The Gender Imbalance of Fantasy Protagonists
When young women are the main characters in fantasy - specifically as the primary protagonist, not as supporting characters - most of the time they’re along for the ride, our audience viewpoint to a strange new world. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, and Peter Pan all have a female main character as a young girl, an innocent, virtuous woman who doesn’t know anything about the world. This trope continues into Labyrinth, Pan’s Labyrinth, Spirited Away, Coraline, as well as others.
And on it’s own, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s something inherently interesting about using an innocent young person to show us a bold new world, and have it work as a metaphor for puberty. To have that be a woman can add to the effectiveness, because our society focuses so little on what it’s like for a girl to become a woman (especially from the perspective of sexuality and identity), that a metaphor can work particularly effectively.
However, you almost never see men as the innocent, naive protagonist. With a few exceptions (such as James and the Giant Peach, The Pagemaster), most coming-of-age stories for young boys aren’t about some innocent kid just exploring a supernatural world with wide eyes.
Instead, when young men are protagonists, they’re the most important person in the universe.
I have to acknowledge that, at the end of the day, Star Wars is about a whiny blonde boy who finds out he’s magic, and since I was a whiny blonde boy, I had a special connection to that film. But if you’re not a blonde boy, that film may not be quite as powerful as I credited it as being. Not to say that not that you won’t or can’t enjoy it as much (or more) than I did... but it’s not designed to speak to anyone the same way as it does to young boys. Young boys were literally the target audience.
Young boys in fiction aren’t passive protagonists in the same way young girls are. Girls are taken by the hand and led through a strange world (”eat this/drink this” being a particularly glaring example). Sure, they’re usually still reactive protagonists rather than proactive, but the difference is that young male protagonists are treated as important - nay, essential - to the very fate of the world. Either they were born important or they wound up important because of one thing they did, but either way they’re now the single most important person to the story.
Western fiction tells young boys - and pointedly not young girls - that you, Arthur of Camelot, have a destiny. Yes you, Clark Kent, have grown up in obscurity but will one day be the most important person on earth. You, Harry Potter, were foretold in prophecy to save us all. You, Luke Skywalker, are the new hope we’re looking for. You, Neo, are the chosen one, the messiah. You, Frodo (and Bilbo, kind of) Baggins, are able to defeat the villains who have oppressed the world. You, John Connor, will save humanity.
Now, again, that doesn’t mean that those movies, tv shows, cartoons, books, or video games are bad because of this. It doesn’t mean you have to stop watching them or reading them, or protest them.
It just means we may be 100% ready for something different.
Because, here’s the other thing about everything I just said: With maybe one or two exceptions, none of these characters are anyone’s favorite characters.
Sure, I like Luke Skywalker because I relate to him. But I wanted to be Han Solo. And Harry Potter is fine and all that, but he’s cool just because he gets to go to Hogwarts and hang out with Hagrid, he’s not inherently the best character. Neo isn’t nearly as cool as Morpheus, Trinity, or Agent Smith. Bilbo and Frodo? Please, we’ve got Gandalf and Aragorn and Boromir. Sarah Connor’s only function is to give birth to John, but then she becomes a badass warrior woman who is always way more interesting than her son.
I would argue that Superman doesn’t fit that mold, but then again, even the people making movies about Clark Kent don’t seem to think he’s particularly interesting, so I guess he counts.
But if you introduce a female character who is the most important person in the world, you can get characters like...
And really, at the end of the day, aren’t these characters a bit more interesting?
Except... that’s not what makes these characters great. They aren’t special because they’re Chosen. After all, Mulan (from the 2020 remake) and Rey (specifically from The Rise of Skywalker) are also Chosen Ones and they're not nearly as beloved, so why did I single these characters out as more interesting?
Because these characters are unique, well-developed, and often proactive... usually even more so than their male counterparts.
I think we are finally reaching a point in genre fiction where many writers - and audiences - have realized that the Chosen One trope is just a convenient way to skip some steps in Act 1. This is particularly useful when the beginning of a story has to set up a new world as well as a whole cast of characters; that’s why the trope is so popular in genre fiction. It gives all of the characters a lens through which they will view the main character, and shapes how they affect the world.
Like I said, I’m glad we are seeing more female chosen ones compared to the media I grew up with, but I also think genre fiction has been over-saturated with prophecies and characters destined to save the world. And I actually really like it when a story has a character who fills the function of a Chosen One, but for understandable reasons.
Katniss from The Hunger Games isn’t exactly a Chosen One; there’s no prophecy around her. But she does defy the games in a new way, and she becomes a celebrity and revolutionary figure because of it. Narratively, her story is close to that of a Chosen One, but we see her get chosen by the people and factions of the world, and as Just Write pointed out in his video, it makes her a more interesting version of the trope.
I rolled my eyes at Harry Potter becoming a Chosen One when a prophecy is revealed in book 5 of 7, but I enjoy that it functionally changes nothing about the story. The prophecy says Voldemort and Harry will try to kill each other and one of them will die; but, as Dumbledore points out, it wasn’t likely that either was going to be satisfied until the other was dead. The prophecy explains WHY Voldemort targeted Harry as a kid, but it’s also explicitly stated that he could’ve targeted Neville instead; the interpretation of the prophecy happened when Harry was a baby, and now the main characters are simply dealing with the ripples of that choice.
I really don’t enjoy how many female protagonists had no agency, but I don’t think making them chosen ones is the only solution; it’s just the latest solution.
What will yours be?