A word or two about these Unfavorite Tropes blogs:
A friend of mine who’s been following this series warned me that if I kept listing unfavorite tropes, I would soon run out of things to read. This friend has a point. If each of my unfavorite tropes counted as an automatic deal-breaker, I probably would end up with nothing to read. I’ve mentioned it before and it bears repeating: tropes I dislike may find their way into many books that are, taken as a whole, well worth reading. I may come away from these books loving them, yet still taking some issue with individual tropes. So this series still has a little life left in it, though it’s starting to wind down.
A couple of years ago, Hollywood released two fantasy-adventure films, Jack the Giant-Slayer and Snow White and the Huntsman. The trailers for both films featured shots of the female leads sporting gleaming suits of armor and battle gear. Resplendent in this martial get-up, they looked like warrior women, but the images covered up the truth that neither of them actually does any fighting. The most that the heroine of Jack manages to accomplish is to get in trouble repeatedly and get rescued by the titular hero. The heroine of Snow White, though brave, serves primarily as a figurehead for fighting men to follow. They offer fine visual examples of the Faux Action Girl, a female character who looks tough and may even talk tough, but concealed under that surface veneer of capability is an old-fashioned distressed damsel.
My biggest quarrel with the Faux Action Girl trope, aside from its cheating me out of an actual active and competent heroine, is that it seems to insult our intelligence. Are the writers who create such characters counting on our not noticing the bungler hidden in the suit of armor? Do they imagine that if the damsel is dressed in heroine’s clothing, we will accept her as a heroine and not question whether what we’re being told about her matches what we actually see her do?
The trope is particularly disheartening when we see it employed by those we think would know better. The heroine of Marissa Meyer’s Cinder, for example, is capable and innovative, and her story is enormously engaging. Meyer obviously knows how to create a heroine worth rooting for. Yet the sequel hits us with a Faux Action Girl. The titular heroine of Scarlet packs a pistol and carries herself with determination. Yet a closer look at her reveals a screw-up in perpetual need of rescue, a bitter disappointment after the dynamic Cinder. Peter Jackson added the character of Tauriel to his trilogy The Hobbit because he wasn’t content with the dudes-only nature of the source novel, and in the second film, The Desolation of Smaug, she’s a powerful force, a welcome addition (for me, at least). Yet in the final film, The Battle of the Five Armies, we see her disintegrate from Action Girl to Faux Action Girl, unable to strike a blow when it matters and needing two different male heroes to rescue her. This, after the splendid depiction of genuine Action Girl Eowyn in his earlier Award-winning adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.
Sometimes a plot may demand some of my other Unfavorite Tropes — say, God Save Us From the Queen! or Babies Ever After or even the much-loathed (by me) Smurfette Principle. But are Faux Action Girls deliberate creations, or evidence of misguided writing? We all know that in order to come across as believable, a heroine needs to make the occasional mistake, but some writers may be so keen to avoid the accusations of “too perfect” and “Mary Sue” that they forget to let her get something right once in a while, and thus, Faux Action Girls may be born.