Last week, mlawski at Overthinking It posted a graphic titled The Female Character Flow Chart. I saw it, thought, “Huh, interesting,” and that was that. Then a couple of days later one of my friends posted me towards some criticism of it, leading to discussion and more thinking on my part.
I was surprised to see so much commentary on it because it never occurred to me that the chart was aimed at someone like me, who already spends time thinking about the representation of women in the media. I don’t think good intentions (which I assume mlawski had) or intended audience arguments excuse all flaws (more on those in a second), but I definitely read the chart as intended for readers who hadn’t already thought about women in the media. I could certainly see someone running across this who hadn’t noticed those problematic tropes, the lack of dynamic female characters, or that many, many female characters are defined solely by their relationships to men and children could have an eye-opening, “aha!” moment.
Regardless of who it’s aimed at, I don’t think anyone’s wrong for reading it critically. There are two different braches of criticism that I’ve seen (though I haven’t looked around extensively; I haven’t even read the comments on the original post, since I looked at the post when it first went up, ages before the comment count rose). One is about the privilege and lack of nuance in the chart; the other is about the chart as reductionist when it comes to the characters in question.
The first, I can’t put any better than this post from homasse at deadbrowalking:
A wee bit down on this mess of a flowchart, you will find “Useless Girl” with the example being Uhura from Star Trek.
And why is this fail? Because, once again, feminism shows a woeful lack of awareness of race and the impact race plays.
Uhura was “useless” not because of her gender, but because of race–this chart ignores the political and social situation of when the show was made and the decisions made in regards to her character because she was Black: They couldn’t ever put her in charge of the bridge because people in the south specifically would have flipped out at a black woman being in charge (this was why Ensign Chekov was given the bridge and she never was even though she outranked him).
I’d also like to point out bossymarmalade’s post about Yoko Ono, someone who I consider awesome. It sucks to see people buy into the cultural storyline that she broke up the Beatles, when that is just false, and further, when she’s great.
So yes, I think there are some problems with the chart in that regard, and I’m glad people pointed them out. But I don’t entirely agree with the argument about the chart being reductionist, and diminishing the characters who are on it. Or rather — I do, kind of. The best way to put it was something said by my friend Jess: “Basically, if that one box ending in ‘strong female character’ wasn’t there, I’d like the chart a lot better.”
For me, that sums it up. I think the chart actually branches out into a lot more specifics than I’d use if I made something like it — like, there are multiple slots for women whose motivations come entirely from their kids — but the main problem I have is that any one of these slots/archetypes/clichés/whatever you want to call them can indeed be written well. They can be thorough, three dimensional, story-carrying, awesome characters.
My go-to example is Sarah Connor. Sarah is listed the character representing “Mama Bear.” And when I saw that, I went “a-yup.” TV Tropes has her listed as both a Mama Bear and Action Mom. The first Terminator movie is based on this premise: Sarah Connor must live, because her son saves the world. Not “Sarah Connor must live because she saves the world.” While she’s the awesome character, the series is always about her (at that point unborn) son. When we next see her in T2, she’s had John, and devoted herself to preparing him for his fate — and keeping him safe. When he rescues her, an act that explicitly saves her life, she scolds him for putting himself in danger. She’ll do anything, up to and including sacrificing herself, if it saves John. While Sarah is the protagonist of the first two movies, her motivation — the entire premise of the series — is based on protecting John.
The thing is, though, that Sarah is awesome. In the first movie, she grows from damsel-in-need-of-rescue to bandaging injuries and learning to make bombs. She’s the one who finally destroys the Terminator. She has help along the way, but she’s still a character who learns skills and saves herself. In T2, she’s even more complex. She’s in an institution because people believe she’s insane, but we as viewers know she’s right. But being right doesn’t make her entirely mentally able, though — it’s clear she’s got PTSD or something akin to it (and understandably). She’s amazingly kick-ass (her escape is my favorite sequence in the movie) and morally complex. We know she’d kill someone to save John, but she isn’t able to kill Miles Dyson, though she thinks doing so will keep Skynet from existing — and though she expects herself to be able to do it. And that’s without even getting into the sadly too-short lived TV show.
Sarah Connor is a great character. She’s three dimensional and dynamic. She’s capable of carrying a story. But as much as I’d be all over a the story about how Sarah Connor must live so she can lead humanity in the battle against Skynet, I don’t know that it would necessarily be a better story than Sarah trying to save her son. Different, yes; certainly unusual. But Sarah Connor is both an Action Mama Bear and a great character. (And further, just because Sarah Connor is great doesn’t mean there aren’t other characters who fall into that slot who aren’t poorly written, or that the Mama Bear archetype is never problematic.)
The way I see it, while there are indeed plenty of archetypes and tropes out there that are problematic simply for existing — racist and sexist stereotypes, for example, which come up all too frequently — once you’re beyond those, just because a character (female or otherwise) hits an archetype doesn’t mean the character is poorly drawn.