Diversity: More Than White Women

Far too often, mainstream media has a tendency to treat female characters like Highlanders: there can only be one. If a second shows up—or, god forbid, a third—then they have to duke it out for supremacy, not just on–screen, but in the hearts of the audience, too. It’s both a structural problem and a failure of imagination: if you can’t conceive of two women discussing a man without reference to how attractive they find him, or how attractive he finds them, then competition becomes inevitable—not just between the women themselves, but between their respective archetypes. Think of how many times you’ve seen the Traditionally Feminine Girl contrasted with and pitted against the Badass Action Chick, as though these are the only two types of woman available, and you’ll start to see the scope of the problem. It’s Aerith and Tifa, Arwen and Eowyn, the dichotomy so entrenched as a form of competition that, invariably, we start applying it even when there’s no actual man being fought for, even when all we’re doing is discussing which characters we prefer. Arya and Sansa Stark are so often presented as mutually exclusive favourites, you’d think it was impossible to like both of them—but then, it’s an assumption their early dislike of each other encourages the audience to make. After all, if Action Chicks and Feminine Girls are natural opposites—and we’re overwhelmingly told they are—then picking one is equivalent to picking a side. You’re not meant to root for them together: it defeats the entire point of their competition.

Here’s the thing though: that’s bullshit. Grade–A, farm fresh, straight from the bovine asshole. Both these archetypes were originally perpetuated, not as a means of portraying complex women in their own right, but to give male characters different romantic options, in the most visually simplistic sense. The idea that women might have common ground beyond these attributes—that they might be friends or have such wildly different tastes as to void the prospect of sexual competition altogether—is, inherently, a subversion of the sexist hero’s prerogative. I think of this as James Bond’s Law: the assumption that the hero ought to be equally attractive to all women, everywhere, regardless of personality or context, such that they consistently find him more important than each other or, indeed, anything else. Male–male friendships are valued onscreen because, in addition to fleshing out male characters, they establish that men aren’t solely emotionally dependent on women, that they have lives and interests of their own. Female–female friendships are devalued for precisely the same reason, particularly in genre shows: they encourage the radical notion that a man, even a romantically suitable one, might not be the most important thing in a woman’s life.

Enter the eponymous Jessica Jones and Mad Max: Fury Road’s Imperator Furiosa, who offer this particular logic the middle–fingered salute it so richly deserves. Both are women whose narrative arcs are defined, not by their male love interests, but by their friendships with—and protection of—other women. As such, while both are action heroines, their characterisation implicitly rejects the existence of a reductive femme/butch binary. Jessica’s friend, Trish, while ticking some Traditionally Feminine boxes, is far from being a stereotype. Their relationship is full of push–pull complexities, intelligent and emotive, and clearly more definitive for both of them—and rightly so—than their still–fledgling hetero romances. Similarly, Furiosa’s relationship with the escaping wives, all of whom are given their own voices, perspectives, and characterising grace notes, never so simply situates her as the sole possessor of strength. The Splendid Angharad, the Dag, Capable, and Cheedo are never damsels, but equal participants in their own narrative. They are all—Furiosa included—engaged in rescuing themselves, and if the division of labour is tailored to their respective skillsets, it never implies that one is more important than the other.

That such narratives can succeed both financially and culturally should be obvious by now. We shouldn’t have to say, it’s not the presence of heroines that kills a film—it’s bad writing, inadequate promotion, and, in the case of too many adaptations, a lamentable misapprehension of the subject matter. And yet there’s still resistance to the possibility of female success, the ingrained notion that telling stories about people other than straight white men is doomed to failure. It’s not just the openly misogynist MRAs who boycotted Fury Road and insisted their anti–diversity campaign against Star Wars: The Force Awakens, one of the highest–grossing films of all time, made it a box–office failure; it’s more subtle, insidious things, like the seemingly reflexive instinct to pit Supergirl against Jessica Jones. Socially, we’ve spent so long contrasting a plurality of male perspectives with a single female option that we’re conditioned to treat with suspicion the fairly basic idea that women, as a gender, also have a plurality of interests, voices, and points of view. Liking one female character or female–dominated story is not synonymous with rejecting all other such narratives.

And yet, for all the progress we’re making, it’s equally undeniable to note that diverse representation is being extended more readily to some groups than others. That straight, cisgender, conventionally attractive white women are suddenly being given so many transformative roles—constituting a demonstrable change—is a testament to exactly how male–dominated TV and film has traditionally been. Yet to claim this ascendency as blanket proof of diversity would be insincere at best and offensive at worst. This isn’t a case of a rising tide lifting all boats, but a reflection of the fact that, after straight white men, straight white women are the second biggest beneficiaries of social privilege. The success of something like Fury Road shouldn’t be seen as a one and done phenomenon, but a starting point. If John McClane can inspire the creation of a hundred–odd practical, hard–bitten action heroes without losing his mystique, then Furiosa should equally inspire her own inheritors. More disabled protagonists! More complex women! More people of colour! More queer characters! More of all these things in combination, and more acknowledgement of the fact that not everything featuring diverse casting has to be perfect art! If we can rejoice in the existence of Sharknado 2: The Second One without anyone lamenting its failure to be Jaws, then we can surely risk a few diverse action films that aren’t as good as Fury Road, but which nonetheless make us happy. (This is what so many people failed to understand about Jupiter Ascending: the fact that it wasn’t highbrow was a feature, not a bug. To quote my very favourite review: “[I]t is your garbage. It is garbage for you.”)

And oh, does the representational bar drop limbo–low when you start to consider anyone who isn’t a straight white woman. Right now, the fact that I can think of three whole shows with bisexual protagonists—Clarke Griffin of The 100, Piper Chapman of Orange is the New Black, and Annalise Keating of How to Get Away With Murder—is largely unprecedented. Three whole characters! Two of whom are conventionally attractive white cis women, and none of whom have actually had the word “bisexuality” applied to them in script! The 100 has some excuse on this latter front, being set in a dystopian future with different language and priorities both, but OITNB famously shied away from naming Piper’s sexuality, preferring instead to say that she doesn’t like labels: a distressingly common elision. Of the three, it’s Annalise who’s the most revolutionary character—not surprising, given showrunner Shonda Rhimes’s track record for foregrounding diverse characters and narratives—and while Viola Davis has rightly been praised for her stunning performance, that doesn’t mean she ought to lack for counterparts.

Yet even here, there are problems. For all that The 100 boasts a bisexual lead character and a generally diverse cast, the fandom was recently moved to fury by the death of Clarke’s love–interest, Lexa, making her one of ten queer female characters killed off in 2016 so far—and given that the year began with only 35 such women on TV in the first place, that’s an astonishing rate of attrition. For an encore, the show has since gone on to kill one of its leading men of colour, further hitting home the fact that diversity is worth precious little if such characters continue to meet gruesome ends or are otherwise undermined by stereotyping. Queer female characters are particularly vulnerable to this, exposed as they are to both the Bury Your Gays and Women in Refrigerators tropes, to say nothing of that peculiarly noir variant of the women–as–Highlanders phenomenon wherein Good Girls live and Bad Girls—who are usually defined as such by their flagrant sexuality, noncomformity to traditional gender roles, and/or queerness—meet a sticky end. If Good Women die, it’s invariably to further a male character arc, as per Women in Refrigerators; if Bad Women die, it’s a species of moral comeuppance. But for queer women, death—whatever the reason—is invariably tragic. There can only be one, after all; how else to prevent a happy ending?

Which was, once upon a time, the actual goal of such narratives: under the old Motion Picture Production Code, depictions of queerness had to end in tragedy, lest viewers come away thinking that such behaviour was somehow acceptable. In that sense, modern queer tragedy is often reflexive—a cultural habit we badly need to break. As is queer elision across the board, for that matter. Once comparatively obscure, the Bechdel test is now well–known as a tool for gauging the presence (or lack thereof) of multiple female characters and their narrative interactions on screen. Though far from being a perfect yardstick—the Mako Mori test, named for the heroine of Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, was created in response to its limitations—it nonetheless represents a low but meaningful bar for female characterisation; a bar which, all too often, remains unjumped. And yet, despite the frequency with which the Bechdel is now both applied and used, its original context—frustrated queer women discussing their double lack of visibility—is just as readily forgotten. If straight female characters are Highlanders, perennially locked in competition for the hero, then queer women are scapegoats, innocents whose stories are sacrificed, both literally and metaphorically, to uplift others.

Which brings me to Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the flurry of fannish enthusiasm surrounding the new trio of Rey, Finn, and Poe. Beyond the fact that all three are compelling, well–constructed characters played by talented (and attractive!) actors, the romantic potential of their relationships —or rather, Finn’s relationships with Rey and Poe, who haven’t yet met each other—has generated an enormous amount of commentary. Specifically: as the film ends without a canonical romance, and given the many joyful, heartfelt parallels between Finn’s scenes with Rey and his scenes with Poe, it’s very difficult to argue, as per common, heteronormative practice, that a romance between Finn and Rey is somehow the obvious endgame without also conceding that an identical claim can likewise be made for his ending up with Poe. Until the release of Episode VIII, Finn is Schroedinger’s Boyfriend, simultaneously queer and not–queer on the basis of identical sets of evidence—and as such, all three characters are in something of a critically unique position.

As a heroine, Rey is a whole, compelling character—one who sees The Force Awakens pass both the Bechdel and Mako Mori tests, and whose chemistry with former Stormtrooper Finn is undeniable. Yet even so, if not for Finn’s equal chemistry with resistance pilot Poe Dameron, I’d lay money that we—collectively, as a culture—would be analysing Rey on the largely unquestioned assumption that she’s “meant” to end up with Finn. It is, after all, a layup we’ve seen time and again, in every form of media; but due to a combination of clear narrative mirroring, queer–friendly criticism, and a changing zeitgeist, we have all been forced to give equal consideration to alternative scenarios. What if Finn ends up with Poe, not Rey? What if the three of them were happily polyamorous? What if Rey is queer herself? What if all of them are, or none of them is? Though fanfiction, as ever, is ready, willing, and able to embrace the possibilities, the sheer hugeness of Star Wars as a franchise—and the overwhelming success of the film—means that these conversations have made an unprecedentedly rapid transition to mainstream discourse, to say nothing of how seriously they’re being treated.

And yet, given such examples as The 100’s recent deaths and the endless queerbaiting of Supernatural (for instance), it’s hard to know what the ultimate outcome will be, no matter how favourably the prospect of queer characters is being treated now. Which means that, in the gap between films—in the absence of a definitive romantic answer—Rey is made of multitudes. Or rather, Rey, and countless characters like her, have always been made of multitudes: it’s just that we’re finally learning to see it clearly. Because here’s the real truth about female characters, regardless of whether they appear singly or in pairs: not only do we assume they’re straight, but nine times out of ten, we also assume they’re “intended” for a particular man—and that changes how we see them. Too often, we forget the wider possibilities of their personalities, and while fanfic (again) is something of an exception, as a mainstream phenomenon, woman + man = relationship is a default seldom questioned.

But because of Finn and Poe—narrative game–changers no matter who you pair them with, by dint of being sympathetic and unstereotyped men of colour—it’s impossible to discount the full potential of Rey’s character, both romantically and platonically. Granted, Mad Max: Fury Road was a very different type of film, but not even Imperator Furiosa generated this sort of commentary. Though she did, perhaps, help to pave the way for it, just as Pacific Rim—and, I’d argue, TV’s Elementary—did before that, with Mako Mori and Joan Watson, both of whose creators vocally affirmed that their relationships with their respective male leads were platonic, directly countering the romance–as–default assumption. Max and Furiosa’s interactions are by turns violent and gentle, complicated and easy. By the end of the film, their feelings might be platonic or romantic, but either way, the fact that it’s a question at all—that we’re moving past the point of just assuming women to be romantically inclined towards the nearest, most obvious male character, even when no clear declarations are made to that effect, and are instead considering them in their own right–is both refreshing and revelatory. What makes Rey so special isn’t just her prominence, although that certainly helps, nor is it wholly the strength of her character, for all that it’s considerable; it’s that the prospect of Finn and Poe’s queerness visibly raises the question of her own, forcing us to consider her from every possible angle.

It’s not just that we need and deserve more than one type of female character; it’s that we need to acknowledge the possibilities in the characters we already have. Audiences can be just as reductive as creators, and now that social media has increased communication between writers and readers, showrunners and viewers, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that fandom—both in terms of praise and censure—is having an unprecedented impact on what gets made, and how. Certainly, in the case of Star Wars, it’s clear that the producers are listening; the Supernatural fandom, in its support of the Wayward Daughters campaign, has successfully lobbied for greater female representation on a show famous for fridging women; and if the ongoing backlash against the writers of The 100 is anything to go by, the public discourse around diversity and stereotyping isn’t in danger of dying down any time soon. Though we still have a long way to go in terms of diverse representation—and, as the Oscars so recently demonstrated, institutional acknowledgement of that lack—it’s clear that the world is changing, and our priorities with it. The importance of films like Mad Max: Fury Road and shows like Jessica Jones is undeniable, but that doesn’t make them the be–all, end–all of what’s possible. Rather than rest on our (white, straight, cisgender) laurels, we need to branch out further—diversity as default, not niche.

There are always more stories left to tell. Let’s try to embrace their variety.


Foz Meadows

Foz Meadows is a blogger, author, essayist, and reviewer whose writing, both fictional and critical, has appeared in venues such as The Mary Sue, Apex Magazine, The Huffington Post and Goblin Fruit. In 2014 she was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer for her blog, Shattersnipe. Her latest novel, An Accident of Stars, is an epic portal fantasy due out from Angry Robot in August 2016.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment. You can register here.