The Trope Trope

“A strong woman who recklessly throws away her strength, she is worse than a weak woman who has never had any strength to throw away.” ― Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D'Urbervilles.png

When I was little and watching the Star Wars prequels (yes, I grew up with the prequels) I didn’t question Senator Amidala and her power. I didn’t question the waffling between her being a queen or a senator or even really when she just became arm candy to Anakin. What I saw was a woman with a blaster who, when the movie let her, was a badass. And when I later saw her daughter, Leia, in the movies; I found an equally powerful and strong woman on screen. But her transition from Princess Leia to General Organa was one that was met with cynicism by me.

Today, we’re going to discuss why I still sometimes bristle at the “strong female character”.

I’ll pause here for the immediate cries of misogyny.

I’ve been humble enough to mention that many female narratives haven’t captured me. Often times, it’s because the writing just isn’t strong, a lot of it is personal bias. But I also grew up in an era of some of the weakest written female characters. That’s one of the biggest reasons I turned to anime, even though many of the female characters were still insufferable, they were insufferable in a different way. But Western media stayed rather stagnant with how it portrayed female characters. That was, of course, until the 90s. The 1990s were a strange time for media: female characters suddenly had to be very self-actualized.  I suppose hundreds of years of patriarchal writing has a systemic effect on women and how they see themselves based on the media they consume. In fact, you can watch an entire panel of me working through the angst of not having strong female role models in media in a panel and you get a bonus dramatic retelling of the story of Lilith.

The examples I had as a kid were Batgirl, Wonder Woman, and the token sassy female in every Disney cartoon. And for a while, that was great. It was just enough to still feel genuine. It was great having comic book characters that could hold their own while also having other females on television that didn’t have to sacrifice being girly to be strong: a lot of the late 90s and early 2000s Cartoon Network shows come to mind like Ed, Edd and Eddy and Codename: Kids Next Door.

But by that time, I had happily sold my soul to anime and I dipped out of Western media for easily 10 years and in those 10 years, a lot has seemed to change. Every show has an intensely self-actualized female character but there’s something missing in many of the newer examples of this seem a little hollow. I saw the pilot to the new Duck Tales and I was so annoyed by Webby being the smarmy know-it-all that writers assume that a hyper-competent girl must be. She wasn’t much better in the old version of the cartoon, but irksome is irksome and helplessness to me as just as damaging as dumbing down the rest of the cast to make the girl shine.

Speaking of Disney, I take particular umbridge with their sudden influx of “strong” and “independent” princesses that realistically began with Belle and culminates with a princess that I cannot stand, Tiana. Tiana is arguably the worst part of her own movie and she is so strict and self-actualized that Naveen’s immaturity seems very valid and okay. By the end of the movie, sure, she does loosen up a little but it wasn’t enough to make her easy to empathize with for the bulk of her own damn film. It’s their fault we have this damn trope to begin with, you can’t decide in the mid-2000s to suddenly have female characters that aren’t just sexy lamps. And the influx of Disney princesses who are “independent” and “strong” is not new. We started getting it in the 90s with Pocahontas who was a tan sexy lamp and Esmeralda who was an outcast tan sexy lamp and we didn’t get a genuinely independent strong female lead in a Disney movie until Lilo and Stitch and even more, Disney has yet to have a “strong” female character be in a relationship. Because remember, self-actualized means sexless.  

Very few examples come to mind of this trope working positively: one of them is Adventure Time. Princess Bubblegum is a complex character, more so than a little animated show about a boy and his dog can give credit for. Bonnibel Bubblegum is a scientist, monarch, warrior and more but she is far from flawless. Even though she is smarter than most of those in the Land of Ooo, her intelligence is often a hindrance, she lacks empathy at times and her overanalyzing leads to more complicated situations. Steven Universe is full of women (or female-appearing space rocks) that are almost too flawed for plot to even happen and while it’s easy to empathize and feel with them, it’s also somewhat damaging. Pearl’s lesbianism is damn near predatory, a trope that many lesbian women struggle with to this day.

And this brings us back to General Leia. I’m not here to rant about how I feel about the state of Star Wars, that could be its own blog post but I was one of the few folks who was not elated to have Princess Leia become a General. Is it because I hate women? No. It’s because I love strong storytelling and for me, Leia Organa was the canary in the coal mine. How many more characters would be leveled up like this just to keep up with the times? Now, Leia has earned it and we see this whole thing backfire with Admiral Holdo (who for the record, I do not hate). We don’t see Holdo do much of anything, at least with Leia, we grew up with her; her promotion makes sense. And because of that lack of feeling that Holdo “earned” her rank (a problem real women have) she is considered to be the worst part of an arguably bad movie.  

And while yes, women “earning it” is a sick and twisted aspect of the patriarchy (see the remake of Ghostbusters as an example), it’s an important part of making a character relatable. And that’s why so many struggle with “strong” female characters. To me a “strong” female character almost always is a Mary Sue. Let’s use Rey as an example because Star Wars. She is good at everything. She doesn’t have any questions about using lightsabers or the force or anything. She doesn’t get a training montage (until The Last Jedi and it would appear that she barely needed it) and she’s just supernaturally talented. Again, thanks to the patriarchy, when I female character has a linear arc, it’s bad while when Luke did the same thing in his trilogy, he was just “gifted” but I have to agree with some of the criticism of Rey being a Mary Sue. I think I would have connected with her much more if I saw her struggle even a little.

Now, dear reader, what have we learned? I’ll sum it up for you here. If we continue to dose out titles like this to female characters, it only stands to weaken the case as to why we need these characters to begin with. I got to look up to Storm as the leader of the X-Men and that was not a title she took laying down. I got to see Padme grab a blaster and do her best to hold her own against a sea of droids, clones and more. I got to see Leia take up arms and defend herself. It’s so much more powerful to see a female character be active in her narrative than passive. Simply blowing power into a female character does not make her strong: she has to do something with it.

The Martyrdom of Olivia Benson

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Why do I still watch Law and Order: SVU?

Why do I continue to subject myself to a show that’s been around longer than my little cousin?
And through it all, I only have one question: what the hell happened to Olivia Benson?

Now, for those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, let’s recap. Law and Order: SVU is a crime drama serial that is centered around the Special Victims Unit (a unit in the police force that helps handle sex crimes and crimes involving women and children) and their mostly revolving door of detectives who help bring these heinous criminals to justice. Introduced in Season 3, Olivia Benson (played by Mariska Hargitay) when first introduced was the plucky counterpart to Elliot Stabler (played by Christopher Meloni). While Benson provided the loving “female touch” that the SVU lacked being a group of mostly old white men and then one Ice-T, she was never a central character. The show still focused on Stabler and his family drama, Munch being old and Tutuola being…Ice-T. When Benson did start to come into her own she was brutalized and victimized because hey, how else do you write a female character in a crime drama? Sexualized violence forever, am I right?

After Stabler’s character departed the series, Benson really took over and in time Hargitay expanded her role from just an on-screen presence to a behind the scenes force. She is now one of the producers and writers for the show and boy, has she taken the character of Olivia Benson to a new place. And by new place I mean all the same sexualized violence, misogyny and poor storytelling the show has had since its inception but now with added family melodrama and the occasional nod to her actually moving up in the ranks of the police force. In newer seasons, Olivia has taken on a son, Noah, and she sure does have feels about it. Motherhood is wonderful but Benson’s brand of motherhood cycles rapidly between obsessive and overly protective of her new acquired bundle of joy to dismissive of her adopted child because of her demanding role as the now leader of the Special Victims Unit. And while some of the push and pull she feels as a working mother are real, there are better depictions of that in the same show: Rollins struggles with leaving her daughter at home with one of the most patient babysitters in all of New York.

By now, you may be asking: Amanda: if you are so unhappy with the show, why do you still watch it?

Well, put a pin in that.

Let’s go back to Rollins. I don’t like her character just because we share a first name; I like her because she is given a more complex story-line. Rollins deals with gambling addiction, a premature and troubled pregnancy all while raising a child on her own with little to no complaining. Sure, she has that oh so lovable cinnamon roll that is Carisi to help her with her daughter sometimes but she does everything Benson does with grace. Rollins is empathetic, level-headed, pragmatic but still kind, generous and great at her job.

I take personal umbrage with this turn for Benson’s behavior because of how important Law and Order: SVU is to so many women. Like I’ve said, only in a highly fictionalized New York do crimes get convicted like this. Only in a fictionalized New York is every sex crime at least acknowledged. This series for so many is one of the first empowered women they see on TV. It’s a modern day morality tale. Crimes are punished, the bad guys are bad guys and the good guys always win.

But in all of this I’m still left with questions.Why did they have to sacrifice Benson for the sake of plot? None of the other female characters had to be taken down a peg. Why Olivia? Why did she become our St. Maria Goretti? 

Now to pick up that pin I said for you to hold onto about why I watch this show.

My grandma loved Law and Order: SVU. Hell, on many stations, it’s one of the only shows still on. The show kept my grandma company while dementia kept confined to her bed. The show even contributed to some of the anxiety she had as the illness of dementia took more of her rationality and her mind. We had cameras rigged up in the house not just to watch her while we worked but also so she could see inside. She didn’t want burglars. She felt safer knowing she could see the front door and living room from her bed if she needed to. And when I’d come home from my dead-end mall job or the days I’d come down from my post-graduate ivory tower of a bedroom on my days off from work, I’d sit down and watch an episode or two with my grandma. I could for a moment or two put down my writer’s rage and just enjoy a moment with someone who I knew I wouldn’t spend much more time with. She didn’t care about how poorly the story was. She just wanted to see Stabler and Benson get the bad guy and they usually did. It was one of the few things we could bond on as she declined. I even began to echo some of her paranoia after watching the show for too long. Seriously, ask any of my friends about how squirrely I get after an all-day Criminal Minds marathon.

My gripe with Benson is personal and also from a creative standpoint. I gave up on female characters from an early age because so many were utter failures of storytelling. Law and Order: SVU shows that the writers can write genuine tension for a female character that isn’t a melodramatic custody battle or a John Wu-style parable about the “Good Guy with a Gun” myth. The show has always had issues telling some stories: the episode that was meant to comment on the Paula Deen post-attack racism controversy ended up with such a hyperbolic retelling of the original story that the moral grey area that makes the story so compelling was completely lost. The show still perpetuates concepts and ideas that are troubling while still being one of the best shows on TV for some hot, fast lady justice.

Female characters deserve more. A woman can balance a job, a child and her love life. A woman can have a high-stress job and still be a great parent or even just an okay one. A woman can love without being boring. A woman can be sexually self-actualized and not be a harlot. A woman can have the same stakes as a man and it not devolve into lady issues.  A woman can be just like any other character. Olivia Benson can be more and should be more.

Don’t we deserve that after all these years?