Token Female Character Syndrome

We have a problem with female characters in media. Well, we have many problems with female characters in media, but the one I’ve been seeing a lot is what this NPR article about Age of Ultron and Black Widow terms a “scarcity problem”. There are so few female characters in movies and television that any story or character arc of a female character will be relentlessly scrutinized and criticized. The character and the writing choices will be lauded by some, reviled by others, and the vicious arguments will nearly eclipse the character altogether until the studio or network points to the kerfuffle and uses it as an excuse to not give us more female characters because we’re never happy with them.

Currently I’m seeing this with all the female characters in Age of Ultron, and I’m seeing it with the reaction to the new Supergirl show. I see it in the reactions to shows like Fresh Off the Boat and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, I saw it in the reaction to Gone Girl, Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy, and Pacific Rim’s Mako Mori.

What happens is this: A show or movie (or even a trailer) with a prominent female character comes out, people watch it, and people start talking about it. And people, inevitably, decide the female character’s story arc or characterization is unacceptable.

Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road

For some people, she’s unacceptable because, like the recent Mad Max’s Imperator Furiosa, she’s “too feminist” (and by that they mean a woman who has her own storyline, own motivations, or just, like…talks)

But for those of us who advocate feminism, the female character is unacceptable because she is too tough, or not tough enough. She’s too hung up on her infertility, or too much invested in her home life. Or she’s too emotionless, too smart, or too emotional and not smart enough. She is too affected by her traumatic experiences, or not enough affected by her traumatic experiences.

Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck in Gone Girl
Not feminist?

If sexuality is a part of her character, she’s playing into the trope of women defined by their sexualities. If she’s not sexual, she’s missing a huge part of what makes characters human. She is unacceptable because, in the case of the new Supergirl, she’s too “girly.”  She is, in the case of Gone Girl, a “bad role model.”

If she has flaws, she’s not perfect enough. If she is a flawless character good at everything, she’s unrealistic and a Mary-Sue.

No matter what she is, she is not enough. Or perhaps she is too much. She’s not right.

And this is because, mostly, there’s only one of her.

Guardians of the Galaxy cast, four male characters and one female character
I am beginning
Pacific Rim cast, 6 men and 1 woman
to sense
Avengers cast, six men and one woman
a pattern…

This is the crux of the problem. If there’s only one woman, she must be everything to everyone, but since that’s impossible, there is criticism from every corner imaginable. Back in 2014 Eliana Dockerman wrote about this in her Time article about Gone Girl, saying

“Because there are so few strong women in literature (or TV shows or movies) the burden falls on the writers who do write about women to make them represent all of womanhood.”

I call this Token Female Character Syndrome. TFCS can manifest in media as the female character who must be everything anyone wants of her, and therefore ceases to be a character who feels remotely like a real person. But more broadly, TFCS is less about the female character herself, and more about the reaction to her. We are so willing to tear media representations of women apart, because they are not what we specifically want them to be, or what we specifically think is the perfect representation of women. And this is a huge problem.

Because there are so few female characters, we are, some of us, unwilling to let the female characters we do have be what they are. There is a vast spectrum of women, of womanhood, of femininity (or even lack thereof), and of course the entirety cannot be represented by one character.

Dockerman goes on to say

“[It’s] simply not fair. We should have all sorts of women in our novels — just as we have all sorts of men.”

So perhaps, in our viewing and criticisms of media, we could try letting female characters stand on their own, and not represent all of womanhood, just as we do not expect the men to represent all of manhood.

I realize that this is actually impossible, as no media piece or character is removable from its context, nor can we remove our own mindset and criticisms from the broader cultural context. It’s impossible because the reality is that there are so few female characters, compared to the numbers of male ones. It’s impossible because sometimes the female characters are written badly, or inconsistently, as a plot device or an accessory, and not actually as a person (I’m looking at you, writers of Iris West from The Flash).

I’m not saying we shouldn’t criticize and disagree, because we absolutely should. That’s how progress is made. I’m not saying there aren’t problems, because oooo are there ever problems. Most media is written by men, so nearly every female character is filtered through male perception. And this doesn’t even touch on the problem of internalized misogyny that women carry with them, which also expresses itself in media. But if we constantly over-scrutinize and shit on female characters for not being exactly what we want them to be, we run the risk of everyone being so terrified to create different kinds of women that we’ll never get to see what different kinds of women look like in media.

So maybe next time you see a prominent female character on TV or in a movie that you don’t like, that you take issue with, that you don’t identify with or you believe is not what a female character should be, ask yourself why you think that female character should only be a certain thing. Maybe consider that while you don’t like the direction the writers took the character, or the show, that there is someone out there who is crying because it’s the first time they’ve seen someone they can identify with onscreen, and they identify with her for the exact reason you hate her.

Maybe if you see that there is only one female character, and you don’t like her, try not to shit on her so much and instead demand more female characters.

One character can’t be everything to everyone. If she’s not for you, she’s probably exactly what someone else needs, and we all deserve to see ourselves reflected.

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