Originally published in The Mallard.
Over the recent decade, we have seen a certain type of storyline rise to popularity among critics. The plot usually follows a female character with some type of special power or circumstance who, by virtue of said power, is beset by some type of related conflict; sounds normal enough—this is the beginning of virtually every story.
However, in this case, the conflicts that develop around said heroines’ uniqueness do not always follow their growing or learning how to ethically or effectively use their power. Instead, it’s the opposite: their stories or the cultural interpretation thereof often involve the discovery, decision, or insistence that they do not have to grow or learn, but that it is society or the surrounding world that must adapt to and accept them. From Elsa, to Carol Danvers, to Rey (it cannot be stressed enough) Palpatine, some of the most lauded heroines in current media have followed this type of storyline—which, due to the the ways the characters interact with their settings and conflicts, involves several tropes of a common story type, the bildungsroman.
However, the plot structure and underlying tone of the aspects emphasized as worthwhile by critics classify them as an attempt to form a new genre: a kind of anti-bildungsroman that, in line with the beliefs of the modern feminism that usually advocates said storyline type, actively seeks to subvert the assumptions of the individual’s (here, the individual woman’s) relationship with the broader social structure. The execution of this storyline ironically does the female characters—and stories with female leads generally—several disservices that run counter to the stated goals of those behind the stories.
The Bildungsroman: what it is and what it isn’t.
Just for a refresher, a bildungsroman—German for “education novel”—is a story that intertwines the character’s ethical, psychological, and spiritual growth with the resolution of the conflict. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is as much about Alice’s learning not to behave like all the examples of toxic femininity she encounters through the story as it is actually getting out of the rabbit hole. Harry Potter learns as much about how to be a responsible young adult as how to actually cast spells (with the when and why invariably outweighing the what). The bulk of Aang’s story in Avatar: The Last Airbender involves not his learning how to use his powers as the Avatar, but his learning not to be a childish idiot who sticks his foot in his mouth at every turn. And who can forget Uncle Ben’s injunction to Peter Parker (established by Spider-Man: No Way Home as a theme that transcends the multiverse) about power and responsibility? It’s become nearly as iconic a scene as a still novice Luke Skywalker running through Dagobah with Yoda on his back, with nary a trickle of Force to be discerned by the anticipating audience.
In each of these, the external conflict is resolved and made more complex and dramatic by the character’s resolving some type of inner conflict—usually involving the growth from maturity to immaturity, selfishness to sacrifice, idleness to responsibility, &c.
Now, not every story is or needs to be a bildungsroman. We don’t always need heroes that change or grow—sometimes we need the opposite! It’s no coincidence that Conan the Barbarian and Superman, both unique because of their unchangeability, came out of the flux of the 1930s, when the average Joe, Jane, Jimmy, or Jill might rather enjoy a character who stands in opposition to the instabilities and shiftings around them.
There are many other examples of changeless characters coming out of changing times. The Lord of the Rings—specifically, Aragorn—came out of Tolkien’s effort to preserve English virtues and history through the trauma of values that were the Great War and Modernism (though, granted, Aragorn did a lot of growing up before Frodo receives the Ring). Later in the twentieth century, James Bond stood like a modern Conan (the parallels between their stories and characters are many, despite the obvious differences) amidst the unease of the Cold War. Nor does it always need to be so dire as these: in the ‘90s, Forrest Gump’s charm often inhered in how his simplemindedness showed how the problems around him might really have simple answers (at least within the bounds of his film), and the Dude of mistakened Lebowski fame would not be His Dudeness if he grew through his misadventures.
I list these to head off any claims of my placing standards on the female characters discussed below that I won’t apply to male characters. This is also why, other than this sentence, I won’t use the oft-bandied phrase “Mary Sue;” besides simplifying the argument into mere stereotypes, the phrase, or its male counterpart Gary Stu, implies that strong or unchanging characters are always bad or always lack depth. They may very well be, but my interest is not to simply descry it but to find out why. I come at the topic and characters below with one goal: to encourage complex characters and stories that do what we need art to do—to concretize the values we need to experience at a given time in ways that are timeless. Sometimes that can best be achieved by characters that grow, sometimes not; usually we need iterations of both simultaneously—often in the same story.
But the stories I’m focusing on do assume the complexity of a bildungsroman framework; in each case, the female character is placed in a situation where she is expected by society (and, often, the audience) to grow and she either flatly refuses to do so, or she grows in ways counter to her respective canon. In fact, the characters often self-consciously push against and subvert the canonical expectations for growth in various ways.
Elsa: Letting Go of Past Story Structures
The phenomenon that was Frozen was hailed by many as a deconstruction of the archetypal Disney princess story. Its setup follows many tropes of said genre: a girl of unique birth locked away by parents to prevent a misuse of her powers. However, from there the movie breaks the tradition of stories as late as Rapunzel (2010), which, itself, broke several tropes while adhering to familiar formats. Parents? The uredeemed source of her abuse. Prince charming? Actually the villain. The protagonist’s powers? To be used without compunction after letting go (of expectations? Of the need for self-control? The unnamed antecedent of her song’s Dionysian “it” is as multifarious as the audience might wish).
It would be wrong to say Elsa experiences no growth or argue her character lacks compelling internal conflicts. After going to live alone on her mountaintop (notably embodying several characteristics of the traditional ice queen villain), she does come down and remit her isolation upon learning that by embracing her powers she has caused an eternal winter in Arendelle. Furthermore, not all of the movie’s deconstructions are negative. While the ending of stories in a marriage signifies the restored balance and completion of comedy—and is much more than merely reducing the female to an ornament of the male and his restored power structure, as the format’s feminist critics allege—Frozen’s replacing the familiar eros-driven love story with one of phileo between sisters should be welcomed as an expansion of the virtues and values we enjoy being explored. However, from there we are faced by the irony that the same voices who push the “sisters > prince charming” dynamic often insist on seeing eros in any story featuring two male friends—an unfortunate sexist double standard…
My focus here on Frozen and the others is as much on the cultural response to the stories as the stories, themselves. The danger to Anna posed by her love-at-first-sight relationship with Prince Hanswas not rectified by placing it against the authentic relationship with Kristoff; rather, the reversal of the form was turned retroactively onto all other Disney stories about love at first sight, which had the tone less of adding complexity that had never been established than of burning down the now malicious parts of what had. Finally, it was not a song about Elsa’s learning how to judiciously use her powers that every parent of kids of a certain age (or, let’s face it, young adults, too) had to listen to on repeat for the rest of 2013 and most of 2014. It was a song advocating the audience (especially girls) vicariously “Let it go!” along with Elsa. It was a kicking song, and I don’t begrudge any young girl for making her parents want to break a speaker because of it, but it did, thematically, set the ideological perspective and tone for latter heroines that would come after.
Rey Palpatine: A Victim of her Advocates
The next female character who declines to grow in ways prescribed by her lore is Rey Palpatine. Establishing Rey’s arc or lack thereof is difficult due to her appearing in three films with different directors with conflicting goals for her movies. The lack of unified vision, added to the retconning the trilogy exacted on the established Lucas canon and universe, makes it difficult to treat Rey’s plot either as a uniform whole or as a consistent intentional decision to buck expectations.
Nonetheless, against the backdrop of Luke’s growth under Yoda Rey’s development falls short. While Luke’s progression is drawn over two, if not all three, of the original movies, Rey is able to, for example, beat Kylo Ren the first time she touches a lightsaber. This could be possibly excused if, like Anakin, she were shown to have a high concentration of midichlorians and, thus, a more preternatural adeptness with the Force; however, such a reveal, set up by Abrams in The Force Awakens, was rejected by Rian Johnson in favor of making her a nobody in The Last Jedi (a more vicious crime against Star Wars lore than simply creating a new heroine backstory—or, really, refusing to—might necessarily entail). Abrams, then, had to pick up the pieces in The Rise of Skywalker to make what he could of Johnson’s arson. Central as it is, Rey’s disjointed arc is by no means the only problem with the new Star Wars trilogy.
Enough has been written and recorded about the canonical breaks between the original and the prequel trilogies and Rey’s that I don’t need to belabor the differences. Furthermore, many of Rey’s lacks can be explained, and possibly excused, by acknowledging the directorial conflicts of the trilogy. However, this does not excuse how Rey’s character was marketed: she was, we were often reminded, a female heroine, and that to reject her and all the incongruous elements of her story, even for the sake of preserving the larger Star Wars universe in good faith, was nothing less than sexist bigotry resulting from an irrational fear of strong women (which, strangely enough, had not reared its head in response to any of the other strong, complex females in the Star Wars universe).
The insistence among Rey’s defenders that she is a prime example of both a strong female character and a victim of unfair bigotry unfortunately sets the bar quite low for what is considered a good character—besides disregarding a devoted fanbase who were already invested in finding in the star of the revival trilogy as much depth as they could. Again, my focus is less on whether Rey consistently grows (if she does, it is disjointed due to director disagreements and rushed in a “tell rather than show” kind of way—a sin for character development of any genre). At issue here is the implied insistence that she should not have to grow—that standards of growth from a previous canon are at best an unfair standard and at worst a reactionary response from a threatened tradition of supposedly (but, as fans know, not really) male lore and predominantly male audience against a new heroine. That Rey’s greatness, thus, relied on the spectre of sexist pushback for its vitality and clout did not strike anyone as an issue to be worried about.
Carol Danvers: The Unrestrained Will
My final example of a heroine who rejects the complexity of growth prescribed by her own canon—and the one that does so most openly—is the adult version of Elsa, Marvel’s Carol Danvers. Begun in production as Elsa was gracing theaters, Captain Marvel (2019) added the element of the character’s rethinking her entire culture—of decolonizing her mind, as it were—to the formula, providing her further justification to eschew the self-control and prescribed growth of the traditional superhero story.
Danvers’s story begins with her training opposite Jude Law’s Yon-Rogg, who is preparing her to be a Kree warrior. It is against his mentoring admonitions to control her impulses and to use her head over her heart—and to become “the best version of yourself”—that the rest of her story takes place. Through the movie, she pieces together her disjointed memories to discover the Kree she is fighting for against the Skrull are actually the baddies, and that she is a human whose powers come from Kree technology she destroyed but which Yon-Rogg and the civilization’s Supreme Intelligence AI are trying to still utilize in her.
For the present I’ll ignore the fact that the movie reduces the 1970s “Kree-Skrull War” match between two bloodthirsty races in into a one-sided genocide of the Skrull by the Kree that resembles less the source material and more the modern revisionist simplifications of history into binaries between rapacious, patriarchal colonists and innocent, victimized indigenous. At issue here is that the heroine discovers, in a reverse-brainwashing sequence, that she has actually been misled (gaslit, brainwashed, Stockholm syndromed, all the common terms) by the Kree, and that her assumptions and even her own mind are complicit with the evils of the Kree. She must, thus, decolonize her worldview as she works out whence she got her powers—which, upon learning she gained them through an attempt to save the Skrull, could be used without any moral qualms about their being created by the antagonists.
Within the bounds of the movie, it’s a compelling conflict, and one which does necessitate Danvers’s rethinking and rejecting Yon-Rogg’s inducements to use her powers in what the Kree would say were the right ways (but which are, in reality, against her practical and ethical interests). However, it is not, technically a character arc: rather, it is an anti-arc. Released from the usual inducement to meet power with self-control, or to clearly delineate between her power and her self (with the former always needing to predominate), Danvers simply uses her powers.
This results in some great cinematics that, I’ll admit, meet the desire for a decent action movie with a satisfyingly insolent protagonist. However, Danvers nonetheless loses a major potential character arc.
Even in the final moment with Yon-Rogg, where, in rejecting his last-ditch effort to manipulate her into fighting as herself without her powers (i.e. on terms in which he knows he can beat her), she simply blows him away, thus showing that he’s right: that she cannot control her impulses.
She claims she has nothing to prove to him, but what about to herself? This is, after all, one of the classic canonical superhero conflicts—where the line between self and power falls, which can provoke further questions of what can ultimately be relied upon, or how to maintain one’s self despite the changes brought by power. What about conflicts regarding the dependability of her newfound way of seeing the world, a major question in a movie where the inability to trust reality (brainwashing Kree, shapeshifting Skrull, etc) is a common motif? No, once she gets woke to the Kree, Danvers never questions her new episteme. Why allow internal conflicts to burden her character with unnecessary complexity—especially when we can resolve all the movie’s external conflicts with unlimited girlboss power, smashing the patriarchy—err, the Kree—with their own tools, instead?
This lack of reflection on her powers is a major part of what makes Danvers’s character flatter than either Elsa’s or Rey’s. Both of them at least experience doubt regarding their powers and their relationship to them and their relative place in the world. However, as if stuck in Elsa’s famous song, Danvers’ climactic embracing of her powers keeps her in a third-act moment of what could have been a five-act growth arc.
There is also the unadmitted Superman paradox.
The Superman paradox arose when writers realized an all-powerful being could have no serious conflicts—and, therefore, no compelling story. His creators had to steadily introduce kryptonite to keep him interesting. Presumably her creators knew of this but didn’t think it would apply.
It can certainly be argued that incorporating both an awakening embrace of power and an overcoming of weakness to that power would be expecting too much—and trying to include two major conflicts in one movie. However, completely eschewing any real weakness (Danvers’ conflict involves her adopting and subsequently rejecting weaknesses she does not intrinsically have, which are accidental and, thus, ultimately unserious as conflicts) still sets a low bar of complexity when most superhero movies include some sort of chink in the hero’s armor for future exploration. Danvers’s embracing of her powers is so wholly untainted that, as cathartic for some as the final sequence may be (complete with her acquiring the ultimate symbol of freedom, flight), the seeds for future growth or reflection—the marks of a hero’s staying power—are, sadly, lacking.
 Feminist Heroines: A Rejection of Complex Females
None of this is to deny that Elsa’s, Rey’s, or Danvers’s movies are entertaining and have devoted, good-faith fanbases. As with the unchanging heroes I mention above, people can and should enjoy what they like and feel they need. However, this leads to my qualms with the idea of a character type that shouldn’t have to grow in expected or sympathetic ways. Among other things, I fear the contention that traditional complexity and character growth are arbitrary impositions meant to reject characters because of their femaleness will result in less complexity in female characters, as well as create, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, an antipathy or apathy among audiences towards new female characters—not because they are female, but because they are simple.
However, so long as a certain brand of feminist critics assume that all efforts to mold a female character according to a broader ethical framework are, really, a patriarchal attempt to keep women down, we will continue to get simplistic stories and morals thereof like these. This should not surprise us. The same critics who hold to this implicitly Marxist reading of traditional story structures interpret Pride and Prejudice as an anti-woman novel because it suggests some of Elizabeth Bennet’s problems can only be fixed by personal reflection and reformation—i.e. because the novel is in part a bildungsroman—despite her embodying most of the same traits of their stated favorite heroines (even those discussed above!). If that is how such critics interpret a thoroughly complex character arc, we should not hold out hope for better from them or from studios working to satisfy them as an audience.
So, what should we do? For one, we should flatly deny the accusations that disliking an individual character equates antagonism or bigotry against an entire category; besides employing an irrefutable denial of moral legitimacy, it tries to shoehorn a Marxist reading that sees individuals as merely instances of their group or class. In trying to save characters from simplicity, we should also fight the simplification of critique.
When stories or characters come out that do, indeed, participate in complexity in some way, we should promote them. This may mean being open to new reworkings of stories (on that note, I had originally included The Legend of Korra above, but on further reflection and research of perspectives, I decided the Avatar Korra does grow in ways consistent with the precedents of the Avatar universe that I had not considered before). While above I critiqued the characters for breaking from their canons, it can be equally damaging for story to never stretch what has already been. The best stories will, in my view, resurrect familiar elements of their canons while showing that new arcs are still possible therein. So, we should vote with our pounds, dollars, and online engagements to show at least the less ideology-driven studios that complexity of story matters to audiences more than character identity politics.
A converse of this is to reject stories built around transgressive or socially deconstructive elements, and to educate ourselves on why such things do not and should not be privileged as equally valid views or stories (being anti-stories) in the marketplace of ideas—especially when those who promote them would not and are not extending the same toleration to the rest of us.
Finally, as we at The Mallard have advocated and tried to put into practice, we should create the things we want to see. If nothing else, this will help us understand how to interpret the other art we consume. Complexity is difficult, and accomplishing it subtly and succinctly is even moreso. It might discredit me as a writer to put it in print, but I had to cut 250+ pages of my novel Sacred Shadows and Latent Light, most of which was backstory and characterization. Necessary for fleshing out my characters for myself, but not inherently necessary for developing the book’s conflict. The experience paradoxically made me more sympathetic but also less yielding when it comes to character depth. I hope I’ve shown both above in my treatment of characters who have, in theory (certainly in budget), better writers than I behind them.