Voltron and Problematic Characterization

Since we seem to be on a characterization kick, why stop now?

The small, mobile one likes robots, so while ditzing around seeing what was available in the cartoon robot department on Amazon Prime, we discovered Voltron: Defender of the Universe. Now, for those of you who are unfamiliar, Voltron was a mid-80s port of a Japanese show called GoLion, I believe, about five robot lions that can combine to form a giant “people robot,” as the small one would say, whose purpose is in theory is to defend the galaxy, though he spends most of his time defending Planet Arus, which the bad guy is unfathomably interested in and so spends a lot of his resources on, for whatever reason.

(This is not to be confused with a new TV show called Voltron Force, which I know nothing about except it’s some sort of modern take on Voltron.)

Now, Voltron used to be on Cartoon Network back before CN started to make its own shows, and I used to watch it, because one of my online RPing friends was obsessed, and had a Star Trek/Voltron crossover RP I would occasionally do with him. So, going into watching this with the small one, I had fond memories of the show.

But when we actually started to watch it, I was kind of horrified. Yes, in general it’s a shining example of a lot of the terrible tropes 80s cartoons tended to have. But I was especially upset with the treatment of the single female on the show, Princess Allura.

Original Voltron Force

(Guess which one she is?) From voltron.wikia.com

Beyond being the token female in pink, she’s supposed to be the leader of Planet Arus. But the other characters don’t think much of her at all, despite the fact that she’s continuously trying to learn new things or be responsible, efforts that are constantly shut down by her male companions, either her advisor or the other members of the Voltron Force. There’s a scene early on when her old governess returns to the castle, flips the princess over her knee, and spanks her in front of everyone else. And everyone else laughs.

My husband doesn’t want the small one watching Voltron anymore because he thinks it’s too violent. I don’t want him watching anymore because wow, what a horrid way to treat someone.

I will admit that this is not a new form of characterization, the ruler that they won’t let rule, because it’s too dangerous or they want them to appear incompetent or whatever. But coupled with the constant derision of the other characters, and the humiliation that seems heaped on the character, it’s really unfortunate. And that she’s the only female main character on the show–that’s not going to teach the small one anything about respecting people, especially women.

And it’s too bad, because if you look at Allura without her male companions, she’s pretty great. She’s been isolated in an attempt to protect her, but she wants to learn and protect her people, and is willing to do whatever’s necessary. But when you add in everyone else, she’s just a giant joke, the woman who won’t get in her place and let the men do things.

Oy.

The lesson here may be not to revisit shows from your childhood. Or it might be that, if you only have one woman on the show, not to treat her like crap.

Have you watched any shows or movies recently, Squiders, that you used to like but couldn’t get over some aspect of now?

Women Characters: Defined by Relationships

Sometimes my mind gets highly analytical. I think it must come from my engineering background. But I’ve noticed, recently, that a lot of women characters are missing a husband, or a child, or both, as a way to make them sympathetic, to give them a tragic backstory.

And this annoys me, probably on two fronts: 1) as a wife/mother myself, I don’t like to think about such things, and 2) this is so common it seems like no one can think of anything else to give a female character any depth.

I think we’re all familiar with the concept of fridging, which is where a character, usually a woman, is killed, maimed, or otherwise hurt or devalued to advance a main character’s (often male) character development.

And this seems related–that a woman is often defined by her relationships to others. Now, we’re all defined by our relationships, to some extent, but it sometimes seems like a woman is reduced to the sum of hers, rather than being given her own personality.

So female leads are often described by their losses: a child or a husband, if old enough, or a parent or a “true love,” if younger. Rape is another common tragic backstory trope, and again, we are often shown her relationship to men, in this case, or sometimes even her rapist depending on the story.

Sometimes we see male characters defined by a relationship (Mel Gibson’s character in Lethal Weapon, for example) but this is less common.

What do you think, Squiders? Am I off the mark? Reading the wrong sort of books? Or does it feel like, to you, women have the same common characterizations, and they’re based off the people around her rather than herself?

My Gateway Novel: Wishsong of Shannara

Whenever we find something we like–a TV show, a band, a sport, whatever–there’s always something that introduces us to whatever it is, our “gateway,” if you will, that we never forget, especially if whatever turns out to be transformative in some way.

(For example, I can remember that the song that introduced me to my favorite genre of music, symphonic metal, was Nightwish’s End of All Hope, and that it was the background music for a Twilight Princess fanvid. Why I was watching Zelda fanvids, I don’t remember, but I will never forget that song.)

For me, I can still remember the first fantasy novel I ever read, the one that hooked me into a genre that has never let me go. I was 12, perusing the shelves at my elementary school library. I’d read some scifi at that point–A Wrinkle in Time, a children’s book that I really loved whose title escapes me (something with Puck?)–and was, of course, a Trekkie raised by Trekkie parents, but I hadn’t touched fantasy. The books we read in school were contemporary, and often involved children lost in the wilderness (like Hatchet or Julie of the Wolves). Or they were historical fiction.

I can even remember the shelf it was on. My elementary school library had a reading treehouse in one corner, and it was on the bookcase next to that, on the far lefthand side, second shelf from the bottom. I don’t know what possessed me to pull it out. It was a big book, over 500 pages, certainly bigger than anything else I had read.

But pull it out I did. The Wishsong of Shannara by Terry Brooks. And I took it out and read it and have never looked back.

It had magic and evil and loyalty and consequences and the hero was a girl just like me.

I’ve read a lot of the Shannara books over the years (of the original trilogy, I actually like The Sword of Shannara better), and, of course, have branched out into many other authors and other subgenres of fantasy, but I will always remember my first. And I sometimes wonder if, since I found high/epic fantasy first, that has colored my likes, since that is my favorite subgenre.

(Another fantasy book I read early on–the next year, as part of a local author event, where we all read a book by a local author and then got to meet same author–was T.A. Barron’s The Ancient One, which is part portal fantasy, part contemporary. Female protagonist again. Excellent book. Involves trees, which is probably why I like it so much.)

(The year after that we had to read Will Hobbs, and I was pretty done with “Boy survives in the wild” books by that point, so that was less awesome.)

Can you remember the book that got you into scifi or fantasy? Any other gateways you’d like to share?

Character Archetypes: Wrap-up

Well, Squiders, I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at some of the character archetypes. We could go on forever, honestly. Some people denote eight different character archetypes, others twelve. Still others can break down each archetype into another six or eight or ten sub-archetypes.

The interesting thing about archetypes is that, yes, they do seem to be fairly universal. You can look at classic mythology and modern TV shows and find the same character archetypes. And, despite knowing that they’re archetypes, that they’re set up to fit a mold (or inadvertently ended up that way, through the collective unconscious or whatever), they often come across as realistic, well-rounded characters (some archetypes not included).

I also find them interesting because there’s so much you can do to subvert an archetype. People who deal with archetypes on a regular basis call these Shadow archetypes, but I think it’s fascinating to see what people will do to take a classic archetype and try to turn it on its side.

The fact of the matter is, most people–and characters–go through stages. Even if they fit an archetype to a tee at one point, their character arc can drag them into a different one, or several across the length of their journey. A character who is the Hero of their own story can be a Villain in someone else’s.

I haven’t personally tried using archetypes in my own writing, but I bet you if I went back and looked, I would find some anyway. I think that’s true of most writers. These archetypes exist everywhere in the media around us, whether we’re aware of them or not, and so they seep in to the way we view the world and how we think narratives should be structured.

Did you enjoy this look at the archetypes, Squiders? Did I leave out any character archetypes you’re fond of?

Character Archetypes: The Sidekick

Very few Heroes stand alone. Often they are accompanied by a Sidekick, or a few. In some cases, a large number of companion characters will form a different archetype known as the Hunting Group of Companions. Sidekicks help the Hero through their trials and tribulations, but never quite step into the limelight themselves.

Common Aspects of the Sidekick Archetype:

  • Usually loyal to the Hero
  • Tend to have Hero-like qualities themselves
  • Always secondary to Hero
  • Tend to be focused on the Hero and what the Hero is trying to accomplish
  • Can have life outside of Hero to some extent
  • Helps Hero in Quest

Sidekick characters exist to help the Hero. They are your Watsons, your Ron Weasleys, your Samwise Gamgees. They are loyal, competent in their own right, and generally echo the noble and just ideals seen in a Hero character. In some cases, the only reason a Hero can manage to complete their Quest is due to the help of their Sidekick(s).

Beyond that, Sidekick characters can vary widely. Often they are used as comic relief. They tend to be extremely devoted to the Hero, though this depends on the individual character. They may bemoan the Hero always getting the spotlight, but they’ll still have the Hero’s back.

Alternatively, Sidekick characters can be associated with other archetypes. Some Sidekicks are attached to Villains instead. An Evil with a Good Heart character may start out as the Sidekick to a greater evil.

Any Sidekick characters you’re especially fond of, Squiders? (I admit to loving Samwise Gamgee myself.) Have you seen this archetype used in any especially interesting ways?

Next: Wrap-up

Character Archetypes: The Innocent

The Innocent is an archetype that can be used for a number of different types of characters, though if the Innocent is included in the main part of a story, they rarely remain such. Innocent characters can also fall into Hero, Sidekick, and Damsel in Distress archetypes. Often, they may be children.

Common Aspects of the Innocent Archetype:

  • Generally happy, optimistic people
  • Usually naive or inexperienced in some manner
  • Playful
  • May be too dependent on other characters
  • May ignore reality in order to hold onto ideals

The Innocent Archetype may also be called the Child or the Initiate, depending on who you’re talking to. In general, the Innocent is someone who craves love and happiness, and who hasn’t been beaten down enough by the world to give up on those ideals. These tend to be sympathetic characters and, if not the main character, a Hero often feels duty-bound to protect them from the evils of life.

There are also downfalls to Innocent characters. They may purposefully skew reality to maintain their vision of the world, or they may be dangerously childish, ignoring rules and potential risks. They may also unknowingly endanger people around them with their carelessness or naivety.

Some examples of Innocent characters include Kaylee from Firefly, Forest Gump, Pippin (the hobbit), Dory (from Finding Nemo), and quite a few Disney princesses.

Who are your favorite Innocent characters, Squiders? With your favorites, do they also fall into another archetype?

Next: The Sidekick Archetype

Character Archetypes: The Temptress

Ah, the Temptress. She saunters in and gives you a coy smile, her eyes promising that more is available, if you’re willing. The Temptress is a fairly common female archetype though, like the Damsel in Distress, it is evolving in response to people wanting more well-rounded and less stereotypical female characters.

Common Aspects of the Temptress Archetype:

  • Usually female
  • Usually bad news for the Hero
  • Commonly portrayed as being sensuous, but can tempt in other ways
  • Used as an obstacle the Hero must overcome to continue on their Quest

The Temptress, like the Mother and the Damsel, can be more of an idea than a person. The main reason the Temptress exists, especially in a classic Hero’s Journey story, is to be an obstacle in the Hero’s way, something they must not give into, because doing so would prove them unworthy. Getting past the temptation allows the Hero to prove they are just and worthy, and to continue on with what must be done.

Most Temptress characters are women, but they do not have to be. In general, however, a Temptress character will bring a Hero character’s downfall, whether it is purposeful or not. The Temptress character can be an echo of a Hero’s dark side, showing them what they could become if they give up their ideals. But a Temptress is not necessarily evil, or even aligned with the Villain. They exist more as an obstacle and for the character development of the Hero.

Almost every James Bond movie has a Temptress in it somewhere. And the Sirens from Greek mythology are perhaps the most literal example of this archetype, as they lead men to their deaths.

Any Temptress characters you think are well done, Squiders? Like the Damsel in Distress, what are your feelings on this archetype and its use in media?

Next: The Innocent Archetype

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