The Woman Question

Vox had a very Voxy article yesterday, Voxsplaining that “Pop culture is filled with brilliant female characters who know everything and can do anything — except save the day. They require their less-accomplished male friends to do that,” and complaining that these hyper-competent female characters were not the heroes of their tales.

Look, not to get all Aristotle on you, but drama is not about perfect characters being perfect. For some unknown reason, though, 21st century pop-culture heroines tend to be perfect. Take for example, Star Wars: A Force Awakens. Megan McCardle articulates the primary dramatic problem with Rey, the female protagonist of the film, as follows:

The answer is that of course Rey is a Mary Sue, though not in this case for the author; she is a stand-in for every 10-year-old who imagined themselves into the Star Wars universe, and particularly the women who wanted to be Luke, not Princess Leia. J.J. Abrams has taken all the skills of the main characters of the first “Star Wars” cast and rolled them into one: She is a pilot as good as Han Solo, also a mechanic; she is apparently fluent in multiple languages; she is a terrific hand-to-hand fighter, a good shot and, oh, she knows how to use a lightsaber the first time she picks one up. Also, mid-movie, she discovers that she can do Jedi mind tricks without having any reason to know that they even exist — apparently not content to make her Luke, Abrams also had to make her her own Obi-Wan Kenobi.

What Abrams left out is twofold: first, the sense that these are skills that have to be trained and developed, not simply inborn traits one has, like blue eyes. Second, and more important, he’s omitted the weaknesses that made the original characters so appealing: the genuine streak of nasty self-interest in Han Solo, Leia’s bullheaded arrogance, Kenobi’s wistful sense of being past his prime, Luke’s needy, whining sense of entitlement to greater things than he has gotten from the universe so true to actual teenage boys.

Rey, by contrast, is kind, self-sacrificing and, along with everything else she has going for her, the ineffable moral center of this little universe. Her “weakness,” which feels bizarrely tacked on and utterly out of character, is that she’s afraid of the revelation she gets when she first touches Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber. Why is she like this? What regrettable human tendency or personal life history has made her recoil from it? Ummm, who knows? Rey has no personality traits that are not there to move the plot forward, or attach her halo to her head more firmly.

It’s not like pre-feminist literature didn’t have lots of great female protagonists- Medea and Antigone, Juliet and Beatrice, Anna Karenina and Becky Spark, Nora Torvald and the Prozovora sisters, Emma Woodhouse and Elizabeth Bennett and Dorothea Brooke and on and on. What unites these characters is three things:

a) We empathize with them.

b) They make mistakes, sometimes very bad mistakes.

c) We empathize with them most when they make mistakes.

If Vox is wondering why perfect female characters aren’t given leading roles: the perfection is the problem.

(Obviously, contemporary drama has good-in the dramatic sense- female characters, too:  Ellie Miller in the first season of Broadchurch comes to mind. But she’s also a perfect- in the dramatic sense- example of a, b, and c above.)


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