The Competent Woman Protagonist: a Steampunk Feminist Perspective

Compenent Women

Table by Javier Zarracina for Vox

I read an article about Competent Sidekicks on Vox, and saw this table. I don’t completely agree with it, as Luke did blow up the Death Star, but Leia certainly gave him access to the Death Star plans and his torpedo-firing spaceship. But I do think this table makes a valid point; why do these competent women not get their share of the credit at the end of the day?

Agent 99

Agent 99

This cliche is as old as television. Look at 99 and Maxwell Smart. Smart was extremely lucky to be teamed up with Agent 99, as she did most of the thinking and the hard work while he got most of the credit. What made him survive was luck – not to be underrated, but it can’t be depended upon. Even in the modern reboot, Agent 99 has all the training and skills. Max and 99 are the extreme example of the trope, with Starlord and Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy coming a close second.

This occurs quite a bit in literature too. So,how do I avoid this happening in my Steampunk novel.

Well, for starters, my protagonist is a competent woman. And – at the end of the story – she will be getting her credit and her reward. Yep. I finally figured out the reward that would make her happy … a free pass into Kew Gardens. For life. No restrictions. For a woman academic of the 1870s, that is like winning Olympic Gold.

So much more satisfying that marrying her off into a faux ‘happily ever after’.



Filed under Characterization, Steampunk, Steampunk Feminist, Steampunk Genre, Stereotypes, Uncategorized, Writing Style

2 responses to “The Competent Woman Protagonist: a Steampunk Feminist Perspective

  1. Let me start with: All my leads are female and they never require a male to bail them out – whether I’m writing steampunk, fantasy, scifi or erotica. A couple of them are kick-ass characters but mostly they’re just clever. Actually I have one book where the entire cast is male but that’s one in 15+ books.

    The problem with the table is that every story chosen is one where the male is the lead and the side-kick is female.

    Obvious? Yes. But the point is that in any story the protagonist is the one that has to solve the problem – it’s *their* story. This is Storytelling 101. If the protagonist does not solve the problem then it will be an unsatisfying story.

    (I recently read a terrible book where the lead was a female “sleuth” who basically did nothing, and when she did she screwed up and was rescued by other people. It was truly awful. She did not solve the problem, someone else did. Let’s be clear, there was nothing wrong with the writing, but the story was pointless.)

    The creator of this table also cherry-picked the ones where the female side-kick gets caught (Leia is not a side-kick but Luke is still the protagonist, it’s *his* story). So yes, the protagonist will save the sidekick, obviously, and in these films they will be female. I am not for one second suggesting this is a good thing, but this table is attacking the wrong thing.

    BTW, you want a story that doesn’t follow this table: Frozen. Oh, and Mad Max 4, how about Rogue 1, Hidden Figures, Million Dollar Baby, Monsters vs Aliens, Erin Brokovich, Terminator 1, Terminator 2, Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens.

    Oh but wait, they all have female leads…

    You see? I can select films that support my point and ignore all the others too. It’s called confirmation bias.

    Things are changing but it’s not going to happen overnight.

    • I wasn’t saying every story is like this. I was pointing out that it is a stereotype that needs to be recognised and avoided. Of course you avoid this, because you are a good and original writer.

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