Why is it So Hard to Write Female Teenage Characters?


Korra

Has Korra even smiled this season?

 

If you keep your ear to the ground, you might hear a lot of people grumbling about the second season (or Book) of The Legend of Korra. Even the most hardened fans of the series seem to be slightly taken aback by some of the current development threads. Bolin has been redefined as the comic relief, part of a wacky side story to the events that involve an intercontinental war. The “dark spirits” angle that should be important comes across aloof since the struggle against these beings seems to be brought up only when convenient. Until recently, Mako was such a useless character, and Eska and Desna are ill-defined (man, what does Desna even DO?). Oh, and the Tenzin side-story is only mildly interesting, which is a simple way to damn it with faint praise.

The biggest concern is how Korra herself is acting. She’s making bad decisions – terrible ones, in fact, that seem to make her character utterly frustrating and unlikeable. Granted, there’s a lot of adults around her that are both mentoring her and manipulating her, and she’s in an increasingly desperate situation, what with a war looming, her parents in danger, and her role as the Avatar in question. It would be a lot for anyone to handle. Still, while I don’t personally have as much of a problem with her character as most people do, I do see that there are problems here, problems that aren’t necessarily regulated to The Legend of Korra. TV shows often have problems with writing teenage girl characters, but the question is, why?

The grumbling has extended to the third season of Homeland, where teenager Dana Brody has checked out from therapy after an attempted suicide. She is clearly struggling with the news that her father has been outed as a terrorist, news that is affecting her a lot more than the rest of the family. This becomes a significant point in the second episode “Uh… Ooo… Aw…,” but the awkwardness to get there includes a whole lot of longing looks at a cute boy from the same therapy sessions, an ill-advised nude selfie, and one egregiously annoying “running away from home” moment. The actress, Morgan Saylor, does the best she can here with the material given here, but the narrative choices are hard to justify without undue rage at these pubescent girls.

From 24 to Revolution (Charlie isn’t a teenager, but c’mon, she sure as hell acts like one), from American Dad to Kim Possible, teenage girls have always been, and continue to be, the bane of writers’ existence. (Oddly enough, Family Guy gave up on even trying to give Meg, its teenage character, any agency, which is the fucking worst, especially since they kinda did a pretty good job with her early on). Young women, who within their teenage/young adult lives struggle to grow and change, often make stupid mistakes in their way to adulthood – but this goes for everyone. So why do these young girls seem to continue to frustrate writers and audiences alike? One would think that kind of internal turmoil would be easy to mine for narrative gold. Instead, the minerals they do mine tend to incite riots. Why?

It was in the character of Candice from Phineas & Ferb that I begun to devise a theory. Candice embodies the typical traits given to so many young, female characters: brash, self-centered, whiny, materialistic. She’s embarrassed to talk to the cute guy, then she gets the cute guy, then she obsesses over the cute guy. Candice, for a while anyway, frustrated me as much as any other bevy of teenage girls out there. But what creators Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh do to win her over to the audience is important. They exaggerate her flaws so that we laugh at them. The audience knows that these flaws and petty concerns are silly. Candice, herself, knows they’re silly. She can’t help herself though! That glint of self-awareness, coupled with the gradual attempts to work through her issues, makes Candice come off much more likeable. In addition, her obsession with busting her brothers (also played to comic extremes) is couched in a genuine love for her brothers. She doesn’t hate Phineas and Ferb. She simply hates that they somehow get away with so much stuff. That’s a really important distinction.

We can compare Candice to Kim, the titular character from Kim Possible, who is a stark contrast to Candice. While my review of the show will come much, much later (update: here’s the review), what I noticed was how “insular” Kim feels. Kim is a Mary Sue, a perfect, ass-kicking character who nonetheless has female teenager problems. But the contrast between Kim’s ability to save the world multiple times and her issues with, let’s say, babysitting her twin brothers is a contrast that does not (and, arguably, can not) jive. Even if played for laughs, even couched in a certain degree of self-awareness, it’s a hard pill to swallow. It doesn’t help that Kim’s annoyance at her “tweebs” (twin dweeb brothers, which, ugh) is wildly unfounded. They rarely bother her, content to cause chaos in their own little world. But there she is, sighing and rolling her eyes at their antics, despite them never truly interfering with her life. Her frustrations are distinctively petty, but the show works to make them seem important, and they’re simply not. (The show makes no qualms about focusing a majority of the episodes on Ron Stoppable, Kim’s sidekick).

That may be the issue stemming in this season of The Legend of Korra. The sheer scope of the issues that plague this world are bigger than I believe the writers want it to be. So when Korra spends an uncomfortable amount of time worried about what Mako thinks, it’s frustrating. When she justifies various forms of rebellion – against Tenzin, against her father – they seems petty up against the arrival of monstrous dark spirits and a burgeoning civil war. Also, she’s the Avatar, embodying a great deal of power and strength. Not that the Avatar shouldn’t have personal and/or emotional struggles, but those struggles should really tie directly with the real world consequences. Bryan Konietzko makes a good effort, but watching Korra shed tears after she breaks up with Mako is a narrative stumble for the character we knew, compared to the the situation she finds herself in. Maybe, just maybe, balancing these minor concerns with the major ones are impossible – or, if not impossible, an extremely difficult balance that just isn’t worth going into.

That’s the core issue with young teenage girls as power figures. Really, it’s the core issue with most young people as power figures. The scenarios they come up against are so potent, so world-changing, so incredible, that young people retreating back into their world of high school strife is wildly jarring. Harry Potter went through the same issues. At the very least they justified it by 1) noting that Hogwarts was rightly the safest place he could be (until it wasn’t), and 2) attempting to normalize Harry Potter’s life as much as possible. Still, by Order of the Phoenix, watching Harry be frustrated by another difficult class is laughable. And the less said about his love-life foibles, the better. Kudos for the last book for getting Harry out of the school surroundings.

Young teenage girls seem to get the worst of it because writers seem mandated to keep these girls’ concerns to the forefront no matter what situation they find themselves in. Candice, rightfully, always has the bigger picture in mind – busting the brothers while simultaneously protecting them – while Kim and Korra seem focused on emotional responses in relation to the fate of the world. (To be fair to The Legend of Korra, the show seems to emphasize that her approach IS wrong, but considering this was established in the first season, it’s hard to thematically justify it again and maintain a strong amount of interest.) When even exaggerated comedy can’t work, we may have to acknowledge that this juxtaposition between global warrior and emotional pubescence is simply not going to work.

Even it we step away from the power figures, like with Homeland’s Dana or American Dad’s Hayley or 24’s Kim, another thing becomes clear (especially when viewed through the post-Candice lens): why do the writers approach these young girls in such insular ways? By which I mean, why do these young girls never seem to interact with the people or the world beyond their personal foci? I don’t mean that these girls, character-wise, tend to be primarily focused on their own personal stories. I mean, they seem to narratively interact with people that ONLY are involved in their own personal stories. Dana talks to her mother and the cute boy. Why doesn’t Dana talk to her brother? Or the other people from her therapy group? Who are the other people in Kim Possible’s class? What’s her relationship to them? I am aware that Korra’s and Lin Beifong’s relationship is questionable, but why doesn’t she talk to her? Or Bolin? They had a nice time together in Book 1. (That ties into how poorly they’re developing Bolin).

There’s really no broader social aspect to these young girls. The universal focus is on these girls and their goo-goo eyes at cute boys, mixed in with their poo-poo faces at people who annoy them. What about everyone else? The original Avatar: The Last Airbender used its travelogue format to play around with how the gang of Aang, Sokka, Katara, and Toph gauged the world around them. Some of the best parts in that show are Toph’s annoyed indifference at the wealthy environs she grew up in around Ba Sing Sei, and Katara’s growing frustration with the Northern Water Tribe’s dated sexist views. Avatar mines a lot of variations to the world, tosses the cast at them, and let the characters work. Korra, on the other hand, is trapped in a realm of mentor-searching and bad judgements. This isn’t necessarily Korra’s fault, but the writers don’t do her any favors. Dana, again, bounces between the cute boyfriend and the frustrated mother, when there’s a lot more she could be, and should be, interacting with. Entire seasons of American Dad go by that fail to star Hayley in anyway, despite the fact that American Dad’s universe is clearly ripe for situations for her to get involved in. There’s an interesting and comically rich idea of Kim Possible’s Kim getting a job, meeting various co-working and grasping the corporate environment. Instead, she gets a job because she wants to buy a jacket (“Bueno Nacho”). Kim could learn about the work of janitors and janitorial services, perhaps humbling her and giving her an insight into blue collar work. Nope – the janitor is a spy, which seemed to be the only way the janitor could earn Kim’s respect (“Job Unfair”). I wish there was a Dana that dealt with the fallout of her father’s betrayal on her own terms instead of via a desperate rush to the arms of a character we don’t even know about.

Why are all these young girls so restricted? What if, to be speculative, Dana retreated into a realm of a video game, an MMO? We don’t see too many young women with nerdier pursuits, and I’m sure even teenage girls with a passion for computers would also be emotionally torn asunder if her father was revealed to be a terrorist. Can a violinist also be given superpowers? How would a young girl handle phenomenal abilities while being uncomfortably privy to the uncomfortable reality of growing up in a lower-class family? Or how about a young black girl dealing with larger than life situations while handling the burdens that come with not only her gender but also her race? The myriad of choices and ideas available to writers break down in the realm of the teenage character, often leaving her to bounce between boy-toys and parents that just don’t understand. The best writers and the best actors can’t creatively do anything if limited between These Two Things.

Also… where is the humor in these characters? They certainly don’t need to be laugh-riots, especially since Dana certainly isn’t in a position to elicit a lot of comedy, but all these characters come with an air of angst and frustration, an overall unwillingness to “laugh” at themselves. They seem trapped, stifled, and their avenues for answers lie in parental figures and boyfriends. (If they’re lucky, they might have a best friend who’s usually less than helpful). Failing to give these young women any chances to explore their situation outside of these the parental/significant other dynamic inevitably creates a charismatic blackhole, which leaves the audience frustrated with them more than anyone would like them to be. Their agency is limited.

To think that I would suggest to people that Candice from Phineas and Ferb is the example professional writers ought look at for a clear idea of a quality teenage female character only suggests how problematic the state of young female characters in TV is.  But with the the general malaise given to characters like Dana and Korra this year, and Hayley and Charlie in years prior, writers should really work to open up these characters and their relationships beyond family units and potential loverboys. Let these young female characters breathe. Stop stifling them in unrequited angst.

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  1. #1 by Julia on February 11, 2016 - 1:47 pm

    I really love your articles here, especially your exploration of this issue here (although the Gummi Bears article is still my favorite). You bring up a lot of great points about Kim and Korra I hadn’t thought of, although I had problems with the former from the start and the latter since (big surprise) Season 2.

    I’ve never watched Phineas and Ferb, so my vote for best written teenage female characters goes to Valerie Gray and Jazz Fenton of Danny Phantom.

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