Girls Need Role Models
Media has had a bit of a struggle with trying to come up with usable female characters, particularly in children's programming. The main culprit behind this is the prevalence of The Smurfette Principle. If a male character is the default, then the only characters that can really have "quirks" are male characters, since the majority of the female characters will end up being The Chick. Unfortunate Implications and Double Standard ensue.
Girls Need Role Models is the resulting mantra of trying to deal with this problem. The idea is that by making characters who are actually intended to appeal to girls (instead of just "being around" the normal male characters who appeal to boys), we can avoid the pitfalls associated with The Smurfette Principle. Traditionally, this means portraying female characters as strong and independent.
The pitfalls of this are in the perception. Female leads in shows like, say sitcoms, are still relatively rare. As a result, the foible of a female lead character is going to stand out a lot more than a similar foible from a male lead character on another show. A female character, as long as this is a rare thing, will always stick out for better or worse. Usually for worse—a female character must be better written and have more plausible flaws than her male counterpart. Otherwise, she's likely to stick out as being filled with stereotypes. It's likewise tempting to make the female character better at everything to avoid such allegations.
Obviously, the best way to remedy the problem is to make female characters more common—that way, flaws really aren't that big a deal. The first paragraph singles out Western media for good reason—Japanese comics pioneered the Shoujo Demographic, and shows accessible to girls are ubiquitous today. Girls in Japan don't really have to worry about role models because there are enough characters, good and bad, that they avoid Unfortunate Implications to a greater degree (and yet ironically Japan lags behind the West on many other gender issues). Metrics such as the The Bechdel Test can be used to determine the extent to which the work treats girls and women simply as regular characters.
Compare You Are a Credit to Your Race.
- Wonder Woman was created by a psychiatrist that thought this. Of course, the kinds of girls he had in mind were into bondage and swinging, so one would have to wonder if this is a Broken Aesop...
- Debra Tate wanted Amy Rose portrayed as an example to young girls in Sonic the Comic.
- Comics and music critic Douglas Wolk once wrote a series of reviews under the secret identity of clueless Comics Journal intern Jess Lemon. "Jess" tears into a Vampirella/Witchblade crossover when her apologist brother claims that it has strong female characters: "When people say they want strong female characters, they don't necessarily mean strong in the sense that they can lift things."
- The original Larry Hama-penned GI Joe comic from Marvel is well regarded by feminists, citing that the female character's gender was not a focus, and the fact that their gender did not define them or their positions on the team.
- This review of the first The X-Files movie cites Scully as a great role model for young girls, as she's "[i]ntelligent, strong, and determined."
- Star Wars: Princess Leia is often hailed by fans and critics as a breakthrough female role model. Let's count the ways: In the first movie, she has a rather traditional "role"—the object of a rescue—but acts absolutely nothing like any female has in a similar role in a movie—she takes over her own rescue mission, for one thing. In the second movie she busts herself and her friends out of a heavily-guarded stronghold with a BFG before doubling back to rescue her brother. And then by the third movie, she winds up rescuing her lover from a Hutt. Repeat: the princess rescues the pirate from a dragon. Which she then kills barehanded, while said lover is incapacitated. And she drags her brother on a shoot-'em-up speeder chase after the bad guys. Basically, Leia broke just about every single rule regarding female characters in the whole book.
- Padme Amidala has her big career, can fight with the Jedi and clone troopers and refuses to even be with Anakin throughout Attack of the Clones even if she does wear pretty dresses.
- And some still are not happy. True, they are pretty much the only female characters in the entire series, but that's rather why this trope came about in any case.
- Liz Hoggard openly invokes the trope in her review of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, noting that what makes Alice a "good role model" is that "she is not girlie", according to her. Clarification is desperately needed for this, as the linked review does no such thing - "Girlie" in the review refers specifically to the archetype of the Damsel in Distress. A role that Alice does not fall into despite being quite conventionally feminine. At no point is it claimed that Real Women Never Wear Dresses.
- Andie Anderson from How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days wants to be a serious journalist.
- Sara Melas's boss in Hitch says that she is so good at her job.
- Paige Morgan from The Prince And Me is an intimidating pre-med student who dreams of working with Doctors Without Borders.
- Down With Love might be done comically but Barbra Novak is the heroine of all women around the world by having taught them to be equal, self-reliant citizens of the world.
- It appears that The Powers That Be working currently on the film of The Hobbit are fully aware of this trope. Many fan eyebrows have been raised on the revelation that Evangeline Lily will be playing a film-only character called "Tauriel," and she is an "elf warrior-maiden." Granted, the alternative is to abide by the book, which hasn't got a single female character to its name, but fans are still prickly—not least because "elf warrior-maiden" are three prime Mary Sue buzzwords.
- Quentin Tarantino claimed, in a rather amusing exchange with a local film critic, that girls aged 12+ should watch Kill Bill.
- In an interview regarding her novel Bridget Jones' Diary, Helen Fielding remarked upon the idea of a comic female protagonist being controversial for this reason, whereas no man ever took Bertie Wooster as an insulting stereotype of the entire male gender. A derogatory stereotype of English fecklessness, sure, but not a stereotype of men.
- Tamora Pierce says that this is one of her primary reasons for writing, and almost all of her main characters are strong Action Girl type characters. Specifically, Kel in Protector of the Small is meant is held up as a Role Model for Girls in universe by Alanna (the heroine of the first Tortall Universe series).
- Clearly one of the aims of the Kiki Strike books. Indeed, in the first book, Inside the Shadow City, not one of the major characters is male.
- The American Girl series is made for this and in fact has a magazine specifically dedicated to this.
- The Dear America books created a generation of female history nerds.
- Harry Potter: Hermione Granger fills this role pretty successfully, being not only better at most kinds of magic than Harry, but also possessing a lot more common sense and intellectual ability.
- A poster points this out while snarking at Twilight: "When the love of Hermione's life left her, she continued to search for the keys to destroying the world's most powerful dark wizard. When the love of Bella's life left her, she curled up in the fetal position, went numb for months then jumped off a cliff."
- One of the most famous role models for girls, Nancy Drew, started as something of a subversion. Her creator, Edward Statemeyer, was actually something of a chauvinist (although, this was 1929, his belief that women belonged in the home wasn't exactly uncommon). The only reason he allowed the series to go to print? He saw that girls were reading the Spear Counterpart Hardy Boys books and realized there was a market. The one saving grace was the series first ghostwriter, Mildred Wirt (later Benson), who decided to put more into the character than what Stratemeyer outlined on the page.
- Pride and Prejudice's Elizabeth Bennet is an intelligent, lively, attractive, and witty young woman who vows that only the deepest of love will move her to matrimony.
- BJK White places his books "squarely in the sub-sub-genre of 'Girls Kicking Arse'."
- Kir Bulychev fills his stories with strong women. Alice, Girl from the Future has Alisa Selezneva and Irina Gai, Inter Galactic Police has Kora Orvat, and The Mystery of Urulgan has Veronica Smith, Peggy, and Nina.
- Phryne Fisher; as her creator Kerry Greenwood has said, "But Phryne is a hero, just like James Bond or the Saint, but with fewer product endorsements and a better class of lovers. I decided to try a female hero and made her as free as a male hero, to see what she would do."
Live Action TV
- Originated with That Girl and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, though it was arguably justified in those days. Back then, the leads started off their show by Turning The World On With Their Smile.
- The whole premise of Ugly Betty. Compare with the original Soap Opera version, where some of the heroine's actions are somewhat questionable, and its point was to invert the Beauty Equals Goodness pattern in soap heroines.
- Lampshaded in the premiere of the Bionic Woman reboot, where a little girl sees Jaime outrace a car and thinks out loud that "it's neat a girl can do that."
- Joss Whedon rather famously complained about how everyone kept asking him about his "strong women characters." He noted that no one ever asked a TV producer about "strong male characters," and concluded with the idea that when people stop making a big deal about positive female role models (that is, when it's no longer done for artificial reasons but just because "why not"), that will be a good thing. (Which is a little ironic, when you consider that he once said, "I can't seem to write a series without a teenage girl with superpowers." Hey, everyone has their niche.)
- Or, in its abbreviated form:
Interviewer: Why do you write these strong female characters?
- Power Rangers usually manages to bypass this problem as most teams have two females on them, so one can be the role model while the other can be a little quirky. For example, in RPM, Summer is the stereotypical role model, while Gemma is a lot goofier and whackier (not to mention freakin' insane). Unfotunately, seasons with only one female teammate can suffer. Tori from Ninja Storm strayed into this trope from time to time.
- Mariska Hargitay of Law and Order Special Victims Unit claims (or The Other Wiki claims for her):
"I get letters saying, 'I want to do the right thing like Olivia. I want to be strong like Olivia. My friend did this, but I didn't do it because of Olivia.' For me, when a television show has that kind of positive effect on young people, it is great. I think it is a good thing that we are shedding light on darkness. I think it is a good thing to make young girls aware."
- Dr. Temperance "Bones" Brennan. An ass-kicking anthropologist who wears jewelery, skirts and high heels while beating the shit out of bad guys, and whose best girlfriends are a similarly ass-kicking African-American coroner isn't defined by her race, who once had a comfortably relaxed affair (and is still best friends with) the man Brennan is now in love with, and a free-spirited Eurasian artist who believes in love while still being a Lovable Sex Maniac. And for that rare creature, the female teen on the Autism Spectrum, the fact that a woman with huge social problems can not only be accepted as a friend, lover and boss, but does so on national television, is enormously comforting, however unrealistic.
- Female crew members on Star Trek have always been more than tokens, whether it's Lt. Uhura in The Original Series, Dr. Beverly Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Kira Nerys and Jadzia Dax in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, or Captain Janeway and B'Elanna Torres in Star Trek: Voyager.
- Lois Lane in general but most especially from Smallville.
- A frustrating case is the women of the BBC's Robin Hood. At the beginning of the show the writers, directors and actress all gushed about how their take on Maid Marian made her a strong, intelligent, kick-ass female role model...and so she was...until the end of season two in which she's hit in the face with the Distress Ball, taken prisoner by the Sheriff, dragged to the Holy Land in chains, offers herself up as a reward to Guy of Gisborne if he kills the Sheriff for her, and is finally stabbed to death by Guy in a death scene that was specifically shot to suggest rape. What.
- To make this even more frustrating, this second season finale also had Djaq, an equally cool and kickass female character, be Put on a Bus and the third season tried to replace the loss of these two female characters with Kate...except that they apparently thought that "shrill, whiny female who acts like a bitch to everyone around her and keeps on needing to be rescued" equalled "strong female role model" in her case.
- Thirty Rock's Liz Lemon is universally praised for being a well-devolved, proactive protagonist that can withstand being mocked for her own social awkwardness and chronic overeating. Her boss Jack Donaghy even considers her his only worthy protégé. Some find it difficult to believe Tina Fey would ever be Hollywood Dateless, however.
- Jenna Maloney is probably the clearest example of what happens when women don't have role models.
- Absolutely Fabulous is a Sadist Show based around a cast of female Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonists. According Jennifer Saunders herself, the characters were made to have few, if any, redemptive qualities whatsoever, making Women Are Wiser a complete impossibility. Most of these Rich Bitch characters were prone to pratfalls, Cringe Comedy, Zany Schemes, comic Hubris, and outright violence, all played for unabashed buffoonery rather than Soap Opera style drama (First Law of Tragicomedies rarely applied on this show, except for the occasional Hope Spot). The show seemed to take place in a Dark Comedy Lady Land where The Smurfette Principle was inverted, and the only male characters about were usually Love Interests or Pet Homosexuals, allowing female characters to fall into embarrassing situations without a man swooping in to protect them.
- The writers of Sherlock may well have had this trope in mind when they introduced Watson's girlfriend Sarah into the show, an intelligent doctor who helps crack the Chinese code and takes out a hitman with a plank of wood, to off-set the female characters of the first episode (a bitchy police officer, a ditzy morgue worker with a rather pathetic crush on Sherlock, and an aide to Mycroft who barely looks up from her Blackberry). And of course, Adler is on her way... and she's sparking the same debate due to her portrayal in "Scandal in Belgravia."
- Amongst the younger female characters of Downton Abbey there is Sybil and Gwen. Whilst Mary and Edith partake in the The Glorious War of Sisterly Rivalry, Anna pines hopelessly after Mr Bates, and Daisy is relentlessly manipulated by Thomas, it comes as a relief to watch Sybil and Gwen form an inter-class friendship based on Gwen's desire to become a typist and Sybil's interest in women's emancipation.
- Stargate SG-1's Major Samantha Carter has been cited as one of the greatest female roles in science fiction for a very good reason - she always held her own with "the boys", and aside from one rather embarrassing speech in the pilot episode (after which actress Amanda Tapping put her foot down and said, "Okay, women don't talk like that,"), rarely made a big deal about being a woman unless someone else made an issue of it first. She was smart, she was a Badass Action Girl, and she was a real character with real flaws and real emotions. And on top of that, she had one of the firmest friendships in the show with Dr. Janet Fraiser, which was based not on mutual romantic woes but on common interests and real regard for each other.
- Tomb Raider's Lara Croft was originally designed to be "an ongoing culture clash over gender, sexuality, empowerment, and objectification." but was redesigned to reduce the emphasis on sexuality .
- Saints Row 2 + 3 approaches this trope from the other direction by being completely indiscriminate. The fact you might be female pales to the fact you might, for example, have blue skin, luminous green tattoos and be roughly the shape of a pear. No-one will care, except for the odd comment in the 2nd game calling you the toughest chick they've ever met. By the third game there's plenty of female characters inhabiting the main cast, the main thing that subverts the 'you too, can be a chaotic, violence-loving psychopath!' message, is how Stripperific most NPC females are.
- The ladies from The Nostalgia Chick take from Absolutely Fabulous in this regard. You've got Slapstick Knows No Gender, plenty of Black Comedy including rape jokes, neuroses, pretentiousness, egos, stalking and just plain hilarious evil all round. And with that in mind, you can understand why Lindsay Ellis would get pissed off when the Women Are Wiser Misaimed Fandom keeps on popping up despite all of this.
- Kim Possible was pitched with this trope in mind—a girl who "can do anything!". Which is apparently not a good thing.
Joss Possible: Ron here is afraid of practically everything, but does he let his fears keep him from sidekickin'? Let's face it, Kim. You can do anything. So facing all those dangers and villains, well, it's just like you say. No big. A fella filled with that much fear always chargin' into action with you? Seems to me that's a true hero.
- Some fans were left banging their heads on the wall after the series finale. Her sidekick finally had to save her. Though one could make the case that since the normal roles both of them have are such that Kim is always saving Ron, this is a different Aesop altogether, implying the need for mutual reliance in their by-that-point romantic relationship. It would have been better conveyed if they had won through a joint effort, but season 4 was intended to focus on Ron's character growth, so they wanted to give him a real hero moment. At any rate, while the "that's a true hero" thing may break the positive role model idea, it's a valid point that real courage is about facing down what you fear. If half-incompetent villains with death rays don't scare you, it may be heroic to fight them, but it's not especially brave. It's just really, really unfortunate that this idea plays out along gender lines.
- Of course if we actually got to the stage at which the person in this page's opening quote was no longer asking Joss Whedon that question, this wouldn't be a problem at all. Kim would just be The Hero, a heroic role model who learns few things along the way rather than being a girl, and Ron would just be the character who gets a few days in the limelight when he's not generally sucking and being an idiot rather than being a guy. That we're even making an issue out of this based upon their gender roles (and indeed, that the show was pitched based on those roles) is probably part of the problem.
- It really just boils down into making The Ace a compelling main character without becoming a Boring Invincible Hero is a small tightrope to walk, regardless of gender. There's a reason why The Ace is usually a secondary character who competes with a more flawed protagonist.
- South Park may not have strong female characters in focus (well, not counting Mrs. Garrison), but at least it took a moment to point out the problems with our "real life" role-models, using the example of Paris Hilton. Mr. Slave gives a heart-felt entreaty to parents to point out to their daughters which role-models they should follow and which they should revile.
- Some episodes focus on female role model-style characters e.g.: Wendy's Crowning Moment of Awesome when she beat the crap out of Cartman due to his mocking of breast cancer sufferers.
- The DVD commentary on The Boondocks points how many critics complain about the lack of "perfect" Black females. The crew points out that a change in gender does NOT make you perfect.
- The Barbie movies (of all things) have done a surprisingly good job at creating strong female leads, as well as subverting all of the most common complaints about the Disney Princesses. The heroines always have interests and hobbies, and female friends with whom they pass the The Bechdel Test, and one even features a girl saying she cannot marry the prince because she has to travel the world and pursue her dreams first. Of course, some still complain about the pink, sparkly, princess clothes, as if that undermines any social progress. There is also tendency towards Cliché Storm and Tastes Like Diabetes, for which the criticism is more warranted.
- On the first day of June, 2009, a female writer at NPR wrote this blog post. In it, she innocuously mused aloud that, since Pixar has created so many memorable female characters in their films, it would be nice if, for a change, one of them got to be the lead role in a film rather than a supporting character. And while 2012's Brave (formerly Bear and the Bow) will have a female lead, she's a princess, and the writer wanted something more original. Hilarity ensued. This thankfully level-headed writer summarizes the "Pixar Needs Women" debacle very nicely.
- Tiana of The Princess and the Frog has to deal with being the first African-American Disney Princess, and early reviews say she's the best role model yet. She has a specific goal, (as opposed to "finding love" or "more") which she works her ass off to achieve despite the disadvantages that come with being a black woman in 1920's New Orleans. But of course she gets criticism for being too much/not enough like the other princesses, for wearing a sparkly dress in the promotional materials, and getting married.
- Though before Tiana, we had Mulan. She took on the burden of going to war, was one of the best fighters, saved the day and the romance was underplayed. Not to mention, the only time she wore a fancy dress was a disaster and she never wore makeup thereon, either in the movie or the merchandise.
- Although in the marketing (the recent stuff, at least), she's been Chickified to the point that some of it describes her as "getting ready for the ball and waiting for her prince!" Which Completely Misses The Point of the movie, that being that she's uncomfortable being forced into the Yamato Nadeshiko role, that she brings honor to her family not by fitting that role but by defying it. Even in terms of her eventual relationship with Shang, it's her capability as a soldier, not her girlish traits, which attract him to her.
- According to Paul Dini, this was the major reason Batgirl became a main character when Batman: The Animated Series was revamped as The New Batman Adventures despite only appearing in a handful of episodes in the previous series. The execs felt the renewed focus on Batgirl and Robin would maximize the number of both male and female viewers.
- Beauty and the Beast: And before Mulan there was Belle, who dared to be well read in a town where women were socially pressured not to read, and had the courage to stand up to a terrifying creature when he was roaring and yelling at her. She was also proactive in rescuing her father from the Beast.
- Darla "The Geek" in the animated series of Sam and Max Freelance Police was originally meant to be male. The sex change occurred because the TV network asked for a positively-identified female character.
- The female heroes in Teen Titans and Young Justice won positive response for actually having relevant roles in the ongoing storyline and even getting their own plots and episodes devoted to them. However, the pilot episode of the latter was sharply criticized for focusing on the four male members of the team and not including any women until the final few minutes.
- Avatar: The Last Airbender churned out strong female characters by the boatload. Starting with Katara, the headstrong waterbender from the Southern Water Tribe who freed Aang from the iceberg, every female character that followed was more Badass than the one before. Even the female villains introduced for Book Two were well rounded, interesting and not to be trifled with. The most Badass female character in the show was a twelve-year-old blind earthbender who could, quite literally, rock your world.
- Katara starts as a rather typical example of The Chick, but later events force her dark side to come out later on. She also, despite much pressure from the fan base, remained indifferent to All Girls Want Bad Boys and ended up with someone who was a Wide-Eyed Idealist like her. Ty Lee also has her Moe qualities, but this comes more from feeling unwanted as a child than her gender role.
- The sequel series, The Legend of Korra, continues this trend, with the creators taking the risk of pitching a female protagonist. It's paid off.
- Averted with pretty much every female in KaBlam!, Loopy gets into dangerous situations and quickly jumps to conclusions, Thundergirl is an idiot (as with the other members of the Action League), and June is plain bossy.
- The Angry Beavers ultimately lampshades this with Treeflower, whose answering machine informs callers that she's on another adventure inexplicably changing her career and personality. For a girl who went from Hippie Chick to bouffant-wearing executive to snowboarding superhero etc, dotdotdot, it's not that hard to believe.
- Lampshaded in an episode of Clerks the Animated Series, where Dante and Randal read a letter from an irate female fan criticizing the show for its complete lack of female characters. After reading one particular point that asserts that the writers are afraid of strong women, Dante and Randal condescendingly respond to the fan and then completely blow off her criticisms.
- And Transformers has Arcee. She was penned as a 'forceful female autobot' and her bios state that she's 'not just a girl robot', and yet she's pink, a "Naked Princess Leia", and only picks up her gun twice. This has caused many female viewers of the original series to whine and complain about how Arcee needs to 'put on some pants and pick up a gun'.
- The IDW Comics, however, have taken steps to correct this by making Arcee an Ax Crazy berserker. This does not help.
- Transformers Animated, conversely, has Arcee as both a teacher and a spy who was supposed to teach an Autobot Of Mass Destruction what it meant to be an Autobot. Sadly, her relationship with male medic Ratchet tends to make other people whine and complain all over again. At least she wears pants.
- Additionally, this Trope was invoked in one of Arcee's origin stories, where the Autobots built her in response to feminists calling them sexist (despite Optimus's claims that Cybertronians are asexual). However, when Arcee was built, the Autobots still received flak for giving her pink armor.
- Transformers Prime seems to have struck a nice balance between Badass and Cool Big Sis.
- This led to Joe Murray's creation of Dr. Hutchinson on Rocko's Modern Life.
- When Lauren Faust created My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic she did indeed intend for the series main cast to be appropriate role models to the shows young audience. However, her idea of creating good female role models wasn't to make each and every main female character flawless, but rather to make each and every one of them different from the others, thus pushing the message that there are many different ways to be a girl. Among the main cast is a brash pegasus racer, a strong-willed farmer, a smart magician/librarian, a fun-loving baker, a shy and sweet animal raiser, and a sassy tailor.
- Faust has said this was a major reason behind the creation of the Super Best Friends Forever shorts on the DC Nation block. The Black Lightning shorts focusing on his superpowered daughters, Thunder and Lightning, sprang from a similar mindset.
- 1980s British animation Pigeon Street portrayed the lives of ordinary people living on an urban street, with a good mix of age, race and sex. The character most people remember is Long-Distance Clara, the lorry driver with a kickass theme song.
- Kitty Katswell in Tuff Puppy being kickass Action Girl and the most competent and sane agent in T.U.F.F.. With a sensible and stylish Spy Catsuit go with.
- The Bratz movies and tv show have four female main characters. We have Cloe, the beauty whiz and sometimes nervous wreck; Sasha, the sassy music connoisseur who's also a bit of a control freak; Jade, the fashion maven who can be a bit over the top; and Yasmin, the yoga master who is too shy for her own good. Most of the 'special' characters (the ones that only show up in one movie or episode) are female, as well as the reoccurring villians. Did i mention that the Bratz run their own bestselling magazine and that they're still in high school? Despite the complaints about their clothes not being age appropriate, they are great role models.
- Inverted in this article. With regards to math ability, it argues, what girls don't need is role models—specifically bad role models: female teachers who are math-anxious themselves.
- Why Strong Female Characters Are Bad For Women takes issue not with this trope, but the definition of "strong female character".
- According to this video presentation, it's boys who are now desperately in need of role models at a young age.
- Moral Guardians always go after young females of a certain age if they make certain mistakes (Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus) in the media. This is not an issue for young male artists, since young males don't need good wholesome pure innocent role models.
- What's ironic is that their usual criteria for deciding who is a "good" vs. a "bad" role model for young girls is actually pretty anti-feminist.