceptions (particularly in children's entertainment), but by and large these traits seem to be really common in mainstream movies and shows aimed at general audiences.

Table of Contents

Their motivations and goals are relatively small and self-centered.

Many male characters are motivated by idealism or compassion. If they see people being hurt or wronged, their conscience compels them to do something about it. Captain America/Steve Rogers, Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, the Tenth Doctor, Newt Scamander, and Superman are all good examples of this. These men all act from the heart. They are powerfully principled people who see serving the greater good as a worthy goal unto itself.

Furthermore, pain and trauma is used to motivate male and female characters differently. For men, it doesn't motivate their actions as much as it informs their moral choices. Peter Parker doesn't become Spider-Man to avenge his uncle's death; he becomes Spider-Man because losing his uncle made him realize that actions (or a lack thereof) have consequences. Steve Rogers wants to protect those who can't protect themselves because he spent so many years being weak and knows first-hand how that feels. But for women, their pain doesn't help them decide who they want to be, nor does it help them evaluate the morality of their choices.

On the other hand, many female characters' goals and motivations boil down to some combination of the following:

She has a personal vendetta. Someone has hurt her, and she's got a score to settle. Scarlet Witch/Wanda Maximoff from Avengers: Age of Ultron is an example of this.

She wants to prove she can. She wants to prove she can do it to a family or society who thinks she can't or shouldn't. An example of this is Mako Mori from Pacific Rim.

It's her job/duty. She's simply here because it's her job or duty, nothing more. She has no emotional stake in this, nor any personal principles that led her to choose this job or path over any other. An example of this is Maria Hill from The Avengers.

She wants to find what's missing. She might be looking for her missing family, trying to fill in the details of her mysterious past, or trying to figure out her purpose in life. Rey from the new Star Wars trilogy is an example of this.

She has no other real option. The world will be destroyed if she doesn't do something, or someone close to her will die, or something like that. She's essentially faced with a Hobson's choice, which isn't really a choice at all. An example of this is Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games.

Considering how many people these days genuinely believe that women are only motivated by self-interest or self-preservation, or just mindlessly follow the crowd, this seems like a genuinely bad way to keep on characterizing female characters all the time. While none of these characters are necessarily bad in and of themselves, we rarely get anything else, and that is a problem.

"Smart" and "respectable" female characters aren't allowed to be wacky or silly, or look foolish.

Far too often, female characters who are supposed to be seen as intelligent and competent are only allowed to be serious and practical, and pretty much nothing else.

Let's take a look at male scientists versus female scientists in fiction. Male scientists are often allowed to use their discoveries and research for fun. For example, Tony Stark gets to build adorable robots and use his flying suit for recreational purposes. Female scientists, on the other hand, usually only collect data for some vague unspecified purpose until it turns out it's useful for solving something. The only thing Jane Foster actually does with her discoveries is use them to stop the bad guy in Thor: The Dark World. She doesn't make space art. She doesn't figure out how to build a personal teleporter and use it to make late-night beer runs. She doesn't post space jokes on Twitter.

And speaking of jokes, fiction frequently treats them as anathema to femalekind. How many female characters can you think of who genuinely like to make people laugh? How many of them actually laugh at their boyfriends' jokes outside of a romcom? Despite both of these things being positive and healthy, you rarely see it. Instead, female characters often don't make jokes that aren't at someone else's expense, and jokes that their love interests or partners make will be met with stone-faced disapproval. (Realistically, this is a surefire sign of an unhealthy relationship.)

The female characters who are shown to be silly, wacky, or foolish are typically ones that we aren't supposed to take very seriously, even if we are supposed to care about them. Such characters tend to be limited to the roles of quirky, ditzy sidekicks who never accomplish much beyond annoying and occasionally assisting the main character. This is where Darcy Lewis stands in relation to Jane Foster. Meanwhile, Tony Stark is allowed to be silly, wacky, and foolish, and be the main protagonist of three movies.

Women have to deal with being forced into enough dichotomies already; "funny/respectable" doesn't need to be another one.

They aren't allowed to have genuine flaws and weaknesses, either.

Many male protagonists have a wide variety of realistic flaws and weaknesses. They might be arrogant or rude, they might accidentally say the wrong thing, or they might exhibit some of the the more bothersome symptoms of some mental condition or other. They might struggle with physical disability, or short tempers, or noxious mental programming that rears up when they're stressed out.

This makes them all the more relatable to those of us who share these flaws, no matter our gender. We feel sympathy for them, we feel our personal struggles acknowledged, and we become all the more invested in their stories because if they can make it, maybe so can we.

Female characters, on the other hand, rarely have problems like these. If they do have these problems, they rarely cause the kind of complications that we have to deal with in real life, which makes them less relatable.

Sometimes their flaws are framed as virtues. For example, if she's an honest-to-God control freak, it's not a "flaw" because the alleged "manchild" in her life (typically an ADHD-coded man who hasn't yet had his sense of fun and wonder crushed out of him) supposedly "needs" her to keep him reined in. This kind of thing certainly can't be helping anyone's perception of women as fun-crushing killjoys, and nobody should believe that anyone who makes a hobby out of crushing someone's happiness is a good romantic partner. (If anything, that kind of behavior tends to be found in predators.)

Likewise, female characters who gleefully cause others emotional distress by stomping all over their boundaries are often framed as "strong and empowered." In reality, boundary-stomping is abusive behavior, and is often a sign of a predatory personality.

So not only do nonexistent or unacknowledged flaws make female characters harder to relate to, but they also help create a false impression that women are just naturally flawless and that there's something profoundly wrong with them (or you!) if they aren't. This is the kind of nonsense that leads to women being held to higher standards of behavior than men and erases the reality of women sometimes being perpetrators of abuse. Lose/lose, nobody wins!

Their emotions are limited.

Many female characters have an extremely limited or blunted range of emotions. One example of this is what I call the Moffat Method of Writing "Strong" Characters. It's a simple formula: you take away a character's capacity to feel things like fear, guilt, sadness, and sympathy, and then you fill the void with nonstop quipping, button-pushing, and boundary-stomping. (Sometimes they're allowed to feel these things under rare circumstances; such as when the fate of a male protagonist is uncertain, or to try and show that that these characters really are girls/women despite their "tough" exteriors, as if emotions like these are uniquely female.)

So what's the problem? Well, as stated before, trying to frame abusive and predatory behavior as a sign of strength is really messed up. Nobody should be led to believe that engaging in abusive/predatory behavior is just what "strong" people do. (If you're not sure how to establish that a character is strong, On Writing Empowered & Empowering Characters has information.)

Another problem is that it prevents these characters from having authentic emotions we can actually relate to and empathize with. The guy who is obviously terrified of the killer aliens but is going to do his best to fight them anyway is often a lot more relatable than the gal who just coldly smirks at them before fearlessly marching out to kick their asses.

Another way female characters' emotional range is limited is when they're forced into the "strong and stoic" archetype. They rarely laugh, cry, or show any strong emotion other than anger. They're a little like the 80s-90s ideal of a strong male hero, only in female form. The problem is, these characters are just boring and hard to relate to, and they often quickly fade into the background when surrounded by livelier characters, most of whom are male.

Keep in mind, the 20th century normalized the idea that men shouldn't have "weak" and "feminine" emotions like those mentioned earlier, and look where it got them: nowhere good! It led to unhealthy emotional repression that helped create what's now known as toxic masculinity. Why would we want to even imply that women shouldn't have these feelings, either? Shouldn't the goal be to establish that everybody has emotions like these and that they don't make you weak?

Their backstories are limited and two-dimensional.

Female characters' backstories tend to come in three flavors: Nothing Ever Happened To Me, I Lost My Mom/Dad, and My Childhood Was The Worst Ever. (Sometimes 1/2 and 2/3 are combined.)

We rarely see female characters who grew up in complicated situations that left them with mixed feelings well into adulthood. For example, while many male characters have conflicted, complicated relationships with their fathers, female characters rarely have this with their mothers. A male character might have had a mostly okay childhood except for that one bully who left him with unresolved issues, but you're not likely to see the same kind of thing in a female character.

Real women often have complicated and mixed up backstories. They have issues stemming from things that happened in childhood, and they have mixed feelings about events and people from way back when. They had to push through uncomfortable situations and make tough choices. It's little wonder that many find the guy who agonizes over whether he can make his very flawed father proud a lot more relatable than the gal who lost her mother at age ten and decided to become a nurse.

This is not to say that their backstories should be exact clones of the ones male characters often get, but rather that they should have the same level of complexity and ambiguity more often.

They aren't allowed to own being gross and disgusting.

Being gross and disgusting at some point is part of human existence, but fiction likes to keep women clean and pretty as much as possible. Exceptions tend to only happen when something is seriously wrong, such as when they've been captured by the bad guys or are too traumatized or ill to function normally.

You probably won't see a relatively well-adjusted woman who gets into a fight, gets punched in the nose, beats her opponent anyway, then goes home and cleans herself up and makes a joke about looking like a spoiled mushroom.

You probably won't see a woman wake up and get up to make coffee in ratty pajamas, mussed hair, and no makeup to hide her bleary eyes. You won't see her stare blankly at someone trying to talk to her before her brain is engaged.

You probably won't see a teenage girl grab a near-empty bag of chips so she can devour the crumbs at the bottom before anyone else does, and proceed to get said crumbs all over her face.

Real girls and women aren't always groomed and well-mannered, so it's hard to see ourselves in characters who are inexplicably like this all the time. Getting to see them have those messy moments and just not care is a lot of fun and makes them feel a lot more real.

They are frequently used as negative authority figures, but rarely as positive ones.

Whenever the plot calls for an abusive or obstructive authority figure to give a main character grief, a woman is often chosen to fill this role. She'll usually fit into one or more of the following archetypes:

The ice queen: Cold and emotionless, she constantly dismisses the the main characters' needs and concerns because she has no concern or sympathy toward them.

The bitter snit: She's got a huge chip on her shoulder and makes a job of getting in the way simply out of spite. Whatever the main character wants to do, she'll often put her foot down on just because she can.

The academic snob: The type of person who thinks that academic knowledge is prescriptive, not descriptive, and thinks that everyone who disagrees with her academic knowledge is an idiot.

The fun hater: Often found criticizing and trying to shut down whatever the protagonists want to do, even if it's harmless or none of her business.

Even though men are fully capable of behaving like this, male control freaks and moral abusers in positions of authority are relatively rare, especially if the protagonist is male.

In summary!

Also, you might be interested in:

Representation: Why It Matters, & How To Do It Well
Things We Need More In Female Characters & Their Stories
Tips 'N Stuff To Create, Write, & Draw Better Female Action Heroes
Harmful Myths YA Fiction Could Stand To Counter
How To Challenge Toxic Masculinity As A Writer

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