Anyone who has been paying attention to pop culture the last decade has probably heard of the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” coined by Nathan Rabin to described a female character who “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Rabin was criticizing the sexist trope of a woman who is written only to save a man from himself through her quirky carefree pixieness.
For the past few years I’ve wanted to expand on Rabin’s discussion of female characters by examining another trope that men often write into their female characters. Male gaze feminist characters are often warrior women who act like men. Male gaze feminism doesn’t see women as feminist unless they completely overthrow all gendered expectations and femininity to wield a sword and kill any man who so much as looks at her sideways. In other words, they act like men.
This idea crystallized the first time I watched Game of Thrones with an ex boyfriend (Yes most of my nerd culture interests have come to me through a boyfriend or my younger brother-don’t judge). He was desperate for me to watch the show with him so I finally relented. One of his selling points was that there was this amazing feminist character I was just going to fall in love with. After watching the first couple episodes I couldn’t figure out who he was talking about since the only character I saw explicitly fighting patriarchal assumptions was Cersei Lannister and I wasn’t exactly in love with her. I also saw a lot of potential in Sansa Stark as a female character navigating patriarchal oppression, but I knew this boyfriend wasn’t that subtle. It then dawned on me that my boyfriend of the time thought Arya was the most feminist character he had ever seen.
Once I stopped being the human embodiment of a facepalm emoji I gave him the feminist rant of a lifetime. There is absolutely nothing wrong with women forgoing dresses and the trappings of femininity for swords and fighting, but there is also nothing inherently feminist or anti feminist in those actions. What is anti feminist is assuming a woman’s strength and feminism comes from donning armor and performing traditionally male identified actions. What is also antifeminist is disdain for Sansa’s interest in marriage and more traditionally feminine things. Arya at the beginning of the show is also a very common character. A “tomboy” who eschews femininity because she would rather be training with her brothers has been written many times before.
Too often we assume that women who participate in their expected gender roles are also participating in patriarchy and oppression when in fact it is often the opposite. Part of my original feminist rant a few years ago was that Sansa was going to turn out to be the most feminist character on the show and I was thrilled to see think pieces to that affect during the last season.
Why Sansa Stark is the true feminist icon in Game of Thrones: Her journey so far
Whilst not exactly problem free when it comes to gender politics, one thing you can't accuse Game of Thrones of is a…
I have often heard that fairy tales are written for young girls while comic books are written for boys. Fairy tales show women enduring and surviving expressions of a patriarchal culture. Sleeping Beauty falls into her slumber after pricking her finger on a needle (come on, could the sexual metaphor be more obvious) while Snow White after biting into a red apple (seriously??), and the entire Red Riding Hood story is one big sexual innuendo and cautionary tale against women’s sexuality. The women in these stories face consequences due to their beauty and sexual maturity. Survival for women in these societies is marrying well.
Male gaze feminism also comes up when discussing characters like Lara Croft or Black Widow. They’re oversexualized with huge boobs and even Black Widow’s name evokes sexist tropes. Consider The Bride in Kill Bill who is hailed as a strong woman due to her violence while Uma Thurman was put in danger on set to film it. Ellen Ripley in Alien has to have her final fight while in underwear and a tee shirt.
The evolution of Wonder Woman shows a character created through male gaze feminism that was portrayed entirely through the female gaze in the last movie (obviously directed by a woman). Gal Godot, the actress behind Wonder Woman, has actual combat training and was dressed in outfits that look like actual Amazonian gear. She is allowed a love interest without being oversexualized or with the romance centered in her arc. Even her anti war values are often considered traditionally “feminine.” Shuri in Black Panther might not be viewed as explicitly through the female gaze but her strength is derived through her intelligence and ingenuity.
Consider instead feminist characters created by women who are strong without necessarily copying male violence. Hermione Granger in Harry Potter is brilliant in her own right. Olivia Pope in Scandal leans into her femininity and vulnerability without sacrificing an inch of strength or feminism (I’m also partial to the character arc of Meredith on Grey’s Anatomy).
There’s a reason girls have grown up idolizing women like Jo in Little Women and Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. These characters are strong and feminist within the bounds of society. They manage to forge their own paths and marry who they want without the fantasy of turning into a fighter. We also have real life feminist role models like Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Alice Paul, Emma Goldman, Katherine Johnson, Shirley Chisholm, Marie Currie, Cleopatra, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and so many more.
Calling a character a MPDG Warrior Princess is my short hand for a woman who is written by men to be feminist through male identified actions and desires. My idea of feminism is a woman surviving patriarchy and fighting the systemic oppression that places women in the binary of the princess wife or the badass fighter.