Creating female characters who are people

Over Thanksgiving, I watched a direct-to-video Disney movie called Super Buddies with my nephew Logan. The main characters are five puppies from the same litter, and in the movie they get temporary super powers from alien technology. It was a cute movie, but despite some obvious efforts to insert “girl power”, it largely falls into the same pattern of minimizing and oversimplifying female characters that we see in so many of our modern stories.

The pivotal characters in the movie are largely male. Four of the puppies are boys; just one is a girl. The kids who own the puppies are the same, and the girl kid owns the girl puppy. The top-billed kid, a boy named Bartleby, and his puppy Budderball are the two main characters.

There are a few incidental female farm animals: two horses, a group of hens and one cow. I only mention them because they talk, but they’re not particularly important. There’s a female TV reporter who gets a few minutes onscreen. And there’s one female alien named Jorala who makes brief appearances at the beginning and end. Otherwise, all the characters are male: Gramps (played by the fabulous John Ratzenberger), Bartleby, the candy shop owner, Sheriff Dan, the sheriff’s deputy dog Sniffer, comic writer/superhero Jack, Captain Canine, the bull who inspires Budderball, the “good” alien Megasis, the “bad” alien Drex, Drex’s assistant Monk-E, and plenty of incidental characters.

Other than the super powered girl puppy, none of the female characters is integral to the plot. Further, all the female characters are either defined by their relationships to male characters or simply by the fact that they are female. The female alien’s purpose is to be the love interest of the “good” alien. (Sure, she’s a princess, but you don’t see her making any decisions that impact the action.) The female puppy, Rosebud, and the female cows continually call each other “girlfriend” and talk about how girls can do anything they want. This may sound empowering on the surface, but ultimately the message it’s sending is that female characters have to prove they are worthwhile by talking about how worthwhile they are. No male character goes around talking about how boys can do anything they want.

While the boy puppies could be considered cheesy archetypes, each one has unique characteristics that define him beyond the fact that he is male. Budderball is the sports puppy; he’s into football. B-Dawg is the cool puppy who speaks in slang and and is into hip hop. Buddha is the spiritual puppy who loves yoga and meditation. Mudbud is the hippie; he’s relaxed and loves to roll around in mud. Meanwhile, Rosebud’s stereotype is “female”: she’s into fashion, she’s “feisty”, and she cares deeply for and is protective of her family. (Her owner is also into fashion. Is fashion the only interest girls can have?)

Rosebud is so defined by the fact that she is female (rather than actually having a personality, even a stereotypical one) that her character profile on reads thus: “Rosebud’s mission in life is girl power. Never one to slow down, Rosebud loves that her Power Ring kicks it up a gazillion notches.” Note that her super power is related to the female stereotype of being “gabby”. She talks fast and a lot; her power is moving at super speed.

The most recent Tropes vs. Women in Video Games from Feminist Frequency, Ms. Male Character, discusses the phenomenon of characters being defined solely by their gender. I definitely recommend it; not only does it explain the issue well, but it includes some examples of how to avoid it when creating characters. I also recommend Parts 1 and 2 of Damsel in Distress for examples of female characters used solely as plot devices for male characters.

I’d like for girls and boys to have some female characters they could want to be like. When I was a kid, there were plenty of male characters I wanted to emulate: Donatello from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Marty from Back to the Future, Lance from Voltron, Cyclops from X-Men. I doubt many boys grew up wishing they could be April O’Neil, Marty’s girlfriend Jennifer or mom Lorraine, Princess Allura, or perpetual love interest Jean Grey. When I was younger especially, I often felt that the female characters were annoying and that people only kept them around because they had to, or because there was some appeal to them I didn’t understand. (As I got older, good female characters started popping up here and there, like Gosalyn in Darkwing Duck and Dot in ReBoot. Gosalyn was such a breath of fresh air after DuckTales’ Webby.)

Ultimately, I would like to see movies and TV shows have a 50/50 male/female split in cast. I’d like the female characters to be just as important to the plot as the male characters. I’d like the female characters to have personalities and interests that go beyond female stereotypes. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a good example of how to do it right. I hope more shows and movies go down that path.


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