"Worst Tropes" started as a playlist on my YouTube channel. I'm now also including it on my written blog. Basically I discuss all my least favorite tropes in speculative fiction and list ideas on how to do them right. Enjoy!
So. The title of this week's post might be a little confusing. After all, I’m a feminist. I like femme characters. I’m constantly advocating for more femme characters in positions of power. Why on Earth would I object to female/femme mentors?
I don’t object to them. I object to how they’re written.
For the most part, mentor characters in our speculative fiction media are men. When you hear “mentor character” in relation to sci-fi, fantasy, or other action-based genres, the first image that pops into your head is Obi-Wan, or Gandalf, or some other old white dude. Sometimes they get to be Asian or Black, in which case their already-slim chances of surviving to the end of the story drop to nearly zero.
Whatever the case, it’s usually a guy. And from a cultural perspective, this makes sense. Guys are “supposed” to be smarter than girls, and they're expected to be better or at least more experienced at all the fighting and survival stuff than the girls. Why wouldn't the action mentor be a guy?
Since it’s the twenty-first century, we’ve been getting better at subverting sexist tropes and ideas such as this. It started with “Why can’t a woman be good at fighting,” and has gradually been turning into “Why can’t she be the awesome mentor character that everyone idolizes and looks up to?”
And this is great! The idea of the female mentor is coming from a good place. There are so few of them out there that any writer who wants to give their mentor character a bit of estrogen should be encouraged to do so.
The problem is in the execution. Broadly speaking, male mentors are allowed to stand with their students, while female mentors stand behind them. Basically, and this is not exclusive to mentor characters at all, the guys are allowed to take a more active role in the story. And also aren’t shunted off into a romantic subplot with their protégés. That happens a lot, even when the female mentor is done right. (See, Avatar: the Last Airbender and Edge of Tomorrow.)
It’s difficult to find examples of this trope, simply because, as stated previously, there are so few female mentors in SFF. One of the more iconic examples is The Matrix.
Trinity isn’t actually a mentor per se, not the way Morpheus is, but she does help Neo navigate the ins and outs of the Matrix and the real world, so in the fundamental way, she counts. She’s got a great opener, she jumps out of helicopters, she helps Neo murder a bunch of innocent security guards in a lobby, all that jazz. She's your standard "strong female character" who manages to have a solid characterization and more personality than a brick wall.
And yet, her biggest contribution to the story is...kissing Neo back to life? And then cheering him on from the sidelines?
I get it, I get it, it’s Neo’s story, not Trinity’s. The fact that Morpheus also has to stand aside in the climax takes a lot of the sting out of it. But you can have an amazing movie centered around a guy who works with the women rather than shunting them off to the sidelines. Go re-watch Black Panther and you'll see what I mean.
But there’s this...thing...in modern media. It's not even really a trope, but we've all seen it. You've got an action movie that centers around Joe Average, an ordinary guy with an ordinary job and an ordinary life. Through a series of weird events, he ends up being caught in some sort of spy conspiracy theory or supernatural underworld or whatever. All well and good, until he's suddenly shooting terrorists and fighting vampires right alongside the people who have been training to do this very thing for years. Joe Average gets maybe one scene where he's in over his head, and then after a brief training montage he's James Bond.
It's a power fantasy, designed to delude the audience (particularly the male audience) that if they were plucked from their everyday lives and tossed into a death trap, they'd be totally fine. The best, even.
You can throw all the “chosen one” crap you want at me, but at the end of the day, you need training to win wars and battles. Years and years of it. Joe Average's fifteen-minute morning yoga ain't gonna cut it. Just make another James Bond sequel and be done with it.
It’s one of the reasons why I sympathize with Tiger in Kung-Fu Panda. She puts in a lifetime of work to become a great warrior, and then this guy—literally by accident—steals the title from her? And then after one training montage covering—at most—a couple weeks, he manages to defeat the big bad who defeated the five best fighters in the world?
No. I call bullshit.
An even better example of this is one of the most infuriating movies I’ve ever seen: Ant-Man.
I love Marvel, but I hate this movie, and this is the reason why.
Hope Pym is just better. At everything. She knows how to use the suit. She knows how to control the ants. She knows how to fight. She’s been in the company the good guys are trying to take down for years, so she knows the people, security, and weaknesses better than anyone else.
But no. Clearly the best person for the job is the random thief who broke in last week to steal the Ant-Man suit.
I can already see the comment section: “But Christina! She’s Hank’s daughter! How could you expect him to let her do something so dangerous as to break into a high-security facility run by a sociopath?”
First: “let her”? Let her?! She’s a grown-ass woman. Why is Hank treating her like a little kid who doesn’t know how to do jack shit?
Second: remember all those “chosen one” stories that center around a guy? It always seems to me that the other characters can’t get the boy out the door fast enough. “Well, son, seems you’re chosen for greatness. Who am I, your parent/guardian, to stand between you and a mountain of horrors and bloodshed that will, at worst kill you, and at best, traumatize you for life? Go fulfill your destiny, boy!”
More than often than not, the guy will be “burdened” with the chosen one thing, and the support characters will literally have to force him to take up the mantle because “no one else will.”
But if it’s a girl?
“No, she’s too precious and pretty to put at risk! How could you even think such a thing?”
Even Moana suffers from this. It's not an in-universe problem in her case, as her island culture practices excellent gender equity. That's more of a "this movie was created by Americans who don't practice such gender equity" problem. Moana has to jump through hoops that her male counterparts (think Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Neo, etc.) never had to deal with.
Here come the comments again: “But Christina! Marvel made a sequel that does make Scott and Hope equal! Ant-Man and Wasp.”
Hank had superior technology like wings and blasters and didn’t give them to Scott when they were all risking their necks—including the neck of his daughter that they made such a big point about protecting—to steal the yellow suit in the first movie? He made Scott fall through a tube toward deadly lasers without wings? What a dick! No wonder Howard Stark didn’t like him.
More comments: “But Christina! Ant-Man is about Ant-Man! It’s about Scott Lang becoming a hero! Not about Hope Pym. She’s just a support character.”
Well, that’s an easy fix. Take out Ant-Man.
I’m serious. They should have just made a Wasp movie. The primary tension would have been her strained relationship with her father. Hank has to come to terms with the fact that his wife chose to sacrifice herself, just as he was going to, and he has to respect the fact that Hope might do the same thing. (This is something that families and friends of enlisted soldiers could easily relate to.) While working on the heist, Hope will grow closer to her father, atone for the mistakes she’s made in the past, and be the one to go super-small to defeat the villain, just like her mother did.
Only unlike her mother, she gets to come back. And in the sequel, Wasp and Ant-Man, while she and her dad work to bring Mrs. Pym home, their technology is stolen! Some jerk named Scott is trying to sell it on the black market!
Then it turns out that Scott is only doing it to get back to his own kid, Cassie. And once he realizes what that stolen technology is for, he helps them, putting aside his own needs to reunite the Pym family, and become Ant-Man. With his mentor, the Wasp, showing him the way.
Also, this way Marvel would have beaten DC to the honor of “First Female Superhero Movie in Theaters,” and we all know how much Marvel loves beating DC.
Back to the original point. Female mentors in action genres are very few and far between. Which is why it hurts even more when their characters and arcs are botched. When they’re used just long enough to turn Joe Average into Joe Chosen One, and then tossed aside to cheer him on in the background.
If you’re going to create a kick-ass woman awesome enough to train your main character, then you can use her in the story beyond training the main character.
And here’s how to do that.
Female Mentors Done Right
Edge of Tomorrow--an awesome sci-fi action movie with an even better soundtrack--has a female mentor who trains unwilling time-traveler Tom Cruise to fight the aliens. What’s interesting here is that while Cruise’s character has the “chosen-one-ness” power of live, die, repeat, his mentor, played by Emily Blunt, used to have the same thing. By the time she’s finished training him and it’s time to take on the head alien, she doesn’t stand aside and let him do it alone. She goes with him. In the end, they’re both equal.
Doctor Strange also re-vamped The Ancient One as a woman, instead of keeping her as a man as in the comics, which is pretty cool. And, unlike Edge of Tomorrow, there is no romantic relationship between the Ancient One and Dr. Strange. Unfortunately it loses points for casting a white actor to play this Asian character, and also permanently kills her off so our dude hero can save the day, so I give it a B+ for effort, D for execution.
For our final example, let’s bring out the ol’ broken record and talk about Avatar: the Last Airbender.
Of Aang’s three main bending teachers, two of them--Katara and Toph--are girls, both of them beautifully written, one of them with a major narrative arc and striking character growth. In addition, the writers practiced power balance within the group. Aang may be the "chosen one," the master of all four elements while all the other benders only get one element. But the other members of the group, especially Katara and Toph, specialize in certain abilities that Aang does not have.
Aang cannot use his powers to heal injuries, nor can he bloodbend. Katara can.
Aang cannot bend metal, a material used in abundance by their enemies. Toph invented metalbending, allowing her to crush entire ships.
This creates a power balance in the group as a whole, where each character remains vital to the quest because of their unique abilities. Katara and Toph can’t hang back and cheer Aang on as he fights the villain. Their specialized skills are mandatory for the team’s success.
In other words, while the story centers around a guy, if the Avatar writers had treated Toph and Katara the same way Marvel treated Hope Pym, the entire world would’ve been taken over by the Fire Nation.
Know any other good femme mentor characters in sci-fi and fantasy? Drop them in the comments so I can check them out!
The first Dragons, Zombies and Aliens blog was started in 2015. Somewhere between college coursework, paying rent with door-to-door sales, and keeping up with my sorority sisters, I wrote reviews, rants and commentaries on books, TV shows, and movies. Now, this blog has moved, improved, and the sky's the limit!