My corner of the blogosphere is awash with this flowchart of the range of female-character stereotypes, originally from mlawski Overthinking It. (To read the chart, click on it and then enlarge it. I didn’t copy it here because it’s way too big to show up in a blog post.)
The ideas behind the chart are thoughtful and useful, and worth paying attention to: the top line checklist is handy, if not perfect, defining a strong female character (perhaps a strong character) as someone who can carry their own story, is three-dimensional, does not represent an idea, has flaws, and lives past the third act. (There are problems: the question of what three-dimensionality is and what character “flaws” are and how to include and recognize them is another post, or series, or something.)
At the same time, my first reaction when I saw this was, “Wow, that’s a lot of stereotypes.” Being old enough to remember when there were really only three or four female character stereotypes in the vast majority of film and fiction, this seems like serious progress (even though most of them are, in fact, stereotypes, and some of the examples are poorly chosen).
I had glanced at the chart, thought about it a little, and filed it in “not worth writing about” when I read this open letter to Yoko Ono by bossymarmalade. If you want to find Ono on the chart, she’s in the top right quadrant “mainly a love interest” down toward the bottom left/center. Very disturbingly, she’s the only real person named on the chart. Most endpoints are names of stereotypes (clingy girlfriend, cutesy badass, Oedipal mother), and a few (Peggy Bundy, Lady Macbeth, [Beverly] Crusher) are fictional characters. But Ono is a living breathing human being.
I guess they thought you couldn’t carry your own story, the one that began with you surviving the bombing of Tokyo and continued with you becoming the first woman accepted into the philosophy department of Gakushuin University. Maybe it didn’t make you three-dimensional enough that you studied music and art at Sarah Lawrence with a special interest in the avant-garde and audience participation, that you had sex with who you wanted when you wanted and had abortions and miscarriages. Maybe to them you represent an idea of a weird dragon lady with careful accented English and inscrutable slanted eyes and wild harionago hair.
Where is Ono on the chart? At the end of a path labeled “Do others like her? No.”
Oh, Yoko, surely that’s the damning stroke, because who could like you? A nation full of white people enraged that you stole away their Liverpudlian poet son, a world full of people enraged that you, single-handedly, YOU caused the end of the fabbest four, an unending stream of people who still call you ugly and shrill and a bitch, who say that those bullets should have found their way into your body that night and not that man who you loved and who you watched be gunned down and lost. How dare you think that you and your son have any right to decide how to remember John? Don’t you know he belongs to the world, and not you who taught him to love and respect women, not you who took care of the business so he could stay home to feed the cats and rock the baby and bake the bread when he wanted to do that most of all? Do others like you?
No, the chart says, and so you’re Yoko Ono.
The comments at this post are also excellent, and point out additional potential problems with the original chart.
Bossymarmalade says it all about Ono, and says it beautifully. My contribution is to talk about what it means to have one real person (of color) on the chart.
If you are having fun sorting out and counting up stereotypes, and when you’re done with your cut and paste amusements you have one real person in a sea of tropes and stories, you should pay attention to that, and give real thought to why you have included one real person. If the one real person is a person of color, you should pay even more attention. By definition, real people are not stereotypes. With any understanding of privilege, you should understand that fitting people of color into stereotypical boxes is the path of least resistance, the lazy choice. mlawski at Overthinking wrote this chart should have taken the extra time to notice what she had done, and to fix it. Bossymarmalade shouldn’t have had to write this rant–and since the chart author didn’t do her part, I’m especially grateful that Bossymarmalade did hers.
EDITED TO ADD: Jackandahat points out that there is another real person on the chart, Michelle Rodriguez, who is singled out for “dying before the final act” between the two lower quadrants. I’m grateful for the correction and think it underscores my point.