Equality in Writing: The Mother Complex

So as I just posted, I believe that the Bechdel test misses some strong feminine characters while letting some very negative women portrayals through. But as I finished posting that, my significant other pointed out to me something damning.

Why are the strong female characters almost universally mothers?

It was something I hadn’t been considering as I was looking at the characters I felt were unjustly excluded from the Bechdel test. So often, the female characters who end up showing feminist qualities require that status of being a mother to achieve that goal. Even Ryan Stone, trapped in space, is early on depicted as a mother (a fact I’d forgotten until it was pointed out to me in our conversation).

So what the hell is going on there?

Having it pointed out to me, one of the first responses that came from me was “a lot of people are parents, a lot of male characters are parents, so it’s not necessarily sexist that female characters are depicted as mothers.” But I was looking at it from the wrong direction, because the real problem was that, when looking from the other direction, I could hardly find any positive female depictions that weren’t mothers.

In fact, when pressing myself to try to think of how often a single, childless female character had been a protagonist or deuteragonist (other than Mako Mori), the only really solid examples I could think of were Hanna:

Alice from the Resident Evil series:

The lifetime career of Angelina Jolie:

Katniss Everdeen:

And Mallory Kane from Haywire:

All of them fall into further smaller categories: The underaged, the sexualized, or the incredibly rare.

So when coming upon that realization, I knew that I had to follow up on that post and point out that this is another reason why those tests are a bullshit mark for whether or not something is feminist. Because clearly, there’s something still missing in the cultural mindset. And, sadly, I think I understand what it is.

Motherhood, culturally, has made characters untouchable in a way. Their strength can come out openly without being sexualized. A strong mother is a caring figure, regardless of who she is or isn’t with, and it would feel “creepy” to try to objectify that character. That’s why Sarah Connor gets to have the messy hair and the lack of polish. That’s why Slim gets to suffer abuse where they’re willing to actually leave marks on her. That’s why Ryan Stone can be sympathetic without having someone to actively comfort her. They were “allowed” to be characters only because their motherhood made them unavailable as objects.

But you look at the lineup of the single ladies and you find that most of them have been sexualized or objectified. Look, sex is fine, but could we get someone with the strength of a Sarah Connor or Mallory Kane without being a mother or sexualized? Can we get the best of both worlds and see more Katniss figures? Is that really too much to ask?

Women can be strong figures, they can be the action stars without hanging out of their clothes. They can really fuck someone up in a diner: