An Argument for the Legitimacy of Fictional Characters as Role Models

Many of us have been there. We’ve circled up for the question game, and the question has been asked: who is your hero? And around they go, the echoed presidents and athletes and artists and freedom fighters. And then they get to you and everyone is staring and you answer, “Batman.”

Youre-kiddingThey laugh like you’re kidding.

You and I both know that Batman is not, strictly speaking, real. For many of the uninitiated to the world of fandoms and comics, the very notion that a fictional character could serve as a role model for anything is ridiculous.

The argument goes something like this:

Me: It’s not a joke. Batman is really my hero.

Person: But he’s not real! You can’t ask him questions, you can’t go to him when you don’t know what to do. You need someone to look up to that you can talk to.

I’d like to direct your attention to the above gif to give you an idea of my reaction. I have seen this argument many times in the dangerous world of real-life. It’s the argument for human interaction, the forefront of ‘everything that is wrong with this generation’. There is no real interaction: it’s all screens and keyboards and everything about it is terrible. But there is one crucial thing that everyone miraculously forgets: those athletes and activists, those presidents and authors:

How many conversations have you had with them?

We go around the circle: Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Oprah, Parental Unit, Hilary Clinton, Audrey Hepburn – no one bats an eye. They smile, they nod, they ooh and they ahh as they learn the sparkling traits of your human functionality and the importance of the things you value. At the mention of someone that is ‘not real’, they laugh, they mark you as ‘the funny one’ or ask you to ‘please take the question seriously’. And when they realize you are, in fact, serious, well:


Clearly, the true reason for this trend is not that ‘you can’t really talk to them’ – though many seem to adopt this rationale. The reason for this trend is that many people do not understand the impact a fictional character can have on an individual and, subsequently, do not realize the lasting impact a fictional character can have on the world as a whole. Within these ideas are many more issues, prominently, the troublesome perception of our society that in order to be important, it has to have been important on a national or global scale. And, of course, the value we place on the idea of ‘realness’ – an idea that is, in itself, quite abstract.

tumblr_inline_mvcy8pIKda1qze50nSo, what is real?

According the the dictionary:

actually existing as a thing or occurring in fact; not imagined or supposed.

According to philosophy:

It’s more complicated than that.

It is generally considered that fictions are inherently ‘not real’. However, the idea that something ‘not real’ can have an affect on something that is ‘real’ has become increasingly apparent in popular media, appearing in such works as The Hunger Games, Divergent, Supernatural, and Inception.

Consider for a moment a nightmare: While you are there, you can feel it. And even though it may be inconsistent with reality, with everything you know, you accept it as reality because it feels real. When you wake up, you feel scared. And this is as a direct result of the nightmare you experienced. It is something that is not technically real that felt real and created a real affect on you.

This in, in a nutshell, why we love fiction. Although it is not real in a universal sense, it is experienced as real on an individual sense. Which begs the question:


Why is the universal real more important than the individual real?

This all comes back to universal effects vs. individual effects – in order to be important, it must be important on a national or global scale. In order to have an impact on the world, you have to be famous, you have to do something big. This is no new phenomenon – we’ve had revered royalty, figureheads, nobles, philosophers – all rock stars of their time. We have have people releasing sex tapes and murdering people all in the name of getting noticed.

Fame does not serve any clear social or psychological need, so we really have no idea why we’re obsessed with it. But, for whatever reason, we are.


This strange obsession with fame is a big part of what drives the preference of the universal real over the individual real. With that in mind: when I say Batman is my hero, many people, knowing nothing about him, think I’m kidding because they do not experience Batman as a fact of reality, as having an effect on the course of real life history. It does not occur to them that I might have that experience, as their only individual experience is the one that they have experienced. And we all know that reality to one person can be vastly different than the reality of another person.

tumblr_mevn1yCwzN1r74e8xThe actual point I’m getting at is this: we need to realize that the difference in experience leads to difference in perception, and difference in perception leads to difference in experience. I can’t ever talk to Batman, he can’t answer my questions or console me when I am upset – but neither can Nelson Mandela. And I may not have somebody to talk to, but I may have my own world. The place I go to figure things out, to find wisdom, and find help. The feelings I get from that are very real, and definitely effect me in my day to day life. To treat that as invalid in not okay, because it says that my experience is less important than someone else’s.

Let’s fix it.

Fictional characters make great heroes. Although they aren’t technically real, they are representative of the values of a society or of a real person, and the situations they find themselves in are analogous to real life issues and experiences. We analyze these sorts of works because they say something about us and the world that we live in, and they can reveal things about ourselves that that we can’t know in the moment of the real life situation. If we look past what is big and remember our own individual heroes – our parents, teachers, friends – then we open ourselves up to a whole new idea. It’s not weird or even particularly different – it’s something. It something that someone has decided to hold on to. It’s something that, like any real like hero, can make us go like this:


And this:


And sometimes this:



Because this is what these characters make us feel. This is the experience, the very real emotions of life we are forced to cycle through much quicker than is healthy because of the current state of our favorite character, our hero, and the best friend we’re sure we have. Because that’s what makes it real to us – that individual real. And it changes our world, and what we know, and how we experience life. We watch their lives and we we a make connection.

And this – this is very important.

Dragon Age and the People of Color ‘Debate’

The internet (namely, tumblr and twitter) have been abuzz as of late with an oddly large number of people freaking out about the ethnicity of a recently announced character for the upcoming Dragon Age: Inquisition. Much of the fan art for the character has made him look ‘more white’ than he was intended. This, naturally, caused a sort of uproar wherein the majority of people were 100% confused, spurring such comments as:

Dude. Dorian’s got olive skin, which is the usual southern European/Mediterranean colour, and you can bet your arse that we all identify as white.

…how is Dorian NOT white. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for poc character and I got super excited when I saw vivienne because not only is she black, she HAS features common of african ethnicity and not just a white person colored black…but Dorian’s a pastry white ass guy.

While there is much there to address, if you’re unfamiliar with the Dragon Age franchise, this is the character in question:


When I first saw Dorian, I thought he was white. And this is not so much his actual appearance, but a deeper issue that this has been revealed in media: I thought Dorian was white because I expected him to be white. He has some color to his skin, he has features not commonly associated with Caucasians or white people (rather, features commonly associated with Indian or Middle Eastern heritage). In fact, he looks like  me. And I am very much not white. Despite all of this, I assumed that it was just the lighting, and that he was another white character. And a lot of other people did too.

This is a problem.

And I shouldn’t have to tell anyone that this is a problem for them to realize that this is, in fact, a really big problem. We live in a society where there are so many white leading men that, unless we get a character that is outwardly black or Eastern Asian, the assumption is that he is white.

Since the above comments were made, several of the writers and developers on the game have come out to address the issue. John Epler, cinematic developer for BioWare, had this to say:

When you take a character that -is – a PoC and you draw them as white, you’re sort of saying ‘don’t care about you unless you’re white’. And that’s a feeling that people will take into their real lives. ‘Unless your’e white, we don’t think you’re worthwhile’.

This speaks to a much deeper issue than let on. As previously stated, the artists that drew Dorian as white did not realize he was not meant to be white. His skin isn’t noticeably dark, therefore he has to be white. In my eyes, the problem is not that people drew Dorian white. The problem is that everyone is so sure that he is white that they’ve become outwardly opposed to any other idea.

The logic, as seen in the first anonymous comment above, is that Dorian has light skin, therefore he is white. And this speaks to an issue that has been hugely prevalent in culture throughout the last century: passing. I talk more about that idea here. Specifically in the poem Passing by Tori Derricotte:

Why presume “passing” is based on what I leave out and not what she fills in?

Too many people need to know, and too many people fill in. In the case of media, it is very important as there are not many not-white main characters. By filling in his race, too many people have made a crucial mistake. And this is something we should talk about, and this is something that we should work on.

We see race in terms of black and white, and that has never been okay.

That being said.

There is another fundamental misunderstanding that has made this conversation a hell of a lot harder to have. People keep talking about white washing, and Dorian being a Person of Color and all that. But what most have failed to talk about is what, exactly, Person of Color means. Where I come from, it means black.When we get letters that talk about ‘people of color’ from colleges and the like, many have the response ‘but I’m not black’ and others, like me, feel the term is dated and weird. In my region, the only people who call all minorities people of color are the white people of the north end. Everyone else associates the term with people who identify with the black cultural identify. This predominantly includes people with ethnic ties to Africa, Jamaica, and South America. So for someone like me, and I’m sure for many other people, to hear that Dorian is a PoC, their first response is ‘but doesn’t look black’. And ‘reasonably’ so, as there have always been differences in social structure and slang across different regions (again, assuming a cultural identity based on appearance is a tricky thing to do). But pulling this entire idea into the area of ‘PoC’, everyone has latched onto this idea of black, and thus the central issue – the fact that he is not white and the shocking issue that so many people ignored his actual appearance as so many people expected him to be white – has gone largely ignored.

This is a problem.

I do not believe that they should have has to make Dorian darker. However, I do wonder why they didn’t. I’m not sure if that’s also a problem, or if it’s just the reasonable exercising of his country of origin (Tevinter) and the fact that the only Tevinters we’ve seen so far in the series have been darker than Fereldens and Kirkwallers, but not as dark as commonly associated with East Indians. And there is also the thought that Western media tends to latch onto the darker people in the Middle East and generally ignores the diversity that exists within skin tone and appearance.

There really is a lot going on here.

What is your take on the issue? And what does PoC mean to you? Let me know in the comments below.

How We Can Do Better than the Bechdel Test


Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot about the Bechdel Test and the terrible, horrible, misogynistic films that do not pass it. You know, those sexist meat-fests like The Lego Movie and Gravity. And most other films out there.

The Bechdel Test ignores the complexities within film, or whichever media it is being applied. If we apply it to something like Gravity, we ignore that the central character is a woman. There is no ‘honorary pass’ – you pass or you fail. And Gravity, despite its importance to women in science fiction, fails.

So we very well could call this test bunk. However, that would be ignoring the actual point of the test. There are three things I’m going to discuss in the following post:

1) The Bechdel Test is not about passing or failing.

2) It ignores too many aspects of a film to be a real criterion for the worth of a film.

3) A proposition for a ‘better’ system.

The Bechdel Test

The actual test consists of three criteria. It’s been the general idea that if the film does not pass the test, it’s sexist. If it does, more time than not, it is a decent representation of women. This test is as follows:

1) The film must include at least two female characters

2) who talk to each other

3) about something other than a man.

It’s a simple test, so it may come as a surprise that so many films fail it so completely. An important distinction to be made here is the test means what it says – the women cannot be talking about any sort of relationship or thoughts about any male characters. This includes boyfriends, fathers, brothers, cousins, and even friends who happen to be male. The point is to show women existing entirely without the thought of men, even allowing for stereotypically female conversations to occur (i.e. tampons, shoes, etc.). So what does it mean when we have something like Gravity failing the test, and something like Sex and the City passing?

Sandra Bullock in Gravity

Sandra Bullock in Gravity

Well, it certainly means something. But it’s not a simple meaning. It speaks to the roles women play within a film reflecting the role women are perceived to play in society. All this does is point out a couple of the flaws of the test, while leaving space for a discussion of the actual point of the pass/fail rating.

It is meant to create a dialogue. It is not meant to tell you anything about a film so much as bring up a dialogue about society. We don’t need to say “This is bad” to a film that fails because it isn’t always a bad thing in the same way that we don’t need to say “This is good” to a film that passes because it really isn’t always a good thing. We need to ask “Why is this?” and move from there.

When we see films ‘objectifying women’ like The Wolf of Wall Street, a film that very clearly fails the test, the problem here is not the writers so much as it is a true story. It is something that actually happened. So, we have to step back and think “Why is this?” and “What can we do to fix it?” if we find it in a situation that needs fixing.

Thick and Thin Description

‘Thick description’ is a term made popular by anthropologist Clifford Geertz in his book The Interpretation of Cultures. Thick description is, very basically, viewing something within context. The simplest way to describe this way of viewing something is through an example.

images (4)

Wyldstyle in The Lego Movie

Let’s talk about The Lego Movie. This film technically fails the Bechdel Test. The following conclusion, ignoring the actual point of the test, would be to call the movie sexist. We start with an observation: the film includes two major female characters, but they never have a meaningful conversation with each other. Now, we must ask ourselves why that is in the context of the story. Did they hate each other? Did they even know each other? Were they friends at all? In the context of the story, Wyldstyle and Unikitty were not friends. In fact, Wyldstyle found Unikitty’s general disposition annoying. So the next question: does it actually mean anything that they weren’t talking to each other? Does it make sense that these characters weren’t spending a good amount of time talking to each other? When we say, no it doesn’t mean anything and yes it makes sense, we have to go deeper still. Why would we need them to speak to one another? The assumption here is that we consider it more important for a woman to talk to another woman about something other than a man than it is for a woman to talk to a man about something other than a man. Why is this distinction important? What does it tell us about the story and the society in which the story was written that women are not talking about men, but we’d prefer it if they weren’t talking about men with other women? Take one more look at the observation: The film includes two major female characters, but they never have a meaningful conversation with each other. Let me rephrase the final question: Why must a woman have a meaningful conversation with another woman for it to count? Why is it less important for a woman to have a meaningful conversation with a man, even when there were other prominent female characters? Why does it matter?

There is a lot more that goes into this than is implied by the questions of the Bechdel Test. I certainly have an answer to that question, but I can’t rightfully put it forth without having to then pose three more questions about the implications and meanings behind my answer. And so on and so forth.

A Different System

Melissa Silverstein, founder and editor of the online publication Women and Hollywood had this to say: “The Bechdel Test is a starting point and not a finishing point. I don’t believe that two women talking to each other [about subjects] other than a man should be the bar we’re setting for our films. I want strong female characters.”

In my mind, this is what we should be attempting to measure. The Bechdel test has a purpose, but there are many more things we should be looking at before we judge the portrayal of women in film. With this in mind, I’d like to propose a different kind of system we may apply to get this across. I am going to draw inspiration from a test used to measure the strength of LGBT characters within media: The Russo Test. This system is also imagined to be put in application across media, include film, television, video games, and literature alike.

Part 1

1) There is a major female character

2) She is tied in the plot in such a way that her removal would have a significant effect on the film

3) She is expressed independently

By ‘independently’ I mean she exists without relying on another character to affirm her existence. The gender of this character does not matter. She is capable of standing alone, and this is made clear in the film. Some examples of a female characters that would pass Part 1 of this system are: Isabella and Aveline from Dragon Age 2, Hazel from The Fault in Our Stars, and Olivia Pope from Scandal.

Part 2

1) The female character is the leader of a major faction or organization

2) OR she is in high command of a faction

3) AND she continues to express leadership and earn reverence

4) AND she gains reverence despite or independently of the actual leader of the faction

Part 1 and Part 2 can exist independent of one another. Not every character is written to be a leader, so it would be ridiculous to apply this part of the test to every female character. However, if you look at the first part, both Aveline and Olivia Pope pass both parts of the test.

Part 3

1) The female character expresses her sexuality despite the will of another character

2) She enjoys expressing her femininity despite the will of society

3) She enjoys wants to be a mother, enjoys cooking, or enjoys any other stereotypically female trait for reasons other than ‘she’s a girl’

4) AND she is defined by more than this trait


Kerry Washington as Scandal’s Olivia Pope

This part of the test is more about women not being afraid to dive into a stereotype. They do these things not because society demands it, but because they legitimately enjoy doing it. The character does not have to have each trait listed here, and will be considered a pass if she has just one trait in addition to the fourth trait. Isabella from Dragon Age passes Part 1 and Part 3 because she is a hugely independent character that really likes sex, but has thoughts and motivation that go beyond this. Olivia Pope passes in all three parts. This does not make her an inherently stronger character, and we could take three thousands more words finding all the questions we need to expand our description of the importance of these questions to a female character.

I could list out a hundred more questions to fit into this system, a hundred more questions to help us define the way in which we want to look at female characters. But, when it comes down to it, I believe in one extremely important factor that can determine whether an idea can fit within this system.

We don’t need to compare a female character to a male character to determine her worth. Because, the truth of the matter is, the strongest character of any gender is a character that is heavily layered with different thoughts and motivations. Character A should have different thoughts and motivations than Character B. The strength of a character, at this point, should be viewed almost independently of gender. A female character is not weak because a male character is strong. A female character is not strong because she is seen as stronger than her male counterpart. And vice versa.

The Bechdel Test certainly has a purpose, a time, and a place. But it should not be our goal, and the fact that we treat it with this sort of black and white disdain vs. reverence speaks volumes about our society. What exactly it’s saying, I’m not sure I can say. But I do know there is a lot more that we could be talking about, a lot more we should be talking about.

It can begin in the Bechdel Test, but that is definitely not where it needs to end. If we end it there, we’ve cheated ourselves out of the examination of truly strong characters, and we’ve cheated ourselves out of some amazing society-examining conversations. We can do better.