In Exemplar: Strong Female Characters

Something I think we don’t do enough of when thinking about entertainment is point out examples of the world getting it right. There are endless examples of getting it wrong – a handful of recent examples include the absolutely vile harassment experienced by Anita Sarkeesian for suggesting – just suggesting! – that maybe video games have been getting it wrong when it comes to women. And it’s ludicrous that she’s even suggesting that it might not be true, because it’s been true for twenty years or more. There are four or five places in geek culture where women can’t seem to catch a break – even when they’re brainy, cultured masterminds, they’re still sex kittens. They’re still showing off their asses and being hypersexualized. The one place that consistently seems to nail it?

Western animation.

I have to be specific there, and I feel bad about being so specific, but Japanese Anime – that is to say, not just animation produced in Japan but for Japan – has a tendency toward the same sex doll problem that all of our other major forms of nerdy mass media experience. We’ve been kind of nailing it with strong female characters in action shows for as long as I can remember. Even when I think back to Batman: The Animated Series, while Selina Kyle was a beautiful, seductive woman, she also started out as an environmental conservationist rather than a thief for the sake of thievery. She was obviously and consistently conflicted about her feelings both for Bruce and for Batman, and episodes when they teamed up were more common than episodes when they fought. When Bruce Timm took the whole thing in a darker direction, she lost some of that tonality and turned more into a sex object, but her motivations and personality was still three dimensional enough that she became what I think of as the generally harmless sex object – plus, she’s completely covered up, and Timm’s style basically meant she was only ever a silhouette anyway. But I can jump from action cartoon to action cartoon of my youth, and there’s always a strong female character – Jasmine in the Aladdin animated series, or, possibly my favorite of all time, Elisa Maza in Gargoyles. These were all women with feelings, concerns, opinions, beliefs, goals, strengths, and, indeed, weaknesses. Elisa rarely saw the forest for the trees when it came down to her morals, constantly breaking laws to preserve her friendships with the Gargoyles. Her assumptions and zeal about Xanatos even drove her brother straight into the madman’s plans and wound up making him into a catman. Wow, that show probably really appeals to furries, huh? I hadn’t thought of that.

It’s been a long time since I sat down and tried to understand what they’re doing on modern action cartoons. Young Justice, unsurprisingly, features a lot of strong female characters. Hell, it’s Greg Weisman using both the adult members of the Justice League and their sidekicks to explore modern parent-child relationships. Bruce Timm did a little bit of this with Batman Beyond, but I don’t think he had the opportunity to explore it very deeply (even there, Mary McGinnis, Terry’s single mom, always held her shit together). It’s really clever. (Even Black Canary, who has ebbed and flowed between sexpot and deep, nuanced woman, is the show’s guidance counselor. So she has a vaguely BDSM get-up, but she’s sitting there, very neutrally, offering guidance and support to the kids. It’s very bizarre, and useful in another way – her appearance, which is approaching the fringes of what normal society might think of as deviant, doesn’t determine her intellectual capability) I’m sure there are others, but the one I was always curious about was Avatar: The Last Airbender. I never had the opportunity to watch much of the show, because the voice work and, occasionally, the animation often agitated me. I don’t care for the direction a lot of modern voice recording has taken, where they insist that every boy under 12 has a high-pitched, squeaky voice, and every girl the same age is even higher. That’s not how I get down. Having now watched a bit of Avatar: The Last Airbender, it’s not as bad as all that, but the eastern influences still kind of drew me out of it. Interestingly, other than the motions the characters make and their overall design aesthetic, that wanes as the series progresses. And all of the females present are deep, complicated characters with an array of responsibilities on the show.

Where they have absolutely killed it is on the Legend of Korra, which is a series that serves as a sequel to the first Avatar series. And what I mean by that is that they have nailed strong young woman in the eponymous heroine. It’s not just that Korra is headstrong, honest, vulnerable, and talented. It’s in the character design. My favorite part of this is that Korra visibly looks like a chick that could beat the shit out of me, and she absolutely should. Some of the “classic” feminine lines that got maybe overemphasized in Bruce Timm’s style and sort of defined Starfire and Raven from the Teen Titans animated series are very muted on Korra. She’s trained her whole life for one purpose, physically trained, and that actual, factual musculature is visible on the character. There was a time when you drawing a buff chick meant you needed to put her in a Tankgirl-style outfit, but that’s not the case with Korra. She’s vastly more Gina Carano (not the pictures you can Google of her, more the images of Gina fighting and training) than she is anything else. I give them huge props for that choice, and it’s probably one, as stupid as this is, that they had to fight for. That said, she’s still pretty. They can still draw this simple animated character and evoke the image of an attractive female, and plenty of dudes in the show notice. Hell, it takes exactly 2 episodes for her to get hit on by a professional sports dude, and the simple and direct way she shuts him down is a testament to writing an intelligent, if a little bit coy, female lead.

Plus her voice over is very alto, which, I mean, okay, I’m a little biased: I prefer that to anything else. That’s just me being who I am; can’t help it. I’m also aware that it’s motivated out of a place of attraction. Chicks with a strong alto register are sexy to me; it’s just a fact. I’m utterly unashamed. But it’s more that I identify the choice they made with the voice actress as not thinking “well, we want her to purr all her lines,” and more thinking “we want her to sound like a girl on the line of adulthood,” and then they give her all the problems (and plenty more) that go along with that.

So, good job, animation industry. You guys consistently knock it out of the park with this. Not always – plenty of bad examples abound as well – but your most successful programs tend toward a mature, reasoned expression of a well-rounded, strong, successful female.

Now if you could only work in a broader array of non-normative sexualities without making a huge deal out of it, you’d literally be the most forward-moving venue for visual storytelling. Sure, the allegories abound in the stories you do tell, in their subtext, but that suggestion in and of itself seems to say that non-hetero sexuality is a thing that exists and must be addressed, but, hey, whoa, jack. This here’s America.

We don’t grok to that in our cartoons yet. That’s one place the Japanese are kicking our asses, but I have faith that when we get there, we’ll be able to do it tastefully and with respect (rather than some of the more extreme examples to arise from the land of the rising sun).