by Ciara Drummond

Unsplash, Andrej Lišakov

In my religion course, RGL107, “It’s The End of The World as We Know It”, my professor was discussing how the so-called “end” may not be an Armageddon. Rather, the end of the world can be thought of as a fundamental change within society. My professor provided the COVID-19 pandemic as an example; the society which existed before the pandemic is entirely different from the one we live in now. Hygienic practices have skyrocketed, work culture has dramatically shifted, and the way we interact with medical institutions has forever been altered. The example of the pandemic has led me to think about the other large societal changes that could be considered the end of the world, well… at least as we know it. 

I think one of the biggest changes is in media. Until recently, I had never seen a piece of media starring a lesbian couple I related to. I had read a few books, but I felt like they couldn’t capture my experience as lesbian. Then, I watched a children’s cartoon called She-ra: Princess of Power (2018). Watching She-ra was the first time I had felt seen by a piece of media. I wasn’t watching a show, I was becoming the characters themselves, and the characters were reflecting my life back at me. The story showed real queer friends, complexities in love, and growing up queer in an oppressive environment. But what made She-ra different is unexplainable. I just felt a connection to the show and its representation of queerness. For example, there is one queer couple, Nestossa and Spinny. Their relationship is so well done, even if they are side characters. They have a subtle domestic quality that woman-loving-woman characters are not often given in media. They are two people that, while flawed, still love each other, and I can see myself in both of them. Reflecting on the show, I think the impact She-ra had on me is less about the queer rep and more about the female representation. 

Since first watching She-ra, I have learned how powerful the media is. In particular, I learned how important representation is. Within the last few years, there has been a large amount of discourse about the media’s representation of women. It is no secret that female voices have been left out of popular media. Most movies, tv shows, video games, and novels are predominantly created by men. Therefore, women are depicted through the male lens, leading to several tropes that overall weakens the storytelling. 

First is the trope I like to refer to as “the dumb lamp trope,” often known as the “sexy lamp” trope. This cliche refers to a female character who, if she was replaced with a lamp, the story would not change. This trope is often seen in superhero and action movies. The female characters of these tropes are typically used to act as a male character’s motivations (Mike Williams, The Roar Online). 

A striking example of this is Lois Lane, a character from the Superman comics and movies. Lois Lane isn’t really a character. Lois’ defining character trait is that she is in love with Superman. Lois does not exist outside of Superman; she does not have individual goals, friends, hobbies, or values which are required to have a fully realised character. In fact, Lois cannot exist without Superman, but Superman can exist without Lois Lane. Instead of a character, Lois is a tool used to push Superman into difficult moral situations, typically where Superman has to choose between saving Lois or defeating a villain. In many situations, Lois could be replaced by an inanimate object of importance to Superman, like a lamp, and the story wouldn’t really change… beyond it being weird that Superman is in love with a lamp. Lois’ replaceability is the reason I have never really felt significantly invested in Superman and Lois’ relationship. Due to the lack of characterization or focus on Lois, the watcher doesn’t typically figure out why Lois likes Superman, outside of him being Superman. How can I root for someone I know nothing about? Real characters cannot be easily replaced, especially not with a lamp. Without Superman, the entire story would fall apart. So why was Lois Lane and other female characters not treated with the same respect? 

The “sexy lamp” character is also often unlikeable and inconsistent. Referring back to Lois, the sexy lamp is a plot device used for the development of the male characters. These characters therefore act in favour of the plot, rather than what that character would actually do for themselves, in their own interests. I call this the “dumb lamp” trope because it is poor writing, but also, even if the lamp is known for their intelligence, they will often do dumb things to progress the plot. For example, trusting the obvious bad guy, or randomly forgetting very important information. To me, this is lazy writing and a sign that a writer didn’t know where to take a story. 

The most important question an author must ask themselves is, why should people care about your story and your characters? I do not care for the “sexy lamp” character because they are not characters, they are plot devices and you cannot have a personal connection to a plot device, like you can with a character. This would not be a huge deal if the “sexy lamps” were small side characters, but they are not. Instead, “sexy lamp” characters are often main love interests. You are supposed to understand, sympathise, relate to, and feel for major characters. The “sexy lamp” does not feel real. They are an uncreative solution to a problem the author created, but by solving the author’s problem, they create a new one. An unlikeable and forgettable female character.  

This is quite similar to the seductress or femme fatale characters, such as Marvel‘s Black Widow or Gwen from The Family Plan (2023). The Seductress, in the media, often plays an antagonist whose role in the story is to distract the main male character. This trope is founded in the 20th-century male fantasy of punishing women for daring to be a sexual being (Brianne Hogan, Screen Craft). The major issue with this trope aligns with the “sexy lamp”: because a seductress’ character is rooted in the male protagonist’s development, she often lacks depth and is very predictable. This is prominent in the The Family Plan where the sexy ex, Gwen, attempts to harm the main character’s family so they can get back together.  The viewer never learns anything about Gwen, despite acquiring some minor details about the other major—male—antagonists. Her whole character is an angry ex. She was not offered the same care as the other characters were because writers could simply use the femme fatale trope to dismiss her. 

I’d like you to think about some of your favourite villains. Now, think about what makes them so great? I am going to make an educated guess and assume that whatever villains you have chosen are not your favourite because… they are hot. Doesn’t that seem like a dumb reason to be a villain? Yet, that is the reasoning behind many of the Femme Fatales’ cruelty. 

One of my favourite villains of all time is Oswald or the Penguin from Gotham (2014). Why? Because I could see myself becoming someone like Oswald, and I don’t like it. Gotham’s Oswald is consumed by ambition.  He is willing to step over and betray anyone to gain power. Yet, despite his ambition, there is a glimpse of a good person: he is kind to his mother, caring about her more than anything. During his time as mayor, he does a lot more good for the city of Gotham than many of the morally good characters. Oswald is cruel and does terrible things, but he has reasons that make sense for his character. This complexity of Oswald’s characters is what makes his character so well written; you, as the viewer, could see yourself in his shoes, and this is scary. Femme Fatale characters unfortunately are donned with none of this complexity. They are not created to be interesting or challenge the viewer’s perception of morality. When I know a character’s fate like I can predict a Femme Fatale’s, I don’t typically care about them. Their scenes hold no tension, and without tension, a conflict is ruined. Good, well-thought-out villains can transform a story, but the Femme Fatale trope harms it. 

However, it is possible to use this trope in exciting and interesting ways. For example, in Jennifer’s Body (2009), the writers use the femme fatale to discuss themes of toxic female friendships, heteronormativity, and sexuality in an unexpected way. Jennifer is a mean girl who is struggling to accept her romantic feelings for her best friend, Needy. After being sacrificed in a demonic ritual, she is resurrected but must eat people to stay beautiful. Further, her evil is much less about her being a man-eating monster, but rather how terrible of a friend she is. Jennifer, the femme fatale, is still the villain of this movie and is extremely unlikable, but the writers take the time to flesh out Jennifer as a real, actual character; one who has complex motivations and a unique personality. Because Jennifer’s femme fatale status goes beyond her physical appearance, she escapes many of the downfalls of this trope. 

The final trope I strongly dislike is the complete rejection of femininity. I think this stems from the end of the femme fatale and sexy lamp era. This rejection manifests in many ways, such as the “not like other girls” trope and the super strong, overpowered, girl boss. One example of this is Tessa from After (2019), a romance movie based on a Harry Styles fanfiction. She often attempts to discard feminine things such as makeup, and she is treated as the special, “not like other girls” who is finally worthy of the male love interest’s attention. This trope often shuns femininity, creating this idea that women should strive to not be like other women if they want to impress men. By being “unlike other girls,” these characters isolate themselves from other women. They depict women as flat, uninteresting, and wholly consumed by the men in their lives, sometimes to the point of expressing misogyny, which disrespects and fails to acknowledge the complexities of women.

All of these female characters are written by men and/or for men. There is a misconception that men don’t like watching stories centred around women and that without the male-dominated audience, a project will make no money.  

However, that is not true. There can be good female representation in the media. For example, Elle from Legally Blonde (2001) is a positive female role model. She has a proper character arc, evolving from someone who is consumed by the man in her life to becoming independent and maintaining a healthy relationship. Elle is the definition of a girly girl. She loves pink, dresses, and all things feminine (although potentially also stereotyped). Despite her femininity, Elle is also smart and even uses her knowledge of fashion to win a murder case. Elle succeeds partly because she has the life experience only a woman would. Also, Legally Blonde subverts the mean girl trope that stems from the rejection of femininity. While Vivian, the mean girl, and Elle do have a conflict over a man, the conflict is layered. Vivian is driven by academic validation and thus sees everyone, especially Elle, as competition. Elle is never mean to Vivian. She still respects Vivian and values her opinion. In the end, Vivian and Elle are able to overcome their differences and become friends. 

Elle is treated with the same care as a male character. Elle is used to tell the story of female strength, determination, and ambition while exploring themes of sexism, complex female relationships, and love. Her story is saying something beyond ‘this female character is in love with or attracted to this male character’. I understand and relate to Elle as a woman and therefore, I care about her. I want to see Elle succeed in the same way I want to see myself succeed. At the same time, Elle gives hope to other women that they deserve to be respected just like their male peers. Legally Blonde was written by three different women. Perhaps the female perspective is what is missing from the other female tropes. 

So… what does this have to do with the end of the world?

We are starting to see the end of an era…at least, in the film world. Right now, we are in a state of  limbo. More and more women are being placed in important writer and director roles leading to many of these tired tropes dying out. They bring experiences and perspectives men cannot, bringing ideas and themes previously underexplored. 

I am excited to see these tropes die out, replaced by much more nuanced, real female characters. 

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