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Girls can never do anything. Men can ride about the countryside and do things. Girls have sit and wait for things to happen.
Margaret Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility (2008 adaptation)

In media, male characters are defined more by what they do rather than who they are. Female characters, on the other hand, are defined more by their attributes, the most primary of which is their femininity.

This trope is about the female/male = passive/active dichotomy. Essentially, it's the idea men are required to be active and doing things in order for them to deserve a role in the story, but women can just sit there, looking pretty, emotionally reacting to events and that's perfectly acceptable.

Like many Double Standards, this trope can be considered offensive to both genders.

Never a Self-Made Woman is one major unfortunate implication of this trope: female characters are often more noteworthy for their bloodline or for who their father was than for their own actions. See, The Chief's Daughter, The President's Daughter, The General's Daughter, Daddy's Little Villain, Mad Scientist's Beautiful Daughter and all the Princess Tropes. (In fact, an Always Female trope with a possessive apostrophe in the title will probably fall into this category. May also relate to the differing treatment of a Daddy's Girl versus a Momma's Boy. A girl in the shadow of her father is cute and adorable and, well, expected; a boy in the shadow of his mother is weak and mockable and should be defining himself by his own actions, the first of which being cutting the apron strings.)

Another Unfortunate Implication for women is quite subtle. Research suggests that we divide people into moral actors and moral objects. Moral actors do things; moral objects have things done to them. In other words the difference between a villain and a hero is far smaller than the difference between either and a Damsel in Distress. When audiences or authors fail to view the evil choices of female characters in the same way as the evil choices of male characters, this trope is in effect. They are removing the agency of female characters and recasting them as moral objects rather than moral actors. This has the unintended effect of lessening the heroism of heroic female characters as well: after all, if it's not a female character's fault if she fails to be heroic or is actively villainous, then no one can really say that it's her choice to be heroic either. The absence of this moral peril in female characters tends to make them very, very, very flat when compared to their male counterparts. It also, as a side-effect, tends to produce a lot of 'daughter of the old master' action girls; they're heroes, but only because daddy was one.

A final characterization effect for female characters is MacGuffin Girl. The girl who is mostly noteworthy because she literally is a plot-important object.

For men, the Unfortunate Implication of this trope is that males are judged harshly by their lack of action. If a man isn't advancing the plot by taking action, he generally ceases to be a sympathetic or compelling character. Passive male characters are also unlikely to have innate attributes that, by themselves, are important to the plot, and as a result the poor guy may end up being disposed of. The significantly high attrition rate of physically challenged men in fiction further attests to this. It also adds insult to injury by insidiously implying that disabled men are "omega males", thus worthless and useless, unless they agree to undertake a "female" role by being Inspirationally Disabled.

Male characters also suffer from a lack of focus on their interior world or emotional reactions to events. This lack of focus on the interior world of male characters--outside of a few stereotypical relationships such as love interest or buddy sidekick--means that the average male hero functions more as a form of Heroic Mime than a three dimensional character. He is a placeholder for the audience precisely because of his lack of personal emotional reaction- the audience is free to imagine him feeling whatever emotion they themselves are feeling. The lack of emphasis on the interior world of male characters also makes them more difficult to sympathize with. By contrast, the greater emphasis on a female character's interior world and passive attributes creates distance between her and the audience because she and her emotional reactions are on display. They're her reactions, not ours, which we are observing rather than experiencing. Paradoxically, this means audience members identify more with male characters while sympathizing more with female characters.

Finally, men and women are limited in the emotions they express. Men, in particular, are limited to emotions that inspire dynamic, forceful action--such as hate, vengeance and anger. Women, while recently allowed to explore the more proactive emotions, generally express more passive emotions such as sadness, vulnerability and happiness. Again as female characters more often portray sympathetic emotions we sympathize with them more. Conversely, we are invited to identify more with male characters as they offer us a cathartic release of proactive but negative and socially unacceptable emotions. Usually through killing and blowing shit up. (The dichotomy may even go so far as to redefine the word "emotion" to mean "emotion stereotypically associated with women.")

Part of this trope refers to how characters function to advance the plot. While male characters will be directly involved in the action, or manipulating the action behind the scenes in a comprehensive way, female characters, when they do take action, often take it in the form of inspiring, motivating or nagging a male character to do something. See Lady Macbeth, Henpecked Husband.

And, yes, it also applies to that meaning of "action" as well. Traditionally, women were considered virtuous by their chastity or, their lack of action. Whereas, of course, a "lack of action" for a man generally has negative connotations.

This trope is a possible consequence of Men Are Generic, Women Are Special. Since men are generic, any individual male character has to do something special to stand out. But because women are special, a female character just has to be, well, female.


General examples:

  • Dr. Roy F. Baumeister, a Psychology Professor, tries to argue that this trope is innate in our species instead of a cultural motif in his book Is There Anything Good About Men? He writes: "Perhaps nature designed women to seek to be lovable, whereas men were designed to strive, mostly unsuccessfully, for greatness."
  • This trope is why House Husbands have traditionally been seen as lazy layabouts who are merely unemployed, while housewives are seen as women making a values choice to make their "family" their career.
  • It's also why Abuse Is Okay When Its Female On Male. Men are supposed to "stand up and defend themselves," and thus a male who "lets" himself get abused by a woman is somehow seen as not really being a man at all.
    • Also, because women are objects and not actors, female violence necessarily lacks potency.
      • Or maybe because men are the actors any abuse must have come from the man's moral choices.
  • The number of Hollywood romances that incorporate this plot line: boy only wins the girl once he stops being passive, stands up for himself and beats up or humiliates another boy who's been bullying him ("Come back carrying you shield, or carried on it"). And the girl must let him come to her instead of trying to meet him halfway. No Guy Wants to Be Chased.
  • The wives of male politicians and monarchs tend to attract far more media attention than the husbands of female politicians and monarchs.
    • Also, female celebrities will often be criticized/scrutinized for how they look or dress, whereas male celebs only make it into the gossip magazines when they actually do something interesting.
  • Women are seen as virtuous due to their chastity; men are seen as virtuous due to their morality. In this circumstance, men who haven't taken action aren't even seen as men at all. This leads to some Unfortunate Implications regarding characterization. Male virgins are often portrayed as creepy losers while female virgins are seen as morally perfect in ways unrelated to their sex life. This gives the impression that a chaste woman is automatically a good woman with a strong corresponding implication that a non-chaste woman is bad.
  • This is likely why there is an Action Girl trope, but no Action Guy trope. A woman as an active character who can take care of herself is still considered noteworthy enough to be a trope in and of itself, whereas a man is an "action character" by default, and only the aversion is tropeable.
    • It may also be worth noting that female subversions are more common these days than male ones, which implies an increasing awareness with regard to how this trope affects women, but little attention to how it affects men.
      • A large number of Non-Action Guy characters however remain active in less direct forms however usually as a trickster or manipulator of some sort but never as a 'feminine' passive object.
    • There is also no Spear Counterpart for Faux Action Girl. If a supposedly badass male character fails to live up to his reputation, he is usually called out on it in-universe, whereas female characters who fail to live up to expectations tend to go unnoticed often leading to the implication female badasses are automatically held to have inflated and therefore easily disbelieved reputations.
    • During a past discussion on whether to split off the male examples of Mad Scientist's Beautiful Daughter, it was noted that one difference between them was that male characters were much more likely to take an active role and become protagonists in their own right, while many female examples simply pulled a High Heel Face Turn and did nothing much in particular outside of that. Or, to put it another way, a woman is now considered "good" simply because she decided to stop being "evil," whereas a male pulling a Heel Face Turn would have to do more in order to prove his worth as a good guy.
    • Samus Is a Girl runs on the novelty of having a badass character reveal themselves to be an attractive woman. After The Reveal, her status as an Action Girl is rarely questioned, even if she degrades into a Faux Action Girl who needs to be rescued.
    • The Final Girl has its roots in this, too. The Final Girl, after watching everyone else around her get killed, eventually steels her courage and fights back. Part of the reason a "final guy" doesn't really work is that a male protagonist shouldn't be afraid (even if the killer is a six-foot-six maniac Dual-Wielding chainsaws) and should be fighting back the entire time.
  • The whole basis of the Smurfette Principle revolves around this trope. Male characters need to be distinguishable by character and concept, but a female character stands out just by virtue of being female. More recent media that has The Chick become the girly girl in a Tomboy and Girly Girl pair of females has to distinguish the two females by making one of them a girl, and the other one a girl who acts like a boy.

Audience Reactions

 "For a woman qua woman, the essence of femininity is hero-worship—the desire to look up to man... Hero-worship is a demanding virtue: a woman has to be worthy of it and of the hero she worships...the higher her view of masculinity, the more severely demanding her standards. It means that she never loses the awareness of her own sexual identity and theirs. It means that a properly feminine woman does not treat men as if she were their pal, sister, mother—or leader."

  • The basic concept of a wizard as opposed to a witch. Wizards are usually portrayed as having gained their power through scholarly effort and studying magic much as if it was a science, but witches usually are presented as having gained their power through sex with the Devil, or through having their power inborn. Men work to gain magical power; women either just are magic or gain it through the power of a male demon. Let's not go into the fact that wizards are usually good guys, and witches evil.
    • Vikings considered magic an inherently feminine trait, to the point that a man who pursued magic was considered to be inherently feminine himself.

Specific Examples

  • River Tam from Firefly is is the prime example of a MacGuffin Girl, while her older, slightly less genius brother is charged with protecting, care taking, and enduring most of Mal's flack. River is said to be a super genius with infinite potential, but because of some rather unsavory experiments performed against her will, she's more sought after as a weapon than an outlaw.
  • An interesting example is the latest release of Halo: Combat Evolved action figures. The Master Chief figure has twenty-six points of articulation. The Cortana action figure released in the same wave? Zero. She's got that cocked-hip thing going on, though (see the page pic).
    • This is fairly common with action figures, because the articulation messes up the lines of the body. Frequently, the non-sexy characters (read - male characters) in a figure line have plenty of articulation, but the sexy characters (read - female characters) will have significantly fewer points of articulation, often only having a few arm joints and nothing else, or outright being a statue.
  • At the end of of the movie, Hancock is saving the world while his superhero wife Mary is content to live as a mortal with a mortal husband.
  • In Law and Order Special Victims Unit, Det. Elliot Stabler is a devoted father of four and his partner Det. Olivia Benson is the product of rape. On the job he has rage for the perp and she has empathy for the victims.
  • The Phantom Menace is an inversion of this, but by the time Star Wars gets to Revenge of the Sith it's all about how Anakin turns into Darth Vader while Padme is merely his pregnant wife who dies of a broken heart.
  • A common criticism of The Railway Series was that most of the female characters were coaches, while all of the male characters were engines (meaning that the females were incapable of doing anything unless they were being towed along by a male.)
  • In-universe example in Rocko's Modern Life. Rocko, Filbert, and Heiffer put together an animated cartoon called Wacky Delly, and each one makes a character. Rocko's contribution is Betty Baloney, whose character concept is "She's a girl!"
  • A common criticism of the movie Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is Ramona's blandness, especially compared to other female characters in the story. Incredibly, she can rollerblade through dreams, but plot-wise this is only significant as the way Scott first sees her. For the rest of the movie, her most impressive powers are her fighting skills (which aren't unique by any means) and her frequent hair-dyeing. The audience is simply supposed to accept that she is worthy of all the trouble Scott goes through to date her. This could be a commentary on how both Scott and Ramona treat the opposite sex as objects.
  • Sleeping Beauty has Prince Phillip who faces a fire breathing dragon to save Princess Aurora while she lies asleep looking beautiful. A number of other Disney movies have the genders reversed but this is the one with most Fairy Tale Motifs, knight, princess, castle, dragon, and king.
    • Also interestingly inverted in that Prince Phillip is technically the hero, but the fairies do most of the work.
  • The reality TV show Survivor generally has this during the course of a season, with women often just laying around in bikinis looking pretty while the men of the tribe are often shown chopping wood or helping out around camp. There are, of course, exceptions to this too.
    • Played straight and subverted with Russell's "Dumb Girl Alliance" -- Russell used the women purely to pad out his numbers, assuming they would see him as a protecter and let him do all the strategizing. Of course, Parvati eventually took advantage of that and outwitted him.
    • It's worth noting that he used this exact same strategy to get to the final Tribal Council. Twice. And that most of the women in his alliance (and his tribe in general) were Too Dumb to Live.
  • In the 2008 US presidential election, Hilary Clinton's clothing and appearance got a lot more attention than that of the male candidates.
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