I have a list of media pet peeves a mile long — like most writers, I suspect. Usually I prefer to use this blog to talk about things I do like instead of things I don’t (except when I write about politics), but today I’d like to talk about a trope and a mindset that I’ve been ruminating on lately: the Badass. Join me, won’t you, in what will probably be a rambling explanation of why I don’t consider any of my own characters badasses, and why I don’t think declaring any character a “badass” is a particularly useful thing to do.
First I should probably define my terms. These are going to be entirely my own perceptions, and if anyone disagrees with them, I’d actually love to discuss it. But in my mind, “badass” is a term that connotes several qualities. The first (and most positive) is taking no shit. I have no arguments with this particular characteristic. I enjoy characters who don’t allow people to push them around or talk down to them, and I have definitely turned to the assertiveness of fictional people for inspiration when my own natural spring of assertiveness has run dry. (Which it does pretty quickly. I’m working on it.)
However, based on my purely anecdotal observations, I think that the aforementioned assertiveness is often conflated with stoicism when people talk about badass characters. Now, obviously the degree to which a character does or does not wear their heart on their sleeve varies. Some characters play things closer to the vest than others. I certainly don’t expect every character to be as overtly emotional as, say, I am. But I think the designation of badass often imbues stoicism with a positive or aspirational connotation, when it’s actually at best a neutral trait and at worst a sign of repressed emotions. In fact, I’ve taken several of my characters on a journey from Don’t Show Emotions to Feel Your Feelings as they learn to deal with the hardships in their lives in healthier, more honest ways. That doesn’t mean that they’re widely broadcasting their every emotion; they’re just not hiding them as much as they used to.
The most obvious potential problem with badassery is its association with violence. Here’s where, like, every character ever played by Bruce Willis comes in. (I honestly have seen very few movies with Bruce Willis, but don’t @ me, I’m still right.) Many characters are declared badasses specifically because of their ability to fight and/or use weapons better than anyone else around them. There is a Very Obvious issue of toxic masculinity here; I imagine the Venn diagram of “male characters most frequently called badasses” and “male characters I would never invite over for lunch” has a significant amount of overlap. But as a fantasy and scifi fan, I actually think there’s a lot more to unpack here. Those genres fairly frequently feature large-scale physical violence, so there are potentially many characters who know their way around a sword/bow/laser blaster/whatever. When these weapons-friendly characters, male or female, are also assertive and/or stoic (particularly if their assertiveness and stoicism comes with a side of sarcasm or general prickliness), they are almost automatically dubbed badasses.
I think this does them a disservice. I think the term “badass” establishes a set of expectations for the reader/viewer, and any behaviors or traits that fall outside of these expectations can wind up being written off as a “weakening” of the character. I saw an example of this in the comments of one of the many, many articles I read about Avengers: Infinity War after I saw it. More than one commenter was annoyed with the character Gamora’s emotionality in the movie. To be as spoiler-light as possible, Gamora, who ticks all of the boxes I listed above, spends a decent amount of her screen time in Infinity War visibly upset. She even cries. To these commenters, these emotional reactions were a disservice to the character and made her less badass.
Now, if you’ve seen the movie and you know me, you may guess that I have some opinions about Gamora’s arc. But it had honestly never occurred to me to read her emotional reactions as a diminishing of the strength she has in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies (which have skyrocketed to the top tier of my favorite Marvel movies). I mean, in Infinity War, Gamora has kind of a lot to be upset about??? And I personally am much more moved by characters honestly experiencing their emotions than by them trying to suppress them. Plus, Gamora has always been more than just a badass, even if she does fulfill my criteria. The stoicism category is the most interesting in this case, because it is the one that sees the most over the course of the three MCU movies Gamora has been in. One of my favorite moments in Infinity War is the introduction of the Guardians, when Gamora is lip syncing to Quill’s music. She never would have done that in the first movie. She doesn’t have to hide what she’s feeling, positive or negative, anymore, so when the moment calls for some raw emotion — as several moments in IW do — she is at least able to express it.
Of course, there are many conversations and probably an academic monograph to be had about agency in the MCU, but my specific point here is that I don’t think that agency and emotionality need to be inversely proportional. Of course, when we’re talking about female characters, there may well be concerns with the former, but that doesn’t mean that writers should eschew the latter to make up for that. Female characters also seem to be the first to come under fire for perceived emotional weakness, as well. I understand that some of the criticism comes from, you know, centuries of women being perceived as “the weaker sex,” and consequently centuries of female characters genuinely displaying less emotional fortitude than their male counterparts. As a woman myself, though, my argument with this paradigm is not that women actually don’t have intense emotions; instead, I’d argue that having intense emotions is HUMAN, you can be emotional and resilient at the same time, and maybe more dudes should try admitting to the presence of a feeling other than anger once in a while. I mean, I’ve seen people criticize Hermione Granger for crying too much in Harry Potter — again, there are conversations to be had about her arc versus the male characters’, BUT MY GOD, do you know how much on-page crying there would be if someone documented my ages 11 through 17?
My philosophical objection to The Badass is probably clear by now. I dislike narratives that punish or dismiss emotion. For male characters, The Badass all too frequently upholds elements of toxic masculinity. For female characters, The Badass can comes across with a kind of not-like-other-girls defensiveness. (I don’t know enough nonbinary characters to make a sweeping generalization about their portrayals vis-a-vis badassery.) But philosophy aside, I artistically object to the category of “badass” simply because it’s boring. It’s flattening. I have characters who don’t take shit, who are varying degrees of stoic, and who are violent, but I wouldn’t call them badasses, because that would paint a picture in people’s mind. If someone describes a character as badass to me, for better or for worse, I feel like I know what to expect. I don’t want people to feel like they know what to expect from my characters at all!
So perhaps, as media consumers and media creators, we can describe the characters we love a little more specifically, paying attention to the times when they surprise us the most. And if something bad happens to them, don’t expect them not to weep. It’s what they do after they weep that matters.