Wednesday, May 4th, 2016 02:15 pm
The comments to my last post on the subject made me realise I hadn't expressed myself very clearly, so I've been waiting until I felt clear headed enough to lay out my argument properly, and here we are.

My point: female protagonists are almost always the least invested in feminine presentation compared to other female characters in the story.

I'm not saying there's no such thing as major sympathetic female characters who care more about feminine presentation than other female characters in the story. There's lots of those. I am strictly talking about protagonists.

In most cases the main character is the best at looking pretty, but that's not the same as being the most invested. A common trope is the protagonist being forced to dress up prettily and looking fabulous with no effort on her part. Another common trope, especially on tv, is her looking fabulous and fairly girly despite explicitely "not caring". As many butch women have pointed out, mainstream fiction actually portrays women as being, overall, much more invested in feminine presentation than they are in reality. You almost never see genuinely butch women, instead many female protagonists SAY they don't care about feminine presentation but clearly LOOK like someone who cares a great deal.

I'm not saying that these stories are neccesarily sexist, especially not something like Fun Home which explores the generally ignored experiences of butch women. I just think it's notable that female protagonists are so limited, and want to poke at it.

So: female protagonists tend to fit into one of the following two categories:

  1. All female characters are equally invested in feminine presentation, and it is implied that all women everywhere are similarly invested. Examples: a lot of chick lit (possibly Sex in the City?), magical girl shows.
  2. The main character is not majorly invested in feminine presentation, but other women in the story are. Examples: The Princess and the Frog.
  3. Mostly like one of the two above types, but there's a highly unsympathetic, "ugly" female character who does feminine presentation wrong, and basically doesn't count as a real person. I can't think of any examples off the top of my head but feel like I have seen them. Once you remove the "non people" it returns to being type 1 or 2, so it's not a real counterexample.

Sometimes type 1 stories have all women being very invested in femininity, including the main character, who will often be the best at it. Sometimes they're all less invested. But noone is less invested than the protagonist. Stories where the female protagonist is the only female character are type 1 by default.

Sometimes type 2 stories paint more invested women as shallow bitches, other times they are sympathetic and their interests presented as valid. But they're not the protagonist.

I'm not counting stories with male protagonists where the most major female character is the most invested of the female characters. But if anyone has examples of stories with male or non binary protagonists who are more invested in presenting in a feminine way than other characters of any gender, I would love to hear them :) (Please do not give me examples of NON PROTAGONIST characters, no matter how feminine)

Ensemble stories with more than one main female character will always to some extent fit into one of these categories: either the female characters are equally invested in feminine presentation, or one of them is the least invested and is as much the main character as anyone else. So they don't work as counterexamples, especially because a lot of the time, to the extent that there is a most central character, it's a (non feminine) guy.

Now: the few examples I have found of female protagonists who care more about feminine presentation than other women in the story:

  • Buffy from Buffy
  • Elle from Legally Blonde
  • Annie from Gunnerkrigg Court, who wears makeup when her tomboyish female bff does not
  • The protagonist of Sarah Rees Brennan's Untold series ([personal profile] skygiants's suggestion, I haven't read it myself)
  • Aisha from Aisha and Cher from Clueless, both modern retellings of Emma that turn Emma's advice to Harriet on being more upper class into fashion advice
  • Carrie from Sex in the City ([personal profile] whatistigerbalm's suggestion, haven't watched much myself)

With Aisha and Clueless I think it's an artifact of "being upper class while female" translating most easily into fashion consciousness, and it could be argued that it's still more about class than gender. Buffy and Legally Blonde are both explicitely about letting the kind of girly character who never gets taken seriously be the hero. Gunnerkrigg Court lets Annie's femininity go largely unremarked, and is the only example of a story I can think of with a feminine main character with a tomboyish female best friend, it's usually the other way around. They're all different kinds of story, and there's a lot of other kinds of story you could tell with such protagonists that I have never seen.

So why is (almost) nobody telling them, not even feminist authors?

It's not as simple as "people don't like characters who are invested in femininity". That's definitely part of it, especially with the "women who care about femininity are shallow and stupid" subset of type 2 stories. But there's all the type 1 stories where ALL women are super invested in femininity, and all the type 2 and ensemble stories with sympathetic, major characters who care more about feminine presentation than the story minimum. And it doesn't explain this contradiction: women who don't care about presenting as feminine are the most common except in those stories where the protagonist cares, in which case there are none at all.

So I'm not sure. I mean, it's obviously The Patriachy in some way, but I can't figure out the specifics. Male protagonists are allowed to care more about looking good, in a masculine way, than other slobby male characters. Female characters who care about feminine presentation are allowed to be sympathetic. (I haven't encountered enough non binary protagonists to generalise about them) What is so special about female protagonists that they must always care the least about feminine presentation?

Maybe it's that the protagonist is who the reader invests in as themselves, to some extent? Caring about feminine presentation more than the baseline may be all well and good for other women, but not me? It feels somehow related to the idea that you can have sympathetic major characters who aren't white/male/able bodied etc, but they're not "relatable" enough to be the protagonist, eg the Black Best Friend problem. Or maybe, for women readers, a female protagonist who explicitely cares about femininity more than the baseline forces the reader to admit that they do too, not just because "all women do" but because they've chosen to, and that makes them feel uncomfortable. Anyone got any other ideas?

Anyway, thinking about this has made me more determined to put a wider variety of women in my stories, and to avoid the "I don't care about looking pretty I just woke up like this" phenomenon, so that however any female protagonist feels about feminine presentation there will be another woman who explicitely cares less.
Wednesday, May 4th, 2016 08:37 am (UTC)
I think the pattern you have identified is one from real life transposed to media - look at all the hatred directed at women who admit to plastic surgery, even if they are also expected to look young and extremely thin and do so "correctly". Characters like Elle Woods and Buffy Summers, as you say, are explicitly fighting the idea that caring about "girly" things is dumb, which gives a bit of an answer as to why protagonists are meant to not care! "Girl" things are unimportant at the same time as looking conventionally hot is extremely important, and "I just woke up like this" or "I was forced to dress like this for reasons" is the only path through.
Wednesday, May 4th, 2016 10:56 am (UTC)
It seems from your examples that if the protagonist is invested in femininity, this needs to be supported by the other female characters also being invested in femininity - otherwise the main character is (as in my plastic surgery example) a shallow bitch. If there's a feminine-invested female cop, and there's non-feminine-invested female cops who can also do the same job, what's the motivation of the feminine-invested cop? Looking "better" than everyone else? What a shallow bitch! The fictional world needs to approve of her efforts or else she would fits the looks-obsessed female villain role (the Queen in Snow White, for example). If they've set up a universe where women care about looking conventionally good, they also have to make the protagonist not vain.