I’ve read a lot of great essays about how fandom is female-majority and creates a female gaze and a safe space for women and etc. But spend five minutes in fandom and you’ll have an unsettling question.
Why does a female-majority, feminist culture hate female characters so much?
It’s not a question of if it happens. You know it does. You can go into any fandom and see it. Some fandoms are worse than others, but it’s always there. Scroll down the Tumblr tag for any show, movie, book, comic, whatever, and you’ll see nothing but love for the men, and a lot of unjustified hate for the women, maybe with a few defenders here and there insisting on their love for the women in the face of all that hate.
To be clear, we’re not talking about female villains. Male villains get just as much hate. It’s fine if you hate Bellatrix Lestrange or Dolores Umbridge, you’re supposed to. (I personally stan for Bella, but I realize that wasn’t the authorial intent.) This is about people hating Hermione, Ginny and Luna, but loving Harry, Ron and Neville. This is about how ambiguous male antiheroes, like Snape, Zuko, or pretty much any male vampire protagonist can get away with walking that fine line between good and evil and not only remain sympathetic, but be even more beloved for how ~tortured~ he is, but when a female character is morally gray that bitch has to die.
So you can’t tell me it’s okay that you hate Sansa because you also hate Joffrey and he’s a dude. They’re not comparable. It isn’t even comparable if you pick a female antihero. Let’s do this apples to apples, here.
We all know that fandom does this. We all know that it’s fucked up and symptomatic of internalized sexism. What’s really fucking weird about it, though, is that the women doing this hating often aren’t ignorant. These are feminists. These are women who can go on meta-analyses of the writing. Some will hide behind pseudo-feminist reasons for their hate—oh, it’s the writing, we just aren’t given strong female characters! (I saw this used for the women of AtLA: Katara, Toph, Azula, et al. This was about when I just backed away slowly because I know a lost cause when I see it.) I’ve seen women who denied being sexist, but couldn’t name a single female character they liked. And it’s always that the female characters aren’t good enough, even when they obviously have a double standard, and they’re measuring women on an impossible scale full of contradictions and no-win binds, while the men are just embraced and loved pretty much for existing.
The reaction nearly every time one of these women is called out is not to say, “Huh, you may have a point, I should examine the way I judge and process women’s actions more closely,” but an insistence of their feminism, followed by a more detailed description of why that particular woman is terrible and she hates her, as if the whole point were not that fandom is already oversaturated with that kind of hate, and as if the person doing the calling out were not already 110% done with that bullshit.
Particularly telling is that male-dominated corners of fandom do not have this problem. They fetishize, they objectify, they ignore. They don’t hate like this.
We know it happens. What I want to know is WHY.
Theories follow below the cut.
1) Women just hate women.
It feels this way sometimes, it really does. But when you actually talk to the women doing the hating and learn that they’re otherwise reasonable people, it gets weird. I don’t know, I think it’s more complicated than this.
2) Women project the standards society has put on them. If they’re told they’re annoying for talking about their feelings, they’ll think other women are annoying when they talk about their feelings. It’s a continuous cycle of policing.
I think there is a certain degree of truth to this. Women absorb the social rules of what women are and aren’t allowed to be (spoiler: it’s all contradictory and we’re not allowed to anything) and judge other women by those rules. She’s annoying when she speaks, her voice is too shrill, she’s too meek and quiet and passive, she’s too rude and direct.
Sometimes these social rules get applied to men too (and it’s really annoying when that happens as well, god, I don’t want all macho unfeeling socially acceptable men, get out) but women have more personal experience with social rules for women.
3) Women pass judgment to other women to distance themselves from those traits.
HERE I think we’re on to something. This is the “I’m not like other girls” thing. If you can sneer at other women for their femininity, you’re by default not feminine, and therefore, I guess, good in the eyes of the patriarchy.
Women existing in our patriarchal society, like children in an abusive household, seek to distance themselves from the ire of the authority figures. Just as a child in an abusive household may bully the sibling that the abusive parent has marked as the “bad one,” to distance themselves from those traits and ally themselves with the abuser for their own protection, some women will bully and abuse “bad” women, to show off to the patriarchy how they are allied with the men against these wrong sorts of women.
These women will still maintain that they are feminists, because in their eyes it is possible to be a “good” woman—by winning the approval of the patriarchy. They see the “bad” women as setting feminism back, as dangerous in that they arouse anger in their abuser, abuse which will fall on all of them if she isn’t quick to disavow this other woman.
This is pervasive, and can be seen in most parts of fandom. This is the real reason no one wants to be caught dead with Twilight. In fandoms where there’s more male influence, and therefore the male gaze becomes more of an actual threat, we have the shaming of “fake geek girls.” We have girl gamers who feel the need to prove themselves by playing Halo and eschewing Final Fantasy, not because that happens to be what they like, but because a girl liking girl things would be shameful.
4) Women identify more intensely with other women, which can be threatening.
There’s some of this going on too. I’ve seen women who passionately hate female characters who display their own negative traits. There’s some of #3’s passing the buck, and even some of #2’s echoing the disapproval from other people they’ve heard over their lifetime, but the problem women have with these female characters is that they are them, and they blush with embarrassment just thinking about it.
This is probably the closest we get to actual self-loathing in the female hatred of female characters. Here we have women who are unable to face their own flaws, and externalize them onto a fictional character who is more easily hated.
Women sometimes project their flaws onto male characters as well. This sometimes results in him being hated too, for his femininity (which is the subject of a whole different post I want to make) but sometimes, this can be cathartic. Women project things onto men like sexual vulnerability, loss of identity in a relationship with a man, even fears and hopes surrounding pregnancy, and are more able to work through these things because the fact that it’s on a man makes it less immediately threatening. When these same things happen to a woman, they may hit too close to home. A woman with fears of rape may find a rape scene with a female victim to be terrifying, but one with a male victim to be cathartic.
But the things women identify with aren’t necessarily limited to stereotypically female issues. A female character who is cold and apathetic may get hate from cold, apathetic women who wish they were warmer and more passionate. A female character who is needy and clingy is hard to look at for needy, clingy women. One who betrays her friends because deep down she thinks she’s undeserving of love will hit home for women who…well, you get the idea.
5) Sexual jealousy, i.e. “Die for our ship.”
This is one of the accepted reasons for female character hate, but I actually think it’s one of the rarest. Most of the time, women who have strong sexual feelings for male characters seek an in-universe proxy, to experience a relationship with him. (See: every picture on Tumblr of some hunk with a woman in bed with him, with the commenters not hating the woman, but saying, “Lucky so-and-so,” or “I wish that was me.”)
These men are fictional. Women know we can’t actually date them. The closest we can come is watching someone else do it and identifying with that person. Often, women will ship female characters with their male love object quite fiercely, while only really focusing attention on the man as a person. The woman is just their ticket into that universe.
But sometimes it gets complicated. Sometimes fandom decides on one character (who may or may not also be a woman) as their proxy of choice, and another woman is getting in the way. They’re seeing through their chosen character’s eyes, and now this woman is the “other woman.” Sometimes the proxy woman just ends up having too much personality, which is risky, because the more traits she has the more of those impossible contradictory rules governing women she’ll break.
This does happen, and it’s unfortunate, but I don’t think it’s anywhere near as common as people think it is. I think we like pointing to it because it’s an easy way of going, “those crazy obsessed fangirls, that I am nothing like,” and oh hey it’s our friend #3, only we’re doing it to real people now.
6) Female characters are allowed to have flaws, as long as they’re sufficiently punched in the face for them.
To some degree there is a point that character flaws, especially in protagonists designed to be wholly sympathetic, should be addressed at some point. Though real life is not like that, and there are plenty of male characters who get to be the Token Evil Teammate or get away with What The Hell, Hero? moments. We don’t realize how much men get to be Karma Houdinis, I think.
But the moment we think a female character is getting away with something, we pounce to make sure that doesn’t happen.
An example would be Korra’s flaws in The Legend of Korra. She’s brash, she’s cocky, she’s violent. In the first episode, this gets her chased by police and eventually manhandled into a jail cell, and nearly kicked out of the city before her adventure can begin. In the fourth episode, this gets her suckered into a dubious relationship with corrupt politician Tarrlok, and gets her ass thoroughly handed to her by series villain Amon. In episode seven, she charges into an enemy base without a plan and gets knocked out and nearly taken prisoner. In episode eight, she charges into a fight and gets bloodbent and kidnapped. In the finale, she confronts Amon and gets her bending (temporarily) taken.
We see Korra laid low. We see her scared. We see her cry, twice, and the second time, I don’t care what Bill Rinaldi says, she was contemplating suicide. We see her beaten, stripped of her bending, electrocuted, bloodbent, locked in a tiny metal box not knowing if she’ll ever see daylight again. She gets her share of humble pie, is what I’m saying. And you may not think she grew enough out of that, but she did grow. She connected with her spiritual side—whether or not you think it was earned, it happened. (If you want to talk not earned, let’s talk about how Aang cleared six chakras in twenty minutes. It’s a kids’ show, shit gets simplified.) Korra learns to respect others, like when she gets over her jealousy with Asami and gives her and Mako her blessing. She learns to look inward in situations where punching isn’t working.
But by the end of the show, while somewhat humbled, she’s still Korra. She’s still somewhat cocky, she still has confidence and carries her head high. And I think this angers some people. She’s a woman who’s made mistakes. She’s not allowed to keep anything. How low do people want to see her laid? I’ve seen wishes for her to be entirely without bending for a whole season, or maybe just never get it back.
Women can make mistakes, sure. But they have to pay for it more severely than men do. They have to be well and truly sorry and be stripped of all their power. They have to cram in that humble pie till they burst. If a woman who has made a mistake isn’t completely repentant and has anything left, women will say she didn’t learn anything at all.
Obviously this rule doesn’t hold for men, who can get away with literal murder by making a sad face about it and showing that it hurt them too.
7) Women attach themselves intensely to only the male characters, then loathe women who inconvenience these men or have different goals from them.
THIS IS PRETTY MUCH 95% OF WHAT I’VE BEEN SEEING.
I see it again and again and again. Most of the fawning and fangirling and squeeing is over male characters. Female characters, even when reasonably well-liked, simply get lower levels of attention. I’d say this is probably due to more women being sexually attracted to men than to women, but honestly lesbians do this too. I’ve even caught myself guilty of it, and that’s painful to admit but it’s true. I can give all the excuses about how it’s just easier and more cathartic to work through my issues by torturing men because it’s less personal and doesn’t carry the same baggage, but the end result is the same.
But then, see, when all of fandom loves Bob, and Alice is just kind of there, then Alice does something that is not in Bob’s best interests, fandom goes apeshit.
Fandom’s protectiveness of its male characters becomes vicious attacks on any female character that dares cross them—even if that’s justified. Even if the male character is as morally gray or more so than the female character who dares make his life harder.
Female characters get this for not being perfect understanding girlfriends. For setting limits and boundaries for their own protection. For simply acting in their own best interests, when those interests are not shared by the male character.
An interesting parallel is in the Being Human fandoms, both US and UK. The US fandom is more mouth-frothingly misogynistic by a lot. Either this says something about American women, or it’s symptomatic of the US version having a lot of crossover from the Supernatural fandom, due to both being paranormal shows with a lot of the same people involved. Yet, despite this, most of the US hate is focused on werewolves Nora and Erin, who both significantly inconvenience the two beloved boys, while Sally, who’s mostly off doing her own thing, catches a break. Sally is a deeply flawed character who’s made a lot of bad decisions, some of which really hurt people. (I’m not saying this to hate, I love the shit out of flawed characters.) But let’s compare her to her UK counterpart, Annie.
Annie, by contrast, is practically a saint. She’s a warm, loving person, who wishes harm on no one. In the third series, she starts a romantic relationship with resident sex god Mitchell (Aidan Turner, of ~Kili~ fame). (Honestly I’d rather have Annie than Mitchell any day of the week, but fandom does not agree.) Fandom mostly cheered this relationship on! Seeing Annie get close to Mitchell was the closest they were going to get to Mitchell themselves.
But then Annie found out that Mitchell had taken part in a recent mass murder. To give you some perspective on this if you’re not in the fandom: Annie is a ghost, who was murdered by her romantic partner. Mitchell is a vampire, who is consumed with the compulsion to kill, often in sexualized ways. So obviously their relationship is gonna be a little troubled, right? Well, she pressures him to take responsibility for his actions, and to do the time for his murders. She offers forgiveness in the context of this, promising she will stay with him in prison. She can forgive his crimes, but she can’t overlook or ignore them. She can’t pretend it never happened.
And she’s hated for this, while Mitchell is not hated for his part in the murders of twenty people.
Lia, one of those twenty people he murdered that day, shows up as a ghost and tries to fuck up his life. Is this justified? ABSOLUTELY. No reasonable person could hate Lia for holding a grudge against her murderer.
But they do. Passionately.
It isn’t that they hate these women individually. Sure, Annie got a small amount of hate before just for being femme, but that’s like the background radiation on female characters. It didn’t explode until she tried to hold Mitchell responsible. Until she wasn’t 100% supportive of him and his interests.
Lia was detested from her first appearance. If we’d been introduced to her outside of anything to do with Mitchell, I don’t doubt she’d be tolerated, the way women are. Until they inconvenience men.
Does this kind of protectiveness extend to other gender dynamics? It doesn’t.
When a woman hurts a man (even if she’s reasonable, justified, or acting in self-defense) it’s OH MY POOR PRECIOUS BABY at the man and hissing at the woman.
When a man hurts a man, it’s exciting and ~sexual tension~ and the two men are both loved.
When anyone hurts a woman, it’s the woman’s fault (or sometimes the writers’ fault) and she’s weak ugh god why don’t they write good badass women I’m so sick of seeing her crying or getting kidnapped or whatever. Or her pain is just ignored in favor of glorifying her male assaulter, in cases of man-on-woman violence where the man is a love object, like our Mitchell.
“Oh no don’t you dare hurt my baby girl you dick, I’ll fucking cut you die you rotten bastard!” —-no one, ever.
In Being Human’s new trio, no one really blinks at the times Tom’s thought about staking Hal, and in fact, people enjoy their ‘bromance’. But when Lady Mary shows up, and upon finding out that she’s been lied to for hundreds of years and that amounts to hundreds, maybe thousands of victims of Hal’s she didn’t know about, when her purpose in remaining on this Earth as a ghost was to ensure that she would be his last victim (oh yeah he murdered her btw), and she considers staking him, something which, let’s be real, she was entitled to do based purely on the fact that HE KILLED HER, let alone the hundreds of years of deception and all the lives she knows she’d be saving because he’s a killer and he’ll always be a killer in the end, fandom actually hates her for this.
And they will go on about how they’re not sexist. How these women are just terrible. How they really do love women, just not these women. And they will clutch their precious male love objects to their chests and prioritize their happiness over the very lives of women.
Women are allowed to exist, so long as they don’t inconvenience men. The moment they do, women turn on them.
I think there might be a fair amount of #3 mixed up in this too. We’re so eager to prove that we’re not biased against men in favor of women (like that’s even a thing) because if we were obviously our opinions would be unreliable and we could be discounted and ignored.
But part of it…I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t this horrible, deep-seated idea that men have more personhood than women do. Men in fiction get to be people. They get to be sympathetic even when they make bad choices. They get to be forgiven. We love them, and I’m not sure if it’s sexual love or idealism or that, flying completely in the face of #4, we identify with the default, and therefore love men like we love ourselves, but see women as the Other.
So I hate a female character. What do I do about it?
1) Stop posting hate. Right now. Stop posting detailed reasons why you hate her. Stop justifying your hate. Stop making posts that simply say, “I don’t like [girl],” stop calling her a bitch or a cunt, stop openly wishing for her death.
No, you are not any better than the extreme examples if you have reasons for your hate, if there’s a 3,000 word analysis of why you hate her. Be real with yourself. Did you write the entire thing to justify your negative feelings towards this female character? Then don’t post it.
You can’t change your feelings overnight. But you can shut the fuck up about them. This is important because the hate drowns the love out. Because it creates a hostile climate not only towards lovers of that character, but towards all women in fandom. Hate begets more hate. There are thirteen-year-old girls reading your posts right now, learning what fandom is and what is acceptable within fandom and how to view themselves as women. Please don’t teach them this. Bear your hate in silence. Even if it’s just one female character you hate out of a thousand you love, and you’re really sure this one is actually justified. Don’t add to what you know is already a systemic problem.
Making it about “the writers” also doesn’t make it any less character hate. You can critique the story as a whole, but again, look at your motives, and be real. How much of this is born out of just wanting to justify that you hated a female character for completely legitimate reasons because you’re totally not sexist and this isn’t what it looks like?
2) Examine your motives more closely. Do any of the reasons listed above resonate with you? Are you too like this woman, are you threatened by certain presentations of femininity, do you find yourself valuing and protecting male characters over female ones? Being aware of the problem also won’t fix it overnight, but it’s a step in the right direction. It might also make you less proud of these problematic feelings, and less likely to spread them to others.
Compare your feelings to how you feel about similar male characters, and observe closely for double standards. If you also hate a lot of male characters, check for androcentrism (loving male traits while despising female ones, regardless of the gender of the person having the traits).
3) Make fanworks of female characters. Even if you have trouble liking them. Post gifsets and screencaps, write character studies, draw them. Do it without mentioning that you don’t actually like this character (that would be counterproductive). Put more love into the fandom.
Sometimes just trying to understand their motives and see them as people who have interests outside of the interests of the men in their canon can work wonders. Making fanwork is the closest we get to spending time with fictional characters. And if you make good fanworks of them, without any nasty little caveats about not liking them, you’re spreading love. You’re making the fandom a better, safer place, for fans of that character and for all women. You’re countering the hate and healing fandom in a way fighting the haters directly can’t do.
If you only vaguely dislike one or two women, and love others, it isn’t necessary to focus your energy on the one or two you dislike, as long as you’re fine ignoring them and not making the problem worse. Go ahead and spread love for the ones you genuinely love. But if your hate for female characters is passionate, or if you hate pretty much every female character, you might need more intensive healing. You might need to focus on these women and confront your feelings for them and actively try to build a more positive relationship with them.
Try writing female gen, femslash, or het from the man’s perspective. The last of these might seem counterintuitive, but most female-perspective romance uses the woman as a personsuit to sidle up to the man that gets all the characterization and love and cool stuff. Writing about it from the POV of the man forces you to actually look at the woman and love her.
Rule 63ing characters can be an interesting perspective-building exercise, and I recommend doing it for situations where you’re having a lot of trouble wrapping your head around the dynamics, but it is not an acceptable substitute for loving female characters. If you can only love and care about female characters when they’re 63’d men, you’re doing something wrong.
4) Don’t get angry at being called sexist. Don’t assume that you can’t have internalized sexism because you’re a Good Person. Don’t give up on yourself.
And don’t try to rationalize it with canon-specific details. You know what, it isn’t this character. It isn’t this fandom. It’s all the women. It’s all the fandoms. It’s a systemic problem. Your hate isn’t magically not part of that because you think this one character is different because she did something that really crossed the line!
We’ve all got fucking toxic shit in our heads from living in this toxic world. No one is immune. I think every woman hates women a little, even the ones who fiercely love women harder just to fight that. This world hates women and we’re part of this world.
We all know this problem exists. Let’s take responsibility and make it better.
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