‘I just don’t really like many female characters, you know?’
I see this coming up again and again in discussions about pop culture; this is an attitude I myself once embraced and espoused, like it was a badge of honor to dislike most female characters. I thought I was being oh-so-edgy and critiquing female characters when really I was engaging in an age-old form of misogyny, where people prove how progressive they are by saying they hate women.
I know, it sounds weird. But there is a thing that happens where some feminists declare themselves firmly to be ‘one of the guys.’ I’m not sure if it’s a defensive tactic, designed to flip some attitudes about feminism and feminists, or if there is a genuine belief that being feminist means ‘being one of the guys.’ Once you are ‘one of the guys,’ you of course need to prove it by bashing on women, because this is what ‘guys’ do, yes? So you say that you don’t really ‘connect with’ or ‘like’ female characters you encounter in pop culture.
As I read discussions about pop culture and see responses to female characters, I see a lot of hate for female characters, but not a lot of basis for that hate. Take Tara on True Blood. People say she’s ‘whiny’ and ‘boring.’ These aren’t really criticisms that add in a meaningful way to discussions about Tara; what exactly does it mean to be ‘whiny’? What makes Tara ‘boring’? Are these not criticisms that are weaponized against real women in the real world on a pretty regular basis? Should we not, perhaps, question why we are carrying that over into pop culture discussions, and talk about what that means?
Especially viewed in light of actual critiques of Tara, discussing her role as a black woman on True Blood and the stereotypes she embodies and enforces (for some really great discussions on Tara’s characterization, check out Racialicious), these superficial critiques fall rather short of the mark. Another female character often referred to as ‘whiny’ is Buffy Summers. She’s a character that a lot of people have written about, discussed, and critiqued, often in ways that delve deeply, but it’s the critiques that mainly use casual hatred as a vehicle that I encounter most often.
What’s with this? Why is it that so many critiques of female characters in pop culture basically consist of ‘well, she’s a girl, and I don’t like her’? There are some parallels in the ways we talk about female creators and women characters in pop culture; both are subjected to some truly misogynist, in addition to antifeminist, critiques.
People who claim not to like female characters often have difficulty explaining why exactly. Take a character like Buffy, who is called ‘whiny’ for having opinions and not being shy about them, for occasionally being vulnerable and frightened and sad. It couldn’t possibly be because her friends repeatedly fuck her over, she was yanked out of heaven to save her friends’ butts, she’s been burdened with huge responsibility, and she’s constantly taken for granted, right? She couldn’t possibly have any reason to be angry and to speak up about it, just like Tara has no reason to be angry either. Nope, they’re both just whiny women. Write off, move on.
Female characters are criticized for everything from their sexual practices to the tones of their voices. They’re described as ‘annoying’ while women-centric storylines are dismissed as ‘boring’ and ‘sappy.’ The women characters that most people seem to like have characteristics commonly associated with masculinity; they are physically strong, they are stoic. Critics make a point of disdaining ‘chick flicks’ and television shows that center women and women’s experiences. ‘Ew, gross, it’s all about ladies!’
Much of this baseless hatred of women characters seems to be a reflection of internalized self-hatred. Being ‘emotional,’ for example, is a trait that society says is not acceptable for women, and thus expressions of emotion on the part of women characters are condemned. People will sometimes hide behind claims of ‘stereotyping’ to criticize women characters, arguing that the characters reinforce problematic ideas about women while little realizing that they themselves are reinforcing those ideas; people who claim that characters like Tara are ‘too emotional’ and that this feeds ideas about ‘hysteria’ and women don’t seem to recognize that they are reflecting a commonly held social attitude, that women should not be emotional. They ignore the very real reasons for Tara to be upset; seeing your lover shot and lying in a pool of his own blood, for example, is a very emotional experience.
What is so frightening about women characters who display emotions? What is so terrifying about storylines that center women?