Fiction and Feminism: Why Not All Women In Fiction Can (Or Should) Be Feminists

A still featuring female characters Pepper Potts, The Scarlet Witch, Captain Marvel, and Shuri, from “Avengers: Endgame” (2019).

In the past few years, we have seen the stigma surrounding the label “feminist” very slowly begin to lose its hold, and as we often see when our political and social climates change, so does our fiction.

What we are seeing now are writers attempting to present us with female characters who are more complex in their personalities, needs, and wants rather than being made to simply be extensions of their male counterparts. Obviously, this is a good thing. However, some, it seems, are sacrificing good storytelling and complexity for the sake of presenting the most feminist characters, while others seem to believe the only well-written women are feminists — which is, ironically, very limiting.

If you merely scrape the surface of feminism, you might think about things like cute “Smash the Patriarchy!” memes and quotes like “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” but upon diving deeper, you will find that feminism is not so black and white.

Two women standing side by side in front of the US Capitol. Sign held by woman on left states, “Protect: Black, Asian, Muslim, Latinx, Disabled, Trans, Fat, Poor, WOMEN.” Sign held by woman on left states, “If you don’t fight for ALL women you fight for NO women.”

No two women are the same and what’s empowering for a white woman is not always what is empowering for a woman of color. What is empowering for a cisgender woman is not always the same as what’s empowering for a transgender woman. What’s empowering for a woman with no disabilities is not the same as what’s empowering for a woman with disabilities. With this in mind, attempting to create a character to be the epitome of what an empowered woman looks like, wants, or needs is bound to leave out a good portion of women. Yes, writers should feel encouraged to write empowered women, but they should not strive to define empowerment through these women.

Many feminists look up to characters like Wonder Woman, but that doesn’t mean all women in fiction should be Wonder Woman. If we required all women in fiction to be written as feminists, the stories surrounding women would be limited in variety. Not to mention, we would be without some of our favorite Disney villainesses.

Just think about that last part for a second.

If we required all women in fiction to pass the Bechdel test, we would be without 2000’s cult classic The Emperor’s New Groove’s Yzma, and how could that movie even work without Yzma?

Yzma from “The Emperor’s New Groove”

I don’t believe there are many women out there who could be considered 100% anti-feminist — even the ones who vehemently reject the feminist label. At the end of the day, the majority of us just want to be treated with basic respect. The same applies to women in fiction. If writers and consumers choose to preoccupy themselves with branding a woman either as “feminist” or “not feminist” based on certain actions, it’s denying that woman any layers or potential growth.

From Tumblr blog Super-Hero-Confessions. In the background is an image of a present day version of Harley Quinn on the left and classic Harley Quinn on the right. Confession presented states, “They’ve changed Harley too much. At this point she’s just a shitty female Deadpool. [DC] had so many women they could’ve used (heroes and villains), yet they take the one who was the farthest away from being a feminist icon and basically change her entire personality for fan service. Um, attention to [DC]!!!! Some people like the old Harley.”

DC’s Harley Quinn, for example, has become one of the comic brand’s most popular characters, yet she could not have been described as the epitome of feminism when her character first appeared in Batman: The Animated Series in 1992. In fact, Harley was an example of the worst that could happen to a woman who puts the needs of an abuser before her own. But as time progressed, fans witnessed the character grow across many continuities. She left Joker, entered a new relationship with Poison Ivy, and has become more of an anti-hero than a villain. Yet, there are some who do not believe her to be well-written because of her not-so-feminist origins. But again, we should not be measuring the quality of writing surrounding women in fiction based on how feminist they are. Additionally, even if we had to, isn’t part of being a feminist owning your past mistakes and growing from them?

2017’s Wonder Woman worked for audiences because the writing didn’t talk down to us. Wonder Woman is already widely known to be a feminist character, so the writing simply built a story around that. The now iconic “No Man’s Land” scene is powerful because Diana’s (Gal Gadot) actions speak for themselves as she bravely walks towards enemy fire with her head held high despite being told she “can’t save everyone.” At no point in the scene is her womanhood commented on. The audience is treated with respect as we can clearly see the significance of it ourselves.

Wonder Woman dodges bullets during her film’s “No Man’s Land” scene

2019’s Avengers: Endgame tried something similar but fell short. In the midst of the climatic battle, Spider-Man (Tom Holland) meets Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) and nervously questions how she’ll get through Thanos’s approaching army. That’s when we see all the heroines of the MCU (minus Black Widow) appear as if from nowhere and assure him “she’s got help” and rally around her.

Now, my criticism for this scene is not meant to imply that the franchise has not introduced its share of interesting, complex, and enjoyable women over the years — it has. However, this scene fails at what it’s trying to convey for a number of reasons.

For one thing, as mentioned, the scene is missing Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) who earlier sacrificed herself for the mission and would later barely be mentioned while her male teammate, Tony Stark, aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), is given a full funeral scene. The other reason it misses the mark is because while Wonder Woman’s “No Man’s Land” occurs naturally, Endgame’s “She’s Got Help” scene feels forced and placed randomly in the movie in a ‘Look-How-Feminist-We Are’ way.

Should more care and consideration be put into the way we present women in our fiction? Absolutely! However, we will find ourselves in a no-win situation if we set out to make all of our women prime examples of feminism without acknowledging feminism’s complexities. Along with this, attempting to write all women as feminist in some way limits the potential stories we write, and our themes of feminism could come off as forced and eye-roll inducing.

Gone are the days of which women in fiction mostly existed to support their male counterparts, and it’s about time. However, the answer is not to force feminism on them. The answer is to provide your audience with more of a variety of women — meaning not all of them can (or should) be feminists.

You may call me Shafira. I enjoy speculative fiction, and I write about it here.

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