I’ve always been pretty easily riled up over gender inequality stuff. My first memories of it involve this vague sense that the princess movies I watched all the time were missing something. Why were there so many girls who wanted to marry a prince? What was up with all the dresses? Where were their weapons? Why didn’t they stand up to people? Why did they always end up getting married, instead of living their lives singing and riding horses and reading books? That seemed like the way to go, if you’d asked Very Small Megan.
Then there were the toy aisles, with their pointedly labeled “BOY” and “GIRL” sections. My beloved LEGO sets always landed in the “BOY” section, along with STAR WARS toys and microscopes. The LEGO sets contained almost no female figurines. The craft kits I also loved were over in the “GIRL” section, and damn it, everything that came inside was pink. I loathe pink.
It did not get much better as Small Megan became Big Megan, and I’m sure I’ve discussed my issues with the way female characters were presented in my beloved science-fiction and fantasy. Side characters, love interests, or bait for the male heroes. So on and so forth. I could rant about it all day, but I shan’t.
As the years progressed, and our culture shifted, and I grew up, I saw things change. STAR WARS got a female Jedi, a girl named Rey who could stand up for herself as well as she could swing a lightsaber. We had Katniss Everdeen, an imperfect but popular heroine who wouldn’t have seen the big screen at all during my childhood. We have Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel. It feels like things are progressing, like I’m finally seeing some of my childhood dreams fulfilled. Quite possibly the most exciting moment for me in a movie theater, ever, was the moment when Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber flew into Rey’s hand. I’d been waiting for a moment like that my entire life, and I knew it was important, but I’d had no idea how incredibly validating it would be when it actually happened.
At the same time – well, there’s the blowback, and in some ways things are getting muddied. Don’t you feel like you’re being pandered to, people ask when a whole group of lady heroes take on Thanos together in AVENGERS: ENDGAME? You can just feel the board meeting that brought this about, right? They want female butts in the seats – this market ignored for so long finally matters. Let’s give them their moment, too. And yes, I can see the heavy hand of greedy executives in what was otherwise a powerful moment. And part of me argues that we’ve had whole teams of male superheroes taking on these bad guys up to now, and no one questioned it. Why does a moment when a team of ladies stands up become controversial? Don’t we deserve this, no matter how intentional and structured it feels?
But then there’s that icky feeling that the only reason it happened is because it’s good for sales. Ugh.
It’s not like any of this is new. The conversation is just getting bigger, including more people. I used to feel pretty lonely giving my, “Girls totally are strong enough to swing a sword, and besides, when was the last time you kicked any Sith butt, buddy?” speech. These days at least I don’t stand alone, and there are some examples of female characters who manage to strike a chord, while also being powerful.
But the kind of story I really crave is rare.
Let’s go back.
So, a series often held up as being super girl-power during my high school years was the Lioness Quartet. It was a series by Tamora Pierce, about a girl who wanted to be a knight in a world where that was for boy’s only. She switches places with her brother when hr absentee father sends them off to school. Alanna’s brother becomes a mage, and she cross-dresses for the next few years, while hauling her drunken history teacher to his room after dinner, jousting, and falling in love with some extremely suspect characters. In so many ways, this story was immensely satisfying to me. A girl with a sword, becoming a knight, conquering what everyone in her world said couldn’t be conquered. There was romance, but it wasn’t the point. Alanna’s story was her own.
But, the whole point of Alanna’s arc was still about fighting to be accepted as a warrior. She was a girl, girls weren’t allowed, but she was going to tear down all the signs that said so and teach the boys that yes, she was. And I won’t argue against it. That’s absolutely a story that I needed. In a lot of ways it reflected my reality. Mrs. Lightner, my first grade teacher, told me on no uncertain terms that nice girls like me did not play in the dirt. My high school band instructor made very clear that the female assistant band commanders were outranked by the boy assistant band commanders, regardless of ability. And those were just the big, flashing signs that said, “Girls don’t act like that!”. There were plenty of more subtle messages, and I was watching them, and yeah, they made me mad. And I needed that energy of those characters who were dealing with the same kinds of problems, and standing up to them.
But I also think these are, by their nature, narrow. When every single powerful lady in books and movies shows up to say, “Yes, I can!” then women are still being defined in a narrow way. We’ve added one more category, rather than the full spectrum of what women can and should be.
And as female characters become ever more present in genres where once they were rare, more of this is popping up. The most recent arc for Captain Marvel to hit comic stands was all about a dastardly and hugely misogynistic dude trying to find a lady worthy of being his bride. He trapped Captain Marvel in his little pocket universe, along with a bunch of other superhero women, and then pitted Captain Marvel against Rogue. I enjoyed the story, and the work that it was doing, which is very necessary. Captain Marvel and Rogue are two long-standing female characters with a very dodgy history. For them to confront some of their demons and reach common ground, breaking down some of those women vs. women story structures that were once so prevalent, isn’t something to sneer at. But at the same time, when the story is structured so narrowly, becoming about girls vs the system, we end up with a narrative that only displays female power in resistance to obstacles that are trying to hold it back simply because it’s female.
Like I said, we need that. But we need something else, too.
We need those stories – and these are all too rare – in which a female character is powerful, but her arc isn’t about her gender. We need worlds in which females are accepted for the entire spectrum of things that they can be, without question, and then they move through their stories without the need to prove themselves worthy as a lady-person. And for that matter, we need stories in which male characters are allowed to be everything they can be, too, without question or ridicule. It’s great to see the world as it is – even necessary. But it’s important to see the world as it could be, too.
Once upon a time, a farmboy on Tatooine was given his father’s lightsaber, and he embarked on a journey to save a princess. A hobbit inherited a ring, and it had to be destroyed, so he did it. Across the landscape If science fiction and fantasy, we have so many tales of the small becoming great. I think we will know that we have truly arrived when a girl can embark on an adventure without having to shout, Yes, We Can Do This, Too!