It’s hard work to maintain a sense of self esteem as a woman. Messages from all around, subliminal or not, tell us we are secondary, weak, unimportant, and inconsequential.
This is something you notice particularly when going through a gender transition and changing your self-perception from male to female. Suddenly, all those negative messages affect YOUR self esteem, because they are now being directed at YOU. Before, self esteem was a given; now, it’s a constant work of maintenance.
Because of this, nowadays I make a serious effort to surround myself with positive messages about womanhood. One of such message is simply that women are consequential, and so I like to consume fictional media where women are the main and/or important characters. I don’t just mean being the romantic interest for the male main character; I mean that they have to affect the plot in a genuine way. If you took them out of the story, the story wouldn’t work. “Agency” is the word.
One series I watch is Fairy Tail, an anime (Japanese cartoon) centred around with a closely knit guild of wizards and the constant battling against bad guys they seem to be doing.
I will be the first to say Fairy Tail has its flaws. It can be trashy, overusing Shounen clichés and cheesy doomsday plots. In the realms of sexism it isn’t perfect either; the female characters are often overly sexualised and dressed in skimpy outfits, and the dreaded bikini armour makes an appearance. Yet, the clichés are made up for by great characters and character interactions, and the bikini armour is cancelled out by great female representation.
I haven’t made an exact count but as far as I can see about 50% of the characters in Fairy Tail are female, or a little less but not terribly much less. But not just that; about 50% of the powerful characters are female, and about 50% of the characters who move the plot forward are female.
The four main characters seem to have been particularly created to fit this balance. There’s Lucy, who despite being rather weak, seems to be intended as the main character; the anime is often shown from her perspective and also often narrated by her voice. Then there are Grey and Natsu, who are the tough male main characters; Natsu takes centre stage a lot of the time and sometimes feels like the main character, though he doesn’t stay there all the time. Then finally there’s Erza, a female character who is unquestionably more powerful than Grey and Natsu. The creator of the show said when he was designing Erza that he wanted to create a character who Natsu could “be scared of”.
This is her, not smiling at the camera:
And here is her again, tearing through a sphere of fire:
Erza tends not to smile very much. Actually, she often looks stiff and socially awkward when around other people who spend their leisure time with more jollity. Yet, later on in the series we do get to see her vulnerable side.
What I like about her, and other female characters in Fairy Tail, is that they actually have developed, interesting personalities. Too often, when I see movies or series which have genuinely tried to have female characters, I either see characters who are just a set of female stereotypes, or more often but equally useless, characters who are supposed to be progressive answers to female stereotypes (basically: strong, tough, rough-edged women), which if you think about it is still basing a character on stereotypes.
In Fairy Tail, someone had the radical idea to make the women not stereotypes, not reactions against stereotypes, but actually people.
This is what I want with my media. I want female characters I can identify with. I want stories about female characters, not just stories with female characters in them. I want the characters to be just as human and flawed and quirky as male characters, not only just as strong.
Fairy Tail, for all its flaws, gets a lot of this right. It feels like the (male) creator of the series actually views women as people, and that’s noteworthy.