In the process of arguing that women enforcing justice is an abomination to the Lord, [ D. Bnonn Tennant, Why a woman bearing the sword is an abomination to the Lord (May 2018).] I took a fairly broad swing at superheroines and other such badass female characters. But since that article was about the gender boundaries established by God, rather than a Christian view of media, my swing was more of a brandish and less of a plunging death wound.
Here I want to correct that, because a common pushback to that article was precisely that my swing had missed: ordinary creation categories shouldn’t be applied to fictional women in universes unlike ours, because the rules there are different. Wonder Woman, for instance, is uniquely qualified for combat in a way that even men in our universe are not. And while we’d all agree that Mary-Sues are lame, surely at least some badass female characters are justified by their nuanced narrative explorations of the interplay between their femininity and their vocations.
How should we assess this?
Well, firstly we must note that the argument does get something right: it recognizes that characters who violate God’s standards are not intrinsically objectionable. We could hardly have interesting stories without them. Murderers, thieves, drunkards, homosexuals, and yes even female cops and marines and superheroes are all fair game in fiction.
The pertinent question is not about whether such badass women are permissible—or, dare I say it, desirable—but in what way. Steve Hays has already made some good observations about the narrative mechanics of Buffy; [ Steve Hays, Superheroines (May 2018).] I’d like to approach this from a slightly different angle.
I appreciate that there is nuance to consider in how various characters are portrayed. But I believe, following Doug Wilson, [E.g., Douglas Wilson, Deny Him Seventy Times Seven (May 2014).] that the fundamental question we should ask when assessing a character or story is very simple:
What is it bidding us approve of, or what are we expected to celebrate? In biblical parlance, what is being glorified?
There are two sides to this: the creator’s intent, and the actual effect on the audience. These are often similar, but not always.
1. Authorial intent
What the writer or director intended with a particular character and story is surely important. Eowyn (The Lord of the Rings) is unobjectionable to me on these grounds, as are Lucy and Susan (Narnia), because how Tolkien and Lewis portray these characters’ relationship with combat is quite biblical. The girls are only to use their weapons in self-defense, while the boys are expected to lead battles. Eowyn is treated as weak for pursuing self-indulgent glory over her womanly duties. And although her assuming a masculine role is critical to victory, Tolkien is mimicking the Bible here (e.g. Genesis 50:20; Judges 4).
Unsurprisingly, both Tolkien and Lewis were operating within a consciously Christian frame of reference, and in a time when feminism was only just starting to get a foothold. Their view of femininity precluded the kind of modern badass superheroines we have grown accustomed to in the popular media. Even if modern audiences were inclined to impute to Lucy or Susan or Eowyn such badassery, it seems obvious that the fault does not lie with their creators. Admittedly the interplay between creators’ and audiences’ interpretive responsibilities is a somewhat vexed issue, but I’m siding with Tokien and Lewis in this case.
However, shifting from there and ignoring the fuzzy middle ground until my second heading, other characters like Buffy and Wonder Woman are obvious cases of the opposite pole. Here, even if I knew nothing of their provenance and the views of their creators, I could easily infer that they are vehicles for intentionally glorifying women in masculine roles.
The standard pushback is that the universes Buffy and Diana inhabit work according to different rules. In those universes, some women are endowed with extraordinary prowess in battle, thus making them qualified for combat roles in ways that have no real-world corollary.
I am not inclined to be bamboozled by obviously reversible writing decisions, or mere plot mechanics, into giving quarter about what is fundamentally being glorified. If a character has a specific power or skill-set, why is she a she when the writer could have made her a he? What is the intent being signaled behind that decision? [The recent direction of Star Wars is an especially flagrant example; see D. Bnonn Tennant, The Last Jedi is the first successful leftist porno (December 2017).]
A good writer can invent a plot device to justify pretty much anything that would be impermissible in real life; but this doesn’t make the plot device a universal disinfectant. Swap out badass women with homosexuals and this should be transparent. I’d wager it’d take Steven Moffat (Doctor Who, Torchwood) ten seconds flat to concoct a universe whose rules require homosexuality to be the norm—but no sane Christian would be fooled for a moment into thinking that such a device was anything but a thinly-veiled pretext for glorifying what God hates. How is the same not true of feminist icons like Buffy Summers and Diana Prince? The fact that their creators invented plot mechanisms to justify their assuming masculine roles doesn’t actually, you know, justify it. Yes, Joss Whedon, and more recently Patty Jenkins are sensitive enough to explore the inherent tensions between femininity and the vocations of their characters. But this doesn’t change the fundamental problem, which is that the entire premise of these characters as heroes—people to be approved of, celebrated, and glorified—is detestable to God.
This leads me to my second point:
2. Effect on the audience
Were we living in a different time, not already saturated in the rebellion of fempowerment and buried one layer deeper in badass feminist heroines every year, I might be inclined to entertain the pure artistic value of at least some of these characters. Steve Hays, for instance, points out genuine artistic merits in Buffy, to which I would add the slayer origin story developed during season 5—where the first slayer is shown the victim of sorcerers who used her as a weapon by imbuing her with demonic power. Even though this itself is a transparent riff on the feminist patriarchal oppression myth, it is nonetheless an interesting development in terms of the violation of femininity inherent in being the chosen one.
But we are not living in a world where feminist icons are so rare, or so typically well-developed, that critical artistic evaluation should be our first impulse. We are not even living in a world where critical artistic evaluation is within the capability of the average media-consumer. The cultural juices in which we are stewing are toxic to discernment or discriminating analysis. We are the frog in the pot, and we’ve pretty much started to bubble in an icky brew concocted from farming out our education to the Canaanites and our entertainment to the Romans.
In this stewing pot, badass women assuming masculine roles are a key ingredient for keeping us stoned on the fumes; they are the unrelenting wartime propaganda pieces in a conflict of worldviews where feminism has been handily wiping the walls for the past couple of generations. From my own experience, it’s hard to overestimate how much a continual lifelong exposure to these kinds of characters and stories influences our intuitions about what is right and proper and admirable for women.
This indoctrination is utterly destructive for both sexes, because it encourages girls and women to aspire to masculinity while thinking of femininity as weak and lame; and simultaneously dilutes boys’ and men’s conception of masculinity by showing them that anything a man can (and should) do, a woman can do sexier.
Two positive examples
This doesn’t mean that women in media should be wallflowers, or never involve themselves in masculine activities—or, to keep focus on the topic at hand, be presented as badasses. To reiterate my thesis, it’s a question of what is being glorified. For the mature, let me commend a couple of recent examples that have impressed me; one following the badass female character trope, and the other more subtle:
While I find Gamora uninteresting and unsympathetic as a character, the way Nebula is developed in the MCU aptly demonstrates how a badass female character can be used to explore femininity in a way that honors God’s design (even within a universe that has no qualms about defacing that design with other badass women):
While this would obviously be a brutal thing to happen to anyone, I can imagine a man eventually emerging from such an ordeal stronger, and even in a way grateful (given the rules of the universe) for the kind of weapon he has been honed into. Nebula, however, does not respond in such a way; though she certainly is a honed weapon, she is a honed weapon of rage and agony. The devastation of her femininity is especially revealed in her fury at her sister for not being a sister to her; and though she is able to overcome this trauma through recognizing that Gamora was as much a victim as she, it is only by redirecting her torment into a single-minded quest for vengeance on their father.
I don’t know whether the writers intended the Thanos/Nebula arc to be subversive of modern fatherhood and femininity norms; but our approval of these certainly is called into question by the way badassery is shown to have ruined Nebula’s feminine soul.
ii. Mr. & Mrs. Robinson
Netflix’s Lost in Space contains an admirably even-handed treatment of gender roles in the form of the tension between John and Maureen Robinson. Like the depiction of Nebula, the portrayal of their relationship is positively subversive at times; we start out being expected to side with Maureen for leaving John, but come to suspect that perhaps her halo is not so shiny after we get to know their history better. This isn’t to say that he doesn’t suffer from supplicating beta syndrome on more than one occasion; nonetheless, the show doesn’t try to tell us who should be in charge as they struggle to figure out their relationship, and it doesn’t try to make us believe their various actions are virtuous or not merely based on their sex.
A similar thing happens with Penny and Vijay: despite Vijay’s opportunistic attitude to Penny, he is nonetheless portrayed as courageous; and despite Penny’s rising above her hormones to confidently steamroll him, one doesn’t get the impression the writers find her empowered attitude entirely attractive. (The show also couples these unusually open-ended dynamics with a setting that intriguingly mirrors that of Adam and Eve as they go out into the world to subdue it.)
In pursuit of a positive approach to femininity
Although the question of how femininity should be portrayed is less my concern here than how it clearly should not be, positive construction certainly is important. Someday, when I have cleared my backlog of posts from ten years ago, this is something I want to explore more carefully.
For the time being, my contention is simply this: most feminist media icons are not redeemable, because the very premise of their existence approves, celebrates, glorifies what God condemns. But, as always, there are shades of grey toward the middle, and one’s personal awareness, discernment, and motivation for watching makes a blanket prohibition rather too much like legalism for my liking.