S.L. Huang: On The Subject Of Unlikable Women Protagonists
S.L. Huang said she wanted to talk about asshole protagonists, and why they always had to be men. I told her that I am the audience for that post and, I think, so are you guys. As such, here she is to talk about the subject — with a bonus table included! Also, check out her newest — Half-Life, which features high-octane math as a powerful superpower.
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I love asshole protagonists.
Or rather, I love a particular breed of them: protagonists who are brusque and violent, egotistical and snarky, but when the chips are down and the friends they’d never admit they care about are in danger, they’ll break the world to save them. Characters like Tony Stark, Sherlock Holmes, the Doctor, Rodney McKay, Spike, Wolverine, Artemis Fowl, Dean Winchester…
You might notice it’s a lot, lot easier to think of male characters who embody this archetype. And, in contrast to the many sympathetic asshole men who lead their own stories, the awesome ladies who are both jerks and heroes often aren’t the main protagonists: Faith and Anya from Buffy, H.G. Wells from Warehouse 13, Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica, Hermione from Harry Potter. We’ve got a few great leads and co-leads in genre — Maree from Deep Secret, Katniss from The Hunger Games, Miriam Black from Blackbirds, just for example. But for every woman who fits this mold, I can think of many more men: Bones and Body of Proof go up against Monk/Psych/Sherlock/The Mentalist/Endgame/Elementary/House, The Heat is one film outstripped in numbers by every other buddy cop movie ever made, and so on.
In fact, I did some math! Narrowing solely to written fiction for the moment, since that’s what I’m about to talk about, I looked at the “literature” section of a bunch of the TV Tropes pages that match the asshole hero archetype I’m talking about:
|Character Trope||Male Examples||Female Examples||Genderqueer Examples||Percentage Female|
|“Jerk with a Heart of Gold”||63||12||0||12/75 = 16%|
|“Sociopathic Hero”||16||2||0||2/18 = 10%|
|“Loveable Rogue”||47||1||0||1/48 = 2%|
|“Unscrupulous Hero”||8||0||0||0/8 = 0%|
|“Good Is Not Nice”||58||13||0||13/71 = 18%|
|Overall Average||THIRTEEN. FUCKING. PERCENT.|
Notes: Literature section only, accessed 1/15/2015. I did a search on any name that didn’t have a pronoun attached. And this is not counting who is a lead character and who is supporting — I’m willing to bet that number would go down if we narrowed to only protagonists.
Certainly part of the problem is that we don’t have enough women in media, period. After all, only about 30 percent of speaking roles in movies go to women, and I’m not hopeful the written word is eons ahead. But 13 percent is way way way lower than that, and also lower than other, more positive TV Tropes categories, even those we might expect to be gendered — “Minored in Ass Kicking,” for example, is more than 1/3 female.
This disparity in such magnificent assholery disturbs me greatly. It disturbs me enough that when I started writing what would eventually become Zero Sum Game, I purposely made my asshole antihero protagonist a woman, and it disturbs me enough that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it when interacting with other writers since then.
And I have a conjecture.
You see, as I’ve meandered through the depths of the Internet Writer Community, I see one question asked time and again: “How do I write good female characters?” I see people so worried — worried their fictional ladies will come off as bitches or whores or mean girls or ditzes or doormats or damsels or Mary Sues. And I see people carefully constructing their fictional women to be sexy but not slutty, confident but not arrogant, smart but not insufferable, flawed but not too flawed.
Because good representation, amirite?
But this desire to make fictional women somehow unobjectionable can flatten out everything that makes characters the most compelling. After all, stories are not built on unobjectionable people! There’s an excellent essay by Rose Lemberg that makes the point better than I could: I want female characters, particularly main characters, who are allowed not to be good. I don’t mean that just in a moral sense, although yeah, that, too — but I also want women who are bad at things, or just fucking terrible at being human. Women who are not nice. Who fail. Who make disastrous mistakes. Women who are unstoppable in combat but a disgrace at basic human interaction, or women who are fantastic diplomats but can’t hit the broad side of a planet with a weapon.
And yes, I want more women who are assholes.
When we don’t let women live the whole range of fucked-up humanity, we miss out. Just look at the list of male characters I started with at the beginning — every one of them can be a horrible jerk, but every one of them has an intense fanbase of people who love and connect with them. Hell, if you tried to take those characters away, Tumblr would melt the entire internet in rage. And I’m one of those fans! But I want me more lady antiheroes as well — and that can’t happen unless we let female characters be jerks too.
Let’s have more Starbucks and Marees and Olivia Popes. Let’s populate fiction with women who are every type of humanity — assholes and all.
Who’s with me?
S.L. Huang is the author of Zero Sum Game and its sequel Half Life, the first two books in a series starring an asshole female protagonist. You can find her online at www.slhuang.com or on Twitter as @sl_huang.