I grew up consuming pop media rabidly; the 90s and early 00s was a great time to love cartoons and comics. Anime had started its journey into the mainstream, classic cartoons were easy to find on repeat, and new shows seemed to debut all the time on venues like ABC’s “One Saturday Morning” and Cartoon Network’s “Cartoon Cartoon” block.
Still, being a female fan was always difficult. Often women and girls were relegated to being side characters, mainly moms and love interests. Some shows featured a single female character surrounded by men. When we were really lucky, and media featured more than a single token female character, there were usually two female characters to every three male characters. When this happened, shows often relied on a dichotomy between the two characters that caused conflict because of how different the two women were.
TV shows and comics often still follow these rules.
Look to Archie comics: Betty is the sweet, smart, athletic girl next door while Veronica is rich, snooty, and did I mention really rich? Scooby Doo has the beautiful, but dull Daphne and the smart, but tragic looking Velma (a dichotomy that has, in recent years, been subverted by newer iterations of the franchise). The Snorks relied not on competition between kind Casey Kelp and fashionable Daffney Gillfin, who were shown as good friends, but still instinctually pitted the tomboy against the girly girl. Kimberly and Trini in Power Rangers were essentially pallet swaps of one another in terms of how they were written, their most defining characteristics were that the Pink Ranger was a slightly girlier gymnast Pink Ranger and the Yellow Ranger was a slightly more tomboyish martial artist. Batgirl was a smart, good girl; Catwoman was a pretty, bad girl. X-Men Evolution had goth Rogue and her polar opposite, valley girl Kitty Pryde. The Powerpuff Girls, a show widely lauded for being female friendly and featuring well-defined characters with depth, relied on stereotypes to characterize the main characters, which put them at odds with one another. A friendship is implied between Honey Lemon and Gogo Tamago in Big Hero 6, despite the fact the two never say a word to one another (but at least a subplot about the two girls competing for the attention of the same guy was dropped pre-production). Princess Bubblegum is smart and girly, Marceline is tough and cool. Even Katara and Toph in Avatar: the Last Airbender exhibit the stereotypes of the pretty, kind girl and the tough tomboy.
While stereotypes and broad generalizations can be helpful in creating the outline of a character, media seems over-reliant on the two female characters being polar opposites: pretty girl versus tomboy; optimist versus goth girl; smart one versus rich one, and so on.
The first time I really noticed this dichotomy was with the Teen Titans cartoon that debuted in 2003. The show is fondly remembered, and for good reason; one of the first American-produced shows to really adapt an anime-referential style, while still retaining its Western-based roots, the DC Comics cartoon told complex, layered stories that went beyond the classic definitions of good and evil, and tackled topics like character motivation, the origin of true strength, and the power of friendship. The show also used the classic 2:3 ratio, opting to initially feature Robin, Cyborg, Beast Boy, Raven, and Starfire as the core cast (sorry Wonder Girl, Flash, Aqualad, and Speedy).
Every girl I knew who watched the show was either a Starfire or a Raven—which is to say, they preferred and identified with one character, and the other struck them as kind of a mystery. “Starfires” were bubbly, optimistic, outgoing, and liked having fun, while “Ravens” were private, smart, brooding, realists with a tendency to be pessimistic.
I was a Starfire. I liked Raven’s intelligence, but the rest of her character seemed foreign to me. While the show was focused on explaining why Raven was the way she was (and why Starfire acted the way she did), sometimes that was lost in the bustle of the other characters and plot lines. I didn’t actively dislike Raven, but I honestly didn’t care about her, which is actually probably worse—indifference is the opposite of love, after all.
But Teen Titans combated the idea that women always had to be at odds with one another. Switched, which was the 7th episode of the show, did something really unexpected; Beast Boy, Cyborg, and Robin were essentially non-players in the episode, and it focused on a body switching trope which is often a cliché used with dichotomous characters. But, instead of being about the two characters just getting back to their own bodies, it became about the two of them understanding one another on a deeper level.
After seeing that episode, it started to click with me that disliking Raven made no sense. I shared attributes with both Raven and Starfire. Who I was could not be summed up with one generalized character.
Girls are often forced to choose who they are from one of two characters, instead of being allowed to see themselves in all characters. Part of it is societal, emphasis on competition between women that can be seen in media from the Bachelor to Taylor Swift, but another part of it is that media plays into the trope of girl on girl violence. Many of these duos are shown in competition with each other (for boys, grades, a role in a drama club production) in a way that is never truly resolved.
This dichotomy and simplification of female characters (really, of all characters) is a necessity for storytelling, but it needs to be done well. Princess Bubblegum and Marceline’s initial strife in Adventure Time came not from their differences, but from their similarities: they are both confident, powerful rulers and that put them at odds with one another. It’s not to say that the characters always have to understand each other, but their differences can’t be the only cause of conflict within the story.
The best thing that can be done with dichotomous characters is to show them as friends, and many of the examples I’ve posed do just that. The dichotomy is used as a place to derive conflict from, but also as a story telling gateway to greater understanding. Subversion of the dichotomy trope is a beautiful thing. When it turns out Daphne is not only pretty, but also smart and capable, or that Velma is smart, but also a romantic, it creates complex, well-rounded characters that anyone can relate to. A character is only the sum of the parts she is written with, so don’t make those parts all come from clichés.