It’s That Darned Token Female Thing

To my LGBTQ readers, stay with me.  This is a post I have wanted to do for a while, I just haven’t gotten around to doing it.  But DON’T WORRY, because a lot of the ideas that I’m about to discuss can (and will) be cross-applied to LGBTQ issues, even as I approach them from a feminist perspective.  And I promise there is a more LGBTQ-centric post coming this way.  It’s going to happen.

After Monday’s post was, admittedly, a little on the heavy side (it WAS about a pretty controversial issue) I figured I should talk about something that is just a little less life-and-death here.  So I’ve decided to turn my eyes to one of my favorite things to study in sociology: the media and how it reflects and reinforces particular social ideas…especially how it interacts with gender issues.

Now here’s the problem: gender and sexuality aren’t exactly distinct areas.  They definitely intersect, even if there are about five different ways that sexuality theorists understand this intersection to work.  And, for example, a man who expresses same-sex preferences may be viewed as “less of a man” for it.  So that said, how we understand gender roles and gender identity matters, regardless of sexual orientation.

SO, let’s talk about it.  Gender and media.  Where to begin?  Peggy Orenstein published a fantastic book called Cinderella Ate My Daughter that talks all about how popular culture teaches girls to understand gender and sexuality…ESPECIALLY Disney fairy tale movies, in which the girl is almost always rescued by the handsome prince.  In some cases, we actually know nothing else about the prince (in Disney’s Cinderella he doesn’t even have a name), just that he is handsome.  (Incidentally, for those who don’t know me personally, the way that children’s movies depict gender is the subject that got me into Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies in the first place, so shout out to my former RA Dan Raby, who introduced me to this subject!)

And none of those Disney Princesses ever seem to have female friends or allies, do they?  (With the possible exception of Mulan’s grandmother)  The only exceptions to this are the Fairy Godmother types: the actual Fairy Godmother in Cinderella, Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast, the three good fairies in Sleeping Beauty, etc.  Cinderella has all of her mice and bird friends, and they’re all guys!  All Snow White has are seven dwarves, all men.

Which brings me to an interesting pattern that we see in a lot of movies and even books: the token female pattern.  In more modern features, we even see an emerging pattern of the Token Gay Character, meant to “bring diversity” but in reality this character is often created to fit a series of stereotypes.  The problem with the Token Female Character (aside from the obvious fact that stories really ought include more than one female character…see my Tumblr post about the Bechdel Test) is that in too many cases, her primary characteristic is simply that she is female: she is pretty and feminine and quite possibly needs saving at some point.  Alternatively, she may fill a role such as “mother” or “nurse”, which is highly gendered.

Maryann Johnson of posted a great piece about Winnie the Pooh and how this pattern can be seen in the classic stories, pointing out that Kanga is the only female, and her purpose is to serve as a mother.  What she brings up is a pattern often seen and practiced (even if done unconsciously on the part of the author, who may simply be so used to this being the way of things that it is done without anyone realizing) wherein characters whose genders do not NEED to be male or female are made male by default (ex: Owl).  Moreover, she points out that while one character is the Token Female, the rest fall into distinct categories based on singular characteristics, such as the Loud One, the Clumsy One, the Angry One, the Smart One, etc, which leads us to believe that a person CAN be defined by a single characteristic.

I just want to point out that that is, in fact, the very idea that this blog is most in disagreement with.

But take this out of the context of Winnie the Pooh and the pattern still holds.  Behold: the Smurfs.  Do I even need to walk you through that one?  Smurfette?  And let’s add Snow White back into the mix: Doc, Happy, Sleepy, etc. just epitomize that pattern.

Are there exceptions?  Sure.  Look at Agent Peggy Carter in Captain America whose character is built into someone stronger and willing to break rules, or Dreamworks’ How to Train Your Dragon, which technically has two female characters (one of which is largely a background character and) one of which basically has a reputation for kicking ass.

But on the whole, there definitely is a pattern.  There’s totally going to be a later post on this blog about women in popular book/movie series, such as Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, and others, but for now, I just wanted to focus on the faces lighting up the silver screen…and the gender skew that seems to be underlying them.


Orenstein, Peggy.  2011.  Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture.  HarperCollins (New York, NY)

Raby, Daniel. Floor meeting, American University, November 2010


~ by Randi Saunders on August 3, 2011.

One Response to “It’s That Darned Token Female Thing”

  1. […] in a gender-free environment, they even have to censor books, because of the de-facto male (see previous post on this subject).  Gender is in everything around us…even in our understandings of war, […]

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