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Female Protagonists-do their creators allow them to fail?

In a world where people are becoming more conscious about the stories they enjoy, it is no surprise that the movement to see better representation has increased in speed. In particular, there is a huge desire to see strong female characters that remind girls that they can be more than damsels in distress. Whilst I agree and even encourage this move, my opinion is that there seems to be a misunderstanding on how to accurately portray these characters. In their efforts to create a strong character, they unintentionally create one who is not relatable, which prompts me to ask the question: are creators so afraid of external reactions that they rarely depict their female protagonists failing?

Let’s explore this in more detail by picking a suitable example: Rey Palpatine (now known as Rey Skywalker), the protagonist of the recent Star Wars trilogy. While the films have come under criticism for various reasons, a lot of fans have made direct comments regarding Rey’s personality. When we are first introduced to Rey in The Force Awakens, she is a scavenger on a backwater planet, who has a natural affinity for mechanics. We quickly learn that there is more to her than meets the eye as she is also incredibly gifted with the Force. I personally have no problem with this as the very nature of the Force means anyone can have massive amounts of potential with it, regardless of their background. However, I have a problem with the ease at which her skills develop. With no initial training, Rey learns the Jedi Mind Trick and even bests Kylo Ren in combat, a former Jedi who has fallen to the Dark Side, despite the fact that she had never used a lightsaber before. People have pointed out that Kylo Ren was injured at the time and that Rey had experience using her staff in combat, but even so, this is a huge leap in logic, especially when we compare her to previous protagonists in the Star Wars franchise. Anakin Skywalker, despite being The Chosen One, had years of training by the time he fought Count Dooku but that didn’t save him from losing a hand. This point speaks not only to the two protagonists’ skills but also their character growth. As a Padawan, Anakin Skywalker is overconfident, arrogant and reckless. His defeat at the hands of Count Dooku teaches him a valuable lesson. Anakin’s character flaws often lands himself in situations where Obi-Wan either scolds him or bails him out, thus highlighting the mentor/mentee relationship. Similarly, Star Wars showed no hesitation in portraying Luke Skywalker as someone with potential but severely lacking in developed skills. In A New Hope, he struggles to defend himself against a non lethal hover droid while he wears a helmet to block his face. It is only at the very end of the movie that he manages to trust in the Force to make a ‘one in a million’ shot with his X-Wing and even that was with the guidance of Obi-Wan’s spirit. In Empire Strikes Back, Luke finally has his first lightsaber duel with Darth Vader, despite only receiving a bit more training from Yoda. While Luke is resourceful, he proves to be no match for the Sith Lord, and loses his hand in the fight. Only by the end of Return of the Jedi do we see that Luke has developed his skills to the point of being considered a Jedi Knight. Rey does receive tutelage over time from both Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa, but she doesn’t appear to receive any consequences that she must learn from. The argument could easily be made that she almost instantly evolves beyond the need for a master. Star Wars has always been vague as to just how much an individual can achieve with the Force, so it wasn’t too off putting to see Rey being able to heal people with it. However, once again, there is no depiction of difficulty in the process of her learning or using that ability, which is problematic considering we hadn’t seen anyone else in the movies do it before. She even uses Force Lightning instinctively in The Rise of Skywalker, a move which seemingly leads to the accidental demise of Chewbacca. When I saw this, I thought that there was an opportunity for Rey to face a heavy consequence and learn what could happen if she didn’t keep her emotions in check, given how powerful she is. However, it is revealed that Chewbacca was alive all along and so once again Rey is spared the important character development of failure.

Another example to draw from would be Batwoman as she is portrayed in the CW show. Originally, the woman beneath the mask is Kate Kane who is played by Ruby Rose. We know that she has military training and so it is believable that she can handle herself in combat situations. However, a main source of contention is the Batsuit itself. In their efforts to make sure that their protagonist is strong and powerful, they gave her a modified version of Batman’s costume, which she didn’t have to struggle to make or even earn. On the show, the Batsuit is depicted as being nigh indestructible, save for a specific weapon that implements the use of Kryptonite. After Ruby Rose’s disappearance, Ryan Wilder (portrayed by Javicia Leslie) stumbles upon the Batsuit amongst the wreckage of a plane and manages to easily slip it on. It is mentioned that she had previous martial arts experience but that doesn’t justify the sudden jump to her fighting criminals. The show does portray her as being slightly out of her depth and clumsy, which makes it more believable, but the image of her casually taking various gunshots to her body highlights how her character’s supposed ‘strength’ is based off of her reliance on the suit as opposed to her own skills and awareness. Even with the faith that he had in his technology, Bruce Wayne didn’t begin his career as Batman until after years of honing his skills to the point where he wouldn’t allow himself to get shot in the first place. Obviously, we are only at the beginning of Season 2 and so there is plenty of time for improvement, but so far it appears that the show has fallen into a very common storytelling pitfall. In order to compensate for the lack of strong female representation, they have gone too far in the opposite direction and have equated strong characteristics with flawlessness.

What makes a great character isn’t the fact that they can’t fail but the fact that they carry on regardless. Even Supergirl, a character with immense power, is sometimes portrayed on her show as being out of her depth or at the very least in genuine need of assistance from those around her to make up for her shortcomings. The Tomb Raider movie starring Alicia Vikander shows the origin story of Lara Croft as she goes on her first adventure. It is evident that she already has a few skills under her belt but the film shows her as being far from flawless and clearly having a long way to go before being the legendary ‘Tomb Raider’ that we are familiar with in the video games. To quote Master Yoda himself ‘The greatest teacher, failure is!’ Creators must learn that it is perfectly acceptable to show a woman struggle through something that isn’t related to her gender. She doesn’t need to master a skill instantly or be shown to be infallible. Likeability does not go hand in hand with flawlessness.

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Alex Ransome
Alex Ransome
Mar 25, 2021

I feel more enlightened. Definitely worth a watch, especially given it's from a more informed perspective than my own.


Alex Ransome
Alex Ransome
Jan 23, 2021

The common thing you're getting at here is that the creators/writers don't seem to care about or appreciate the Hero's Journey. Whether it's through the active choices the character makes, dealing with the consequences of these, or the challenges they must overcome throughout the story, it is necessary to show the protagonist evolve.

It's a shame that this still happens to female protagonists often as your Tomb Raider example clearly demonstrates. It's sadly on point because when I watched the movie it definitely felt unrealistic in a lot of ways. How do we portray that Lara Croft has the potential to become the skilled badass action heroine she's renowned for? Put Alicia Vikander in a bike race. I don't even…

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