Posts Tagged ‘female characters’

Princess. What comes to mind when you hear or read the word? For me, two things instantly pop into my head; as a child, like many little girls, I liked princesses. I kid you not when I say that I liked their frilly dresses, but more than that I liked stories about girls. While in many stories princesses are not the main character, sometimes they are the main female character or one of few. Yet once I became old enough to pay attention to what happened in the story I remember feeling underwhelmed and disappointed. How excited could I get if the good princesses don’t do anything besides wait for someone else to do something? That leads me to my second thought; princess characters have become one of the most old and tired stereotypes for girls.

But despite princesses typically being horribly stereotypical, that’s not always the case. It’s become my mission/hobby to seek out princess characters that defy the limited and lame definition of what princesses have come to stand for in fiction. I’m going to introduce you to some of those that I’ve found and explain how they break that mold in a new series of posts. However, before I go showing off characters who break that mold, what is it that’s so bad about the usual princess character? Because Disney’s princesses demonstrate my point so well, I’ll use them as my princess archetypes.

 Cinderella, Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), and Snow White–the 1st batch.

These three are “perfect” in the traditional sense, and when I say “traditional” I mean ye ol’ times traditional; they are all kind, beautiful, and subservient. On the topic of subservience, notice that none of these princesses have a strong will. Snow White and Aurora didn’t do any kind of rebelling and the extent of Cinderella’s defiance was sneaking out to go to a ball. On that last note, notice that, despite the abusive behavior of her step-sisters and step-mother, Cinderella never confronts them. All three princesses have the emotional range of happy and sad because a good girl should never get angry.

As for their few skills, they are skills that are considered feminine such as cleaning and singing. They’re not shown to be particularly intelligent, but in previous centuries intelligence in a woman was not seen as a virtue. (Frankly, it hasn’t been too long since the U.S. as a society began valuing smarts in women instead of teaching them to dumb themselves down.)

Finally, the princesses’ problems are not due to any fault of their own. Both Snow White and Cinderella suffer because of the jealousy of other women and Aurora is cursed by a witch out of spite for her family. These three princesses’ problems only emphasize their own virtue and the vice of others. The most these girls could be accused of is naivety. In addition, none of them solve their own problems; a prince appears and does that for them. So, to sum it up, the earliest Disney princesses symbolize the female who is pure and good yet frail and entirely dependent on men. These princesses are unrealistic, outdated ideals of what a good girl should be so, there’s really not a lot of good I can say about them. Honestly, they’re just plain boring.

Ariel (The Little Mermaid), Jasmine (Aladdin), and Belle (Beauty & the Beast)–the 2nd batch.

These princesses are definitely improved from their predecessors. They actually seem to have souls and take action throughout the course of their stories rather than just being pretty dolls collecting dust on a shelf. Yes, they are pretty and kind, but there’s more to them; Ariel is adventurous, Jasmine is rebellious about her fate as a princess, and Belle has a thriving brain behind her pretty face that she wants to use. Each of them also confronts at least one person at some point, meaning they’re not punching bags.  However, there are issues that set them up as typical princesses.

Ariel gives up things she loves (i.e. her voice and family) to be with a guy. There are two ways to look at her giving up her world to be with her love: 1) Ariel was dissatisfied with her world and wanted something new thus it wasn’t just about the guy, or 2) this course of action has an underlying message that a girl should give up anything for a guy she loves. The thing that makes me lean toward the latter is Ariel’s deal with the sea witch. With this deal, she not only gives up her world but also her voice and it’s not like she’d been dreaming of getting rid of that. The other point to note is she makes that deal not with adventure of the new world in mind, but of meeting a man she’s never met. Not having a voice also means that Prince Eric, her love, judges her only on her looks and general nature, but not on what she thinks.

Jasmine becomes the damsel in distress of Aladdin’s story. She tries to run away, she gets in trouble, Aladdin saves her. Jafar, the villain, tries to get the royal family’s power and Aladdin saves her and her family. And of course, like those classic stories mentioned above, Aladdin also saves Jasmine from her biggest problem–marrying someone she doesn’t love. Granted, Jasmine at least isn’t such a boring damsel in distress like the previous three, but that element is still present in her story. Obviously, her story also revolves around love.

Finally, I have the least problems with Belle, but she is also the good, pretty girl whose story is singularly about love (note that the problem is not that there is a romance but that it is only about romance). Also notice that once again, Belle, Ariel, and Jasmine have no real noticeable flaws and represent ideas of what a girl should be; kind and pretty with a life that revolves around a guy.

So, in this series I will write about princesses (by blood or marriage) who have flaws, stories with more to them than just a romance, take action, and are more than just pretty and kind (if pretty and/or kind at all)   

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Image belongs to Disney

I think it’s safe to say we all have heard the term “damsel in distress” at some point. The term is thrown around all the time and if you’ve read any of my blogs focusing on fiction, you’ll have bumped into it more than once. This character was such a damsel in distress, that character was great because she was so much more than a damsel-in-distress, etc. But what makes a character a damsel in distress? While I was throwing it around so much I realized it’s not always clear to people. On its most basic level, it simple stands for a woman in trouble, but where is the line  between an overworked and harmful stereotype and a capable female character who is simply human and needs help every once and awhile? Characters I deem a damsel in distress are, more often than not, much more capable than older, classic damsels in distress like Sleeping Beauty and Snow White who have become the face of the term.

So, let’s start the discussion. We’ll begin by saying a female character has been kidnapped in some story we’re reading. Here are the big questions I ask myself to decide whether she’s a damsel in distress or a fallible human in need of assistance;

 1. What is her role outside of this rescue? Is she dynamic in the story or stationary?  

Images belong to Nintendo

If a female character exists within the plot as only an object of desire, a prize to be won, and/or does not play an active part in the plot, there’s a major problem. These are the characters that stand on the side lines while stuff happens and others take action. Sometimes, this type is around in the story just to make a male character look good. This obviously applies to some of the worst examples of female characters like those from fairy tales, but many modern works of fiction also sport such types. Look at movies like the Spider-Man trilogy with female characters like Mary Jane who play the hero’s love interest and damsel in distress. While she is a character that was originally created in the 60’s, even in these movies made in the 200o’s Mary Jane remained in this limited role. I’ve also noticed a number of modern female characters that start of capable often have their roles decreased over the course of a story and are reduced into damsels in distress. This doesn’t apply to all damsels in distress, but certainly can.

2.  Does she need help or does she need rescuing (saving)?

Image belongs to Nintendo

There is no problem with a female character needing help nor does it matter if she receives help from a man or another woman.    The distinction between needing help and needing rescue lies here; if a female character’s time of crisis become a means to a male character’s glory a.k.a., the hero is rewarded with a girl, glory, or some prize for his valiant efforts, it’s a rescue. The rescue is often dwelled upon and the male rescuer showered with praise. Rescues emphasize the female character’s helplessness in an effort to make the male rescuer look that much more heroic for saving her from a dire situation.

There you go! The two big questions. If you’re still unclear after this (or just for fun), daydream a little and try switching roles–imagine the female in question as a male and the rescuer as female–to test whether the character in question is reasonable or a damsel in distress. Since we’re so used to seeing male characters in trouble who receive help (not rescue) it should be easy to see which situations are overblown and which are between equals.

It’s very easy to look back on the past and see the stereotypes that existed–heck, it’s like spotting a firework shot off in the middle of the night out in the country. However, it can be challenging at times to spot newer, more subtle renditions. After protest and complaints, societies tone down these stereotypes, but these issues don’t just disappear over night. So, analyze fiction and see if you can spot these underlining characteristics of a damsel in distress in some modern female characters.

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Warning! Some minor spoilers for volumes 5-24 of Naruto!

Well, I’ve already blabbed about Tsunade and Sakura and how they unfortunately fall into some female character pit traps so, I thought it was about time I wrote something positive about the women/girls of Naruto. I don’t know about the rest of you Naruto fans, but when I think of the girls/women of Naruto I think Sakura, Hinata, Tsunade, and maybe Ino. But as I was writing last week, a character that I really never fully appreciated popped into my head: Temari. Remember her, the tough girl from the Hidden Sand Village that tags along with Gaara? She may not be the star of the female characters of Naruto, but she might just be one of the best representations in Naruto of what a good female character in shonen (boys’) manga looks like.

Art by Masashi Kishimoto

When Temari first hits the scene just before the start of a large-scale ninja exam called the Chunin Exams, by mere virtue of the fact that the group that she’s with is intimidating, she becomes a bit scary herself, but she fades into the background in the presence of her comrades (and brothers), Gaara and Kankuro. Kankuro comes off as the tough, scary guy who you don’t want to mess with only to be swiftly upstaged by the seriously blood-chilling Gaara. Temari, on the other hand, stands by coolly, occasionally offering her brothers warnings or plays referee. While her brothers do overshadow her in the beginning, her sit-back-and-bide-her-time attitude makes her look like the most stable of the three in comparison; Kankuro picks a pointless fight with a kid and Gaara ends up looking psychopathic. Temari’s rational and cool behavior also pays testament to what readers later see are some of her major strengths. Her first appearance also shows her as the fountain of knowledge that many shonen girls seem to be and she does do a little batting of the eyes at Sasuke, but she shows a bite to her character that sets her apart from characters like Sakura.

Temari really doesn’t get a chance to show off her skills until the later parts of the Chunin Exam arc. Readers get a hint of her strength when she easily defeats her opponent in a match that decides who goes on to the finals, making her the only girl to advance, but it is not until the actual finals that Temari gets to show readers what she’s made of. When she finally does, it’s an exciting match between her and the hidden genius strategist of Naruto’s friends, Shikamaru. I loved this match-up for two reasons: 1) It’s a match between a girl and a guy. Too often do story writers of all medias restrict women to go up against women and men to go up against men. No, it doesn’t always happen, but it’s common enough that I find the former scenario more unusual. 2) By pitting Temari against such a brilliant mind, it shows off her strategical skills as well. Despite Shikamaru’s muttering about how a guy can’t lose to a girl and a guy can’t go around hitting a girl, it ends up being an interesting match between two very keen characters.

Art by Masashi Kishimoto/Translation by Mangareader.net

Art by Masashi Kishimoto

 I want to stop here and bring up something up about Temari’s character: her ruthlessness. As Temari establishes herself, she comes off as tough and even ruthless toward many of the other characters. When I first read through the Chunin Exam arc of Naruto I wasn’t a fan of Temari’s because of that; however, looking at it now I actually like this aspect of her character. Temari has lived in a tough environment and, when all this is taking place in the story, she’s in the middle of a tough situation and Naruto and his friends are her enemies. (It would be strange to say the least if she had frolicked around, giggling and making friends with everyone.)  Temari is certainly not the only female character that takes on an antagonist role, but she’s the only one that returns as an ally to use her powers alongside Naruto and the bunch. This allows readers to see her toughness as an asset. Yet she isn’t one of those female characters we’re seeing more of in fiction where they end up feeling like the Terminator (aka a male stereotype) in a women’s body. She’s tough, but she’s also definitely a woman.

The other wonderful thing about Temari is she is the only girl so far to have successfully protected a guy in Naruto. Thank you, Temari! Because, seriously, if these girls are supposed to be comrades shouldn’t they be able to aid a comrade?

Interestingly enough, she comes to the aid of none other than Shikamaru who can’t help but make some remark about men and women. Temari has a few words to say on that matter as seen in the picture below.

Art by Masashi Kishimoto/Translation by Mangareader.net

Honestly, after I thought about it, how could Temari not join the ranks of my favorite shonen manga female characters? She stands on her own, undefined by the male characters around her, and doesn’t fall into any female character pit traps (if you want to know about some of those, check out my posts on Tsunade and Sakura.) She’s not the star of the show, but in the limited times she has appeared, Temari has managed to make a definitive mark amongst her fellow female characters.

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Warning!! Some minor spoilers for Naruto!

Art by Masashi Kishimoto

Naruto, Sasuke, and Sakura. Three names that are highly popular in the manga/anime community. These are the names of three characters from the ever popular series, Naruto. Naruto, the protagonist of the series starts off the oddball kid striving to gain acknowledgment, Sasuke begins as the cool and handsome type who excels at anything he tries, but has a certain darkness about him, and finally, Sakura…well, she likes Sasuke. Harsh, yes, but this is honestly the first thing we, as readers of the manga or viewers of the anime, know about Sakura. Well, that and that Naruto has a crush on her (even though Sakura wouldn’t give Naruto the time of day in the beginning).

But Sakura actually has a lot of potential. Similar to Hermione from Harry Potter, she is the brainiac of the bunch and she’s eager to let you know it, comprehending some concepts before even genius Sasuke figures it out completely. And while she doesn’t have the brute strength or any special skills (initially) like the guys, Sakura has good control over some of the finer, technical points of ninja training like chakra (a type of energy) control. (For those of you unfamiliar with the story, it takes place in a fantasy world filled with modern ninja.) Sakura teaches Naruto and Sasuke a few things, here and there.

Despite this, Sakura sits on standby through much of the first several volumes of manga. There are a few moments of glory (Sakura showing up both Naruto and Sasuke at training then essentially teaching them how she did it being the best one), but mostly, she gawks over Sasuke, snaps at Naruto, participates in some dialogues, and stands on the sidelines.

Art by Masashi Kishimoto

Sakura isn’t stupid though, as I’ve said. She knows she’s the weakest link and that Naruto and Sasuke end up being the heroes while she does practically nothing comparatively. She’s just along for the ride. In an almost palpable wave of depression, this dawns of Sakura accompanied by symbolic pictures of her watching the backs of her two comrades. Luckily, Sakura isn’t the type to wallow in despair and do nothing to change the situation. She decides to change; no more looking at Naruto and Sasuke’s backs, she’s going to walk beside them from now on and be a real asset!

Art by Masashi Kishimoto/ Translation by Mangareader.net

Finally, after sitting around uncomfortably for so long, her feet tingling with sleep, she moves somewhat awkwardly at first, but then with new-found energy that bursts forth spectacularly. Following these awakenings are beautiful times for Sakura, her real shining moments and the Chunin Exam arc of the Naruto series showcase a number of them. Protecting Naruto and Sasuke in a moment of crisis and taking on an opponet in a heated brawl of brains and brawns is one example. But while these moments are full of Sakura asserting herself, realizing new potentials, and allowing the readers to get to know her better, they are undermined ever so slightly for me. I say that because even though Sakura tries to protect Naruto and Sasuke (and it is truly intense), she ends up being protected. By the end of the Chunin Exam arc, Sakura is forced to play the damsel in distress more than ever before when she’s under the threat of being killed by another young ninja if Sasuke and Naruto don’t beat him. This kind of sequence of events (gaining power, playing a key part, but reverting back to leaving everything to her comrades) has repeated itself at least twice since the second part of the series began. It’s disappointing as a fan, watching her make a breakthrough, but having this remade Sakura yanked away just when I was getting excited.

Art by Masashi Kishimoto

The other thing that always disappoints me about the Naruto series is that, despite showcasing many times the power of friendship, friendships between females are unfortunately lacking. Sakura’s one female friend that is depicted is her rival in both love and profession and the two constantly fight. It seems their chosen greeting for each other is Ino (the friend) making some jab about Sakura’s forehead (because Sakura believes she has a large one) and Sakura calling Ino a pig. It is revealed that once Ino and Sakura were close friends, but when they realized they both liked the same boy (Sasuke), they changed to rivals. Now as a reader and fan of Naruto I understand that being one’s rival is another way of being a friend in the series, something that is discussed often about Naruto and Sasuke’s relationship, but Naruto also has a lot of normal friends who aren’t rivals, but just plain old friends. It would have been good to see friendship between girls instead of the usual jealousy depicted between girls. I think the other problem is main reason why the two became rivals. Fighting over a guy that doesn’t return either of their feelings just seems a little sad. While Naruto is jealous of Sasuke because he has Sakura’s attention, that is not the main reason the two boys are rivals. It’s true, girls can be mean to each other and fight over guys, but it would be nice if good friendships were shown in fiction because, believe it or not, it does happen.

Art by Masashi Kishimoto

Both of these scenarios undermine great potential that exists and Naruto isn’t the only manga that does this to its female characters. I’m speaking to women and men both when I say wouldn’t it be more interesting if female characters like Sakura could make that extra leap of faith and not depend so much on the male characters around her or if good relationships were shown between girls? If for no other reason, it would be less expected and provide new scenarios. As I wrote this, it occurred to me that another female character in the series, Temari is a good example. She doesn’t appear as often as Sakura and readers don’t get much of a chance to see Temari interacting with other young women, but she stands on equal footing with her male comrades and is not placed in such weakened positions as other female characters in the series. Sounds like I need to do a piece on her!

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