Black Widow may win over me yet.
Sure, the gal in tight black from The Avengers is still riling some geeks, who don’t see how a lady-fighter with a very small gun could help powerful superheroes. In part 1 of this series, I also wondered if the addition of Black Widow was self-contradictory. By putting a heroine in a male-dominated film to show Girls Can Fight Too, yet also in a black catsuit, doesn’t it defeat the progressive point?
However, at least, based on the most recent trailer, Black Widow may not be that way. Several excerpts show her just as vulnerable as the male characters, if not more so.
In one clip, damage is going on and she’s lying on some floor or platform, with shock and helplessness clear on her face. Later, Black Widow runs through an exploding hall, with the Hulk behind her (shielding her?). She grimaces and struggles, as debris and sparks rain down on them both.
Try and tell me this is sexist: suddenly I, as a man, see this character differently. In my perception, she’s not some warrior-princess icon; she could instead be a human hero, well-trained but out of her league. Instead of being only skeptical — ho-hum, another shooting-up heroine who can do anything guys can do, only better — I am sympathetic. And what changed my mind? Seeing her pained expressions. Reflections of humanity.
Surely that, and not artificial attempts to avoid sex caricatures, is how storytellers craft male and female characters who are different, yet equal; balanced, but not boring.
And for Christians, who see men and women created in God’s image to be equal, yet also different in how they reflect His glory or rebel against Him, we can be grateful for those who craft such great characters. Amidst all the belching sitcom dads, raging feminists, over-angsty teen-boy “chosen ones,” or inhuman “warrior princesses,” we find in many stories representations of God-glorifying humanity, male and female, naturally diverse.
How about we wrap up this series — for now — by considering a few?
This teen boy, a warrior from the Southern Water Tribe, is introduced in the pilot episode of the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, and remains a lead figure throughout the series. When I first viewed the first few Avatar episodes, I was ready to give up Sokka as a hapless cliché: older brother, nagging, silly, and ridiculously male.
Then I saw the fourth episode, “The Warriors of Kyoshi.” Sokka meets a group of female warriors and makes fun of them. Naturally he must be taught a lesson, which involves him donning their female-warrior dress and getting beat up by girls. Ha ha! That silly chauvinist Sokka! Those girls showed him! And with that, I was convinced I was right: he’s always going to be only a dumb-young-man laughingstock.
However, at that end of that episode, Sokka had already apologized to the lady warriors’ leader, Suki, and was suddenly mature about it. Really? That never happens …
That could be why I held out hope. And I wasn’t disappointed. For the rest of the series, Sokka, though always very much comic relief, was an absolute hero. He led the group in their quests, gave them perspective, defended his sister, invented machines, and charged with troops into battle.
By the show’s end, he and Suki are an item, with matching talents. And by then, we’ve also seen even more solid male characters, like Uncle Iroh, and Sokka’s father, Hakoda.
This, by the way, is why I hold out hope for next Avatar series. The Legend of Korra will debut on April 14, featuring a new Avatar, Korra, a hotheaded teen girl who enjoys fighting. Ordinarily I’d think, Aw, brother, here we go again (perhaps supported by this). Clearly Avatar’s creators do think themselves “progressive” about female characters. But oddly enough, they don’t think they need to bring male characters down — such as Sokka, Aang, or Uncle Iroh — to make women stronger. That’s encouraging.
Harry Potter fans will instantly recognize the seven-book (and eight-film) series’s most popular female lead. Hermione is a brainy girl gifted with magical abilities, and quickly becomes the friend of Harry Potter, the series’s orphaned hero, and Ron Weasley.
Shallow readings or viewings might result in seeing Hermione as just another clichéd “I can do anything better than you” girl. At Hogwarts school, she patronizes Harry and Ron, tries to follow school rules to the letter, does library research while they are lazy or even try to cheat the system, and even writes their homework for them.
But as the series progresses, more becomes apparent. Hermione’s skills don’t overrule Harry’s or even Ron’s. They complement them. Moreover, especially as the characters grow into young men and women, author J.K. Rowling makes it very clear that she sees natural differences between the genders — differences that help each person. In the final novel, especially, Hermione’s role is integral to the final quest. Yes, it is Harry who leads the group, trying to destroy the wizarding world’s final enemy. But “we wouldn’t last two days without her!” Ron says in the film version. Hermione’s knowledge and medical skills keeps them safe. At times she is almost — dare I say it! — secretarial.
Finally, Hermione is realistically shown falling in love with another of the series’ main characters, not the titular protagonist! And her natural bent toward strength yet also femininity is not the only one in the Harry Potter world. Ron’s mother, Molly Weasley, is another. Though active in wizarding espionage against the villains, and able to hold her own in a wand duel, Molly is unabashedly domestic, and the mother of seven children.
Rory and Amy Pond
You have to hand it to Doctor Who. The revived British sci-fi series tries so hard to be all edgy and subversive. They really do. Occasionally you’ll get the wink-wink, oh-so-cute reference to homosexual notions. In the last season, Craig, an “everyman” character whom audiences last saw nervously revealing his feelings to a female friend, is shown “married” to her, except not really, because after all, Marriage is Just a Piece of Paper.
But it’s all revealed to be just so much table scraps tossed to anti-family activists, when one considers these main characters. The Ponds, who debuted in the first episode of Doctor Who series 5 (2010), not only contradicted several recent conventions of the franchise, but just can’t help refuting dumb conceptions of male and female characters.
First, there was this convention: the Doctor’s female companion is supposed to form a killer crush on the time-traveling Time Lord. To be sure, one of the Doctor’s recent companions, Donna, made it clear she would not repeat that nonsense. But then Amy Pond directly came onto the Doctor in a cringe-worthy scene that at first made me sure the series had jumped the flying shark. But not so fast! In the next episode, the Doctor takes action. He will have none of that again, thank you very much. Instead he picks up Rory Williams, Amy’s boyfriend, and whisks them both away to 1580 Venice. By the season’s end, the two are married. They honeymoon, stay in love, and have a child. And in later stories, threats that Amy will resume her crush on the Doctor come to nothing.
Don’t let Rory’s mostly-joking adoption of Amy’s last name fool you. Much like Sokka, this at-first-silly-seeming man is proved to be an absolute hero. Sure, he dies and comes back to life a lot, and Amy may sometimes save him. But really, who gets honored in the intentionally fairy-tale-like chivalrous subplot of series 5’s climax? Rory, all the way.
As for Amy, her character arc has proven equally interesting. At first she was little more than eye candy. They almost completely Seven-of-Nined her. Then Amy’s clothing grew more modest and her character more evident. She is truly devoted to her husband as her lover, and the Doctor as her childhood hero. Amy is strong and yet feminine. What do you know, a female character can be both — and without slamming men.
Sex Object or nothing?
Still, recently I’ve come to this conclusion: no truly balanced, realistic, strong-yet-flawed character, male or female, will seem that way to all people.
Blind attitudes arise in response to Amy Pond, and River Song from Who, and others.
The real Amy Pond looks more vacant than that…
… Followed by comments that I won’t repeat here, not just because they’re obscene but because they’re too stupid for discerning readers.
Amy is a fine character. She is balanced, mature, and grows as a person. Karen Gillan, who plays her, is obviously talented, and like the other cast members, throws herself into the role — makes it real. Why nitpick on her like that?
Oh. Light bulb. Here’s why.
If a female character is not a Sex Object, she just doesn’t show. She’s invisible. “Vacant.”
Thus, in this view, there is no middle option — balanced, realistic and human woman with strengths and failings — between Sex Object and Nothing There.
Men who think this way have emasculated their own brains. And as long as they exist, I doubt only encouragements to fight chauvinism or feminism in stories will help much.
Still, that’s no reason not to encourage stories with characters like these.
What are your favorite male or female characters in speculative stories? How do their strengths reflect our Creator, and their weaknesses our humanity?