The subtle sexism of not killing female characters

October 19, 2013

This is something that has bothered me for a long time: when female characters are involved in life-threatening – whether as a protagonist or a villain – they are far more likely to survive, avoid injury, and/or be protected than male characters are. I don’t say this because it’s unfair to the male characters; I say it because it’s an insult to the female ones.

Take the second episode Log Horizon. Of the six enemies that attacked the protagonists – five of which were male – only two survived: the healer who was completely knocked out of the battle since the beginning, and the woman.

Another example is in the recent The Avengers film. There’s a scene during the final battle where (spoiler alert) Dr. Banner informs the others that he’s always angry, and then turns into the Hulk. I love this scene so much I’ve watched it countless times, but what I’m thinking of happens immediately afterwards; as the Avengers scramble for cover from falling debris, Captain America decides to shield Black Widow while the similarly powerless Hawkeye is forced to fend for himself.

I could list off many more examples, but these are instructive, and in fact the second example is excusable – since Captain America is a character that was trapped in ice for decades, he’s literally a man from a previous era, so him choosing to be chivalrous and protect the lady is understandable. What I don’t understand is why writers who haven’t been frozen in time since WWII persist in doing the same.

Combat is dangerous, so if female characters enter into it I expect them to have roughly the same chance of being injured or killed as a male character does, depending on their skill level, plot importance, and of course, the occasional spot of luck. If Shingeki no Kyojin’s Mikasa goes around escaping injury, I will accept this because she’s a stone cold badass; it’s when similarly skilled female characters are left alive or unscathed while their male fellows are shoved through the meat grinder that I cry foul.

For the record, I’m talking about combat personnel here – I don’t expect your standard damsel in distress to be collecting war scars anymore than I expect a rescued businessman to have his head blown off.

In short, female characters shouldn’t have invisible plot armor that makes them less prone to injury or death than men. If they’re mooks, I expect them to die en masse; if they’re in the war, I expect them to get shot at, shot through, and occasionally die. Letting female characters live or escape injury isn’t doing women in general any good. It’s actually insulting.

Go ahead, put your female characters through the wringer. They can take it.

As always, thank you for using my Amazon Affiliate link (info).

By Stephen W. Gee

Author of Wage Slave Rebellion, Freelance Heroics, and about two good blog posts out of a hundred.

12 Comments

  1. Reply

    Kairi

    Very true, but they’re also most likely to be killed off as a method to give male characters a goal, usually for revenge. Eren’s mother in Shingeki, for example, or whenever you see someone’s mother, sister, daughter, or female friend killed as the catalyst for the male character’s journey.

    1. Reply

      Stilts

      Which is no better. That means the woman is just an accessory in the man’s story. Mind you, there are many men who are accessories in other men’s stories (or in women’s stories, or women in women’s stories, etc), so that’s not inherently a bad thing…unless it becomes so common that it’s a clear pattern or a trope. Which it is. So yeah, no good.

  2. Reply

    Ana

    Are there a lot of shows where women are among soldiers? I mean, as clearly equal and equivalent to men? I think Shingeki is really one of the few there?

    In my experience, most fictional armies are male-only by default. This is true for many real-world armies as well. So there is less chance for women to be in combat in the first place. Also, aren’t women in the military generally kept out of combat roles anyway? What I’m saying is, this thinking is very much a real-world thing.

    (Keep in mind, that it’s always “women and children” who get evacuated first. By the same token, women getting beat up is like children getting beat up — if you’re doing it (and you’re not the same — a woman or a child), then you’re scum.)

    Also, a beat up woman is conventionally seen as being unattractive. And anything that gets in the way of the sex appeal is no-go.

    1. Reply

      Stilts

      My point only applies when women are fighting in combat, which does NOT necessarily mean they’re soldiers. If it’s a military story and the military is full of only men, of course it doesn’t count because there are no women in combat roles to be at risk. But there are plenty of fantasy adventures, sci-fi epics, and super hero comics where women are getting in there and mixing it up with the best of them, and for them to be spared the pain by the writers because they’re pretty is insulting to them.

      Also, bear in mind that I’m not just talking about TV or movies, but comic books and novels and plays and any form of media where a story is told. I just happened to pull my examples from visual mediums. They do happen to be the worst offenders though, for that whole “sex appeal” thing you pointed out.

  3. Reply

    Al

    I have to agree with you that it does seem like female characters have invisible plot armor, though I will say one thing about the female PKer in the log horizon episode you mentioned, in her case it was maybe plot armor but to me it more made sense that she lived. She was easily bound by Shiroe at first then was stuck attacking only the protecter while the rest of her group was quickly decimated, and she was quite likely a thief meaning she wasn’t a major threat, and the biggest point she unlike the PKer’s leader was smart enough to take the offer to leave alive.

  4. Reply

    rh75

    I guess I’ve just read different books then you Stilts because I’ve read a lot of them where the women aren’t protected by plot armor. In the Warhammer 40K novel series, Gaunt’s Ghosts, the author has no problem killing, disfiguring, or injuring his female characters. This also happens in other books dealing with the Imperial Guard, Inquisition, and Arbites. Of course, it is a universe of war. A Song of Fire and Ice by George R.R. Martin has lots of females being treated poorly, even major ones. The Honor Harrington series by David Weber has the main character and even minor ones go through the wringer. The War of the Chtorr by David Gerrold has no problem with women getting eaten. The main character even executes the mother of his unborn child after she commits treason. I could keep going on, but I won’t.

    I do agree that for some reason females are protected from harm even in situations where they might get hurt. And I thought everyone wanted people treated equally.

    1. Reply

      Stilts

      As with every trope, there are those stories that defy it, and I am glad for that. You do appear to have rather grimdark taste in fiction though, haha, so that might account for a lot of that. I’m more of an adventure kind of guy : )

      Though there is something about 40K that calls to me… It’s kind of like Shingeki, there’s something there that resonates. But that’s another topic.

  5. Reply

    Kaitune

    Although it isn’t the exact same situation, this does remind me of a small drama that happens briefly when Black Star hits Maka in Soul Eater manga a while back.

    The whole situation in a nut shell, in case you haven’t read Soul Eater is that Maka (the main protagonist of the series) was being quite a bitch during that period in the story and she had problems with her friend Black Star. Upon realising how unreasonable she had been, Maka told Black Star to punch her, and he gave her a few good ones. Suddenly, there were angry blog posts calling Black Star and the author a sexist pig because a guy can’t hit GIRL even though she literally asked it.

    I just don’t understand the whole rage… The scene doesn’t bring up any unfortunate implication at all because Maka (along with all the women in Soul Eater) has been portrayed as strong and very capable, and despite being a pervert, Black Star has a female fighting partner whose strength he greatly respects. This is basically two friends sorting things out in a way that works for both of them. Maka is okay, and they reconcile quickly after that.

    Now, it would have been truly sexist if Black Star did NOT punch Maka. Black Star is a hot head guy who solves pretty much anything physically, and Maka knows that he would want to punch an idiotic friend. So how would he explain turning her down? “Sorry, but you are a GIRLLLL, meaning you are weaker! I would happily beat the silly out of you if you are a dude though. Please don’t take it personal. Your feeble womanliness can’t take my manly punch, baby!”? I truly wonder if all those angry bloggers really thought their rant thoroughly…

    I know that there is the ‘Women in the fridge’ trope at the opposite end of the spectrum though. I guess it pretty much just boils down to just treating your characters similarly whether they are men or women. Not more or less.

    1. Reply

      Stilts

      Yes, exactly! I haven’t read that part of the manga because I watch the anime (which I heartily enjoyed, by the way), but I do know the characters in question, and it’s both right and proper that Maka should ask that and Black Star would dish it out. They’re equals, and they treat each other like equals, so if Black Star would punch any of his nakama in that situation, he’ll do it to all of them.

      That’s true equality right there. Women – and especially strong women like Maka – do not need to be coddled. They can take care of themselves.

  6. Reply

    Urizithar

    I don’t realy agree with you on it. At least not entirely. Firstly, I think authors tend to spare their characters in general and not only female ones. Secondly, that’s something that is simillar to our world. To save women and children first.

    1. Reply

      Stilts

      In most events in all of our lives everyone involved survives; therefore it’s no surprise that most (named) characters survive in many stories, even if their attrition rate tends to be higher than that for us uninteresting nobodies.

      As for your second point, yes there is sometimes a tendency to save women in children first here in the real world, but I would argue that sexism – even positive sexism like this – isn’t an excuse when there’s no particular reason for it. For example, I can completely understand Captain America’s actions because he’s a product of that very culture, but when it happens just because? That’s the subtle part I was calling out.

  7. Reply

    a

    This is really interesting, You’re a very skilled blogger.
    I’ve joined your rss feed and look forward to seeking more of your fantastic post.

    Also, I have shared your web site in my social networks!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *