Writing, Feminism, Arrow, and Damseling

Posted: February 4, 2014 in Novels, Random Geekery

5996678001_6d170dd088_mI’ve been a Green Arrow fan for a while. Heck, I even blogged about it a while back when I reviewed issue #7 of the comic. And when the tv series Arrow started, I was looking forward to what they could do with the character and his mythology.

We’re now past a season and a half in, and overall, I’m delighted by the series. The way they reinvent the mythology, the way that they build on little tidbits laid out over the season. The big cast with solid support characters (particularly Diggle and Felicity). All really good. And I’ll admit, when I get to a reveal or see a payoff of things they set up several episodes before, I have been known to squeal with delight.

But, Arrow, for all it does right, has some problems. As one of my Arrow watching friends commented the other week: “Watching Arrow. I’m a glutton for punishment. If she gets kidnapped tonight. Jesus.”

Fans of the show no doubt know exactly who I’m talking about.

Arrow, you have a real problem with “Damseling” Laurel Lance. If you’re not familiar with that term, it refers to using the capture of female characters, the “Damsel in Distress” trope, to motivate male characters to action. It’s come into focus recently as an overused trope in video games, but the idea far predates that. It’s tired. It’s cliché. It’s sexist. And it’s lazy writing. I get that Laurel’s big arc for the season involves breaking her down to her lowest point so she can rebuild herself, but there are other ways to do that and I get the feeling that you’re not even trying as long as it fulfills that basic mandate. In the first half of the season, she’s been kidnapped at least twice, and her safety used as a carrot to motivate several other plot-points for her male protectors, both her father and Green Arrow.

It’s been noticed. It’s been discussed. And it’s problematic.

But it does have one unexpected benefit.

It helps to point out the trend in other media, including the novel I was in the middle of writing.

I have three primary characters in Redemption of the Yellow Wolf. The primary POV character is Ulls Sturmgard, and he is joined by two other capable heroes on his journey–both of them already limited in their communication range, Whisper being essentially mute, and Melkin not speaking the language. And I looked ahead to the middle arc of the book and realized that I was due to have all three characters captured, in effect damseling both Whisper and Melkin.

This was set up in the outline, and honestly, I didn’t even blink at the idea then. Over the course of writing, these characters became more than names. And thankfully I’ve been paying more attention to misogynist tropes and language, so I was able to spot this before I got to it. Whisper and Melkin aren’t plot devices, and it was wrong for me to use them as such. Not only is it wrong to strip them of their agency, it diminishes them as characters. And it’s lazy.

I’ll tell you this here and now, some free advice from your Uncle Nate: there are a lot of sins committed by bad writers and laziness lies at the root of a lot of them. Sometimes it disguises itself as “good enough,” or falls victim to “backstage-itus” where characters essentially fail to exist when they aren’t in a scene. I’ve been writing a long time, and I still do this. At some point in the draft, I expect most writers do. The challenge is to spot it and try and do better.

Whisper and Melkin are wily, capable characters. There is no rational explanation why they would be captured and not be capable of doing something about it. So I looked at it again. Tore it apart. Put it back together better, stronger than before. It doesn’t make Ulls less of a hero. Nor does it make his actions or decisions later in the book any less important. Do they still need him? Of course. But no more than he needs them.

That’s what family is.

And if my intention is to build this trio of broken misfits into a family, they need to respect each other’s strengths. They need to trust, and to know when to ask for help. They need to be able to stand on their own in such a way that any one of them could be the hero of the story if the camera shifted to them.

On Arrow, Laurel Lance is a righteous, tenacious woman and a fierce litigator. They made that clear for most of last season. And they’ve proceeded to tear her down, first with guilt, then with addiction, and trust issues. I know you want to keep her more involved in the story, but there are ways to do it that don’t involve her needing to be rescued so often. I want to like her. Most people want to like her. But damn if you aren’t making that difficult to do.

If you weren’t doing so much other stuff right, it probably wouldn’t bother me so much. I’d just write it off as another vaguely fascist adolescent male power fantasy. But you’ve proven you can do better.

I’m fixing my problems, Arrow. Let’s see if you can do the same.

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Comments
  1. Do they get any balance points for “damsel-ling” Tommy Merlin in season one? I wonder if the “damsel” is not a gender-based targeting of women but an outcome of a male lead who goes off to rescue the one he loves. I can only imagine that in the same story with a gay male lead, the damsel would be a male and those who would immediately look for the victim’s gender as the primary reason will miss the real root which is the lead’s relationship to the victim.

    Despite this view where I believe it is way too easy to just look at a relationship out of context to tease out an agenda against women, I still agree that the writing is filled with holes that demonstrate weak and lazy writing. When I compare Arrow to Agents of S,H,I,E,L,D. I see it as a master class showing bad vs. good writing. Again and again, when I watch Arrow, I find myself incredulous at the overuse of tropes where characters do not speak out when they should and react in ways that are entirely unreasonable. Just in tonight’s episode, Oliver finally finds out that Thea is Merlin’s daughter. He goes off the deep end against his mother. And yet, both he and Sarah have made exactly the same choice in keeping epic secrets from their families to protect them from a greater evil. I don’t blame them as much for the “damsel-ing” because I see it in context and have far less of an agenda to look for such things in any narrative I come across. But, when a character keeps doing stuff that he or she would not just to create drama in a story, that is what really matters to me when weighing the quality of a script.

    • Actually, to the best of my recollection, Tommy was not in that situation. Ever. He was captured once WITH Ollie early on, but not used as bait to motivate his heroics. And he was threatened once or twice, by Huntress on one occasion if I remember right, but not captured and used as a carrot to move the plot. And in the end, when he died, he martyred himself, putting himself in harm’s way and paying the consequences for it. But that was his choice. He had agency there, as opposed to Laurel whose primary role on the show it seems is to be endangered by outside forces to motivate the men to action.
      The most recent episode it wasn’t Laurel, but instead her mother who seemed to have no role in the story other than to get captured by Nyssa, prompting her rescue by Officer Lance, Ollie, and Sara. And the Laurel thing is frustrating in that they paint her as being a strong, capable character who is (this season at least) struggling with survivor’s guilt and substance abuse, but otherwise a capable person. Yet other than springing a trap on Arrow in one of the first episodes of the season, she has been nothing but a punching bag. Meanwhile, the show does so much better with most of the other female characters on the show–even Thea has shown some growth an strength this season.
      And maybe it is an agenda on my part. But it’s an agenda to expose and hopefully change a destructive narrative that is so common that it is blindly accepted as status quo. It contributes to a message that women are powerless and in need of rescue, and not worthy of their own stories, their own heroic narrative. It contributes to the faulty logic that people don’t want to see strong, capable women heroes because there are so few of them. It’s at least part of why we have such thin representation of women in the recent spate of superhero movies. That attitude of “Wonder Woman can’t carry her own movie. She’s tricky.” has roots in the way women have been systematically made the victims, marginalized.
      Yes, they do right by Sara, for instance, but they undercut that message with Laurel. And they can, and should, do better.

  2. […] that. In fact, these same producers are also responsible for Arrow which I also enjoy, but which is no less problematic. They have a long record of treating female characters poorly on their show. I’m hoping both […]

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