Why would you even want a Damsel?
One of my favourite animated series was, and still is, The Mysterious Cities of Gold. It aired on the BBC in the very late eighties and it has always been a huge comfort and inspiration to me. Aside from the character of navigator Mendoza’s gravity-defying cape and his tendency to do inexplicable Bela-Lugosi-style poses with it, there was only one sticking point- the character Zia.
Zia was an Incan girl taken from her village by Francisco Pizarro, because he believed she could lead him to a City of Gold. We meet her already kidnapped, and she spends a lot of the rest of the series in much the same way; being tied up, getting kidnapped multiple times, fainting, arguing with Mendoza, praising Esteban (the protagonist), or a combination of these at once. Even as a boy I felt uncomfortable with how useless she often was, designated as a plot device or a cheerleader. Granted, she was young, but still mostly harmless, and rather annoying.
There was a fairly constant implication that young girls were a hindrance or unruly. There were other female characters, but only bit parts for an episode or two, and they were usually overpowered at some point as well.
What about other animated series?
Other series did better or worse by varying degrees. Thunderbirds had Lady Penelope, although most of her heroism happened from the back seat of her armoured Rolls-Royce. Danger Mouse had no female characters at all. Thundercats and He-Man faired a little better, with some decent female warriors who weren’t knocked out with a single punch or given deliberately comedic attacks as some kind of punchline.
The first woman-led show I think we watched was She-Ra, and that was awesome, but aside from that there still weren’t many truly strong female characters for my sisters, or even me, to be impressed by. Thankfully my sisters saw inspiration in the characters they liked regardless, because they didn’t aspire to just stand around conniving or screaming, or not stand around at all. Still, those inspirational characters were always guys.
When we bought toys, especially creatures like dragons, or Transformers, we casually changed genders around to make numbers match. But it makes me wonder how different it might have been if there were more women in kids’ TV. Would it have changed my sisters’ tastes, or aspirations?
Books and the feminine character stereotype
Books were well ahead of this though, and always have been to a degree; a haven from the stereotypes of the screen. Girls have been fighting their own battles and walking their own paths for years. Island of the Blue Dolphins was an excellent one I remember reading, and the Deptford Mice trilogy, cornerstone of my young literary life, starred a young female mouse called Audrey. Both of these were captivating stories that I read several times over. My little sister loved The Worst Witch. The Queen’s Nose and numerous Roald Dahl books gave girls amazing and frightening adventures to power through.
Perhaps books had the progressive advantage because they explore the emotions behind a hero instead of just their physical portrayal. After all, heroes are universal to all genders, ages, and races.
Today’s damsels – a matter of media?
Having a girl or woman as a lead character is now a ‘very big thing’ in media- both new and old books with such inclusion are given big stamps of approval. The awareness of whether a character is male or female is so much greater because visual media had been under so much pressure to promote inclusivity and diversity, especially as TV and internet shows have become a much more dominant source of entertainment.
It’s not that there wasn’t a problem before, but now people are talking about it. The girls who had only a few icons in the 80s and 90s are now looking on behalf of their children, or children are asking directly. Personally, I’m delighted by all of the new avenues for children of all shapes, sizes, genders and ethnicities to see something of themselves on screen or in print.
Smashing gender roles – the (hopeful!) outcome
Hopefully, a continual smashing of gender roles will lead to both more sympathetic and emotional men AND kick-arse strong women in all media, and include vital nonbinary and trans representation as standard, which is woefully inadequate at present.
It’s hard to explain to critics (usually men) that a replacement, addition, or development doesn’t erase the history or vast library of protagonists they already have, or that it isn’t done for ‘political correctness’ (in itself a weasel phrase for ‘treating people as they always should have been’). And even if something is included, somehow a silent majority seems to view a tiny offering as consistently adequate representation, even ignoring the perils of tokenism that usually end up having the character played to awful stereotypes.
That the character ACTUALLY has something of value, a relatable, progressive story, or could have experiences never seen before seems to be a scary, alien, and offensive prospect to consumer-mentality ‘everything-must-be-made-for-me’ fans. To be honest, anyone making such complaints about inclusivity are the ones who need this diverse media the most, to learn that the world doesn’t revolve solely around them and their self-aggrandising homogenous viewing demands.
Being part of the solution
I’m proud to have many female characters in my book, and in seeing more genuine, faceted, and powerful representation coming through everywhere else. I know I have a long way to go with my own writing, and in what I consume, too. Everything we do and create sets a precedent for what comes after us. Everyone deserves the chance to know they can be their own unique hero, and media- be it books, video games, TV, or movies -plays an enormous part in that today. Because if nothing else, for my sisters’ sake, I would have loved them to have more toys to play with.
I often joke that the only way I could step foot into the publishing industry is by creating my own publishing house.
In the last almost-decade, I have given numerous talks at conventions, festivals and online tele-summits about non-tokenistic diversity in fiction publishing, and how writers can break into the publishing industry in general. Oh, and creating open online courses.