I have a confession to make: I can be a bit of a doormat, a people pleaser, a pushover. In the effort to make others happy and/or lacking the backbone to speak my mind, I have a habit of letting others run right over my true wishes and thoughts without so much as a peep of objection. When people ask me, “What do you want to do,” even if I have a preference (which sometimes I just don’t), I smile politely and say, “Oh, whatever you want to do is fine with me.” Or worse, someone will ask me if I’ll do something and, while in my mind, I’m screaming my loathing of the idea, my feeble subconscious automatically moves my lips in the pattern its grown accustomed to and, before I have time to rally my thoughts, its formed the detested words, “Yes.” And with a smile plastered on my face, of course.
So, how is a feminist who’s a confessed doormat like myself supposed to feel when I see a classic doormat female character letting herself be dragged through the course of a story? To be honest, I have mixed feelings. Like everyone else, I like to see characters who I can relate to, even if that means they are not go-get-’em girls who have a healthy amount of backbone at the beginning of the story. While I admire and praise the female characters who get out there and take action, whether that action is starting her own business or taking back a kingdom, I often see more of myself reflected in those female characters who are too nice for their own good and who seem to be waiting for others to make something happen. That has made me hesitate to take the pen against certain characters despite seeing the problems with the messages those characters send.
Of course, just because a female character is passive doesn’t mean I automatically feel something like kinship to her; passive female characters pop up in fiction a fair amount, from classic princesses from fairy tales to modern action flicks and it’s something that I’ve complained about over and over and over and over and over—well, you get the point. But there are times when they strike a cord within me. For example, one famous character who I have a bit of a soft spot for, but who also has some very reasonable complaints lodged against her because of her doormat behavior is Tohru from Fruits Basket. Tohru is a classic doormat at the beginning of the series; always smiling and putting others before her, she is sweet to a fault and will do whatever others ask of her. She’d let herself be tricked and treated poorly if that somehow helps the other person or because she feels she must have deserved that treatment and she apologizes even when she’s done nothing wrong. As unrealistic as that sounds, there is a degree of her character that rings true to me, especially as the series goes on.
The problem lays in the fact that these types of passive heroines reinforce old notions about gender roles and relationships that just aren’t healthy, notions that suggest that an ideal, good woman is someone who does whatever she can to make others happy and does what she is told. These are, of course, very traditional ideas that aren’t as popular as they were, say, in the 50’s, but still manage to surface in fiction as an ideal. To me, doormats are the worst of the breed of passive female characters because they are presented as saint-like in their benevolence in a way that just isn’t possible for even the nicest human being to behave and feel all the time. In addition, in stories like Fruits Basket, she even has people who will stand up and protect her when she won’t herself. Like classic stories like Cinderella, somehow or another the girl with the “purest” heart eventually wins via living happily ever after. Thus, when girls read or watch stories with doormat heroines, they’re supposed to admire and long to be like them with the promise of praise, protection, and “happily ever after” floating around in their heads. Sadly, reality isn’t nearly so sweet and letting others do whatever they want while lowering your own desires and feelings can be dangerous, if not simply unhealthy, whether you are male or female (of course, males who are passive are mercilessly considered “weak” while women still get the message that passiveness can be an attractive trait in them).
However, I don’t think doormat female characters are inherently harmful role models, the likes of which should vanish from fiction. Rather, I think how we present these characters in fiction should be altered. Instead of depicting a complete lack of a backbone as something to be admired in a woman, it should be shown as a type of behavior that some people have, with all the trouble it can bring upon those people. If a doormat character is to be admired, it’s not because she’s so nice that she’ll let others walk all over her, but for, perhaps, her struggle to stand up for herself and gain a backbone. A woman can still be nice without being passive and it takes real effort to flex those assertive muscles after being doormat for some time; as a confessed doormat, that’s one of my biggest struggles. In fact, one of my favorite stories, Fuyumi Ono’s The Twelve Kingdoms: Sea of Shadow, largely centers around the internal struggle of Youko, a girl who has spent her life trying to be non-offensive to others, even if it meant ignoring her true thoughts and feelings. (Edit: Even Tohru is revealed to have problems of her own and she is forced to face those problems down the line, something that adds depth to a doormat character that isn’t always depicted.)
So, show me doormat characters, I won’t deny that they exist in reality, but don’t feed misconceptions about what it means to be a doormat. Better yet, give us doormats some extra inspiration by creating more characters who come to recognize the problem with their own behavior and fight it.