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How female characters existing and doing stuff became a modern feminist statement

From Princess Leia to Ghostbusters, your favorite female characters have become feminist icons.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

#ShePersisted: The feminist hashtag erupted across social media last week in reaction to a tense moment that occurred the night before on the Senate floor between Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). When Warren attempted to read a letter from the late Coretta Scott King arguing against the 1986 nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) to a federal judgeship, McConnell ordered her to be silent, and Republicans voted to rebuke Warren for violating the Senate’s Rule 19, which holds that no senator can insult another senator during proceedings. In the face of outrage from Democrats, McConnell defended his decision on the Senate floor by stating, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

Like “nasty woman” and “binders full of women” before it, “she persisted” immediately became a feminist rallying cry and meme, a progressive rebuke to a white male Republican known for pushing regressive policies on women’s issues.

As the hashtag lit up Twitter and other platforms, though, an interesting trend became apparent: The feminist resistance to McConnell’s words was being led by fictional female characters, mainly from popular geek franchises.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen female characters from sci-fi and fantasy franchises being recruited for the modern feminist movement. In fact, it’s part of a broader trend of progressives repurposing popular female characters as political symbols. At first, women in geek culture repurposed their favorite characters in reaction to ongoing sexism within geek and popular culture. Now this remixing has extended into the general culture, turning characters like Princess Leia into rallying points for equality.

Influential fictional women have shown us what empowerment and female agency look like

Geek culture is full of female characters who were progressive for their time: Xena, the X-Files’ Scully, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft, Hermione of the Harry Potter series, most of the female characters from Syfy’s remake of Battlestar Galactica, several Doctor Who companions, and Katniss from The Hunger Games are just a few of the litany of female characters whose creators imbued them with aspects of empowered feminism. Even reaching all the way back to the 1960s, Nichelle Nichols’s role as Uhura on the original Star Trek was recognized as a significant progressive act by none other than Martin Luther King Jr., who famously convinced her to remain in the part.

Despite contemporary acknowledgments that not all of these female characters are perfect emblems of modern intersectional feminism, they’ve all aged well as examples of female characters to look up to, and many have evolved into modern feminist archetypes.

For example, as a legacy character, Wonder Woman has meant many different things at different points in time, evolving from an intentional representation of passive, submissive femininity in the 1940s into an overtly political icon in the ’70s and ’80s. Like Princess Leia from Star Wars, she’s long been a strong, positive character, but she’s recently taken on new resonance as an embodiment of empowered female strength.

And it’s not just Wonder Woman who’s gone through this evolution. In the hands of certain writers, numerous comics characters have gotten modern feminist reinventions. Foremost among these writers is Gail Simone, who famously updated former Batgirl Barbara Gordon into a complex female hero. When former Ms. Marvel Carol Danvers got a promotion into the legacy title of Captain Marvel, writer Kelly Sue DeConnick turned her into a feminist icon who will, in 2018, become the first female character in Marvel history to get her own solo film. And the new Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, has been a beloved teenage feminist since she arrived on the scene in 2014.

These characters evolved as pushback against sexist narratives and tropes in their respective media

Each of these character reinventions has served as a response and a challenge to a previously existing sexist trope or idea that has limited fictional female characters in the past.

Take, for example, the trope of the “strong female character” — that is, a female character who is allowed to be conventionally badass (and hot), but who isn’t developed as a complex individual. This trope has led to ongoing shifts in the portrayal of female characters in gaming, from the famously gender-swapped main character in the Mass Effect franchise to an ongoing recalibration of Lara Croft in Tomb Raider.

In film, the “strong female character” trope has been countered by the recent trend of science fiction franchises helmed by deeply flawed, demonstrably complex heroines: The Hunger Games’ Katniss, Sandra Bullock in Gravity, and Amy Adams in Arrival are a few recent example of female characters who have been critically received as having evolved past gender absolutes and stereotypes. And in some cases, franchise reboots have seen total feminist overhauls, the overtly feminist recent installments of Star Wars, the upgrading of Uhura’s role within the new Star Trek movie universe, and the all-woman Ghostbusters and the upcoming Oceans Eight being just a few examples.

Female comics characters have likewise evolved in reaction to regressive tropes — in particular their gratuitous sexualization. Controversy over exaggerated and unrealistic female anatomy in comics art has constantly accompanied progressive portrayals of female superheroes, like the debate over like a notorious 2014 portrait of Spider-Woman, which essentially broke her spine in order to emphasize T&A. Debates over the impracticality of female superhero uniforms have been continually waged within modern geek culture, to the point where women have had to write exasperated manifestos explaining basic human anatomy to male comic artists.

But this debate has also had the effect of producing many notably practical costumes for the modern female superhero, to counteract the facepalm-worthy — like this well-received redesign of Wonder Woman’s costume in 2015.

Resistance to sexist marketing has also contributed to the feminist repurposing of fictional characters. Fans have long been displeased that much of the marketing for the Avengers film franchise has erased or downgraded Black Widow in scenes in which she is the main character. This led to the backlash of #WheresNatasha, which was subsequently followed by #WheresGamora, #WheresLeia, and, most recently, #WheresRey, as female geeks fought to make sure female heroes got a fair shake in toy aisles alongside their male counterparts. This inevitably led to the female characters at the center of each marketing controversy being celebrated as examples of empowered women and role models for children.

Backlash to the evolution of female characters strengthens their feminist-icon status

The fact that all of these cultural properties, and others, have made conscious decisions to empower and advance female characters in their storylines has rendered them subject to tremendous amounts of backlash.

In recent years, this backlash has taken on a distinct political bent. Ongoing efforts to increase diversity in gaming culture by advancing narratives for women and characters of color led to Gamergate, which was itself a precursor to the broader culture war that manifested itself in the harassment of female Ghostbuster Leslie Jones and the deep misogyny of the alt-right.

In her review of Ghostbusters, Feminist Frequency creator and frequent Gamergate target Anita Sarkeesian described the basic reaction feminists had to the misogynistic backlash to the film:

Before its release, I had many conversations with friends and colleagues that usually went something like this: “Oh god, I hope it’s good. It might not be. But it’s so important. Please be good!”

Inevitably, the spectacle of angry men lining up to protest the existence of a girl-powered revival turned that revival into a political statement. The film had become important to feminism because people who hated feminism had decided it was a threat.

Even if these franchise remakes weren’t intended as overtly feminist statements to begin with, the politicized response they draw from opponents has led progressives to claim them as examples of feminist representation in media. For example, after the plot of The Force Awakens turned out to be all about Rey, The Verge welcomed the development by dismantling “strong female character” backlash as a sexist double standard, pointing out that female characters are barely allowed to exist onscreen without incurring resentment for their presence, let alone to be as unrealistically good at everything as their male heroic counterparts.

Ironically, the politicized backlash to these properties sometimes has the odd effect of turning the absence of a feminist message into a progressive statement in and of itself. After Ghostbusters was released, many reviewers, feminists, and media critics explicitly claimed its inoffensiveness and lack of political message for feminism. “Ghostbusters is not some savior of feminism. But why does it have to be?” wrote Cosmopolitan’s Prachi Gupta in an examination of the politics that surrounded the film’s reception. “It's just showing some badass, funny women being badass and funny on the screen, which is in itself progressive.”

These trends in geek culture have converged with the larger current sociopolitical climate

As more women — and characters — within geek culture identify as feminist, geek culture as a whole has become hugely influential on broader pop culture. So it makes sense that modern feminism seems to be increasingly turning to female characters as feminist icons. It doesn’t hurt, either, that many beloved sci-fi and fantasy franchises of the recent past seem to be speaking directly to the current political climate.

The empathy fictional characters invite makes it easy to map real-world problems onto them. Through the use of fictional characters as protest symbols, people can safely express their anxieties and concerns while taking comfort in the fact that these larger-than-life characters have been formed from our shared cultural values.

The real-world impact of a hero comes from the fact that American culture collectively chose to value things like “fighting power and standing up for the helpless” as heroic traits. When we celebrate Captain America, it’s a reminder that we all believe the things Captain America does are good things, and that fighting Nazis, protecting diversity, and defending the powerless are core American values.

In the same way, when we celebrate Princess Leia as a feminist hero, we’re getting a reminder that people like her feminist traits. They like the fact that she receives equal treatment from her peers, that she resists sexual slavery, and that she is able to be excellent and heroic in multiple professions. It’s a crucial reminder that here in the real world, we as a culture do still value core feminist ideals like equality and autonomy for women.

Modern understanding of how female characters fit into larger cultural narratives has evolved largely in response to our increased understanding of how sexism manifests in fiction. In many ways, fictional female characters have already fought and conquered battlegrounds that women are still fighting in real life.

So now, in the middle of a broader fight against an administration determined to enact regressive changes to women’s rights, there’s no one better to lead the fight for women’s rights than the fictional women who’ve been fighting for years to be heard and understood.

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