Monday, July 18, 2016

[AVW014] Rethinking the Heroine (The Persona)

[AVW013] Doing Better - The Missing Half (Part Two)

Having talked about Archetypes and Stories, I'd like to transition into talking about Characters. There's some natural overlap between these three topics, but think of this as strengthening our discussion instead of retreading old ground. Let's circle to build!

Today we're going to talk about why Strong Female Protagonists are screwing up women's representation in media.

This builds off of our previous post on why Strong Female Protagonists Who Don't Need No Man are difficult to relate to, but we're also going to take this a step further. Having embraced the Female Protagonist out to save her man (get her man, liberate the Animus), we're going to go a step further and throw out the Strong Female Protagonist altogether.

This will sound counter-intuitive at first, so bear with me. I'm not saying that Female Protagonists are bad, or that Strong Female Protagonists are never good. But if we want more billion-dollar franchises with female leads, we need Boring Female Protagonists in interesting worlds, as opposed to Strong Female Protagonists is boring worlds.

The Archetype In A Nutshell

I'm going to explain this Archetype myself, but the video below also does an excellent job:

How interesting is Mario, as a character? Not very. His background doesn't matter, he has zero character development, and he only rarely speaks.

How interesting is Link, as a character? Maybe a little more than Mario. But the character works just as well if you pick up the Hero of Time and drop him somewhere else (as the many-branching cannon of the Zelda series attests).

Even when a specific background is in play, we prefer protagonists with as little personality as possible. Gordon Freeman. Chrono. Master Chief. Do you really like the fully-voiced, characterized modern Sonic the Hedgehog better than the silent, finger-waving original? Did you like the simpering, whiny Samus from The Other M better than the mercenary with zero lines of dialogue? Of course not - you're not an idiot.

I'm not saying only idiots like this game.
But only because it goes without saying.

As the video above explains, a bland non-entity with minimal characterization (Neo, Luke, Mario, Link) is the exact sort of protagonist that drives billion-dollar franchises. Why? Because the less characterization your hero/heroine has, the easier it is for the audience to slip them on like a mask.

The perfect protagonist

The word 'persona' comes from Latin, and refers to the masks worn by classical actors. Jung uses it to describe the 'masks' we use to face the world. These masks are not our true selves, our true personalities, but rather social roles that other people can understand easily.

Removing your fake-ass Customer Service Persona

These bland protagonists don't have zero characterization. Neo is a rebellious and loyal underdog in a cyberpunk setting. Luke is rebellious and loyal underdog in a high-fantasy space setting. Harry Potter is rebellious and loyal underdog in a contemporary fantasy setting. Mario is an arguably rebellious and loyal underdog in the Mushroom Kingdom. Link is an arguably rebellious and loyal underdog in a faux-medieval setting. Sonic is a rebellious and loyal underdog in a techno-furry setting. Samus is an arguably loyal and rebellious underdog in a sci-fi horror setting.

In fact, "rebellious and loyal underdog" would describe roughly every protagonist of a billion-dollar series from the last 3-4 decades. While individual protagonists may have certain distinct pieces of window-dressing (setting, color scheme, facial hair) that appeal to particular demographics, they are all essentially interchangeable.

In other words, we expect the Protagonist to function as a mask that allows us to slip into a setting. While they may have some specific characteristics and backgrounds (Harry Potter is an orphan, Neo is a hacker), this is more about adapting the Protagonist Persona to a setting than true characterization.

The Character

Test time: can you think of any female protagonists who launched billion dollar franchises?

Take your time, I'll wait.

Time's up. Here's my list: Katniss from The Hunger Games, Bella from Twilight, Samus from Metroid, that chick from 50 Shades of Grey and Ripley from Alien.

Second test: how many of these protagonists are held up as models by Feminist Puritans?

Maybe Ripley? Even then, the first Alien movie barely passes the Bechdel Test, so she's hardly a model for hardline feminism. And since she's a white, thin, physically-abled, English-speaking woman, Ripley could never pass Intersectional Feminist tests.

Which brings us our point: if you want to sell a female protagonist to a mass audience, thus improving female representation and setting an example for young girls, make your protagonist as bland as humanly possible. Make her nothing more than a mask than young women can pull on and off like a mask.

If you put a female protagonist in your game, give her as little of a background as possible. Just throw her in a world with no explanation of who she is or rationalization for her powers. If you must include some sort of story in your game, make her a rebellious and loyal underdog.

Look, I get it. You want your female protagonist to be deep and complex, like a human being. And that's great if you're trying to write Serious Literature or make a Serious Film. But it's not how you make a billion-dollar franchise. It's not how you put a female face on a generation-defining franchise. It's not the mask that people will pull on to explore a fascinating world.

When it comes to pop culture, go boring or go home.

Next: [AVW015] Lilith, Demoness of the Night (The Shadow)

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