Hello from Fantastic Fangirls! We are pleased this week to bring to you a post from Friend of the Blog Rachel Edidin. Rachel would like a word in your ear about Strong Female Protagonists. Without further ado, Ms Edidin —
So. My friend Kel McDonald is currently running a kickstarter for a comic called Fame and Misfortune. You should, of course, go fund it, because it’s gonna be awesome*, but that’s not why I’m telling you about it.
What I want to talk about is the main character of Fame and Misfortune, Rebecca Gadling. See, Kel posted a preview of the first ten pages of F&M, and it got people talking. And an awful lot of them are saying things like this:
“…rebecca kinda looked like a man which made it realy confusing when they pronounced her name…”
“Really nice! I’m intrigued already and wanting to know what happens next and what all is going on… however I will say that it’d be nice if Rebecca looked a bit less like a man. It’d be less confusing”
“It does look promising and it’s nice to see the interaction between Rebecca and Connor, and witness Rebecca’s abilities. But I also agree that she looks like a man and that’s quite confusing.”
“Wow, the plot is good, and the art is interesting and attractive.. but Rebecca looks like a MAN. And it’s, well, really distracting. Really manly. So, were you going for the butch look?”
Here are a few more that didn’t make it past moderation:
“I’m sad that Rebecca looks like a man when she grows up.”
“why does that man have boobs? and why does he have Danny’s broken nose? wait a minute… why are they calling him Rebecca?”
“That, my friends IS a man. Rebecca deserves a redesign.”
And here’s the character they’re talking about:
Rebecca’s design is my single favorite thing about Fame & Misfortune.
This is the kind of character I will buy a book for. Look at her: She’s tall, muscular, and generally physically imposing–and she knows it, and plays it up. I totally buy this woman as a bodyguard. She’s not afraid to take up space. She’s got practical, shortish hair that’s just shaggy enough to perpetually look in need of a trim. She dresses practically, almost androgynously–except, there’s that halter top, and the overshirt that’s clearly designed to accentuate both her breasts and her ripped-as-hell shoulders, which means that either she doesn’t give a fuck about cohesive gender presentation, or she’s playing it deliberately, and either way, I’m sold.
Here’s the clincher: She’s not pretty.
That Rebecca is big, and strong, and most of all that she’s not pretty says, clearly and loudly, that this isn’t a character whose purpose is to titillate or please the viewer. If I pick up this comic, I know Rebecca’s function in the story isn’t going to be limited to eye candy. She’s a Michelle Rodriguez⁺ in a world full of Summer Glaus.
(Of course, that carries its own cost. Ask Michelle Rodriguez: “Saying no to the girlfriend, saying no to the girl that gets captured, no to this, no to that. and eventually I just got left with the strong chick that’s always being killed and there’s nothing wrong with that.”)
It wouldn’t be a big deal if she were pretty, really. It’s comics–everyone is supposed to be pretty, right? Superhero books are full of Hollywood-style fake-ugly girls, models with the cursory coding of a pair of glasses or heavy bangs, bombshells but for the grace of plot demands. There are tropes built around this, and those tropes fly fast and fierce around action-hero ladies in particular: They can fight, but they have to do it while being waifish and nonthreatening and very very femme; and, above all, they have to be traditionally attractive. That an action lady can kick any given straight male fan’s ass six ways from Sunday just makes her a better status symbol in his wish-fulfillment fantasy. These are the River Tams, and the Natasha Romanovs, and the Alices, and the Buffys; and yes, they’re all strong and interesting and complex, but first and foremost, they are all pretty. That’s the price of a female action hero: our mainstream visual media flat-out doesn’t have a place for female protagonists who you can’t fantasize about taking home to make the football team jealous, so we get compromises, where the girl can be strong and fierce, but only as long as she’s also a perfect size two with long hair that falls just so. There are very occasional exceptions–Brienne of Tarth is a notable and recently visible one–but never protagonists, and more often than not, their formidability is played as freakishness, muffling the vulnerable waif within. There is no female analogue to Ron Perlman or Bruce Willis.
And that’s precisely what makes Rebecca so transgressive, and so very, very important. It’s not just that she gets to be big, and tough, and strong, and a little genderfucky, without being punished for it. It’s that she gets to be all those things, and she’s a protagonist. Rebecca’s the goddamn hero. Spoiler: She’s not going to die in act two. She’s not going to get the makeover that’s the only thing holding her back from running through a field laughing with newly shiny hair and a sundress and a boy large enough to make her look delicate. Rebecca doesn’t give a fuck about looking delicate. She speaks loudly and clearly to a different kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy–one I’m far hungrier for.
*It really is. I’ve seen the script. Plus, If it gets to $10k, there’s gonna be a limited-edition hardcover, and I really, really want one; and at just $5k, there’ll be a sketchbook with character design process stuff. And hell, all that aside, imagine how cool it would be to have a market where comics like this not only exist but are financially rewarding for their creators, and then go do your part to make that happen.
⁺Look, we all know Michelle Rodriguez is hot as all fuck. But actual hotness and Hollywood’s impossibly narrow window of acceptably homogenous hotness are two very different animals.