Female portrayals are improving immensely within the arena of modern-day cartoons. Alongside the increase of women showrunners, writers, and storyboard artists within the animation industry, many female characters are being placed in the roles of leaders, fighters, and influential advocates. A few examples include: Star Butterfly of Star Vs. the Forces of Evil, Marinette Dupain-Cheng of Miraculous Ladybug, many of the Crystal Gems in Steven Universe, and essentially all of the central female characters in the Avatar franchise.
Previous articles including:
- Star Vs. the Force of Evil: Subtle Feminism
- Top 10 Female Characters in Animated Television
- DC Superhero Girls: Capitalizing on Female Empowerment
- Where are the Girl-Crazed Boys in Animation
- Is Japanese Anime Misogynistic?
discuss both the issues of, and improvements being made in, female portrayals within animated works; however, many of these articles fail to acknowledge the other half of the population. Rather than solely criticizing and assessing the way in which female personalities are written, it is vital to correspondingly address the way in which male characters are portrayed within these same works.
Characters who are beloved by many, myself included, do not escape negatively stereotypical traits. Some examples include: Robin of Teen Titans, Mike Chilton of Motorcity, Danny Fenton of Danny Phantom, Ron Stoppable of Kim Possible, and Peter Parker of Spectacular Spiderman.
Within these characters live prominent examples of problematic tropes. The first being the promotion of masculinity as defined by strength and dexterity above all else.
Robin and Mike Chilton have this feature in common. Traits including fearlessness, ambition, independence despite being part of a team, physical strength and endurance, and natural leadership, are very admirable qualities that many people strive to achieve in reality; however, when these qualities are relatively over-emphasized to the point where they block these characters from openly displaying emotion and compassion, they are shown to have very one-sided personalities. The issue with this specific portrayal is that young viewers, boys specifically, are socialized to admire these characters and what they represent—in other words, variations of the same macho-esque archetype are not only showcased constantly, but they are typically promoted as positive role models.
This isn’t to say that characters who fall under this category don’t have any redeeming qualities, since this would be far from the case; more so, the issue is that they lack the ability to show emotion and vulnerability in the face of adversary. Rather than encouraging the healthy display of emotion, male characters throughout many animated titles are inexplicitly chastised for wearing their heart on their sleeve, and correspondingly praised for tackling every issue they face head on.
Another problematic trope commonly portrayed through male cartoon characters can be identified through an opposing set of traits: clueless, frightful, clumsy, and emotional are some adjectives that define this stereotype. Characters like Ron Stoppable and Danny Fenton (in civilian form) embody this personality. And despite often being well-loved by the audience, they are typically completely disrespected within the context of their respective series. These characters are seen to hold a low social ranking and are often bullied as a result. They typically carry relatable human insecurities that are openly seen as unfavourable, with other characters treating them as the punching bag of the series or viewing them as a form of comedic relief.
They way in which these archetypes are treated in-universe inadvertently reveals that male characters are constantly being gauged on their physical prowess, rather than their emotion and intellect—not to say that the former character type is presented as unintelligent, rather, within context of many of these series, intelligence is not held in high regard relative to physical strength, endurance, and agility.
Characters like Danny Fenton along with Peter Parker make up a combination of the two personalities, yet solidify these archetypes as problematic. Their soft-spoken and empathetic personas are targets for harassment, whereas their physically-agile forms are praised by the masses. Other factors are of course in play, including the difference in confidence that Danny and Peter’s alter egos emit, and how this reflects in their likability surrounding characters; but for the most part, being a male character who is kind-hearted and sympathetic is less likely to be presented as widely-admired.
These portrayals are slowly improving. For example, Adrien Agreste of Miraculous Ladybug is written in a way which both his superhero and civilian personas are well-liked by many, and he doesn’t have to choose between being confident, kind, and brave as these traits are seen throughout all aspects of his personality regardless of if he is wearing his mask.
A previous article, pointed out some examples of how the abundance of male creatives tend to write female characters stereotypically; however, it is important to note that this same group of creatives also develop male characters in a way that reinforces stereotypes. Many child-targeted animated series, and programs in general, reinforce societal beliefs of social roles tied to gender because the creative people behind these series were socialized into believing in these characterizations. In other words, this cycle represents a self-fulfilling prophecy.
When I published an article about how anime promotes the sexualization of, and dominance over women, I failed to mention that, within the same context, male characters are also portrayed in a negative light in being shown to treat women poorly by taking advantage of their submissiveness (though there is no excuse for “fan service” in anime that mainly focuses on sexualizing female characters to their audience, but this is a topic for another day).
The good news is that, similar to female portrayals in animated works, the presentation of male characters is also improving. Some examples of characters that embody more forward-thinking personalities include: Marco Diaz of Star Vs. the Forces of Evil, Steven Universe of the series under the same name, Hung of Voltron: Legendary Defender, Aang and Sokka of Avatar: The Last Airbender, K.O. of OK K.O., and Craig of Craig of the Creek to name a few. Taking a closer look at these characters reveals many similar traits: honest, earnest, vulnerable, feminist, knowledge-seeking, understanding, mindful, and comedic in which they are written to be laughed with rather than at.
The TED Talk titled How movies teach manhood presented by Colin Stokes summarizes the issues with male versus female portrayals in all forms of media. The lecture compares The Wizard of Oz to films of the Star Wars franchise, in how the former movie promotes friendship and leadership, whereas the latter promotes male dominance alongside gallant battles. Stokes also brings up a very powerful statistic: the fact that 1/5 of American women have admitted to being sexually assaulted within their lifetime—which leads the question, “What are [these boys] failing to learn? Are they absorbing the story that a male hero’s job is to defeat the villain with violence and collect their reward which is a woman, who has no friends and doesn’t speak?. . .We have tools at our disposal like girl power and we hope that that will help. But I got to wonder, is girl power going to protect them if at the same time actively or passively we are training our sons to maintain their boy power?”
Stokes summarizes that the media text that young boys and girls are exposed to need to present male characters as working alongside their female counterparts—they need to learn to work in unison with others regardless of gender rather than constantly being fed the idea that men are built to fight alone; because in reality, no one should face adversity on their own, head on.
Overall, the fight for positive female portrayals in children’s media should also be met with creating multi-facet male characters that kids can look up to. Recent unproblematic series are proving that television animation doesn’t need to fall into unrealistic tropes just because they are familiar. Viewers of all ages are ready for change and, for the most part, have been responding well to characters that represent intelligence, empathy, confidence, insecurity, resilience, vulnerability, and so on—as varied combinations of these traits offer fleshed-out portrayals that many people can connect with.
A/N: Feel free to start a discussion in the comments below. These thoughts were drawn out by Colin Stoke’s TED Talk (linked above and highly recommended). He leads a very thought-provoking speech that has made me realize that rather than focusing so much on the lack of female characters in media, it’s important to assess the quality of male portrayals as well—despite them being much more abundant. There are issues in the way that many creators are presenting characters to young girls and boys, and despite improvement throughout recent years, problematic tropes are still more than prominent.
Additionally, please note that I am a 20-something woman of colour who was raised in a Western country. This is the perspective that I am writing from. Please share your own thoughts as I do not have the fundamental knowledge of what it was like to grow up admiring male characters as role models. I can only try to relate to this topic by attaching my experience growing up with a lack of positive female representation to look up to, and in turn, internalizing many of the problematic thoughts and behaviours that both male and female characters presented.