I’ve always believed that any type of character is a valid character. There are people who go out of their way to be shallow, or weak, or to conform with stereotypes, and they should be represented right along with the deep, the strong and the unique. It takes all types to make a world, and every fiction is a world.
The trick is to put the characters in the proper context. If you try to pass off an underdeveloped character as someone we should find fascinating, we’re going to assume that’s all you think the person’s capable of. And when we repeatedly see you doing this with a particular gender, race or other pigeonhole category, we’re going to assume you’re one of those people who lack any interest in seeing things from anyone’s point of view but their own.
Being a writer who’s locked into one perspective is a bit like being a trial lawyer who can only argue one point: extremely underqualified. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
One of the most obnoxious stereotypes to me is the woman carrying a torch for an unattainable man. Why does it bother me? It’s not an issue of realism, because torch-carrying happens in real life. Maybe it’s an issue of it almost always happening to female characters? Sure, but female characters do other stupid things and it doesn’t bother me this much.
I think the difference is presentation, nothing more.
Scarlett (Gone with the Wind) is a stereotypical southern belle who gets displaced from her inherited social status by the Civil War. She was also written by a displaced southern belle, Margaret Mitchell, who could understand Scarlett from not only her gender perspective but – far more importantly – her perspective as a Southerner (which is a culture unto itself, particularly in that time period). Both Scarlett and Mitchell were too clever for the comfort of their societies, not content to be shrinking violets. What’s remarkable is the complete honesty with which Mitchell dissects Scarlett: Scarlett is ruthless, aggressive, sometimes disturbingly unconcerned for others’ welfare. She can also be brave and loyal to a fault, and Mitchell makes it very clear that our flawed Scarlett is the product of an equally flawed society. She, like the society, is doing whatever it takes to pick up the pieces after complete devestation. But like the society, she also needs to learn a thing or two about how her own selfishness contributed to her downfall.
Into that very rich and complex tapestry is the torch Scarlett carries for one Ashley Wilkes, the prototypical Southern gentleman. He represents the ideal of the South, what it imagined itself to be creating, when in fact it was really creating Rhett Butler, the self-loathing scoundrel who feels the pain of those upon whom his success was built, yet can’t disengage himself from the lifestyle. As the personification of the south, Scarlett idealizes and idolizes Ashley. She deludes herself into believing she really wants him, but when it finally looks as though she may catch him, she realizes it’s Rhett she wants. Ashley was just an illusion – the last vestige of what she wanted to imagine herself being.
How can I consider a presentation like that to be stereotyping women? While Scarlett’s pining, she’s also taking her father’s place to save her household. She’s ruthless and courageous. Everything she does is something a man in her place might have done as well, had he the same limited opportunities.
Another example – one I probably shouldn’t touch because I didn’t watch the last few seasons – is Scully in The X-Files. From what I saw of the first four seasons, you could have equally interpreted both Mulder and Scully to be carrying torches for each other. I don’t know if events in later seasons switched that past perception or not, but that particular issue was never a problem for me on The X-Files.
Unfortunately, Stargate SG-1 fans were less lucky: in the end of Season 7, we suddenly learned that Sam Carter had actually been pining away for Jack O’Neill all this time. Before that, it seemed there’d been some ill-advised mutual attraction they both decided to shove aside in favor of their duty and careers. I say “end of Season 7” and some fans will want to correct me, saying that it was “Grace” (mid-season) in which we learned that Sam’s feeling for Jack were so strong she’d put her whole life on hold. I beg to differ. In “Grace”, we learn that she’s been imagining she had some great love for Jack that kept her from opening her heart to other men… but what really kept her heart closed was fear of getting hurt.
That, I was okay with. In fact, I think I’ve been there myself. It was a realization that allowed her to see the truth and build something from it.
But the writers on Stargate are not all of one accord: a few episodes later, Sam got herself a boyfriend, and it seemed to be going well. But shortly after that, she was turning up at Jack’s house to tell him how she felt. She’s interrupted before she can get it all out – but that’s okay. At the end of Season 8, she dumps the boyfriend (now fiance) afer her dying father expires for no reason other than to tell her to ignore the rules and go get whatever she wants – which she interprets to mean Jack.
Margaret Mitchell treated Scarlett’s crush on Ashley for what it was: a childish delusion. The writer of the Stargate “Grace” seemed to treat Sam’s crush on Jack the same way. But other writers glamourize it to the point that we can only assume they think this behavior is befitting of the (im)maturity level women are capable of.
Meanwhile, Jack has had no recriminations whatsoever on the show for his utter failure to do anything about a subordinate officer having inappropriate feelings for him which he may or may not reciprocate. In fact, he’s been encouraged to find some way to get together with her while remaining her commander. I’m hoping they aren’t running these past a U.S. Air Force adviser anymore, because if they are, I’m going to have to expatriate myself good and proper.
Again, it’s all about presentation and context. By presenting the Stargate crush as a lovely romantic thing instead of a childish delusion, one writer has managed to damage two characters gravely – both Sam and Jack. Conversely, by presenting such a crush for what it is (Scarlett) or as something harmless and far from the only thing the characters have in their lives (Mulder and Scully), you give us flawed characters that we can still sympathize with.