When Seinfeld first premiered its pilot, it almost blew it. The producers didn’t like it, no one found it funny, and the executives made their demands before they would allow all four first episodes to be produced. Their most prevalent demand? It was missing a feminine touch. Thus, enter Elaine.
The token woman is more prominent in the entertainment industry probably over any other business. Executives, publishers, and publicists alike believe (and maybe rightly) that there hast to be a female character for the fairer members of the audience to relate to. That and with the tacked on idea that every movie isn’t complete without some sort of romance, it is not surprising that every script has at least one leading lady.
So why is it then that whenever that love interests enter on screen, I feel myself physically cringe? Why am I sitting there waiting for her to screw up? And why am I disappointed every time I am robbed of watching her fall flat on her face?
In movies, books, and overall stories in which the leading male needs his lady, it is important for the members of the audience to want the romance to happen. Especially for us girls. So as writers, male or female, writing a likable woman is of the upmost importance—and pretty damn hard.
1. She’s always the same.
Contrast theory is the idea that when something is “wrong,” the opposite is right. We are constantly told that the old standard of the kind, fragile virgin is overdone and, well, closed minded. Clearly those aren’t personality traits that a modern woman will enjoy watching. So, what kind of person do we create? The aggressive, bad ass whore, of course.
In an interview, Olivia Wilde talked about her part in Tron and how excited she was to not have “a damsel in distress,” part. However, think of any action or fantasy movie written after 1988 (other than Disney) and you’d be lucky to find a part that deviated from high strung and serious. The love interest is no longer the old stereotype; she has developed a whole new one. I called it the little dog syndrome. They think they can beat anyone up and hump anything in sight.
The best examples are the terrible formulaic action and fantasies, such as Wraith of the Titans and Prince of Persia. Better movies, such as the original Pirates of the Caribbean or Iron Man, will deviate from it to some extent, but each female lead could be described as aggressive and serious.
Of course, the leading males have their similarities too. It is just as likely to be sign of how Hollywood chooses their films. Yet, my complaint is that these personalities that we see each and every film are obnoxious more than enjoyable.
2. She behaves like a main character.
Main characters have different rules than everyone else. They are allowed to be more bland, more serious, irrationally take charge, and be “perfect.”
A protagonist often is a neutral face that allows more eccentric characters to bounce off of. Sometimes, of course, we see the opposite, the hero a freak in a world of dull. Think the titular character of House versus Simba from the Lion King. The cub is honest, straightforward, and though he does have his faults, he is most interesting when interacting with the other members of the cast. He preforms best around Timon and Pumba, the hyenas, or even Scar. The opposite, however, where House balances on the edge of crazy it is the job of his teammates to keep him in check.
However, this love interest is often the one who breaks the usual rules of character interaction. With the attempt to make her “likable,” many authors will attempt to make her perfect, which often means flawless, which often means personality-less. Now, the main character can get away with this because the reader naturally assumes he or she is supposed to be and therefore is (usually) on his side. It is his story, so when we are following him through these stories, we can enjoy the wild characters bouncing off of him. But, because it is the job of the love interest to mostly interact with the main character, it means we’re having two people who never make mistakes involved in a conversation. That means no conflict, that means boring.
Now, not all main characters can get away with being perfect either, and, in fact, it is often the downfall of most books and movies. But, the reader gives the protagonist the benefit of the doubt, and no one else is allowed that grace.
Secondly, she tries to have the same qualities as the hero. If he’s funny, she’s funny. If he is confident, she is confident. If he stand up for himself, she stands up for himself. They are essentially the same person except that she is high strung about everything she does, removing the singular element of nonchalance that makes him charming.
It makes sense, in that the attributes given to this protagonist are done so because they are what makes characters likable in the modern climate. Except that, unless the point of the story is for the reader to take a side, and the author wants the main character to be the most enjoyable person. Adding someone in with the same traits merely makes them at ends with each other instead of bouncing off each other.
3. She’s the voice of reason.
Let’s say the protagonist is the eccentric one in the story. He is practically insane. He does whatever pops into his head when it pops into his head, and that’s why we love him. But the author needs to control his actions and prevent this loose cannon from getting him into an unsolvable mess. So how do they do that? Add in the voice of reason.
The voice of reason is the character who sees the situation for what it is, who prevents the main character from hurting himself and helps the writer in convincing the hero to not do whatever he’s thinking.
It makes sense to attribute that to the ingenue. Who else is a character going to listen to if not the girl he loves?
The problem? We hate her.
The problem? We hate her.
The voice of reason is a buzz kill. He or she is often an intellectual, more aware than all the other characters, more reasonable, and generally speaking, respectable. However, if we are siding with the main character, the voice of reason is the antagonist, preventing from the protagonist from doing what he wants.
Especially when the reason why the main character is listening to her because it becomes about the relationship and not the advice. Coming from her, it sounds like an ultimatum—an unspoken, “listen to me or I won’t sleep with you”—and thus a power struggle. When it is his friend, however, he listens more because it makes sense.
4. She doesn’t fill her own niche.
A character’s niche is basically what he does for the story and how he or she flushes it out. Basic niches are things like he takes charge. We need someone to take charge of the situation so the author doesn’t have to deal with a 20 page argument, and instead can just have a strong force say, this is what we’re going to do.
Common niches are the voice of reason, the leader, the comedic relief, the badass, and the “baby.” The comedic relief helps to release tension. The badass is some sort of powerhouse who gets things done. And the baby is a well-loved character that the others want to protect. Often a child, woman, or good friend. One character can fill more than one role.
The problem, however, is that one character should be filling at least one role on his own, or in his own way, not referring to minor individuals. The love interest often not only fulfills the same niche as the main character, but she doesn’t have anything to herself.
If we take Pepper from Iron Man, we can see this problem. Tony Stark and Pepper are trying to be leaders and funny at the same time. Pepper, at least, isn’t competing to be “badass” and doesn’t inexplicitly know how to fight. Her other niche, voice of reason (constantly explaining to Tony Stark how responsible he needs to be), is also fulfilled by Stark’s best friend.
And she’s not doing any of these things differently than the other characters. Like I said, niches can be filled by several diverse characters as long as they do it “in their own way.” We may have two leaders, such as an official one (a boss) and an unofficial one (the employee that takes charge). We may have two comedic characters, one whose jokes are based around making fun of the others, one who constantly makes mistakes himself. Pepper’s humor, however, is just like Stark’s: sarcastic and about control. When James Rhodes and Pepper are telling Iron Man what to do, they could basically be saying each other’s lines. Except we aren’t annoyed by Rhody nearly as much as Pepper (at least in the first film.)
Why? Partially because of the ultimatum issue discussed before, and partly because we don’t feel that Stark loses to him.
5. She doesn’t belong in the world.
Like Elaine in Seinfeld, many females are just the token girl. And it often shows. Because, such as in Pepper’s case, the character doesn’t fill her own niche, she usually could be taken out with little damage to the actual plot. Since the love story is often tacked on to the larger conflict, and their connections are not deeply ingrained, it can feel like two separate movies all together. This means that if we actually were to choose to delete the character, giving a few lines to someone else, the only way it would affect the story is by shortening it.
An example of this that comes to mind is the show on Cartoon Network Level Up. I haven’t seen it, but I have been exposed to the commercials. From my understanding, it is about three boys, including a millionaire video game designer, who have to fight “leaks,” which are monsters who escaped into reality. The singular girl is, I believe, the sister of one, who doesn’t play video games, but happens to get involved. It is very, very obvious, that they just needed a girl involved, probably due to the demands of an executive.
In these movies, shows, and books in which the girls are obviously only there because the story needed a woman, the character’s have a hard time fitting in. For me, it feels like being on a construction site where everyone else has a job and she’s just standing there, realizing that she has nothing to do.
The character (and author) acts as one naturally would, trying to find reason to be there, getting involved in situations that don’t have to do with her, being defensive, and basically standing around gawking until the scene where the protagonist finally decides to talk to her.
If someone is pressing for a girl in the work, then just take another character and transfer the gender. This will make her far more interesting than those poor women with the Napoleon Complex.
6. The complications of feminism.
The biggest issue is our societies view about how women should be. Feminism and sexism are some of the largest concerns of the modern person, no matter which side he or she is on. Authors have to contend with it, and it is a problem.
We consider relationships with dominant men and submissive women as unhealthy, but those where it is flipped is a good thing. This is a problem for the writer because it cuts out many of the options.
Female characters are expected to be dominant and confident. Anything else is often considered to be “sexist.” In most stories, the only people who should truly be dominant are the protagonist and antagonist, the mentor, and any official leaders of the world. A passive main character is often unlikable, which is why the majority of them aren’t. And, because the people who surround him are supposed to react in accordingly, they are usually expected to be submissive to some extent. At least, they act in a way that works with the protagonist’s personality.
A dominant female can be likable—as the hero or the villain. As the love interest, however, she is a supporting character. So, we see the problem. Because of current opinions, a supporting female is a sexist stereotype.
Side characters need to be loyal and focused on the main character’s success. Though they can play pranks, get in fights, and act like friends, their story is actually the protagonist’s story. Their lives are based around the hero’s conflicts. Feminism dictates that a woman should not revolve her life around a man’s problems, and thus the author is stuck.
7. She has no friends.
Two basic rules for drawing an audience’s interest: People like people, people like friends. Great characters with great bonds can make any plot, setting, or theme bearable. The shows, movies, and books that are most successful are the ones that have great unions. Harry Potter, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Friends, House—all these films have some sort of immaculate commodity that anyone could be jealous of.
Because she doesn’t belong there in the first place, because she is a supporting character, the female love interest has no relationships outside the protagonist. But, most of the side characters don’t. So why is it a problem for her? Because the other people have the protagonist and she doesn’t.
Many movies, because of the alleged sexism if she were to be loyal to him, makes her not. The author can’t have her following him, can’t have her devoted to him because of the stigma involved. Secondly, because she’s the voice of reason, she’s the one on the opposite side of the conflict. Because she’s “perfect” she can’t be as crazy as him. She can’t be the one to agree with him, egging him on to blow himself up with the firework. She has to be the one on the side saying, “Don’t you dare!”
Also, in attempts to make her a strong woman, the tendency is to make her “independent.” She doesn’t need anyone. Except that we don’t like character, especially supporting characters, who distance themselves from people.
Attempts to introduce the token female and make her self-reliant force her to be alienated from the rest of the group. No one likes her or even notices her, and the audience follows the notion.
8. She’s always important.
During the movie Captain America, a blonde woman walked in, handed a note, and left. I remembered thinking, did I miss something? I thought for sure she had to be a real character. Two scenes later, she and Captain America are making out in the most forced, argument inciting moment in current modern movies.
Of course, being that most of the movie was set in World War II military bases, it is obvious why I would feel the second woman in the entire film was important. But it’s not only true in these extremes.
With some exceptions, movies meant for men/general audiences (i.e. not women) are often male crowded. The average minor character will have a Y chromosome. In fact, all movie trailers are always voiced over by a man. Mostly the same man, but still. And, not only that, if the director chooses to make the taxi driver female, it draws audience attention straight to her.
This is something that the author and director can’t combat, and has more to do with society’s mind than the writer’s.
This puts a weight on all female characters, but the most on the female love interest. For one thing, she can’t be nonchalantly introduced. A problem for love interests of all genders, the woman has it worse. There is a possibility to sneak a future boyfriend into the scene by means of a waiter’s uniform and a red herring conversation between two characters. But when the audience sees a girl, they will always subconscious ask themselves, why did the author make it a girl?
And, because of the sexism and few girl issues, it is harder for the author to take risks on her. Being the only girl for the woman to relate to (from the executives point of view), she has to be likable and a respectable person. While other characters can get away with being annoying or foolish, she represents women everywhere, and that is a burden that ruins the character for everyone.
9. She has innate power (and weaknesses).
Like they say, sex changes everything. A woman’s problem in fiction or in real life, is that she has certain powers over others that she can’t control. Where a male character can be defined by merely his actions, a girl automatically has innate control and lack thereof.
For starters, as discussed before, every request the love interest makes of the male character isn’t just a request, it’s an order. Even when they are not sleeping together, he is expected to make her happy. The saying, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”
Every piece of dialogue between the lovers is much harder to make because of the implications. For one thing, if she is too nice, she becomes submissive, and we already discussed the problems with that. Anything above neutral can be considered an attack.
Also, beautiful women grab attention, in real life too, especially in a room full of men. In psychology, the person who the group orients around is the dominant one. She’s the one in charge.
A combination of all the other elements, this innate power is true issue behind why it is hard to like the beautiful love interest. Why? Because she is competition for the protagonist, and she is competition for the audience.
I believe that beautiful women have a social responsibility forced on them. They make or break it for other people, at least in those other people’s eyes. Why do we have popular phrases like Ice Queen? Why are female celebrities downfalls how “ugly they are”? With beauty comes power, and with power comes a lot of people already pissed off.
10. She needs to pull the stick out.
I’ve talked about this before, and I’ll say it again because it is the biggest problem. Modern female characters tend to be too high strung and can’t relax. Perhaps it is because they are fighting for some sort of position in the world, or perhaps it is because that’s how we perceive the hypothetical lady, or maybe it’s because girls are expected to be the responsible ones. No matter way, the main reason we don’t like these love interests is because they just need to pull the stick out.
For starters, they can’t let go of the main conflict. In the movie The Prince of Persia, it is the girl’s job to take the dagger to… someplace. And every time she opens her mouth, we hear about it. Expected to compensate for the anti-hero or to help push this lazy man to do “what needs to be done,” she takes her job too seriously, and can’t sit back and smell the roses.
For one thing, it is her job as the voice of reason to care. For another, because God forbid she support the main character—and because the whole love-hate relationship thing is really in right now, and because the whole, “I don’t wanna save the world!” hero is popular—instead of convincing her to chase after the protagonist’s super objective because she wants to help him or wants to be with him or whatever, the author gives her the same super objective.
Which means, instead of saying, “I want to get the sword of power, wanna help?” And her going, “Sounds like a blast!” They force the main character to do what he doesn’t want to do and then, to make sure he does it, makes the girl want to do what he doesn’t want to do. And she can’t let go of it, because he’ll take the chance to wander off.