There are few things so hellish for a grownup as writing a convincing young protagonist. There’s the line between making them too cloying or too foul mouthed, too dumb or too much like tiny adults in child suits, never mind actually getting within spitting distance of believable character arcs. And in the maelstrom of figuring out how to capture how kids act, it’s easy to forget how often those same kids look to fiction to figure out how to act themselves.
Before we go any further, two points. Firstly, no, not every character created ever needs to be a capital letters Role Model. The best fictional characters are flawed in relatable ways, but with merits that outweigh their weaknesses. That being said, where you put those strengths and weaknesses can have a more potent effect than one realizes, especially for an audience that isn’t yet adept at parsing the finer nuances of media.
Second, an anecdote (a cheat, perhaps, but in cases like this it feels more authentically useful than readily available and distant statistics): I happen to have a gaggle of young relatives for whom I am sometimes (after a fashion) responsible – in this instance, Niece and Nephew. And as a conversation about Big Hero 6 and my love of hero movies turned into a brain wracking of heroines that I could offer Niece to look up to (I enjoy Black Widow as much as the next individuum, but one would feel equally awkward telling a young kid how awesome The Punisher is over, say, Spiderman), I was mightily surprised to hear the following from my Nephew: “There aren’t any girl heroes.” And, upon a bit of prodding, “they’re not as good as real heroes, though.”
This was surreal, and if you read this blog regularly, you might suspect why – I might be the family oddball in other ways, but I know for a fact that these kids’ parents have worked really hard to tell these kids that they can be whoever they want to be, and that girls and boys are equals (Niece and I decided on Batgirl, by the way, on account of kicking ass AND Oracle being the smart source Batman always turns to for help). But of course, it isn’t just parents that influence how kids think. It’s not anything obvious at all – a lot of it comes down to little unconscious things, petty behaviors and biases that the creators don’t even think about. Things we really, really need to start paying better attention to.
So, The Lego Movie (by the way, like all stories with third act twists, the spoilers will be rampant): it was about the best thing that could’ve come out of the concept, made a lot of money, was a fairly sweet tribute to the beauty of fan culture re: the constant reuse and re-defining of well loved ‘set in stone’ narratives.
Truly, a breathtaking conglomeration of plastic
Be still, my beating heart
And its lady lead left a lot to be desired. Wyldstyle is the latest in a long line of sufferers of “Trinity Syndrome.” You know the one – the super talented lady spy/fighter/whatever who shows the untrained schmuck of a main character the ropes, then stays perfectly static so that he can prove himself to her and eventually surpass her by…well, by being the special. If she’s really lucky, she’ll get to do something else in the plot in addition to being suitably impressed and falling in love with the blandtastic audience surrogate lead. And in all likelihood they’ll also shoulder the responsibility of being The Chick, filling the gender quota in the writer’s mind without needing, say, female friends or colleagues or anyone else to talk to. Truly, a stirring fantasy for girls to get involved in.
This is a conceptually intriguing move
I’m going to pick it apart now
But remember, this is an essay about male leads, and Lego Movie offers us a rather unique point of discussion: the fact that the narrative we’ve been following as the audience was invented and is being told by a kid. It’s pretty brilliant as far as excusing the dumber turns of the plot (and adding some lovely shading to the villain), but it…gets a bit disturbing when you apply it to Wyldstyle. Little throwaway jokes in the script reveal a deeper mindset – this is a story that could be anything, bound only by the rules of a child’s imagination. And here is what ‘anything’ extends to for the one female character (we’re ruling out Princess Unikitty for this discussion, because that character is so far into the froofy realms of ditzy sugar pink frivolity that I’m not sure if she’s meant to be a parody of what boys think of girls’ toys or a sincere attempt to explode my head): the second it’s revealed that she’s a girl the camera goes into a gauzy-visioned sexy hair shake, because it’s never too early to start on the male gaze (remember girls, you’re always being stared at for your looks!); our protagonist actually tunes Wyldstyle out at one point until all he can hear is an exaggeratedly high pitched and giggly ‘blah blah blah, I’m so pretty’ (remember girls, your opinions aren’t nearly as important as your looks – dudes certainly aren’t paying attention to the former!); and, maybe most troubling and least explicit, there’s this sort of running incredulity that Wyldstyle was trying to become the special. Because trying too hard is hilarious? Because hard work never works? Because…girl heroes are fine and all, but they just aren’t as awesome as the real hero (ah, there it is, it’s all coming full circle now)? These are all subtle things, compared to where we’ve come from (looking at you, Chronicles of Narnia), but they add up. They create a tier system, and they have an effect.
To which one might say, ‘but Vrai, you handsomely neurotic motormouth, that’s just how things are! If we didn’t have those jokes at Wyldstyle’s expense, it wouldn’t be true to real boys!’ And after I’ve copped to stealing that leading compliment business from Yahtzee, I would admonish you that the very best fiction is forward thinking: it sets an example for what we can be, not just the frequently depressing present in which we find ourselves mired. And to prove not only that such a thing can be existent but also popular, we need look no further than Steven Universe.
Me too, Steven. Me too
This is a show whose praises I’ve sung before, but it bears repeating: it’s a wonderfully clever, creative show that’s doing its damnedest to welcome everyone to its adventures. Even more than its channel brethren Adventure Time (which itself has a pretty good track record of cool and interesting female characters even if it’s Finn’s tale at heart), Steven Universe is a show that doesn’t feel like women are something it has to have to appease some focus group or radical minority of 51% of the population – it’s interested in developing all its characters as fascinating individuals, and writing a breadth of women (the Gems are actually genderless, a bag of awesome all on its own, but since it hasn’t come up explicitly and they present as and are voiced by women, we’ll include them here for the moment) who aren’t simply grouped into the two girl binary that’s been in place since the 80s and 90s (y’know, the tomboy/girly girl or perky/sarcastic flip sides that pretty much always come glued together).
It’s an old but no less true cliché that the best way to write female characters is to write them as people rather than representations of their gender, because otherwise we end up with boring damsels or ‘awesome’ Strong Female Characters who are steely ball crushing ciphers with no capacity for human emotion. That’s all well and fine, but how the writer has their male and female characters interact is important too! To that end, Steven is a wonderful example for this generation of kids. His teachers and caretakers are women, each of them different in philosophy and personality (strategist and perfectionist Pearl, stoic and blunt Garnet, flippant and impulsive Amethyst), and Steven absolutely thinks they hung the moon. He respects and loves them as guardians and as role models (with none of that ‘wow isn’t their authority sexy’ business anime tends to pull) – and not only that, not a single character around their little family ever once says, ‘but how come girls are doing that!’ It’s a well-worn trap to include prejudices as a way of teaching the protagonist Very Important Lessons about equality and treatment of others…but it’s kind of refreshing to see a show that skips straight to a world where everyone has internalized that philosophy already.
And it’s not just the Gems, either (who, by the way, also get time devoted to their relationships with each other and not just Steven). Steven’s best friend is a girl named Connie, a normal kid who both compliments and grounds Steven’s emotional theatrics. Though she’s often in the position of getting saved she’s always allowed a moment in the spotlight, where Steven needs her strength or quick thinking to pull through, making them a true team (and, gratifyingly, the underpowered citizens of Beach City have all had their turn at needing rescue regardless of gender). And he’s often a listening ear and enthusiastic little brother-type to put upon donut shop employee Sadie.
Actual multifaceted human people Lars and Sadie
The show doesn’t even fall prey to making its other male characters monstrous jerks – Steven still has a good relationship with his father, who respects the Gems even if he’s nervous about their more dangerous missions; Lars’ occasionally jerkish behavior is just awkward teenagerhood from which a light at the end of the tunnel occasionally emerges (and Sadie’s had her share of being an accidental jerk back).
What I’m saying is, it’s not married to the idea of roles, or what a ‘male’ or ‘female’ version of a character or narrative device would look like (you see this a lot in shows that take up genderswapping episodes, where all of a sudden the main character equivalents have adopted every hobby and personality trait traditionally associated with their new physical sex). Steven’s love of action figures and action movies and birthday parties and Sailor Moon are all completely fine in the story’s eye; more importantly, they’re all completely neutral, with nothing marked as a Boy Thing or a Girl Thing and no transgressive hobby shaming to be found (he’s also the healer, a talent almost always given to female characters). They’re all just things, like we’re all just people, and Steven Universe is prepared to think that concept through and put it into action. The world could use more of that.