You may have noticed over the past couple of millennia or so that in some parts of the world, women get treated like total freaking crap. From big damn deals like human rights violations to little stuff like, oh, constantly devaluing anything perceived as feminine, the real world is a bonkers minefield of misery that no woman ever truly survives. The teen years are especially brutal, as girls are under immense pressure to be wise beyond their years, and are expected to react to situations and make critical decisions as though they were adult women with decades of life experience. Any age-appropriate expression of emotion is labeled “immature” or “hysterical” or, horror of horrors, “weak.”
Gosh, it’s a good thing we don’t treat fictional female characters like that. Just the terrible ones. The ones with unrealistic and unredeemable motivations.
Let me make it clear: It’s not my fault that the very worst characters in science fiction and fantasy just happen to be teenage girls, and this opinion is certainly not formed on a lifetime of exposure to misogyny.
Let's look at the facts:
Case Study #1: Bella Swan
Has there ever been a character more hated than Bella Swan? A sullen, selfish girl who moves to the Pacific Northwest because she hates sunshine and friendship and not being sullen and selfish. The only thing she cares about (because she’s flat and two-dimensional) is mooning over a boy who looks like the genetic fusion of a Ken doll and a Treasure Troll. God, she sucks so much.
See, when I was a kid who felt like she had to parent her own mother and then my mother married a baseball player with the full knowledge that she couldn’t responsibly abandon her life and go on the road with him, I handled it like any teenage girl rightly should. I definitely didn’t decide to move in with the stable, if distant, parent rather than move around the country chasing my new stepfather’s job while feeling like a third wheel constantly c*ckblocking my mom with my very existence.
And when I met a hot vampire with a hot vampire family that lived together in, again, a stable situation with the bonus of emotionally healthy relationships to each other, I was like, no way! Take off, vampire! Sure, you can give me immortality and cut down on how much I spend on highlighter, but I’m going to pass on being an eternally teenage daughter of two loving and functional adult parents who will cherish me as their own forever. Pff. That kind of longing is for whiny losers.
Ugh, and let me tell you about Bella’s whining. I mean, that breakup? How overdramatic can you possibly be? You only just had the promise of being a part of a family you’ve clearly longed for ripped away from you by your first love. How dare you get severely depressed about that for a couple of months. I mean, really, how dare you? So, your life is being plunged back into the hopeless state you were in at the beginning of your journey. Two words for you: Big. And whoop.
Case Study #2: Rey
Look, I love a strong female character as much as anybody. Girls can do anything a boy can do.
Except be a Jedi.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying a woman can’t be a Jedi. I’m just saying that it’s a little far-fetched that a teenager stuck on a miserable desert planet and dreaming of more could just like, accidentally run into an important robot, triggering a sequence of events that result in said teenager’s involvement in an intergalactic rebellion. That kind of thing just doesn’t happen in Star Wars canon. Everything about Rey is horrible, Mary Sue pablum meant to appease the ravenous social justice warriors of the internet.
Imagine if Luke or Darth Vader had never heard of the force, only to find out that they’re suddenly and without explanation super-duper good at it. I mean, I would definitely be complaining as loudly about them. It definitely has nothing to do with Rey being a girl. Heavens no.
Case Study #3: Dawn Summers
You know who I love? Strong women. The stronger, the better. For example, Buffy Summers. But man, her sister sucked. She was so annoying, always crying about this or stealing that. I mean, who can forget that classic line, “Dawn’s in trouble? Must be Tuesday?” Get it? Because the show aired on Tuesdays? And also, Dawn wasn’t even the character who caused the dangerous events of that episode? Oh man, that’s so clever and in no way vilified an unfairly disliked character even more.
But you know who wasn’t clever? Dawn. She just shows up out of nowhere, like she’s Leonardo DiCaprio on Growing Pains, just sliding in to announce the death of the series. Dawn not only showed up out of nowhere, she couldn’t even act like an adult. I mean, she was a non-sentient ball of energy for centuries, sure. And monks decided that the perfect form for her would be a teen girl. So, she went from not existing to existing in an already constructed life and then she behaves according to plan? You’re like, several months old at this point. No more excuses, Dawn!
Plus, can you even deal with how she reacted to finding out she wasn’t a real person? Total weaksauce, am I right? I mean, OK, so you just found out that your entire life is a lie, that any memory your loved ones have of you is due to massive cosmic gaslighting, and that you’re destined to be a human sacrifice at the hands of an angry goddess. Who hasn’t been through something at least that bad? We’ve all got our problems, kiddo, but it’s all about how you respond to them. Shoplifting? Making out with vampires? Pushing her loved ones away due to the emotional torment of being a supernatural being with no one in the universe who shares her experience? Putting people in danger?
None of the other teenage female characters on the show ever did any of those things. Ever.
I mean, let’s face it. Just because your mother suddenly died doesn’t mean you get to just act out. What do you think this is? Grief? And I bet when the woman who became your stand-in nurturer gets shot, you’ll just sit on the floor by her dead body, all traumatized and doing nothing. Like some kind of real-life trauma response. Pff.
Am I right?
Case Study #4: Ariel
Crushes are intense. I get it. But are you really going to give up your voice for a pair of legs just to try to get with a guy who’s never even talked to you? Because that was exactly your motivation for going to see Ursula. Not the fact that your father, the king, has no interest in parenting you until he can fly off the handle and break all your shit in an abusive rage.
What, you’re saying dads shouldn’t do that? Next, you’re going to tell me that outsourcing all parenting to a childless choir teacher of an entirely different species is somehow “not normal” or “damaging to the kid.” Or that an adult should have noticed that Ariel’s obsession with the dangerous species who murdered her mother is some kind of trauma response that requires therapy. At 16 years old, does a chronically ignored girl who can go missing at a family event ostensibly held in her honor without anyone noticing even need any kind of emotional care?
Sure if her dad hadn’t totally trashed her entire room and everything she owned, she would probably just be hanging around outside her crush’s castle and daydreaming over him, and maybe having an actual conversation because she didn’t sell her voice to a sea witch. But I, like generations of moviegoers, refuse to lay any of the blame for her youthful, misguided actions on the one figure in her life who should have addressed the issues that led to that disastrous choice in the first place.
In conclusion, it’s pretty obvious that when you look at these characters from my egalitarian position, they simply aren't normal people we could probably all empathize with once we put their actions and emotions into context or acknowledge that certain tropes are only acceptable for male characters. Simply remove the part where they're members of a much-maligned demographic and you'll see that all teen girls in science fiction and fantasy stories are over-the-top monsters who deserve all the derision the zeitgeist has thrown at them.
Now, I’m off to watch Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire for the 27th time. I’ll mute all of the Hermoine parts, of course. I’m not a masochist.