Yesterday, I read a rather excellent article over a Comics Alliance titled “Smart, Nice and Sassy: ‘Good Girl’ Role Models Make Boring Heroes.” The central thesis of the article was that, yes, we’re getting more great female characters in comics these days, but is it possible they’re a little too great? More specifically, Juliet Kahn seemed to be suggesting that most comic heroines are designed to be great “role models” rather than interesting and vibrant characters. And while I don’t agree 100% with her point, I have to admit that it got me thinking and not just about comics.
I think we can all agree that there’s a real need for better female representation in media. A couple months ago FiveThirtyEight published an analysis which showed that film and television, far from pushing a progressive agenda onto society, actually is more gender-segregated than the world it purports to represent. Meanwhile, major superhero franchise drivers Marvel, DC, and Fox are continually dragging their feet to introduce female characters to their film and television branches despite the fact that they’ve planned out over twenty-five films for the rest of the decade. So there’s no question that any increase in female representation is an improvement over what we have.
All the same, I feel Kahn does have a point. As a society we love brooding, damaged men with complex personalities that cross the spectrum from heroic to ignoble and back again. That’s as true in comics as anywhere else: Bruce Banner, Matt Murdock, Oliver Queen, Bruce Wayne... the list goes on. Even the earnestly good Clark Kent has recently been re-envisioned (though not entirely successfully) in this mold. But what about women? For all the new heroines Marvel and DC have introduced recently, how many of them have a genuinely ugly or dangerous side?
Part of this, of course, is probably because writers don’t want to depict female heroes in a negative light when real-life sexism remains a prevalent problem. It’s all too easy for people to view a female hero with issues as indicative of something else, to see a woman with insecurities as meek or one who loses her temper or is occasionally cruel as threatening, either of which can play to negative stereotypes about women. But as well-intentioned as such attempts to avoid controversy are they are a bit paternalistic; it essentially puts protecting the virtue and image of female characters over allowing them to flourish in the same way male characters often do. Must women, like black men, be “twice as good and half as black (or rather feminine)?”
As a counterpoint, Kahn looks to Harley Quinn, who she notes is one of the most popular female characters in comics right now, quite possibly because she’s one of the most flawed. “She’s goofy and tragic and full of story potential,” writes Kahn. “Her heart is bruised and patched and too big to manage, but she simply cannot shelve it away. It’s ugly. It’s melodramatic. And there’s no character I hear women cite more often as their favorite.” This is all something which others, including io9′s own writer Katharine Trendacosta, have also noted.
I’m not a woman but what Kahn says resonates a lot with me. I personally am drawn a lot more to flawed and often morally compromised characters than I am the paragons of virtue. That isn’t to say I don’t enjoy the latter—Steve Rogers is one of my favorite characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and indeed, I prefer the virtuous hero to the purely selfish antihero)—but they’re more the exception than the rule. The kinds of characters I’m drawn to most often are those who are wounded in some way or another: Bruce Banner, Okabe Rintarou, Erik Lehnsherr, Jaime Lannister, etc. And the same is true for female characters.
One of my favorite characters of all time is Asuka Langley-Soryu, one of the four chief characters in the Japanese television series Neon Genesis Evangelion. Asuka is far and away no one’s idea of a role model (none of the characters in NGE are). As a person she’s beset by many flaws: she’s rude, she has a quick temper, she’s proud to a fault, and she can be pretty jealous of her skills as a pilot of the series’ titular robots, to the point of disparaging her coworkers’ skills routinely. She also has a rather unhealthy crush on a much older man. And none of that ever changes.
But Asuka also has genuinely admirable qualities. She’s skilled at what she does, for one thing, and that’s enough for some people. But she’s also passionate about what she does and is self-driven in a way few of the characters in Evangelion are, having chosen from a very young age that piloting was what she wanted to do. It wasn’t thrust on her like it was on Shinji, nor did she passively accept it as her role in the way Rei does. It’s what she chose for herself. And although she’s often harsh in her dealings with others, she can also be caring, as a few episodes show when she compliments Shinji on his violin skills, makes friends with her classmate Hikari, or bonds with Misato over their respective pasts.
Without going into too much detail, a later episode also reveals that a lot of Asuka’s emotional problems are the result of a traumatic experience she suffered at a very young age, leaving her distrustful of others and convinced of a need to project strength and what she perceives as “maturity” to the rest of the world. Far from the apathetic and selfish person she appears to be as a teenager, Asuka is revealed to be far more sensitive and vulnerable than she lets on. It’s a level of complexity you don’t usually see in female protagonists, who are, as Kahn points out, often “smart, nice, [and] vaguely sassy.” Rather, it’s more akin to the characterization you’d see for a male character.
There’s other examples, of course, but they are a rarity. For every Asuka there’s a dozen Gregory Houses or Sherlock Holmeses. For every Harley Quinn there’s a dozen Spikes. For every Starbuck there’s a dozen Han Solos. When it comes to female antiheroes (or, for that matter, female villains) the field’s even less impressive than when it comes to regular heroines. And that’s a shame. Because there’s so much more to the human experience than being a role model.