Why We Don’t Need “Heroines”

From Writer Unboxed:

A recent WriterUnboxed column argued that a fictional character doesn’t have to win a big, loud, violent battle at the end of the story to be a “hero or heroine.” It’s an important discussion, within which the use of the word “heroine” may seem a minor point.

And yet, to me, it mattered. Because the word “heroine” creates an unnecessary and potentially harmful gender distinction in the idea of a “hero.” I had to wonder: Why can’t all of our fictional characters be “heroes”?

I might’ve written a comment. I needed to write a column.

The word “heroine” has no meaning other than “female hero.” That might imply strength, like “girl power,” or it might be perceived as cutesy, frilly or worse, patronizing. But those implications don’t matter as much as the fact that the category of “hero” doesn’t need this gender division any more than the categories of “male nurse” or “female Supreme Court Justice.” We do not need “mailmen” when everyone can be a “mail carrier.”

There are, of course, many other examples of such pointless and outdated gender distinctions: waitress, stewardess, lady doctor, lady Realtor, comedienne, manageress, landlady, headmistress, chairwoman, hostess—need I go on?

Like “heroine,” these unnecessarily gendered terms divide people into binary categories when we should all know by now that human gender is not binary. If gender exists–some experts say it does; some say it doesn’t–, at the very least it includes people along a spectrum as well as people who don’t fit on that spectrum. And it isn’t necessarily a defining characteristic of anyone’s personality or ability.

These unnecessary gender labels may seem benign. They aren’t. Code words in job descriptions, bias and discrimination in hiring, promoting and firing decisions, and unequal pay for equal work have been well documented. So, too, has the “pink collar”-ing of certain fields of work. Is a “heroine” entitled to the same career opportunities and compensation as a “hero”? Or will she have to fight for her equality in the workplace and the world?

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences preserves its practice of awarding Oscars in Actor and Actress categories, one each for Best and one each for Best Supporting. With four categories, rather than two, the Academy can recognize more nominees and winners, but the additional categories unnecessarily insert gender differences where, it seems to me, they shouldn’t be relevant. Some female actors find the term “actresses” not only objectionable, but offensive.

. . . .

The Problem with Female Superheroes” was well-documented in Scientific American in 2015:

“…new research by Hillary Pennell and Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz at the University of Missouri suggests that, at least for women, the influence of superheroes is not always positive. Although women play a variety of roles in the superhero genre, including helpless maiden and powerful heroine, the female characters all tend to be hypersexualized, from their perfect, voluptuous figures to their sexy, revealing attire. Exposure to this, they show, can impact beliefs about gender roles, body esteem, and self-objectification.”

That was eight years ago. Today, Dear Hollywood, we still need more positive images of non-traditional, non-gendered and non-hypersexualized superheroes on the big screen.

Please, bring it on.

Why does this problem of “heroines” matter to writers and authors?

For writers, it matters because our characters reflect the real world in which we live. That’s true even of speculative fiction. Or perhaps even more so of speculative fiction. By forcing protagonists into gendered categories of “hero” and “heroine,” we impose a false structure of gender in our fictional worlds and perpetuate the idea that these categories are fixed in the real world, as well.

The protagonist of my novel-in-progress has a superpower, but as she says herself, she isn’t a superhero. She’s a “Wind Lord.” Not once in seven years of writing and revising ten drafts have I called her a “Wind Lady” because no such term is necessary for her or any of my other characters. They are all “Wind Lords,” regardless of their gender.

For authors, there are real-world considerations for how novels and short stories are selected for publication and then categorized, packaged, marketed and sold to readers.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

PG notes that “positive” and “negative” influences seem to be proliferating over the last 10-15 years. Such “influences” invariably apply disproportionately to various genders, races, classes and national origins.

PG posits that there have always been “positive” and “negative” influences on humankind going back to Satan tempting Eve in the Garden of Eden, surely a negative influence if PG has ever seen one. (But PG acknowledges that Eve was likely chosen for temptation because Adam was off somewhere doing guy things or maybe zoned out watching football on TV.)

However, “positive” and “negative” influences entered their golden age with the rise of the subconscious in the 20th Century. The subconscious was a never-ending source of books, articles, rules and powered the rise of “experts” who could super-humanly discern what was happening in the subconsciousness of others.

Therefore, it was up to everyone to clean up their subconsciousness or be an outcast from polite society.

As subconscious studies abounded, it soon became clear that people in positions of power (whatever that means), especially the maleish people in such positions, required quite a lot of studies to reign in the nasty bits floating around their male brains without any proper regulation. Even the male gaze was different and more offensive than the female gaze or the gazes of dogs, horses, sparrows and all other members of the animal kingdom.

PG just realized that it is likely time for him to swallow some of the prescribed medications that do something or other to regulate his mind and, perhaps, keep his subconscious in line as well.

10 thoughts on “Why We Don’t Need “Heroines””

  1. The author gives the game away with this:

    “Today, Dear Hollywood, we still need more positive images of non-traditional, non-gendered and non-hypersexualized superheroes on the big screen.” (Emphasis mine)

    Translation: The OP wants Hollywood movies to be more reflective of her set, rather than the world at large. Because I will guarantee that non-binary people are overrepresented in her friends and her acquaintances. The hypersexualization thing is an entirely separate question.

    (Side note 1: I like how the author acts like it’s only women who get unrealistic body image messages from superhero stuff.)

    (Side note 2: I will also guarantee you that there are certain identity groups who the author would be very upset if they got any positive representation in superhero movies whatsoever, despite making up a much larger percentage of the populace than the non-binary.)

  2. Under the category of Things I Know I Should Keep To Myself But I Just Can’t Help It…

    Whatever. I don’t buy it.

    I don’t believe any woman was ever called a “heroine” (or a “chairwoman” or a “postmistress” etc.) as an attempt to demean her. If she was, it was probably the utterance of some slack-jawed half-human half-slug who had no idea what the terms meant. Rather, I believe such terms were meant to call attention, rightly, to the fact that the subject was female and therefore elevated by nature above other human beings.

    Such titles served as an advance warning to all who approached that they were about to come into the presence of the divine feminine and that they should act accordingly. That basically meant minding their manners, which people on both sides of the gender aisle should do anyway—even if being polite and respectful somehow “offends” them.

  3. The OP is adorable. Going by the unscientific measurement of the cases that used to cross
    my desk, let’s play “the pretend game.”***

    Scenario: You’re tied up in a dungeon, and the dungeon master asks you a question.

    “In a husband-wife pairing, which one will complain they never shag enough?”

    You wish to go free. The correct answer is: the husband.

    “In a husband-wife pairing, which one will complain the other one wants to shag too much?”

    You wish to go free. The correct answer is: the wife.

    Are there exceptions? Well, let us suppose the dungeon master has deprived you of your feet, and a hand, and all but two fingers on the remaining hand: rejoice! You have exactly the number of fingers necessary to count the number of men in my case files who complained their wives wanted to shag too much.

    There was one man.

    There was a second man.

    They could fit in my cubicle.

    The second man amused me, because he and his wife were trying to conceive and he was unnerved by her insistence on shagging. I didn’t ask if he might be unclear on how babies are made.

    Oh, there may have been a third man. But he came from one of those countries where they arrange marriages, and his ex-wife was not certain he was aware of the existence of shagging in the first place. Her doubts stemmed from the fact that they never consummated the marriage. She said she was clear when she asked him if he knew the birds and bees, but I wondered if maybe there should have been visual aids involved.

    Now, if I’m going to count the men who wanted to shag more, I would rent out nothing smaller than a stadium. In lots, as in the first group fills the stadium at 8am, and the next group around noon, and on and on through the day and night. I only had that job a couple of years in college, so perhaps I wouldn’t need more than a fortnight to get through the count. Had I stayed longer … Do note that these men came from all walks of life, and from all over the world.

    Were there exceptions on the women’s side? Every once in a while … but that usually pointed out something about the husband. That is, he had a mistress he wanted to stay faithful to, or he wasn’t attracted to his wife. Sometimes the lack of attraction wasn’t personal; he just wasn’t attracted to women in the first place. On rare occasions he preferred to be a woman, so he ceased to be the man she married.

    Make of that what you will.

    The sexual dimorphism of mammals – including humans – has blindingly obvious consequences for the software as well as the hardware. If you’re writing aliens who are based on raptors, e.g., Turians, remember to flip the dimorphism. In-story, play around with the consequences and see if anything interesting happens. In-life …

    ***The game Neeve Kearney plays with her father in “While My Pretty One Sleeps” by Mary Higgins Clark. As a child she drank a can of pop when she wasn’t allowed, and when her father caught her she suggested they play “the pretend game.” The objective was to pretend the Coke is apple juice so she wouldn’t get into trouble. In her adulthood, she and her father use the game to explore hypotheticals.

    • ROTFLOL. Skewered the whole subculture they’re coming from.
      Yup. Human sexual dimorphism is real. (Ask men about being dragged on shopping expeditions.) Also, it’s the baseline for the entire genus, going back at least to herto man.
      Useful in story crafting.

      (I just knew you’d be chimeing in on this but I expected an, ahem, mythical journey take. 😉 )

      PS, the other day when I mentioned archeology channels on youtube, I forgot one of the better exemplars: Dan Davis History.
      Try this on the Varna culture: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=wD6kLyTyHa0

      • Thanks, I watched that video. And his observation that the Chalcolithic Age Varna reminds me of another article I read, where archeologists were surprised to find evidence of a battle from that time period. For some reason they thought only Bronze Age cultures were “advanced” enough to make war. On the one hand it just tells me those particular scientists didn’t remember their childhoods, nor had any children of their own. But on the other hand, their confusion and the observations Davis makes reminds me that it’s not wise to underestimate what ancient people were capable of.

        I had meant to return to the discussion of ancient technology, but didn’t get the chance to. The ancients seemed so close to enjoying our standard of living with certain tech, and yet the Industrial Revolution took so long to occur. I understand why the Romans didn’t kickstart it, because they did have slaves and necessity tends to be the mother of invention. But still, it’s tantalizing to ask, “what if?” The trope of ancient advanced civilizations collapsing after they get too careless with their tech actually looks more viable with more discoveries from the Chalcolithic Age.

        • This caught my eye today:


          There’s an ongoing debate about bow hunting, whether modern humans could have figured out bows 54,000 years ago. Which, along with the Varna, got me thinking about my recent deep dive into geopolitics and economics and I realized the southern danube and black sea region was actually far more hospitable to civilization than mesopotamia but, alas, more vulnerable to marauding horse warriors. The original barbarians. So all those Old Europe Civilizations they’re finding traces of, 6000 years and more back, had more to worry about than nature. And that explains the centuries between the greco roman era and the industrial revolution. Builders vs takers, tribe vs tribe.

          A dynamic that persists to this day.
          In that region and all over.

          Definite story fodder…
          …and food for thought.

          • That observation about Varna’s location reminds me of a blog topic from years ago, where someone noted that tactics and terrain influenced how far the Mongolians could expand their domains. If I remember correctly, the Mongolians never went past Romania or Turkey because they used skirmishing tactics which are suitable for steppeland, but impossible in the Carpathian Mountains. Also, their bows de-laminate in the rain, and once beyond Romania and Turkey, Europe becomes rainier.

            So, the marauders make sense as a factor for Varna et al. And something to consider as story fodder, too.

            • Agreed.
              Egypt, Mesopotamia, and The Indus valley weren’t really the first civilizations, we’re finding out pretty conclusively. They were merely the ones defensible enough to last long enough to leave easily discoverable evidence of their peak.

              Egypt, for one, had dessert to the east, dessert to the west, mountains to the south, sea to the north; all impassable to armies for millennia. But once armies got through the obstacles, Egypt fell. Over and over.

              China, like Old Europe, never had an enduring unified civilization; they hsd multiple regional ones, constantly at war with each other and on the few occassions one conquered the rest, the marauders came. Hence the great wall.

              Geography mattered. Defensible borders are more than lines on a map, real world or fantasy setting. Main difference is today a defensible border requires air defenses and missiles at a minimum. Unfortunately, Muscovy hasn’t quite grasped that.

              More story fodder: geography matters but humans matter too. Failing to understanding the humans, male and female, will trip you up every time.

  4. Anent all of this…

    I strongly recommend a book recently recommended to me (here? I forget): The Dawn of Everything https://amzn.to/3Lto4tF

    The most intelligent treatment of intellectual fashions and likely species/culture/long descent realism with an anthropological background I’ve ever encountered. I knew most of the examples, but I’ve never before encountered a sufficiently rational overview of this scope.

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