I love the moment when a character is at their lowest point. When they can’t look up and see the light, when they’re down and being kicked, when things are a mess. I love drama and mess and catharsis. What I don’t love is when writers tend to beat characters down for no good reason. We’re going to go over a few examples of breaking characters down in mostly western dramas because it is a unique issue faced by series that go on for hundreds of episodes with a constant need to ratchet up the tension. Because we’ll be talking character arcs and plot points: a spoiler warning is in effect: proceed with caution if that’s something you’re particularly sensitive to.
Dr. Spencer Reid has been through a lot. His time in all 15 seasons of Criminal Minds saw him battling an addiction to painkillers, the death of his girlfriend at the hands of an insane stalker, the continued ups and downs of his mother’s deteriorating mental health and the death of his mentor, loss of his best friend and the faked death of a beloved coworker. Spencer has been through a lot to say the least. But what does that do for Spencer? Spencer who is already kind, trusting, supportive and loving: what does it do for him? Does having his mentor murdered and having to solve the case make him a better investigator? Does having to watch his girlfriend die make him more empathetic? Does losing Morgan after years of dating- I mean, friendship do anything for him? No, it makes him hardened and sad and pathetic. And while he is far from the only character in Criminal Minds to have episode after episode hurt him, it feels particularly undeserved for Spencer; who as of the narrative has already been through so much.
Sam Taggart is a nurse we meet in ER and when she’s introduced she’s scrappy, young and has a child despite her young age. She’s often referred to as Teen Mom and becomes less known for her actual character traits and more for the men she sleeps with from Dr. Kovac to Dr. Why is John Stamos Here. Sam is also known for her no good ex who is a literal convict and garbage human. She does her best to distance herself and her son from her horrible baby daddy but a dramatic season finale and season opening episode duo have her literally kidnaped by her convict ex along with her son. She is taken on a hostage road trip for a while after her convict ex stabs her then ex-boyfriend with a paralytic drug and during the road trip, she is raped by her ex. For network television, we see a pretty decent amount of the crime which turned my stomach upon first viewing. You see the light leave Sam’s eyes, you see her lay here, you see her resist and then not. It’s a tragic scene that ends with her murdering her attacker and taking herself and her son to freedom. What was that supposed to teach Sam? What is the lesson? What was the reason? Was the lesson to continue to do what she had been doing: not trusting her ex and being strong? Was the lesson that rape makes a woman stronger? Was the lesson that overcoming your attacker with violence makes a woman stronger? What was the lesson Sam and thus the audience is meant to learn from her trauma?
By now you may be asking why I care so much. You may be curious since I started by saying that I love melodrama and stakes. Well, I do. But they have to amount to something. We’re going back to Criminal Minds for an example of an arc done right. Aaron Hotchner, the person who revealed that I have Daddy Issues, had an amazing arc of him losing his marriage and wife because of his dedication to his job at the BAU. After his season nemesis, The Fox, escapes and threatens the safety of his ex-wife and son; he drops everything to save his family. The episode is full of tension and drama and ends with Hotchner losing his ex-wife, who he still loves dearly and is the mother of his only son: Jack. The funeral scene that we get of Hotchner eulogizing his wife and actually taking time off of work to be there for his son shows us how important his job is and was to him but how much this particular loss hurt him. Hotchner was broken but did learn a lesson; one he continued to learn until he was killed off of the show because his actor was bad.
Any time a character is hurt, it should mean something and shows that go on for hundreds of episodes: it’s hard to keep making pain meaningful. It’s hard to continue to invent new, fresh horrors for fictional characters to undergo and the nature of serialization means that oftentimes, many of these things happen in intense proximity to each other. Spencer Reid goes through many of his losses in what we can only assume is a year’s time. That’s enough to break anyone down. It’s especially distressing when this happens to female, BIPOC or neurodivergent characters because oftentimes trauma is a shorthand for character development for these kinds of characters. It’s lazy and bad experiences do not make up for a lack of character development. Breaking characters down does not make them more relatable, more human, more complex or anything: it just leaves them broken. And especially when dealing with characters of color, the neurodivergent or female characters; it’s so important to let them have stories that are happy and okay. So many queer characters, female characters or characters of color are faced with stories that are just punishing; they often end in death or suicide and that does something to you when the only representation you see is that of strife and pain. That does not minimize the stories that are painful, those will always be there but being able to just one see everything come out okay in the end: that would be truly something.
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.
I still remember the first boy’s love series I picked up as a young one. It was Gravitation when I was a youngling and almost immediately I loved how radically different the series from from the shonen action fodder that dominated my anime landscape.
Ever since then, I’ve been a huge fan of shonen ai. For one reason or another, I found the aesthetic and tone much more rewarding and interesting than the typical romance anime and their shojo counterparts. But because shonen ai by default focuses on male characters, the women in them tend to be…well, they’re something. And sure, we’ll pause here for the folks saying:
Well, why are you up in arms about the women in a boy’s love comic?
Because biologically, I’m female and boy’s love is, hilariously, mostly read by women; particularly, young women and the internalized misogyny attached to the genre can be very damaging.
Today we’re going to go over the three main ways women are framed in boy’s love narratives.
For some vocabulary, framing is how we look at a person or a person’s actions. We’ve talked a lot about framing this year but I think it’s an important part of fictive language. Even though we may know a character is in the wrong or in the right, the framing around that act or character can flip those two things very easily. Again like with Killmonger in Black Panther or Thanos in Infinity War the movie frames them oftentimes in the right even though we know they are both genocidal and very very wrong. Framing is an issue because as a viewer, it isn’t always easy to point out the negative in that character. If everything else in the film or work is telling you that this thing, character or act is okay it’s difficult to buck against that even though you may know logically or in your heart that it may not be true.
And now without any further interruption: here are a few ways that women are framed in boy’s love.
The Woman, Obstacle
This is probably the most common and most hurtful. The woman in so many narratives from Gravitation to Yellow feature subplots or plots where the woman stands in the way of the love between the two male leads. Now, this isn’t entirely unheard of. Sometimes men do discover they do not care for their female partner and try either out of curiosity or genuine desire to be themselves be with a male partner. And sure, not every woman is gracious during such a time but the idea that the woman is a consistent barrier to love is frustrating and exhausting. You also see this a lot in fanfiction where authors who wish to ship two male characters will demonize the female aspect the more canonical heterosexual pairing. This is troubling for more than one reason, the first is again the often flat out demonization of the female for standing in the way. Gravitation is the example I’ll use because it is still one of my favorite animes of all time and does absolutely face is issue. Right as Yuki and Shuichi are ready to finally say they are together, a young woman appears claiming to be Yuki’s fiance. This throws a wrench into the entire plot of these two men finally accepting that they may have feelings for each other and the plot (which is peak Murakami hating women and she will continue to do this in almost all of her works for the series) is a series of sight gags trying to get this woman (whose name I refuse to Google or recall) out of the way. Her refusal to “give up” Yuki, a man she is promised because Yuki’s father is a terrible garbage fire of a person along with the rest of the Uesugi family is seen as not courageous or valid but as irksome and immature. Eventually, the plot of the anime and manga give her the sloppy seconds that are Hiro and she is forgotten as Shuichi and Yuki find better things to argue about like whether Yuki is bisexual or gay.
Another example of this is Lizzie in Black Butler. Lizzie is…well, she is a precious little thing (says this Sebastian through gritted teeth). Lizzie is Ciel’s fiance and she is entirely oblivious to the obvious relationship between Sebastian and Ciel while also managing to be the one thing that keeps Ciel from completely diving off into the abyss of the black space where Sebastian’s heart would be. Lizzie’s helplessness and stupidity (which is somewhat corrected in later parts of the manga and the movies but as far as I am concerned, the damage is already done) make her an item that often requires saving: she is in fact that only character that requires as much saving as The Little Master does. Her needing rescuing and just well, existing on screen takes moments away that are more vital to the narrative and Black Butler has a lot going on; story-wise, we simply don’t have time to humor Lizzie and thus she’s consistently one of the least popular characters in the series.
The Woman, Duplicitous
Ah yes, the woman who plays the field for the sake of ruining the main couple. If there is a more common trope in boy’s love, it’d likely only be rivaled with bad hand proportions and hair that covers over one of the protagonist’s eyes. I’ll pull one more Gravitation example because this is my blog and I can do what I want. Yuki’s sister, Mika (who confirms the concept of the Uesugi family being full of garbage people) spends most of the manga and a vast majority of the anime gaslighting Shuichi for the simple sake that she doesn’t like the pink-haired brat with her precious little Eiri. There’s just one problem: this is awful and manipulative and tiresome. And while, yes, Gravitation is an adventure in keeping Yuki Eiri miserable, it’s particularly harmful because Mika is one of the few female characters that: 1) is important 2) has a great deal of lines and 3) isn’t a moron. Mika’s fall from grace is tragic because of what she could be which is a supportive sister who does rightfully have some reservations about her brother’s new boyfriend. We’ll pull a recent example as well, Hitorijime My Hero is the anime that made my heart sing after the Summer of Incessant Ice Skating. Hitorijime My Hero is pretty standard as far as boy’s love plots go centering around Setagawa ( a high school student ) and his mentor and crush Kousuke. During one of the later episodes of the series, Kousuke’s somewhat overly protective friends including one of his stylish female associates decide it’s a great idea to plant seeds of doubt in Setagawa’s mind. Keep in mind, Setagawa comes from what may be one of the more tragic of backgrounds for a mainstream boy’s love character that includes him being a former member of a gang, a neglectful mother and him struggling with the fact that he is in love with a man that’s easily 10 years his senior. It’s actually such a turn from the heart of the series that it took me a while to get back to it: I felt Setagawa’s betrayal and resented the show for using such a cheap trick for the sake of plot advancement.
The Woman, Pious Saint
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the woman as victim and saint. This one is strange at first because it makes you wonder why it’s such a bad thing. Isn’t it good after all of these examples of women who are bad that a woman can be good and pure? Well, here’s why it’s a problem: it removes a woman’s agency and choice. A noted example is Lies are a Gentleman’s Manners where Dr. Haskins’ wife is absolutely oblivious and in the dark about just how much of a tool her husband is. Dr. Haskins is as garbage of a garbage person as you can get, he’s been cheating on his wife since before they were even married and in one of the best parts of the manga, Dr. Haskins is entwined with his polo partner: Danny, who mind you is also engaged to a lovely woman; all the while, Dr. Haskins refuses to acknowledge the commitments either men made to their respective future wives and during their time entangled, Danny’s fiance is looking for him, calling for him and she almost catches them in the act and while Danny struggled to stop the encounter, he didn’t want to be caught. During the whole thing Dr. Haskins continues not only egging Danny on but actively stopping any of his partner’s protests towards the act. It’s selfish and terrifying. This sets up one, Dr. Haskins as a tool (we’ll pause here for people saying he’s gay and just trying to live his life but cheating is cheating) and that his wife can do no wrong as she is during him cheating with Danny which is alluded to be one of many times, is conveniently out of the country . What’s even more tragic is that Dr. Haskins is a loving family man on the surface despite his affair with the series protagonist, Johnathan. One of the most interesting scenes in Lies are a Gentleman’s Manners involves Johnathan meeting Dr. Haskins’ wife and daughter and she is nothing but gracious and loving and treats the starving college student to a lavish ice cream sundae. She seems totally unaware that her husband is a serial cheater and she praises how loving her darling is despite her constant traveling for work.
This is tragic. We see a woman who is so in love with her husband that she cannot see what is in places a very obvious lie. There are chapters in the manga where it doesn’t even seem like Dr. Haskins cares much about hiding his torrid affairs from his doting wife and robbing women of agency is a huge issue in any narrative. At least if she knew about the affairs, it would still be tragic but it would either be her choice to stay or her choice to leave: both automatically give her more power in a narrative that is strongly run by one man. And yes, it isn’t her story Dr. Haskins being married is a huge part of the story. And his wife isn’t even given the chance to be an obstacle like Lizzie from Black Butler is; she’s just sort of there and she does her best to be supportive and kind. She does eventually become a bit of an obstacle, Johnathan does feel immense guilt after meeting his lover’s wife but not enough to stop sleeping with Dr. Haskins as a means to achieve his goals.
I’m going to take a moment here to address that pin I’m sure all of you have of:
Well, it’s boy’s love. What do you expect?
Here’s the thing. I know plenty of boy’s love stories that feature almost zero women entirely, especially if all they are going to do is be blocks of wood or literal obstacles to plot. Fumi Yoshinaga is an excellent boy’s love mangaka and many of her works either feature no women at all or they are relegated to supporting roles which means they cannot ruin the plot. Even Yoshinaga-senpai’s most noted female character in Antique Bakery appears for an episode and vanishes after dropping a bomb on the plot that is neatly wrapped up within the same episode she appears. Kyo Kara Maoh features several female characters that either push the main pairing together or are there to support the other main characters and not a single one is an obstacle to plot: some are antagonistic but none ever grind plot to a stop.
And here’s why we’re doing this: readers hold onto that misogyny and perpetuate it. I’ve been reading shonen ai for longer than I feel comfortable admitting as well as just shonen anime in general and years of women being irksome plot obstacles sticks with you. Even now, if you’ve been blessed or cursed to read any of my fiction, you can practically see me struggle with writing female characters that aren’t either aggressive Mary Sues or utterly useless pieces of furniture. It would be one thing if that internalized hatred simply stayed on the page but it leaches into other aspects of life. It forms and informs casual sexism and keeps old stereotypes afloat through confirmation bias. It fosters a complacency that means we don’t challenge the norms of female characters and thus create a feedback loop that perpetuates all the things we hate about them and quells any desire to change them for the better.
What’s even more fascinating is that many boy’s love novels are written by women who seem to hate or are irked by women; it’s typically the male shonen ai creators that either don’t worry about female characters at all or show them in a more complex light either as mostly supportive or actively antagonistic. And it is almost entirely women who read (indulge) in shonen ai so this harmful message is really hit home.
Challenging female characters regardless of genre is one of the only ways we can continue to hold creators and characters to a higher standard. Having the same message hammered into your head over and over again that just by being a woman you are lesser in a narrative is immensely hurtful and readers deserve better. They deserved to be loved, respected and appreciated. If we can do it for the boys, even in a trashy shonen ai manga, we can do it for the girls.
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.