Trope This and Trope That:
How Women are Portrayed in Literature
It isn’t a secret that women in literature have been historically denied a voice. Mostly, it’s men, often white heterosexual men, who would get the big break, the publishing deal, and their books on every shelf in a bookstore. No pseudonym needed. Thus, it’s not a surprise that female characters haven’t been represented quite the way they deserve to be.
In fact, there are a few types of roles women in books have played that are so common that they have received their own titles, but I’ll list three that are the most prominent.
The Damsel in Distress
The most recognizable is the damsel in distress. You’ve seen her in fairy tales or older fictional books. She exists for the sake of being rescued and as a trophy or reward for the male hero.
The Mary Sue
Next in the lineup is a more recent trope: the Mary Sue. This character often has very few adversities, areas of improvement, and is given no room for meaningful depth unlike women in real life.
Finally, the third trope is the badass heroine. On the surface, she seems like the progressive opposite of the damsel in distress who can do anything the male hero can do. But in actuality, she is given traits traditionally associated with masculine traits as a way to show she’s “not like the other girls.” Oftentimes, these characters are reduced to one defining trait, whether it be motherhood, innocence, promiscuousness, or even their lack of what is perceived as femininity. Not really a good example to set for young women who will grow up to be a lot more than one thing. So, what’s the solution to this demeaning problem then? Well, it’s obvious. Stop writing what you think a female character is and start writing to people! And another thing: let women write about women.
When women are given the opportunity to write about women, they tend to get it right. What I mean is that they write these characters in a way that is honest. They treat them like multidimensional, fleshed-out people.
Suzanne Collins did this well with the star character of her dystopian trilogy, The Hunger Games. At first, Katniss Everdeen might seem as if she’s just another badass heroine with traits that many would associate with masculinity. She’s stubborn, not very emotionally available, and adept at hunting. But Collins ensures that these traits aren’t just surface level. Katniss finds strength in and uplifts the women she is surrounded by. She isn’t a damsel in distress, but she also isn’t a Mary Sue. She has some very real flaws, such as being rash with her decisions or callous. But overall, she is the driving force of the story and isn’t just a plot device for another male character. Katniss isn’t necessarily written to be a “strong female character” but a well-written and fleshed-out person.
Damsel in distress, Mary Sue, and the badass heroine have had more than enough time in the spotlight.
It’s time to give more real, authentic portrayals of women a chance to shine.