I’ve mentioned before that I am a huge fan of Joss Whedon’s work. As a teenager in the 90’s it was more or less impossible not to get on-board the Buffy bandwagon, and it was such a great bandwagon to be on. A female character who was reasonably attractive, had street smarts (though struggled at school), was articulate, and for the most part didn’t end up in ridiculously revealing outfits (after they got over the season 1 mini-skirt thing). Buffy kicked butt, literally, and was such a great character. Add in Willow, who also took the geek girl role and made it something empowering, and Cordelia, who proved that just because you are vapid doesn’t mean you can’t help save the world, and the story was full of these amazing characters that gave a range of ways to be feminine but not helpless.
One of the things that occasionally bothers me about anime is the lack of female characters that I can really get behind. Part of that is probably the genres I prefer to watch as I know there are more female characters in other genres, but at the same time, it seems odd that whole seasons can pass without a single female character that I actually like or admire. Female characters are there and sometimes they are doing the over-sexualised thing, the damsel in distress thing, or just come off as pretty useless and dead weight to the script. Worse, they exist just to be a love interest or to rotate around a central protagonist who is usually male.
That said, I find the statement that we need more ‘strong female characters’ to be a little bit mis-leading. Not every female character needs to be strong. Imagine how boring a show would be if every character was ‘strong’. And it isn’t as though every male character out there is strong. There are some pretty despicable depictions of masculinity to be found even in shows where there are some fantastic male characters. And that is more my point. What we need are more diverse female characters to be shown.
Shiaryuki from Snow White With The Red Hair is an excellent example of this. She isn’t a ‘strong’ character in that she doesn’t wield a sword and she isn’t a martial artist. Yet when you read descriptions of her, her strength always comes up. She has a strong moral character, strong willpower, strong belief in herself and in her actions, and so she gets the label of strong female character. And while she is an excellent example of a different kind of female character, neither the hero nor the damsel in distress (though at times moving through both roles), I think labelling her strong kind of minimises how interesting she is as a person.
See the strong label puts Shirayuki on the same stage as Erza and Buffy and at the end of the day, if we made this a test of strength, Shirayuki isn’t exactly going to hold her own in a fight against these two. She has a different kind of strength of character and is exceptional, but she isn’t a fighter and we wouldn’t want her to be. Though, while we’re on that note, Erza might be exceptional in her magical and physical strength but with where I’m up to in Fairy Tail it seems her personality is fairly fragile. And that’s fantastic that she is more than just stoic and tough because if that was all there was to her, strong as she might be, she’d be pretty boring.
However, I’m going to move away from red-heads for a moment (otherwise people might think I’m biased towards female characters with absolutely beautiful and stunning scarlet hair) and look at the cast from Princess Principal. This cast is kind of what I am talking about when I said earlier I think we need diverse female characters. None of the members of the squad in Princess Principal are useless and none of them are one-dimensional. Each comes into the squad with back-story, with some skills, some weaknesses, some baggage and motives, and they all contribute to the team. None of them fall into a single descriptor such as damsel-in-distress or childhood-friend (though those descriptors can be applied it isn’t the sum total of their character at any point) and as such the cast are really interesting to watch and the girls are characters I really enjoyed seeing on the screen. They all get moments where they can be strong, and other moments where we see them in a less desirable light as they crumble under emotional pressure, hesitate, or make poor decisions.
And that is where a show like Orange kind of annoyed me. Of the three females who had significant screen time, two of them had almost no development as characters. We don’t know their backstory or their motive, and mostly their interactions could have been cut down to a single character (there was no real reason for two of them as they didn’t add anything all that different from the other – lovers of these characters will now hate me). And Naho as a main character could be summed up as ‘nice, shy girl’. There really wasn’t much else to her. Sure she wanted to help the guy but that was kind of coming from the nice attribute and she wasn’t overly effective at actually helping him. One could argue that the male friend ended up doing all the actual work that succeeded at anything and Naho was merely the catalyst for him to act because he didn’t want to see her unhappy. Basically, I didn’t dislike these characters (well, I did dislike Naho) but I didn’t find anything appealing or memorable about them either and I only remember Naho’s name because I kind of prodded at her in my review of Orange and I can’t remember the other names at all.
Strength comes in many forms and even then, strength isn’t necessarily the only character trait female characters are sometimes missing in stories. Rather than fighting for stronger characters, I think what is really needed is diversity. If there were as many female characters out there and as many types of female characters as male ones, than most of us would be able to find a reasonable selection of characters that we can connect with or find interesting. Not every female character has to save the world or even shoulder the entire emotional burden, but it would be nice if we could see female characters carrying more roles than the traditionally assigned ones in stories. Or even if they have to carry the traditional role of mother and house-wife, at least let them do it with their own touch on the role so that it feels like they are a person and not a stand in for an understood convention.
As always, I’ll turn this over to the readers and ask you what you think.
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