Throughout my time as a blogger and a writer I have found that some of my most cherished works come from a feminist state of mind. I have never hidden the fact that I am a feminist nor do I allow myself to be shamed out of sharing my opinions by anti-feminists or others who disagree with my opinions. I fancy myself to be somewhat of a feminist critic of popular culture (with a focus on video games) and through the years, especially over the past few months, I have slowly been turning this website/blog into a place to post my critiques in an attempt to get people thinking differently and spark discussion. Since it’s something I do, and obviously something I take interest in, I find myself seeking out and following other like-minded people and websites. I enjoy places that post about human rights issues and feminism as well as places that focus on feminism in popular culture. There’s only one issue though as I have recently noticed a trend in which mainstream feminist writers and critics are becoming increasingly negative – and not in a good way.
I know very well that there is a lot of progress to be made when it comes to equality and fairness in the media and popular culture. I write about it often and talk about it even more. We have a long way to go but have also come a long way, there is more positive female representation now than ever before in areas of the media such as movies, television, comic books and video games. Yet many of the mainstream feminist critics I follow seem to have a tough time acknowledging this progress as of late and instead focus mainly on the negatives rather than any positive progress. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with wanting more, wanting something better and wanting it sooner rather than later. It’s something that many feminists around the world strive for, as we all should, for good reason. I am totally on board with pushing harder as opposed to being satisfied with what little we have received as a whole. At the same time I think it’s important to acknowledge the strides that feminism has taken and to celebrate the little victories rather than bemoan these victories for not being good enough, as many critics are doing. Sure, some victories truly aren’t good enough but there are plenty that are worthy of celebration even if they are simply baby steps in the right direction.
The general mindset that nothing is truly worthy of praise anymore has become a sort of malaise that is, in a way, weighing down the feminist movement within popular culture. Critics used to focus on the roles of women that were stereotypical and negative, however lately they have been criticizing every representation that isn’t “strong” or ultra-prominent. So when female characters are represented positively yet human (meaning flawed, emotional, not outstandingly strong, etc.) they are being criticized. Basically, many feminist critics are promoting the mindset that only one kind of character is truly deserving of praise (the strong female) as opposed to a plethora of types of characters (human, multidimensional, diverse in character) they claim to be fighting for.
In order to give a well-known example that I find clearly showcases this phenomenon I speak of, I will direct you to a portion of a previous article of mine centered around a hot button issue that is relatively well-known. In this article, which happens to be about a variety of things, I bring up a particular criticism about Scarlet Johansson’s character Black Widow in Marvel Studios’ film Avengers: Age of Ultron. In an attempt to avoid spoilers I will be as vague as possible in this description, if you would like more information I suggest you read my original article. In the film, Black Widow revealed a particular aspect of her life in order to relate to a romantic interest. We see her open up with this other character in a very human way, something we have yet to see her character truly do in these films outside of using emotion for manipulation of the enemy. After Age of Ultron was released, however, critics and fans everywhere were outraged at this reveal. Feminist critics across the web pointed out how sexist it was for director Joss Whedon to make Black Widow’s backstory include this particular information and even have a romantic interest at all. Every critic had varying degrees of anger towards the issue, but it basically boiled down to a bunch of people claiming that in order to be a positive female character one must not be involved in a romantic relationship or have issues related to the information she divulged in the film. What’s wrong with this, as I have claimed many times in the past (including within the original article), is that it’s rather human for women to have romantic interests as given that this one wasn’t forced upon her character unwillingly or out of the blue I don’t see how it was ever considered “sexist”.
This isn’t the first, nor will it be the last, case in which fictional female characters have been criticized for being negatively represented by showcasing natural human emotions and particular health issues. For some critics, it seems, unless a female character is flawless and consistently strong with no romantic connections then she is a negatively represented character. What bothers me is that these critiques, which are coming from feminist writers everywhere, are becoming more common and more negative. It’s true that some characters out there are without a doubt represented in negative/sexist ways and we should definitely continue to bring attention to them because focusing on the negative representations and consistently calling them out through well thought out critiques helps to usher in a new age of positive representations. At the same time when only the negatives are being talked about, especially criticizing human representation as if it’s a negative, and no one praises the positives as vehemently as the negatives then I feel it sets us back. How can we make progress if we rarely praise creators for positive female characters or stick to criticizing one mildly offensive thing and never let it go rather than focusing on a more broad spectrum of negatives? It may make sense from the inside of the feminist movement but to outsiders and potential allies (or even to some feminists such as myself) it makes feminist critique in popular culture look nit-picky and contentious.
Another example of flawed yet common feminist critique that I’d like to mention is Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider franchise. Due to the fact that Lara Croft is a well-known character and the Tomb Raider series spans back all the way to 1996, many critics use her as a benchmark of how not to create female characters. I typically see her used as an example of a negative representation for her busty figure and “skimpy” clothing, regardless of how much she has changed since the 2013 reboot of the Tomb Raider series. The problem I have is that not only are these critiques failing to look past her looks and clothing, since women are more than how they look or dress, but that they also fail to realize that there are way worse representations of female video game characters. So critics who are choosing to focus on Lara Croft are continuously singling out one character (most likely due to her popularity among gamers and non-gamers alike) when that character isn’t even close to the worst, most sexist video game character out there. Instead of realizing that the newer, rebooted Lara Croft dresses more sensibly and has a more natural physique and thus choosing to focus on other characters who present more of a problem to female representation in video games, they focus on a stale argument that has basically become irrelevant. The fact of the matter is that there are more characters deserving of more attention and a call for a more positive representation out there than Lara Croft, focusing on her or any other character in such a way only halts progress in the fight for better female representation.
The bottom line here is that while I do think pointing out the negatives is extremely necessary, so is praising the positives. It’s also important to be more thoughtful when it comes to critiques of negative characterizations and make sure that the focus is on the proper thing. When feminist critics criticize a negative characterization it’s done to invoke change, to say “this is wrong”, but at times I think that figuring out what is wrong is more complicated than it seems. I don’t wish to blame critics for being negative about the wrong things but rather urge them to think a little deeper and stop criticizing female characters for not being the be all, end all of badassery. It’s easy to lose sight of what we are really fighting for, I completely understand that, but we have to try to remember than not all characters (female or male) are created equal. There should always be variety, as long as that variety is positive, and a female character who maybe relies on a partner or cries when she is upset isn’t automatically a negative representation. While I definitely want to see critiques of real, harmful and negative representations of female characters I’d also like to see more praise for positive characters – and not just Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road. There are so many positive representations of females in fictional media and they deserve some spotlight if for no other reason than to show creators and future creators what is positive and what isn’t. I believe that it’s just as important to draw attention to well done characters as it is to call out poorly done characters, and both should and can be done simultaneously if we put in the effort to do so.