Curator’s Note: This is a very long meta on female characters within fandom, but what makes it especially interesting is that this particular re-post includes commentary on the author’s own original post written two years before the annotated version. What I love about it is its self-reflexivity and performativity – throughout, the author talks about the headspace she was in at the time of the original writing, where she agrees and disagrees with what she originally wrote, and how she feels she’s changed as a participant in fandom in the intervening year. In all, it captures wonderfully how contingent any given piece of writing is – online or off – on the circumstances of its creation, and how this is no less true in fandoms which are themselves in a constant state of flux.
[Hey, folks! This was originally posted February 21st, 2013. Looking back on it over the years I’ve come to wish I’d said some things better. Anything in bold and brackets like this is an edit as of January 15th, 2015, almost two years after this post was written. Strikethroughs are also struck through by 2015 me where I no longer agree with what I wrote, but no words have been removed.
Just a preface—this post was never meant to become as big as it did. I’m glad people got something out of it, but I would have thought it out better if I’d known. It was a rant, a very angry rant, that I wrote after running into a lot of ladyhate in my fandoms’ tags and feeling entitled and attacked. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t right too, but I think the context in which this was written matters. It was also meant to be the first of a series of rants, but I ran out of steam. So it’s written in rage and frustration and it doesn’t cover everything. I’ve tried to make it more well-rounded.]
I’ve read a lot of great essays about how fandom is female-majority and creates a female gaze and a safe space for women and etc. But spend five minutes in fandom and you’ll have an unsettling question.
Why does a female-majority, feminist culture hate female characters so much?
It’s not a question of if it happens. You know it does. You can go into any fandom and see it. Some fandoms are worse than others, but it’s always there. Scroll down the Tumblr tag for any show, movie, book, comic, whatever, and you’ll see nothing but love for the men, and a lot of unjustified hate for the women, maybe with a few defenders here and there insisting on their love for the women in the face of all that hate.
To be clear, we’re not talking about female villains. Male villains get just as much hate. It’s fine if you hate Bellatrix Lestrange or Dolores Umbridge, you’re supposed to. (I personally stan for Bella, but I realize that wasn’t the authorial intent.) This is about people hating Hermione, Ginny and Luna, but loving Harry, Ron and Neville. This is about how ambiguous male antiheroes, like Snape, Zuko, or pretty much any male vampire protagonist can get away with walking that fine line between good and evil and not only remain sympathetic, but be even more beloved for how ~tortured~ he is, but when a female character is morally gray that bitch has to die.
So you can’t tell me it’s okay that you hate Sansa because you also hate Joffrey and he’s a dude. They’re not comparable. It isn’t even comparable if you pick a female antihero. Let’s do this apples to apples, here.
We all know that fandom does this. We all know that it’s fucked up and symptomatic of internalized sexism. What’s really fucking weird about it, though, is that the women doing this hating often aren’t ignorant. These are feminists. These are women who can go on meta-analyses of the writing. Some will hide behind pseudo-feminist reasons for their hate—oh, it’s the writing, we just aren’t given strong female characters! (I saw this used for the women of AtLA: Katara, Toph, Azula, et al. This was about when I just backed away slowly because I know a lost cause when I see it.) I’ve seen women who denied being sexist, but couldn’t name a single female character they liked. And it’s always that the female characters aren’t good enough, even when they obviously have a double standard, and they’re measuring women on an impossible scale full of contradictions and no-win binds, while the men are just embraced and loved pretty much for existing.
The reaction nearly every time one of these women is called out is not to say, “Huh, you may have a point, I should examine the way I judge and process women’s actions more closely,” but an insistence of their feminism, followed by a more detailed description of why that particular woman is terrible and she hates her, as if the whole point were not that fandom is already oversaturated with that kind of hate, and as if the person doing the calling out were not already 110% done with that bullshit.
[To put this more bluntly—don’t reblog this post just to explain why some female character is especially deserving of hate, or inbox me with ladyhate. I literally wrote this in frothing rage that I couldn’t escape all the ladyhate and got more delivered to my doorstep to defend the practice of ladyhating. Stop.]
Particularly telling is that male-dominated corners of fandom do not have this problem. They fetishize, they objectify, they ignore. They don’t hate like this.
[I don’t know exactly why I wrote that paragraph. It may have been that I did such a good job avoiding male spaces I actually forgot how bad they are. They’re pretty bad. Maybe it’s that after going to such lengths to find female+queer-gaze spaces I was still knee-deep in misogyny it just hurt more to have it coming from women. But I was wrong to say women hate female characters more virulently than men do.]
We know it happens. What I want to know is WHY.
Theories follow below the cut.
[Hey sorry to interrupt you! Since you likely came from a reblog, I hope you don’t mind skimming to the top and checking out my edits, thanks!]
1) Women just hate women.
It feels this way sometimes, it really does. But when you actually talk to the women doing the hating and learn that they’re otherwise reasonable people, it gets weird. I don’t know, I think it’s more complicated than this.
2) Women project the standards society has put on them. If they’re told they’re annoying for talking about their feelings, they’ll think other women are annoying when they talk about their feelings. It’s a continuous cycle of policing.
I think there is a certain degree of truth to this. Women absorb the social rules of what women are and aren’t allowed to be (spoiler: it’s all contradictory and we’re not allowed to anything) and judge other women by those rules. She’s annoying when she speaks, her voice is too shrill, she’s too meek and quiet and passive, she’s too rude and direct.
Sometimes these social rules get applied to men too (and it’s really annoying when that happens as well, god, I don’t want all macho unfeeling socially acceptable men, get out) but women have more personal experience with social rules for women.
[Cliff-notes of the post I meant to write and never did—male characters are sometimes also hated for misogynistic reasons, for emoting too much or being too passive, and the misogyny often isn’t subtle—remarks like “oh god he’s on his period again” or “he has so much sand in his vagina” applied to cis male characters (and yes bonus transphobia!) This is really a very complex thing where sometimes it’s a double-standard and men are beloved for doing things women are hated for, while other times the performance of femininity is punished while the performance of masculinity is rewarded—this is the difference between sexism and androcentrism. Androcentrism also layers with misogyny in how “badass” women are praised while femme women get more hate. To be very clear, I want a world where women can be badass or weak or butch or femme or brave or cowardly, where anyone can be a woman and no one has to be a woman or forswear other genders to be one. Go watch Chimamanda Adichie’s The Danger of a Single Story, if you haven’t already. I am heartily in favor of feminine masculinity, feminine femininity, masculine femininity, genderfuck, agender, and all possible variations and expressions being represented in the richness they deserve. This is also expanded on in my extended notes on intersection with racism further on in this post.]
3) Women pass judgment to other women to distance themselves from those traits.
HERE I think we’re on to something. This is the “I’m not like other girls” thing. If you can sneer at other women for their femininity, you’re by default not feminine, and therefore, I guess, good in the eyes of the patriarchy.
Women existing in our patriarchal society, like children in an abusive household, seek to distance themselves from the ire of the authority figures. Just as a child in an abusive household may bully the sibling that the abusive parent has marked as the “bad one,” to distance themselves from those traits and ally themselves with the abuser for their own protection, some women will bully and abuse “bad” women, to show off to the patriarchy how they are allied with the men against these wrong sorts of women.
These women will still maintain that they are feminists, because in their eyes it is possible to be a “good” woman—by winning the approval of the patriarchy. They see the “bad” women as setting feminism back, as dangerous in that they arouse anger in their abuser, abuse which will fall on all of them if she isn’t quick to disavow this other woman.
This is pervasive, and can be seen in most parts of fandom. This is the real reason no one wants to be caught dead with Twilight. In fandoms where there’s more male influence, and therefore the male gaze becomes more of an actual threat, we have the shaming of “fake geek girls.” We have girl gamers who feel the need to prove themselves by playing Halo and eschewing Final Fantasy, not because that happens to be what they like, but because a girl liking girl things would be shameful.
4) Women identify more intensely with other women, which can be threatening.
There’s some of this going on too. I’ve seen women who passionately hate female characters who display their own negative traits. There’s some of #3’s passing the buck, and even some of #2’s echoing the disapproval from other people they’ve heard over their lifetime, but the problem women have with these female characters is that they are them, and they blush with embarrassment just thinking about it.
This is probably the closest we get to actual self-loathing in the female hatred of female characters. Here we have women who are unable to face their own flaws, and externalize them onto a fictional character who is more easily hated.
Women sometimes project their flaws onto male characters as well. This sometimes results in him being hated too, for his femininity (which is the subject of a whole different post I want to make) but sometimes, this can be cathartic. Women project things onto men like sexual vulnerability, loss of identity in a relationship with a man, even fears and hopes surrounding pregnancy, and are more able to work through these things because the fact that it’s on a man makes it less immediately threatening. When these same things happen to a woman, they may hit too close to home. A woman with fears of rape may find a rape scene with a female victim to be terrifying, but one with a male victim to be cathartic.
[More on how women use male characters as safe proxies to talk about female issues here. I think this is often badly overlooked in how the male character focus of fandom is discussed.]
But the things women identify with aren’t necessarily limited to stereotypically female issues. A female character who is cold and apathetic may get hate from cold, apathetic women who wish they were warmer and more passionate. A female character who is needy and clingy is hard to look at for needy, clingy women. One who betrays her friends because deep down she thinks she’s undeserving of love will hit home for women who…well, you get the idea.
5) Sexual jealousy, i.e. “Die for our ship.”
This is one of the accepted reasons for female character hate, but I actually think it’s one of the rarest. Most of the time, women who have strong sexual feelings for male characters seek an in-universe proxy, to experience a relationship with him. (See: every picture on Tumblr of some hunk with a woman in bed with him, with the commenters not hating the woman, but saying, “Lucky so-and-so,” or “I wish that was me.”)
These men are fictional. Women know we can’t actually date them. The closest we can come is watching someone else do it and identifying with that person. Often, women will ship female characters with their male love object quite fiercely, while only really focusing attention on the man as a person. The woman is just their ticket into that universe.
But sometimes it gets complicated. Sometimes fandom decides on one character (who may or may not also be a woman) as their proxy of choice, and another woman is getting in the way. They’re seeing through their chosen character’s eyes, and now this woman is the “other woman.” Sometimes the proxy woman just ends up having too much personality, which is risky, because the more traits she has the more of those impossible contradictory rules governing women she’ll break.
This does happen, and it’s unfortunate, but I don’t think it’s anywhere near as common as people think it is. I think we like pointing to it because it’s an easy way of going, “those crazy obsessed fangirls, that I am nothing like,” and oh hey it’s our friend #3, only we’re doing it to real people now.
6) Female characters are allowed to have flaws, as long as they’re sufficiently punched in the face for them.
To some degree there is a point that character flaws, especially in protagonists designed to be wholly sympathetic, should be addressed at some point. Though real life is not like that, and there are plenty of male characters who get to be the Token Evil Teammate or get away with What The Hell, Hero? moments. We don’t realize how much men get to be Karma Houdinis, I think.
But the moment we think a female character is getting away with something, we pounce to make sure that doesn’t happen.
[Before you read the section on Korra! This was written between Books 1 and 2, and ONLY covers things that happened in Book 1. I stand by it as an indictment of how the show used violence to put Korra in her place and “teach her lessons,” something which a lot of people didn’t seem to notice till the Book 4 finale, but has been present in every season of the show. If you want to know more about how I feel about Korra’s treatment in later seasons, check out this post which was written between Books 3 and 4, and this closing post written after Book 4 ended (warning: very long). If you’re intending to use the following out of context as part of a criticism of how Book 4 ended with Korrasami, that is explicitly against my intent and willful misunderstanding of everything I said.]
An example would be Korra’s flaws in The Legend of Korra. She’s brash, she’s cocky, she’s violent. In the first episode, this gets her chased by police and eventually manhandled into a jail cell, and nearly kicked out of the city before her adventure can begin. In the fourth episode, this gets her suckered into a dubious relationship with corrupt politician Tarrlok, and gets her ass thoroughly handed to her by series villain Amon. In episode seven, she charges into an enemy base without a plan and gets knocked out and nearly taken prisoner. In episode eight, she charges into a fight and gets bloodbent and kidnapped. In the finale, she confronts Amon and gets her bending (temporarily) taken.
We see Korra laid low. We see her scared. We see her cry, twice, and the second time, I don’t care what Bill Rinaldi says, she was contemplating suicide. [Actually I think it was three times in Book 1!] We see her beaten, stripped of her bending, electrocuted, bloodbent, locked in a tiny metal box not knowing if she’ll ever see daylight again. She gets her share of humble pie, is what I’m saying. And you may not think she grew enough out of that, but she did grow. She connected with her spiritual side—whether or not you think it was earned, it happened. (If you want to talk not earned, let’s talk about how Aang cleared six chakras in twenty minutes. It’s a kids’ show, shit gets simplified.) Korra learns to respect others, like when she gets over her jealousy with Asami and gives her and Mako her blessing. She learns to look inward in situations where punching isn’t working.
But by the end of the show, while somewhat humbled, she’s still Korra. She’s still somewhat cocky, she still has confidence and carries her head high. And I think this angers some people. She’s a woman who’s made mistakes. She’s not allowed to keep anything. How low do people want to see her laid? I’ve seen wishes for her to be entirely without bending for a whole season, or maybe just never get it back.
Women can make mistakes, sure. But they have to pay for it more severely than men do. They have to be well and truly sorry and be stripped of all their power. They have to cram in that humble pie till they burst. If a woman who has made a mistake isn’t completely repentant and has anything left, women will say she didn’t learn anything at all.
Obviously this rule doesn’t hold for men, who can get away with literal murder by making a sad face about it and showing that it hurt them too.
7) Women attach themselves intensely to only the male characters, then loathe women who inconvenience these men or have different goals from them.
THIS IS PRETTY MUCH 95% OF WHAT I’VE BEEN SEEING.
I see it again and again and again. Most of the fawning and fangirling and squeeing is over male characters. Female characters, even when reasonably well-liked, simply get lower levels of attention. I’d say this is probably due to more women being sexually attracted to men than to women, but honestly lesbians do this too. I’ve even caught myself guilty of it, and that’s painful to admit but it’s true. I can give all the excuses about how it’s just easier and more cathartic to work through my issues by torturing men because it’s less personal and doesn’t carry the same baggage, but the end result is the same.
But then, see, when all of fandom loves Bob, and Alice is just kind of there, then Alice does something that is not in Bob’s best interests, fandom goes apeshit.
Fandom’s protectiveness of its male characters becomes vicious attacks on any female character that dares cross them—even if that’s justified. Even if the male character is as morally gray or more so than the female character who dares make his life harder.
Female characters get this for not being perfect understanding girlfriends. For setting limits and boundaries for their own protection. For simply acting in their own best interests, when those interests are not shared by the male character.
An interesting parallel is in the Being Human fandoms, both US and UK. The US fandom is more mouth-frothingly misogynistic by a lot. Either this says something about American women, or it’s symptomatic of the US version having a lot of crossover from the Supernatural fandom, due to both being paranormal shows with a lot of the same people involved. Yet, despite this, most of the US hate is focused on werewolves Nora and Erin, who both significantly inconvenience the two beloved boys, while Sally, who’s mostly off doing her own thing, catches a break. Sally is a deeply flawed character who’s made a lot of bad decisions, some of which really hurt people. (I’m not saying this to hate, I love the shit out of flawed characters.) But let’s compare her to her UK counterpart, Annie.
Annie, by contrast, is practically a saint. She’s a warm, loving person, who wishes harm on no one. In the third series, she starts a romantic relationship with resident sex god Mitchell (Aidan Turner, of ~Kili~ fame). (Honestly I’d rather have Annie than Mitchell any day of the week, but fandom does not agree.) Fandom mostly cheered this relationship on! Seeing Annie get close to Mitchell was the closest they were going to get to Mitchell themselves.
But then Annie found out that Mitchell had taken part in a recent mass murder. To give you some perspective on this if you’re not in the fandom: Annie is a ghost, who was murdered by her romantic partner. Mitchell is a vampire, who is consumed with the compulsion to kill, often in sexualized ways. So obviously their relationship is gonna be a little troubled, right? Well, she pressures him to take responsibility for his actions, and to do the time for his murders. She offers forgiveness in the context of this, promising she will stay with him in prison. She can forgive his crimes, but she can’t overlook or ignore them. She can’t pretend it never happened.
And she’s hated for this, while Mitchell is not hated for his part in the murders of twenty people.
Lia, one of those twenty people he murdered that day, shows up as a ghost and tries to fuck up his life. Is this justified? ABSOLUTELY. No reasonable person could hate Lia for holding a grudge against her murderer.
But they do. Passionately.
It isn’t that they hate these women individually. Sure, Annie got a small amount of hate before just for being femme, but that’s like the background radiation on female characters. It didn’t explode until she tried to hold Mitchell responsible. Until she wasn’t 100% supportive of him and his interests.
Lia was detested from her first appearance. If we’d been introduced to her outside of anything to do with Mitchell, I don’t doubt she’d be tolerated, the way women are. Until they inconvenience men.
Does this kind of protectiveness extend to other gender dynamics? It doesn’t.
When a woman hurts a man (even if she’s reasonable, justified, or acting in self-defense) it’s OH MY POOR PRECIOUS BABY at the man and hissing at the woman.
When a man hurts a man, it’s exciting and ~sexual tension~ and the two men are both loved.
When anyone hurts a woman, it’s the woman’s fault (or sometimes the writers’ fault) and she’s weak ugh god why don’t they write good badass women I’m so sick of seeing her crying or getting kidnapped or whatever. Or her pain is just ignored in favor of glorifying her male assaulter, in cases of man-on-woman violence where the man is a love object, like our Mitchell.
“Oh no don’t you dare hurt my baby girl you dick, I’ll fucking cut you die you rotten bastard!” —-no one, ever.
[Exaggeration? Yeah. I was mad. After the hundredth-something post roasting extremely reasonable female characters for standing up to actually literally murdering dudes, I was pissed as fuck. It felt in that moment like no one cared about the suffering of female characters—and perhaps, by extension, the suffering of real women. I know “but not all fans,” but maybe it comes down to not that all female fans hate, but that all female fans have seen the hate. All fans.]
In Being Human’s new trio, no one really blinks at the times Tom’s thought about staking Hal, and in fact, people enjoy their ‘bromance’. But when Lady Mary shows up, and upon finding out that she’s been lied to for hundreds of years and that amounts to hundreds, maybe thousands of victims of Hal’s she didn’t know about, when her purpose in remaining on this Earth as a ghost was to ensure that she would be his last victim (oh yeah he murdered her btw), and she considers staking him, something which, let’s be real, she was entitled to do based purely on the fact that HE KILLED HER, let alone the hundreds of years of deception and all the lives she knows she’d be saving because he’s a killer and he’ll always be a killer in the end, fandom actually hates her for this.
And they will go on about how they’re not sexist. How these women are just terrible. How they really do love women, just not these women. And they will clutch their precious male love objects to their chests and prioritize their happiness over the very lives of women.
Women are allowed to exist, so long as they don’t inconvenience men. The moment they do, women turn on them.
I think there might be a fair amount of #3 mixed up in this too. We’re so eager to prove that we’re not biased against men in favor of women (like that’s even a thing) because if we were obviously our opinions would be unreliable and we could be discounted and ignored.
But part of it…I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t this horrible, deep-seated idea that men have more personhood than women do. Men in fiction get to be people. They get to be sympathetic even when they make bad choices. They get to be forgiven. We love them, and I’m not sure if it’s sexual love or idealism or that, flying completely in the face of #4, we identify with the default, and therefore love men like we love ourselves, but see women as the Other.
[One of the things this rant was criticized for was not addressing the hate levied at women of color, and though I did mention several women of color—Korra of LoK, and Annie and Sally of the UK and US versions of Being Human, respectively, I didn’t go into detail of how race layered with misogyny. I knew for a fact that it did, but I wasn’t sure how to approach it—especially with the focus of this rant being self-hate and myself being white and not in a position to call out WoC for internalized racism. Partly it was also my being confused—because the sample of those particular characters didn’t follow the rules as I understood them. In Being Human US fandom, white characters Nora and Erin got the worst hate, while Sally was relatively unscathed, though not loved as much as the male characters (despite being better than them in every way sorry not sorry). Annie went several seasons not getting more than the usual background radiation of ladyhate, while Nina (white) got much more hate for inconveniencing a male character, and Annie only caught up when she also inconvenienced that same male character. Asami (who is a WoC, but lightskinned and in animation so often read as racially ambiguous) got more hate than Korra early on for the double whammy of being femme and being Korra’s romantic rival. If Korra passed her later, it was mostly because Korra was on screen more and took more risks as a character. Interestingly, the most hate I’ve ever seen Korra get was when she stood up to her father and Tenzin early on in Book 2—being inconvenient to male characters, this time authority figures rather than love objects. There was a lot of calling her snotty and selfish and wanting to hit her. Anyway, whether or not these were the best fandoms to focus on, they were the fandoms I was active in at that time and therefore the focus of my rant.
I knew nonetheless that racism interacts with misogyny when it comes to female character hate, which was why these examples going against that surprised me so much, and were something at the time I could not account for. I didn’t bring it up out of fear of it seeming like I was discounting racism altogether, as I take racism very seriously. (My omission, unfortunately, had much the same effect.) Having listened and tried to educate myself on this over the last couple of years however, I have a revised theory on it. I think women of color are held to an even higher standard along these same rules. We already hold all women to unreasonable expectations, but if white women have to be 80% perfect, WoC have to be 99% perfect. A lot of Korra’s flaws, like being violent and impulsive, reminded me of the flaws of Avengers EMH superheroine Wasp. A:EMH fandom is very protective of Wasp—as they should be, as one of the few female characters in a mostly-male ensemble—but Korra is seen as needing to pay (in pain) and become compliant, while Wasp isn’t. I know there are other differences, like Korra being the main character and a broader arc expected of her, but I don’t think anyone could even imagine Wasp being made to suffer as much for her power as Korra has.
Similarly, since Korra is the lead character, I think the expectations we heap on her become burdens the entire show must bear. Legend of Korra, writing-wise, is simply all right. It’s sometimes really good and sometimes quite problematic—like most popular shows. I often use BBC’s Merlin as an example of how even deeply mediocre and often frustrating writing can carry an extremely popular show if there are two attractive white male leads to be shipped. That isn’t a problem—I liked Merlin too!—but let’s not pretend quality was ever a prerequisite for popularity or even just liking something. But when it came to Korra, people were either very critical—I include myself in that—or they just left. A lot of people talked about how amazing and exceptional they expected Legend of Korra to be…and it wasn’t that. It was just an average or slightly above average action cartoon with a QWoC lead. And WoC don’t have the freedom to not be exceptional. To quote comedian Chris Rock on how racism demands exceptionalism:
I will give you an example of how race affects my life. I live in a place called Alpine, New Jersey. Live in Alpine, New Jersey, right? My house costs millions of dollars. In my neighborhood, there are four black people. Hundreds of houses, four black people. Who are these black people? Well, there’s me, Mary J. Blige, Jay-Z and Eddie Murphy. Only black people in the whole neighborhood. So let’s break it down, let’s break it down: me, I’m a decent comedian. I’m a’ight. Mary J. Blige, one of the greatest R&B singers to ever walk the Earth. Jay-Z, one of the greatest rappers to ever live. Eddie Murphy, one of the funniest actors to ever, ever do it. Do you know what the white man who lives next door to me does for a living? He’s a fucking dentist! He ain’t the best dentist in the world…he ain’t going to the dental hall of fame…he don’t get plaques for getting rid of plaque. He’s just a yank-your-tooth-out dentist. See, the black man gotta fly to get to somethin’ the white man can walk to.
But in addition to every bar being higher and perfect being the enemy of good for WoC even more so than it is for white women, I think there’s more going on. Because something I encounter with WoC characters again and again is (mainly white) fandom’s desire to see her end up single. This has happened with Abbie Mills in Sleepy Hollow, Joan Watson in Elementary, Uhura in the Star Trek reboot, even at Gwen in Merlin, when Arthur/Gwen is a canon ship literally over a thousand years old, and with Korra there was so much heat that the creators made a comment halfway through the series (when she broke up with the previously endgame Mako) implying that Korra would remain single because this was what fans wanted. When they changed this and had her end up with Asami in a truly groundbreaking move, Bryan Konietzko made it very clear in his post that he wanted Korra ending up alone to be an option from a writing perspective, fearing criticism that Korra would be seen as “needing to be in a relationship” simply by happening to be in a relationship at all, ever, in her life, and fandom exploded—mostly with queer joy, but with a backlash of rage, some of which was undeniably homo/biphobic, but some of which may simply have been anger that Korra was in a relationship at all, and also that she seemed less aggressive and violent. While there is pretty valid crit of the excessive humbling of Korra’s character (which I did link to above, in my own words) being in a relationship was not part of that, and the desire to see Korra alone seems rooted in something else. Women are seen as “stronger” when not in relationships, and WoC are required to have that specific kind of “strength.”
While that need for WoC to be “stronger” than white women need to could be seen as an extension of the “you have to be even more exceptional and perfect just to exist” rule, I think there’s even more going on there. I wrote on this post about how white women use WoC as fantasy/escapism from white gender roles, seeing WoC as “less female.” To quote: I realized that these narratives are empowering…for white women. White women feel locked in the gilded cage, white women long to reject mandatory femininity and explore feminine masculinity, white women are excited by all of that. And we use WoC, especially black and dark-skinned WoC, as our proxies, to get “permission” to be a Strong Female Character, to get permission to be masculine—but we’re using racist tropes to do it, we’re using the idea that these women are somehow more like men in order to reach our own liberation from enforced white femininity. I think white women use WoC as a temporary break from that gilded cage, to imagine a more masculine or gender-unconstrained version of themselves, who is strong, has no need for romance, or gets to be “the man” in her romances—and then they’re allowed to slip back into the gilded cage and become the pampered princess and damsel again, while WoC are not allowed this flexibility. So when white women are denied the use of WoC characters as their empowerment fantasies because of the WoC character’s inconvenient complexity, vulnerability, femininity, and humanity, white women sometimes turn on these characters in a rage, for denying them their “empowerment.” It’s not merely that WW expect more of WoC characters, but that they expect a very specific sort of thing, excitement and liberation from the constraints of white femininity and permission to be “less female”—which are rooted in the defeminization and dehumanization of WoC. This very thing can make WoC characters extremely popular, until they run afoul of that WW fantasy and become the targets of rage and hatred.
Additionally, I think there is a double-bind here—white women desire WoC characters as an escape from femininity, but also fear competition from WoC, particularly in femininity. I think of the tignon laws, where black women in Louisiana were required to wear cloth on their heads because white women feared the beauty of their hair was distracting from white women’s beauty. What white women regard as “competition” can seem very fickle, it very often includes romantic interests, particularly white male ones, but can also, paradoxically, extend to criticism of these female characters being “uppity” despite their strength being their most prized feature, if that strength crosses an institution the white viewer wasn’t comfortable with it crossing. Rules for women are often no-win binds, and rules for women of color are no exception. I think this conflict played out clearly with warring desires to see Korra humbled, and to see her unhumbleable—and Korra criticized no matter which she was.
To be perfectly clear again, I welcome representations of WoC of all gender presentations, orientations, and relationship statuses, as well as non-binary PoC. A character being any of those things isn’t inherently a white female fantasy or a stereotype, and there are real people like that who deserve representation. The problem is white women lashing out at characters of color who don’t fall into that specific mold, or treating characters of color as their personal playground without any recognition that WoC should get dibs on them—not that white fans can’t enjoy them, but that our needs shouldn’t come first when it comes to characters of color. My whole point in this post is that the problem isn’t there being “wrong” or “bad” ways to write female characters, the problem is that every female character is hated by someone, for some reason, no matter what she does. And living in a world where the refrain of female socialization is constant apology for falling short of perfection, I’m sick of it.]
So I hate a female character. What do I do about it?
[This next part of the post is more directly calling for action. I have deeply mixed feelings about it in retrospect. On the one hand, I don’t think I said anything that challenging—stop making me look at hate and maybe appreciate the ladies sometime if you want to. On the other hand—you see this thing I keep talking about, with perfectionism? I wrote something about how social justice and feminism themselves are used as props for perfectionistic self-hate and ultimately the same self-destructive attitudes we began with. I realize this ends in a paradox, because “stop searching & destroying flaws because searching & destroying flaws is part of self-hate” is in itself an attempt to search & destroy a flaw.
But my feminism has shifted a lot since I wrote this piece two years ago. Whereas I felt at the time that feminism could be found in ruthless and critical self-examination and improvement of attitudes, I wonder now if that is not also part of the high bar of perfectionism women are subjected to, and also related to the fact that the powerless, feeling at a loss to change the world, turn inward and try to change the self. I’ve often felt that the massive self-improvement fad is a symptom of this generation being deeply dissatisfied with the outer world and craving change, yet feeling powerless in all domains outside the self. In some of the most stressful and difficult parts of my life, the drive to inner perfection became strongest—as the circle of what I could control shrunk, the vigor with which I enacted that control grew, I became more inflexible and iron-fisted in my demands of myself, using the only power I had. Ultimately, this was self-limiting and only became an exercise in self-cruelty.
So, I don’t know. I still wish fandom was better about women, I still feel angry and frustrated when I run into hate, and there’s that other, more subtle and hollow feeling as my male-centric fics pass my female-centric fics in popularity, and I have that censorship on the blank page, that sense that stories about male characters would be more loved, would make people happier—and I want to make people happy with my work, this is not trivial or merely about my own ego, I delight in making stories for the very queer and very female-majority space of fandom, I value that happiness of real women more than I value fictional female characters. I have also noticed, possibly due to absorbing that gaze, expectations, and norms, that I focus on female characters significantly less than I did ten or twenty years ago. I grew up with a single mother and no siblings, no men or boys in the house, and was raised with as many positive messages about women as my mom could manage. As a child, I had eyes only for female characters, I gendered my anatomically correct model stallions female because “boys are boring,” as a teenager I drew almost exclusively female characters and had dozens of female OCs and only a few token male ones, usually as love interests. (I also had f/f OC ships, but if a male character showed up he was a trophy for some important lady OC.) I came into fandom extremely enthusiastic about female characters, and honestly surprised by the hate I encountered. I never found male characters that interesting before, but women talking about them and making such beautiful fanworks made them interesting to me in a way they hadn’t been. I think this began roughly in 2001, when I was around 16. I did also have some very complicated bits of internalized misogyny, a lot of “not like other girls” and “right way to be a woman” sort of stuff, and some androcentrism—I never got into female character hate, but I did bully other fans for things like Mary Sues or romance tropes, which is significantly worse. I’m not defending that, and I’m glad I’ve learned better, and saddened that in some ways it’s a lesson I have to learn over and over again.
I’m trying to meet fandom where fandom is instead of prescriptively deciding where it should be. I deeply value the joy and community we have, and think even if literally all we write about is able-bodied white men boning, it is worth valuing that we are such a diverse and queer and overwhelmingly female group of people, that we are able to tell these stories with a female gaze, that we have a space that is for our enjoyment and not actually for the enjoyment or comfort of those able-bodied white men, that we have this community with each other with its own mores and we give each other pleasure. And I want you to be able to enjoy those white men, too, without guilt, because I think women are guilty for too many things in our lives, especially things that don’t actually hurt anyone. I think we deserve to be happy whether or not we’re perfect. I think our happiness is in some ways more revolutionary than our self-criticism. I mean all that.
But at the same time, I look at how it’s shifted my own tastes and I don’t entirely like it, I wonder what is wrong with actually liking characters that resemble us in all our diversity…and…I don’t know. I look at fandom and I’m both very happy and very sad, and I don’t have the answers. Maybe in two more years there will be another edit and I’ll have more to say. There’s a place for being self-critical, but at some point I wonder why that is the only gaze we have for the self, and if that is not closer to the root of all this ladyhate than anything in my original post.
1) Stop posting hate. Right now. Stop posting detailed reasons why you hate her. Stop justifying your hate. Stop making posts that simply say, “I don’t like [girl],” stop calling her a bitch or a cunt, stop openly wishing for her death.
No, you are not any better than the extreme examples if you have reasons for your hate, if there’s a 3,000 word analysis of why you hate her. Be real with yourself. Did you write the entire thing to justify your negative feelings towards this female character? Then don’t post it.
You can’t change your feelings overnight. But you can shut the fuck up about them. This is important because the hate drowns the love out. Because it creates a hostile climate not only towards lovers of that character, but towards all women in fandom. Hate begets more hate. There are thirteen-year-old girls reading your posts right now, learning what fandom is and what is acceptable within fandom and how to view themselves as women. Please don’t teach them this. Bear your hate in silence. Even if it’s just one female character you hate out of a thousand you love, and you’re really sure this one is actually justified. Don’t add to what you know is already a systemic problem.
Making it about “the writers” also doesn’t make it any less character hate. You can critique the story as a whole, but again, look at your motives, and be real. How much of this is born out of just wanting to justify that you hated a female character for completely legitimate reasons because you’re totally not sexist and this isn’t what it looks like?
[I still agree with all this, bless you, angry 2013 me. Adding to the din of female character hate is still adding to the din, even if you only hate one female character out of thousands. You’re not going to like every single female character, but unless you’re a very close friend of mine, you won’t guess which ones I don’t like—because I don’t talk about them at all. Thumper’s Rule. This isn’t censorship, this is being aware of the context of your words. You wouldn’t throw a wadded-up piece of paper at someone you knew had just been brutally beaten. Don’t add insult to injury—and the state of female characters is one of constant injury. Your hate isn’t different than other fans’ hate, and female characters die a death of a thousand cuts. Just don’t add to that toxicity, it’s bad enough already. Especially don’t aim that toxicity at fans of those characters—don’t tag your hate, don’t add it to love posts, don’t send it to that character’s biggest fans. Have some fucking manners, basically.]
2) Examine your motives more closely. Do any of the reasons listed above resonate with you? Are you too like this woman, are you threatened by certain presentations of femininity, do you find yourself valuing and protecting male characters over female ones? Being aware of the problem also won’t fix it overnight, but it’s a step in the right direction. It might also make you less proud of these problematic feelings, and less likely to spread them to others.
Compare your feelings to how you feel about similar male characters, and observe closely for double standards. If you also hate a lot of male characters, check for androcentrism (loving male traits while despising female ones, regardless of the gender of the person having the traits).
[I may have implied that you have to make yourself like them eventually—I don’t mean that. You don’t, you literally just have to not annoy fans of that character and let them have their fun. Respect the fans even if you can’t respect the character. But if you hate female characters significantly more than you hate male ones, that might still be a you problem, I honestly don’t think it’s the writers—writer-hate looks different and doesn’t shit on the character. But you can figure that out or not figure that out on your own time while you don’t put hate in the world, thanks. 🙂 ]
3) Make fanworks of female characters. Even if you have trouble liking them. Post gifsets and screencaps, write character studies, draw them. Do it without mentioning that you don’t actually like this character (that would be counterproductive). Put more love into the fandom.
Sometimes just trying to understand their motives and see them as people who have interests outside of the interests of the men in their canon can work wonders. Making fanwork is the closest we get to spending time with fictional characters. And if you make good fanworks of them, without any nasty little caveats about not liking them, you’re spreading love. You’re making the fandom a better, safer place, for fans of that character and for all women. You’re countering the hate and healing fandom in a way fighting the haters directly can’t do.
If you only vaguely dislike one or two women, and love others, it isn’t necessary to focus your energy on the one or two you dislike, as long as you’re fine ignoring them and not making the problem worse. Go ahead and spread love for the ones you genuinely love. But if your hate for female characters is passionate, or if you hate pretty much every female character, you might need more intensive healing. You might need to focus on these women and confront your feelings for them and actively try to build a more positive relationship with them.
Try writing female gen, femslash, or het from the man’s perspective. The last of these might seem counterintuitive, but most female-perspective romance uses the woman as a personsuit to sidle up to the man that gets all the characterization and love and cool stuff. Writing about it from the POV of the man forces you to actually look at the woman and love her.
Rule 63ing characters can be an interesting perspective-building exercise, and I recommend doing it for situations where you’re having a lot of trouble wrapping your head around the dynamics, but it is not an acceptable substitute for loving female characters. If you can only love and care about female characters when they’re 63’d men, you’re doing something wrong.
[Oh boy did THAT one ever get misunderstood. Okay. I suggested this with the idea in mind that a person might think, “This is me, but I don’t want it to be me. What can I do?” I did also specify to focus on the ones you genuinely like and not like the one lady you hate. I think it’s good to provide avenues of action rather than merely pointing to problems—actually, I think one of the problems of tumblr SJ is the endless navel-gazing at problems while rallying towards solutions is much rarer because solutions entail risk, including risk of not being perfect—ah, our old enemy. Anyway, I thought you, Dear Reader might be thinking something like that because I was more or less thinking exactly that. As mentioned in the edit above, discomfort with my own changing attitudes was a factor in this post. What I did not mean is that you should make things you hate or that bore you, or that you should beat yourself with a pain stick because you wrote some white dudes canoodling. I don’t want making awesome female-centric fanworks to seem like a punishment or a chore or something you do to win the Good Person award. And it saddens me, too, that people got threatened by the suggestion—because they weren’t already doing it, and they didn’t want to do it, and there’s something deeply uncomfortable in that feeling that makes one defensive, isn’t there? I don’t want to force anyone to make things they hate…but if “things we hate to make” has an extremely large overlap with “things about women” that’s…not really a neutral fact, is it?
I guess one of the things I want to get at here, though, is I don’t think it necessarily has to be that way, or that female-centric work has to be the charity case or the quota. Because I don’t always do it, but when I do it, I love it. And when I get into groups where there’s a lot of excitement around female characters, it changes my perspective just as surely as my perspective was made to be more male-centric before. I find female characters to be genuinely more interesting and more exciting again, and I don’t censor my excitement because I gain faith that other people are actually interested, that I won’t bore them. It begins to snowball, my vocabulary of ideas is expanded. There’s a massive amount of bandwagoning and a sort of Ouija-board-like effect in fandom where what’s popular becomes popular because everyone knows about it and everyone’s doing it. Common phrases (tongues battling for dominance) and even just certain adjectives used for certain things jump from fic to fic, art styles (the famous tumblr red noses for one example) jump from picture to picture. There are lesbians who’ve only had sex with women who only know how to write sex scenes between men, because female sexuality is something they know through being acted but male sexuality is something they have the vocabulary and phraseology for. Women say they aren’t good at drawing women despite seeing one in the mirror every day and having a constant ready reference. So yes, I do believe there is a certain point where a critical mass of enthusiasm and ideas and visual and verbal vocabulary become necessary for fandom to do its thing, that it is legitimately harder to reinvent the wheel or beat the path yourself even if the fires of passion are hot in your heart and ladies are your main thing.
So yes, I do think creating the space we want for ourselves is a reasonable response to “the space we want does not exist.” I don’t want to force anyone to make it who sincerely does not want to…but for those who want to want to, who want to discover a part of themselves they haven’t been able to yet but believe could be really enjoyable, I’m giving you permission to start.]
4) Don’t get angry at being called sexist. Don’t assume that you can’t have internalized sexism because you’re a Good Person. Don’t give up on yourself.
[Haha well I was pretty condescending, huh? Not really agreeing with past!me’s message of endless self-improvement, protip from the future, it didn’t go anywhere great. It’s all very neo-Puritanical, and I’m looking askance at that. But I can’t say I mind the confidence and self-assurance with which I speak. I’ve noticed my edits are a bit humbler than my original post. Maybe it’s that I wrote it in anger and I write this in love, maybe it’s because I was speaking “to people who annoy me” when now I’m speaking “to people with whom I would like to be friends.” I think it’s okay that I speak like this in the edits, I think I am still strong without being angry, and I think I’m okay whether I’m strong at any given moment or not. But I also think it’s okay that I was pretty rude then. Women/femmefolk don’t often get to be rude or even arrogant, and that’s a rule I consistently break. Rest assured, I am still very rude. 🙂 I’m trying to direct it more to those who really deserve it, though.
Anyway, I think I meant it to be inspiring rather than condescending. That happens sometimes. I think it is better to inspire by doing rather than judging/criticizing, though. It’s a lot harder, too. Maybe I can accomplish that as well, in some of my other work. Maybe you can!]
And don’t try to rationalize it with canon-specific details. You know what, it isn’t this character. It isn’t this fandom. It’s all the women. It’s all the fandoms. It’s a systemic problem. Your hate isn’t magically not part of that because you think this one character is different because she did something that really crossed the line!
We’ve all got fucking toxic shit in our heads from living in this toxic world. No one is immune. I think every woman hates women a little, even the ones who fiercely love women harder just to fight that. This world hates women and we’re part of this world.
We all know this problem exists. Let’s take responsibility and make it better.
[The last word. I’m not sure I agree about it being our “responsibility” to clean up. We’re never going to be perfect, so if we can manage to be okay however we happen to find ourselves, I think that goes more against the patriarchy’s plan for us than seeing ourselves as responsible for all the world’s problems and living in a state of guilt and shame we believe can only be remedied by more vigorous internal standards of purity and idealization. At the same time, I don’t want this to become a mantra of powerlessness or of giving up on external change. Part of the reason I’m sick of perfectionism is because when we stop trying to change the outer through changing the inner, we free up energy to actually change the outer. Instead of seeing ourselves as tainted beings with a moral responsibility to purge ourselves, I would like to see us as adventurers who have the option and the privilege of exploring new ways of doing things and creating our own culture around us in any way we should choose or see fit. As explorers, we don’t entirely know what we’re doing and we could waste time on dead ends or discover the places we went weren’t as cool as we thought they would be, but the more we explore the more options are open to us and to those who follow in our footsteps.
I want to recognize the amazing space fandom has made in so many ways, and the battles we’ve had to fight to make this space. We couldn’t fight every single battle on every single front at once. I once made the (rather unpopular, I think) metaphor that if certain spaces, such as fandom, or feminism or SJ as a whole, have the larger toxic radiation of sexism, racism, queerphobia, ableism, classism, etc, within them, it is like saying a house in the desert still has sand in it—of course it does, a space without sand wasn’t yet possible—but is there less sand standing out in the open wind? This doesn’t mean to stop sweeping the sand out of your house, something one should do often if one lives in the desert, or it will in fact fill with sand. But I think of my comment above from 2013 where I claim that women in fandom are more misogynistic than men. I was so upset about the presence of sand in what I believed should be a sand-free zone, in that moment my perception was so warped I believed it to be more sand than in the desert outside. I still want to sweep that sand, but I’m more grateful for the house, now, and understanding of the effort it took to build it. If we could build a house that keeps the sand out even better, that’d be great. Or maybe, since this is an overtaxed metaphor and not an actual ecosystem, doing something about the sand outside will become possible. I guess I’m just trying to somehow go about making our spaces as awesome and comfortable as they can be, without shitting on our spaces for not being perfect as they are. Even 2013!me got that there needs to be a constructive element, not just yelling at people, though ironically I think I got the most hate for that part. Perhaps it was that women are always told whatever we do we’re never doing enough, we’re motivated through a constant sense of inadequacy. Fuck that, though. You’re doing enough. You are adequate. That’s why I want us in particular to continue to explore, because we’ve already done so much and we were amazing. I know we’re capable of cultural achievements, because we’ve already made them. I want to see what we’ll do next.
Just…cool it with the hate for female characters, okay? Think of what that character might mean to someone else. Let them have that. I want you to be happy, without making anyone else unhappy, without making me unhappy. Just don’t dump your sand in my bed and we’ll be cool.]
“For all the women I have loved who were dragged through the mud,” ©aiffe, annotated version originally posted 15 January 2015
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