The world needs more girl power stories. Why, then are so many of these stories so, well, bad? What makes a girl power story good?
Let’s be honest: women are underrepresented in media. Society is still misogynistic in a lot of ways. Most production companies are run by men. (Kathleen Kennedy of Lucasfilm serves as a notable exception.) Most film directors are also men.
When female characters appear, they are tend to lack the complexity of male characters. Sometimes they’re trophies to reward the hero at the end. That’s assuming they don’t get fridged, a term for a female character being killed, assaulted, or maimed to give a male character motivation. (The statistics are even worse when it comes to female characters of color, and for LBT+ women.)
The “girl power” trope aims to counter this. Since too many female characters don’t get their own superpower moments, whether that’s an actual physical superpower or character development, girl power stories give them that power.
In theory, that’s exactly what the world needs. However, good girl power stories are about girls. All too often, girl power stories tend to focus on what they aren’t. This leads to accusations of “Mary Sues,” both justified and (often) unjustified.
Girl Power Can Be The Same As Damsels In DistressAs awareness of diversity grows, so does the pressure on entertainment to keep up. Hence, there are a lot more girl power stories with “strong female characters.” However, all too often this leads to only one type of female character being acceptable: the physically strong girl who beats all the men. No more damsels in distress!
However, this is just the other side of the same coin.
Actress Natalie Portman commented in 2013:
The fallacy in Hollywood is that if you’re making a ‘feminist’ story, the woman kicks ass and wins… That’s not feminist, that’s macho. A movie about a weak, vulnerable woman can be feminist if it shows a real person that we can empathize with.
There are many different male character types in entertainment. The brooding bad boy. The pure soul. The nerd in over his head. The suave spy. Switching the damsel in distress or trophy girl character for the powerful girl is not progress. It’s more of the same.
A lack of diverse representation brings its own issues. Many people, for example, latched onto The Hunger Games‘ Katniss Everdeen as an example of a female character who didn’t want children. After all, the classic ending for a female protagonist is married with kids, but many women in real life don’t want that.
Except, the books make it explicitly clear Katniss does want kids. She’s just afraid. Katniss choosing to have kids was an empowering choice for her, a sign of progress through trauma. The world definitely needs more stories with women who don’t want children, but that was never Katniss’s story. If there were more stories that showed women with different wants and needs, fans may not have misinterpreted Katniss the way they did.
Female SuperheroesStories with female superheroes are often considered leaders in strong female characters. However, they have their own issues.
Avengers: Age of Ultron was widely criticized for its portrayal of Black Widow. As excellent as Avengers: Endgame was, it didn’t exactly end those criticisms. Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) sacrificed herself for Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) using, in part, the reasoning that Hawkeye has a a family and she does not. The girl power moment in the final battle changes nothing.
Marvel’s first female-led superhero movie, Captain Marvel, was subject to intense criticism as well. A lot of these were clearly sexist, what with trolls review bombing the film on Rotten Tomatoes from their caves.
Still, some of the critique was also valid. The story seemed somewhat soulless, designed to be a shiny corporate success at the expense of making Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) a standout character.
Most standout characters aren’t sanitized, after all. By sanitizing female character, supposed girl power stories can actually make their central characters seem less human, not more.
Mary SuesOf course, whenever the topic of “girl power” in media shows up, there’s another term that shows up. Fans and think-pieces toss out “Mary Sue” over and over again. What exactly a Mary Sue is, though, isn’t clear. While the term has its roots in an exceptional self-insert character, it’s not as if the self-insert superstar trope originated there (looking at you, Dante).
Nowadays, no one can agree on what a Mary Sue is exactly. Still, the lead of just about every girl power story bears this label. Male characters aren’t held to the same standard. For example, Luke Skywalker was definitely held to a different standard than Rey.
However, the story ultimately gave Luke a decent arc. Rey, not so much. The Last Jedi emphasizes her vulnerability, anger, and fear in an interesting way. Then The Rise of Skywalker undoes all of that, giving Rey a soulless girl power arc that had nothing to do with what made her a unique character and everything to do with how she fit in among the other characters.
The Rise of Skywalker‘s issues with women ruined more characters than just Rey. It’s hard to watch video of JJ Abrams praising casting Kelly Marie Tran as “the greatest [decision]” Rian Johnson made, watching Tran smile and nod, all while she knew Abrams had essentially written her character out of the follow-up movie.
Whatever any fan’s thoughts on Rose Tico, Abrams’ words here are classic lip service to girl power. In this case, it even crosses the boundary into real life. Not great, JJ.
Strong Female Characters Can Be Princesses, TooAmong Disney films, Pixar’s Brave stands out as a particularly poor pandering attempt. Merida’s “I’ll be shootin’ for my own hand!” isn’t empowering. It’s a soulless corporate spin on Disney Princess films. Rather than focus on its mother-daughter core, the story focused on Merida’s “I’m a cool Disney Princess, not like those other romantic ones” as its main message.
Brave was so clearly a cash-grab response to criticisms about Disney Princesses always waiting for their man to wake them from sleep that it forgot the entire appeal of fairy tales: love, in any form. A mother-daughter love story can be just as exciting as a romantic love story; see Turning Red as Exhibit A.
Compare Merida’s singleness to, say, Elsa in Frozen or Moana. Neither of those princesses end up with anyone. Their stories are still great stories, because their singleness isn’t the selling point of their characters. No, Elsa’s selling point is her flaw itself (well, and Idina Menzel’s voice). Moana’s is her determination in the face of everything going against her.
Their struggles make them memorable more so than their strengths.
Girl Power Is Not Power ItselfNetflix’s Shadow and Bone, based on Leigh Bardugo’s bestselling Grishaverse books, walks an interesting line. The writers incorporated the spin-off duology Six of Crows with the original trilogy. While that could be messy, the Crows shine as the series’ highlight. Everyone, even the show’s writers, wants a show focused solely on the Crows.
Why not? The Crows—Kaz, Inej, Wylan, Jesper, Nina, and Matthias—are all excellent characters. Inej (Amita Suman) and Nina (Danielle Galligan) are both fully realized female characters with flaws and femininity. They differ greatly from one another, yet both contribute to the series’ themes and plot. They’re powerful in their own way, yet vulnerable. Neither feels like an attempt to check off a box on a diversity spectrum.
Girl Power Is Girls’ HumanityIn contrast, the main trilogy’s Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) is… well. Bardugo intends to deconstruct the “bad boy” boyfriend through Alina’s relationship with the Darkling (Ben Barnes). Beauty and the Beast is out. Girl power is in.
Theoretically, this is fine. Alina boldly declares “it’s my power!” numerous times in the show. However, Alina doesn’t really do… anything. At all. If “show don’t tell” is a rule of writing, Shadow and Bone doesn’t come close to clearing it.
Everyone makes Alina’s choices for her. For example, Alina never uncovers the Darkling’s evil plan; his mother tells her, and Alina instantly trusts a woman who’s spent hours insulting her just because. She doesn’t need to find a magic firebird; no, the firebird finds her because of a supernatural, subconscious pull. She lectures her friends on the power of choices, but seldom makes any herself.
Alina worries about being similar to the Darkling, but not to worry, fans. Alina’s good because she just is, even when she’s demonstrably not. Never mind when she got all her friends killed in the series’ very first episode of the show; this will never be mentioned again. That was at least a choice she made, but it’s not like it will matter.
Alina is, in some ways, the embodiment of all that can go wrong with the “girl power” trope. Despite lip service to choice and the right to control her own life, to demand to be treated the way she deserves (with respect), Alina could easily be replaced with a magic lamp and the story would remain the same.
What would make Alina a strong female character is exactly what makes Inej and Nina those: vulnerability, not strength.
The Best Girl Power StoriesThis isn’t to say that writers never deconstruct of traditional media tropes for female characters in brilliant ways. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is an excellent deconstruction of the Chosen One trope. Even though it’s since become clear that the set environment was far from feminist, Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) remains an empowering figure for many.
However, Buffy was never just kick-ass. From the very first season, she struggled to get along with her family, struggled in school, mourned her losses. She could even be cruel and selfish, like abandoning her mom and friends for several months between seasons 2 and 3.
Buffy also had several romances, the most notable of which were with two “beastly” men. Her relationships with Angel and with Spike never detracted from her character. They challenged her view of herself as an island, challenged her thoughts on the depths of love, and helped her understand redemption.
Buffy also wasn’t the only powerful girl. Willow’s magic was both corrupting and saving. The finale chooses numerous powerful women and thematically emphasizes “our power is ours.” Unlike Shadow and Bone, though, it does this by showing the consequences of wielding the Slayer’s power.
The Subversive Girl Power Show: RWBYRWBY takes its cues from anime and particularly from the “magical girl” genre. In some ways, it directly alludes to the worst of the girl power tropes. However, RWBY ultimately subverts these tropes because RWBY is unabashedly a story of self discovery.
The girls look great fighting, but their physical powers are literally manifestations of elements of their souls. Their fears and their desires become their strengths.
For example, Yang’s power allows her to absorb the energy from a hit used against her and deliver it back against a foe. However, this means that Yang has to get hurt to hurt others… which is exactly how Yang responds emotionally to pain. It also symbolizes Yang’s low self-esteem in that she doesn’t value her own well-being, and her desire for her pain to have all been worth it in the end.
RWBY also offers other gender commentary. The guy who wants to be a hero and rescue damsels in distress needs to accept he is both hero and maiden in need of rescuing. The girl who has been raised a princess becomes both princess and knight. Needing rescue isn’t shameful; it’s human. Saving is heroic and saving is human, so perhaps being human is heroic.
Rather than present these ideas as dichotomies, RWBY shows that perceptions of gender do matter. However, the roles and perceptions of its characters are never the full story of who someone is. Both masculinity and femininity are empowering, and never more so than when embraced together instead of viewed as opposites.
What Makes Girl Power Empowering?It’s a shallow understanding to think girl power is just about girls kicking butt and taking names. What is truly empowering for girls out there is to see a human being on their screen or in a book.
A human being messes up, sometimes badly. A human being isn’t always likable. A woman can be weak. A woman can need to ask for help, to be rescued. And, of course, a woman can rescue a man, be charming, and save her world.
Yes, gender affects who a character is. Yet neither “better than a man” nor “needs a man” are empowering takes on female characters.
As Marie Shear once said, “feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” The best girl power stories just write women as human the same way they write any character.