Can sexy female characters ever have agency?

No art is made within a vacuum—but therein lies our problem. Where does patriarchy in art end and agency begin?

Can sexy female characters ever have agency?

As a transmasc author, there's always something I'm aware of when penning the ladies: The "male gaze" as an ever-present, voyeuristic, misogynistic framing in storytelling. It's a valid feminist media critique, but there's something else we need to talk about: When it's applied improperly.

Mostly, this oppressive framing gives me a metaphorical headache whenever a camera zooms on boobas for no real reason, or I accidentally stumble into r/MenWritingWomen and concuss myself on nonsense.

Because the "male gaze" is everywhere in monocultural media, this begs a question you might find silly: Can we actually escape it?

I'm serious. When does a lady character get to be sexy, sexual and even stereotypically so and yet...still empowering and feminist?

There are a plenty of examples that break the "male gaze" framing. There are also plenty of ways to render all efforts moot by applying a feminist lens so hard it loops back around to adopt regressive gender and sexuality norms.

That's what I want to talk about, because tackling that problem will help media meaning-making move from regressive norms to radical inclusion.

Schrödinger's Empowerment & Badass Babes

If media analysis is about perspective, whose perspective is the one we listen to?

Bayonetta is both sexualized and objectified, yet you get exhaustingly polarizing opinions about her agency as a character. Is Bayonetta only objectified, or is she a sexy, body-positive force of nature with guns for shoes—as the character designer (a cis woman) suggests?

Is she both?

On that note, is Tifa Lockhart of FF7 objectified, or is she a sexy bad-ass who round-house dolphin-kicks enemies to smithereens and is also one of the most empathetic members of the game's cast? Is she both?

What about nu-Lara Croft? Is she objectified, or is she a sexy, tomb-raiding, Olympic-athlete feminist icon? Was the original Lara just 3D poly-triangle tatas, or was she a badass genius of a role model for many?

Is Motoko of Ghost in the Shell just some tiddy robot, or is she a bisexual icon, lowkey sex-worker rep and living weapon? Can she be both?

Which is it?

And if both assessments are accurate (depending on perspective and personal relationship with the material), whose perspective has the most weight?

More importantly, why does it always seem like the "male gaze" framing wins out and no amount of claiming a character for empowerment seems to stick?

This question of "sexy female characters" in media bothers me, as a writer

It should lowkey bother you too, if you're a feminist

As an LGBTQ+ fiction writer and feminist, the observed preference for throwing up our hands and saying "damn, guess the male gaze framing won again" bothers me on four fronts:

  1. The discourse about objectified characters starts to read like slut shaming when you notice that it almost only ever happens to a certain "physical archetype"—care to take a guess?
  2. As a sex-positive feminist, this shows me that sexuality is still regarded as something the patriarchy dictates. This reads as anti-feminist to me.
  3. Sexualization is different than objectification. When we conflate the two we're liable to lump in sexual agency with sexual exploitation. These are two very different things.
  4. Finally, if no character truthfully has agency—some third-wave feminists argue this—then wouldn't every story have to be full of sanitized uwu smol beans to satisfy this rhetorical framing?

Why does all of this bother me? It bothers me because "sexy female characters" aren't actually the problem. The problem is the framing, who's writing them, why they're writing them, how they're writing them, and who they aim to serve by writing them.

If we do not point the feminist critique of the male gaze on its bad actors, we risk upholding exclusionary rhetoric, which isn't feminist at all—it's patriarchal and regressive.

If your feminist media critique isn't inclusive AND sex-positive

It's probably garbage, to be honest

As feminists, we know that a piece of media can imprint harmful stereotypes that actually impact humanity. They can—and do—last for countless decades, adopted and reprinted like a mematic machine.

That's the propaganda of the monoculture, obviously.

But what I find less feminists discussing in social spaces is that the tendency to sanitize sex and sexuality to avoid said stereotypes can also cause harm.

We recognize that slut shaming is bad, yet the minute a provocative looking character—especially a lady—shows up, many engage in uncharitable judgement. Why are we judging based on looks in 2021?

We know that whorephobia is bad, yet the minute a character—usually a lady—even just vaguely gives a nod to sex workers is the minute lenses point and burn the witch.

Why do sex worker characters get left out/maligned unless a cis male writer needs to shove them in a fridge for the growth of a dude-protag?  

We know that othering queer people is bad, but the minute a queer character acts sexually provocative—usually in an effeminate way—is the minute that character gets labeled a bad queer stereotype.

Why is it bad for effeminate queer people/sexual queer people to get representation in media? That sounds like Fed shit to me.

My point: If you're told characters like yourself can only ever be bad stereotypes, that's harmful to real people with real lived experiences.

Why are they the sacrificial lambs? I don't get it.

What do we do about all this?

We gotta' stop expecting monoculture to do anything right

We need to uplift the stories of historically excluded authors. Not just white cishet women authors, thank you very much. We say we do this—but do we really? *sweeps arm at the top selling books of forever*

We have initiatives like #ownvoices in writing for just that purpose. But what actually happens is marginalized authors still get held to 100x higher standards than monoculture writers—always.

This pushes out the perspectives we need, because it coddles monoculture and restricts everyone else.

If we want truly inclusive stories, we have to stop expecting monoculture writers to give us what we want—they're never going to get it right.

"Can sexy female characters ever have agency?" My response is enthusiastically, irrevocably yes. But the only way we get there is to stop letting the monoculture lead the convo.

I, for one, want to see that happen—they've had enough screen time for their perspectives. It's our turn now.

Please note that I'm not being exclus or transphobic here. I'm trans and this article isn't just directed at characters that are cis women—or directed at cis women as an audience, either.

I also never aim to speak over anyone at all and come in full earnestness. LMK if I need to change something via comment below.

K. Leigh is an ex-freelancer, full-time author, and weirdo artist. Read their lgbt+ sci-fi books, connect on Twitter, visit their site, or send them an email if you’d like to work together. 🌈 🏳️‍⚧️

Read my latest cyberpunk short story: