Anyway, I went into the room to talk to him about it. He didn’t say much about the quality, and I didn’t press him; he just wondered why Baymax was so fat. “More to love,” I said. And then, after a brief pause, I said with a smile “I saw Frozen the other day.”
His reaction was three times faster than the speed of light. He groaned loudly and asked, “What are you, a six-year-old girl?” I tried to make a case for the movie. His response: “Fine, so it’s for six-to-ten-year-old girls.” Needless to say, we didn’t exactly have a gripping and in-depth discussion on the film’s merits. Granted I could have (and probably should have) argued more, but obstinacy is a forte both of us share. Also, I didn’t want to clean up any dog pee.
So let’s unpack this for a minute -- by which I mean “time to have another talk about female characters and representation in fiction.” I’m as excited as you are.
Okay, for starters? Don’t go and burn effigies of my brother just yet. Yes, he didn’t even try to give Frozen a chance (for those unaware, he and a pal dragged me to see the abysmal 47 Ronin even though Frozen was, like, right there, dudes). Yes, there are a lot of things he isn’t receptive to. Yes, he’s the older of the two of us, and by extension has every right to assert HE IS A MAN. But (presumably) it’s not as if he’s some growling, slobbering woman-hater. When it comes to video games, he’s got no problem playing as the fairer sex; he mains C. Viper in SF4, and he’s no stranger to Zero Suit Samus and female Robin in SSB4.
On the other hand? Viper’s the only female character I’ve seen him consistently use. And more distressingly, there’s still the Fable 2 anecdote I have: I chose to play as a female hero, and he gave me no shortage of trouble for it. There wasn’t an onslaught of heckling about dresses and kissing guys and playing dress-up and being “so gay”…but there was enough of it to shame me into not playing it in his presence. As if I did something wrong.
I’m almost certain I’ve brought up before -- if not here, then elsewhere -- but it’s still an issue that sticks out in my mind. Again, I don’t think my brother is some raging woman-hater; I question his tastes on a regular basis, yes, but he can be trusted to conduct himself appropriately. But I’m concerned about that small-minded way of thinking, precisely because it’s small-minded. And because it’s a way of thought I’m afraid exists in the cultural zeitgeist. And because it flat-out sucks.
If you’ve seen my stuff before, then you probably already know what the issue is. But for argument’s sake, let’s frame this on Frozen. I won’t go into depth about how I feel about it right now (because I suspect that’ll take a few thousand words), but at a surface level there are some basic facts everyone has to agree with. It’s a Disney movie. It stars not one, but two princesses -- though one of them takes up the crown early on. It’s an animated movie. It’s got singing, and colors, and even if the technology’s evolved, the designs are still plenty recognizable: Elsa and Anna are svelte, doe-eyed young women with nice hair and bright smiles.
What’s wrong with that? In my eyes, nothing much. In the eyes of others…
I get it, though. Princesses get a bad rap, as does Disney -- so put the two together and you’ve got a great big soup of hatred. Princesses are all about looking pretty! Princesses are damsels in distress that can’t do anything but wait for men/good fortune to save them! They set bad examples! They’re not realistic! They’re boring! The list goes on.
There’s plenty for people to complain about, and I’d be lying if I said there weren’t legitimate complaints. Princesses, Disney or otherwise, don’t always set the best examples. And while there are exceptions, the damage has been done. Even if we’ve had Merida, Tiana, Rapunzel, Mulan, Jasmine, and the Frozen ladies, they were ALL preceded by princesses like Snow White, Aurora, and Cinderella, just to name a few. They’ve got the decades-long advantage. They’ve set the tone and the expectations, and I’d bet that no amount of singing about building snowmen is going to change that. Not anytime soon, at least.
But does it really stop at princesses, though? I mean, it’s not as if the mere concept is awful. My go-to example is Natalia from Tales of the Abyss; she was a good fighter, yes (an archer who, through the game’s upgrade system, I turned into a tank in thigh-high boots), but she was someone who used her authority and status to do what needed to be done. She played ambassador, she helped arrange political meetings, she reached out to the people, and she more or less fought in a war. Being a princess put her in a unique position for the plot; that is, being a princess gave the writers the tools they needed to maximize her potential as a character.
Maybe that’s what people really want out of princesses -- someone who maximizes their potential instead of adhering to stereotypes. They want active members of the plot, and (perceived or justified) it’s way too easy for them to slot into sweet little girls who sit around and look pretty while cool stuff happens all around them. Obviously, Disney is moving away from that. Elsa and Anna aren’t just characters; they’re the main characters. They start, progress, and resolve the plot, even if they get the occasional push from other characters. That’s how it should be.
So my question is this: is that enough?
I don’t know. I always figured that a good character is a good character, and a good story is a good story -- no matter the source. That’s why I don’t have any problems buying into Kamen Rider/Super Sentai as legit entertainment; sure, there are flamboyant suits, OTT shenanigans, merchandise shills, and a LOT of goofiness (you are NOT ready for ToQger), but there’s thought, quality, and fun behind each big whompin’ explosion. Target audiences are going to factor in on multiple levels, but that doesn’t stop stuff like Adventure Time, Steven Universe, Gravity Falls and others from entertaining more than kids plopped in front of a TV. Really, that’s the optimal scenario: have a story that can appeal to everyone. The Pixar movies have proven that time and time again, and Disney and Frozen have done the same thing.
At least, I think they have. Haven’t they?
I have to ask, because not too long ago I stumbled upon a series of essays by Metaleater’s Liana Kerzner. The subject: she took umbrage with the infamous Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency -- which you’d think would make her an enemy of justice, right? Well, no. Her argument across five (!) posts was that even if Sarkeesian is fighting and arguing for something right -- and she is, no question -- she’s using the wrong approach and mindset. Put simply, her “idea of justice” does more harm than good.
There’s a lot that Kerzner goes over, but one of the major points -- and one that gets personal, with good reason -- is that FemFreq would have anyone who doesn’t conform to its standards removed from gaming. What are those standards? Supposedly, that means anyone of a certain body type/dress is automatically bad -- that they’re only there to please male gamers at the expense of an objectified lady, or some such claim.
And yes, objectified women are a problem, but the saving grace is CONTEXT, which Kerzner argues Sarkeesian is either blind to or willfully ignores. And it seems like Bayonetta was one of the prime targets for removal…which strikes me as more than a little odd. I’ve sung praises about Bayo before, but even if I didn’t find any depth to her, there’s still an argument to be made that gaming needs someone as stylish as her in the canon. Given what the climate is like now, can we really afford to have style taken behind the shed?
Okay, so what does this have to do with Frozen and princesses? Well, one of the main ideas behind Kerzner’s posts is the fear that FemFreq and Sarkeesian are trying to dictate what is and isn’t allowed. To be more precise: instead of giving games the diversity they need (which would help a LOT of problems), they would be better off by excluding anyone that meets the proper parameters. It all feeds into a level of scrutiny that female characters tend to get. “They should be this!” “They should NOT be this!” “That is a good quality, and everyone should have it!” “That is a BAD quality, and anyone with it must DIE!” I’m exaggerating, but you get the idea. The thought police are rolling out with the sirens on full blast.
Kerzner’s argument/concern is that games that take Sarkeesian’s strides to heart are more likely to remove female characters rather than fix them, and used Dragon Age: Inquisition as an example. Desire demons in the franchise use to be distinctly female -- and when complaints arose, they were axed instead of reworked. Likewise, the number of female characters dropped, and those that remained had their pizazz sanded off. I mean, I can’t blame AAA devs for doing it; why put in effort making a character when you can just drop them and make things even safer? It’s a misguided approach, but it’s got the chance to be a popular one. If it isn’t already, that is.
I think I’ve made my stance clear at this point, but I’ll go ahead and make it obvious now. Yes, female characters in fiction deserve better, and they should have had it better for a long time now. But removing anything that seems wrong isn’t the go-to answer, because it means reducing the amount of diversity we can have in our stories. The problem with improbably buxom women in fiction isn’t that they’re improbably buxom; it’s that when they’re done poorly (which can happen and has happened), they’re nothing but improbably buxom. It’s about the context, it’s about the creativity, and it’s about the quality.
“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is in full play here. Yes, there are cringe-tastic elements of characters -- and they can be the result of broad design strokes. A princess can be a terrible character…but a princess can also be a good character, precisely because she’s a princess. Or, alternatively, that one design stroke could be simply an aspect of the character, and the real draw is everything around her. Personality, role in the plot, actions, development, relationships, all of those things and more -- that’s one hell of a deciding factor, and not even the prettiest dress (or something like the mightiest bosom) can take that away.
I guess I don’t really understand why there has to be so much scrutiny and assumptions that this lady or that lady is a bad character. I mean, it can’t say good things about us -- or the haters, more specifically -- when characters are judged and hated before they even get a chance, right? Speaking personally, I think Geralt from The Witcher 3 looks like a mess; still, that doesn’t matter in the end because A) you can put him in different clothing/armor throughout the game, and B) his personality makes him a pretty good character, no matter how he looks.
Imagine what it would be like if I said “Geralt is a terrible character because he looks like he stepped out of a bargain bin JRPG!” and then never played the game, and spent days screaming to others about how The Witcher 3 is awful. Doesn’t make sense, does it? So why is it okay to do that to other characters, females especially? Why do people keep going on and on about what a female character should be, and especially what they shouldn’t be? Are people that hung up on breasts?
I’ll be fair, though. I understand the complaints, and I know that the discussions (sure, let’s call them that) happening now are ones that need to happen so we can get some consistently-good characters -- so everyone, regardless of age, gender, race, orientation, or any other classification wins. What we want and need, universally, are strong characters. That’s a given. But the definition of that is muddled beyond belief, and I’m concerned that people assume there’s only one right answer when any number of paths could lead to the pot of gold at the end.
I’ve ranted about this before, but it bears repeating: “strength” is not what decides the quality of a character. Good characters are allowed to be weak, just as they’re allowed to be strong. They can show different sides of themselves -- be different in general, and go against the grain. They can have all sorts of unique traits, be they physical, mental, or emotional. They can have all the bitchin’ damn superpowers in the world, or they can lose out to a bantamweight with a bad cold. There is no single, surefire formula. There is no one right answer. There is no need to reduce everything to one right answer.
And yet, here we are. Or rather, here I am -- and worried as all get out.
Ninja Theory’s been talking about its new game, Hellblade, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have high hopes -- even after the disaster that was DmC. If they succeed, then it means showing the AAA-dominated games industry that you can do plenty with smart development and smarter ideas. But they made sure to explain in one of their development diaries that leading lady Senua isn’t going to be a “typical sexy heroine”. That’s good in the sense that they’re committed to developing this character into something great (and I hope the execution stays on-point, especially since they’re tackling something as serious as mental illness). But I have to cringe at the idea that Senua being a sexy heroine -- or to generalize, anything but the mythical “strong female character” -- is an automatic fail-state, even though Bayonetta showed the world how well it can be done.
I’m concerned about how there are already examples of good female characters out there right now, at this very moment, and people are all too eager to A) not know them, B) ignore them, or C) scream at the top of their lungs “THAT DOESN’T COUNT!” Oh, Tsubaki Yayoi from BlazBlue shows a by-the-book soldier’s fall from grace as she gives in to both her negative emotions and jealousy as spurred on by the meta-narrative of being overshadowed by a purposeful self-insert character? “Who’s Tsubaki?” Cortana’s stuck in what threatens to be an emotionally-abusive relationship as an AI whose surpassed parameters could make for a story in itself? “She’s Chief’s naked blue girl.” Cia’s corruption by love and destructive impulses, which may or may not be the once-forbidden emotions born from the insanity-breeding conditions of her role as an isolated sorceress? “BOOBS! LOOK AT HER BOOBS! ALL WE CAN TALK ABOUT ARE HER BOOBS! LA, LA, LA, WHAT A BAD CHARACTER!”
It seems like there are plenty of female characters -- and characters, period -- out there that offer up something substantial. But I guess none of those people count. I guess we need characters that adhere to certain standards and sensibilities, and anyone that doesn’t is either awful, or only appeals to a lesser breed of an audience. It’s total bullshit, but it happens. And despite doing nothing wrong -- despite merely being characters that are part of an archetype that’s trying to evolve -- princesses are just one of those undesirables.
I know that that doesn’t apply to everyone, of course. There are those out there who look at stuff like Frozen and appreciate it for what it is, and find some sense of meaning behind the CG and songs. That’s awesome. I appreciate that. I wish we lived in a world where people could digest and discuss fiction more readily, instead of slamming it just because “I never asked for this.” Granted, I can be guilty of that, too -- how many times have I slammed Call of Duty? -- but I at least do that after there’s substantial proof that something or someone has gone wrong. I don’t hate generic soldier-men because they’re generic soldier-men. I hate them because they’re generic soldier-men who do nothing besides prove that they’re generic soldier-men.
The princess archetype may have some titanium-strong footing, but it’s not as if every last one of them is the same. Ariel is not the same as Belle. Belle is not the same as Jasmine. Jasmine is not the same as Kida. Kida is not the same as Peach, who is not the same as Zelda, who is not the same as Natalia, who is not the same as Elsa, who is not the same as Anna. All of them look different. All of them act different. All of them are different -- and at least try to bring something unique to the table.
What we need out of characters is diversity -- by design, by type, and by action. We’ll get there someday (if we haven’t already -- seriously, just look around a little), but for now, I think it’s worth remembering that mindless scorn will do us no favors. We need to push for more characters with good execution, because if they’re made well, then their unique parameters will only make them stronger. More memorable. An easier sell for ideas and beliefs.
Fiction has the power to teach us more than all the parents and teachers in the world. So how are we supposed to learn if we automatically reject anything that’s out of our comfort zones?
There's a good answer to that one: DON'T blindly reject. Give it a chance. You just might walk away with something to show for it.
And that’ll do it for now. See you guys…eventually. Whenever I do a full post on Frozen. It’ll probably be sooner rather than later, but who knows? There was a certain magical game I had lined up for discussion, but whatever. Ice queens beckon.
In the meantime? I don’t know. Sell me on your favorite Disney princess. You’re not spoiled for choice, I think.