The Galatea Problem

A statue of Pygmalion and Galatea
Pygmalion and Galatee, Falconet. Source.

Way back, long before the Internet was even a thing, there was a story about a dude named Pygmalion. Pygmalion was a sculptor, and he had this statue he had carved out of marble. This statue was, naturally, of a beautiful woman. Because this is, after all, Greek myth we’re talking about.

Pygmalion fell so hopelessly in love with this statue of feminine perfection that Aphrodite, good ol’ goddess of love and boning down, saw fit to bring the statue to life so Pygmalion could marry her. And everyone lived happily ever after.

In the original story, it is my understanding, the statue didn’t have a name. But somewhere along the way—around the late eighteenth century or so—the woman carved from marble was finally given a moniker: Galatea, “she who is milk white.” A fitting name for the perfect woman, right?

Now, if you could, I’d like you to think of any recent media you’ve seen that had a female character in it. I’ll give you a second if you’re having trouble, because you may well be.

Chances are, that thing you saw? It has only one female character with any agency at all. And I would further bet that said woman was a Strong Female Character©®™. Not too glib, not too serious. Just a little bit sassy and/or snarky. Able to hold her own in a fight, maybe even as good as the male lead. Appropriately pretty, without being too much of a sexpot. An absolutely perfect, insofar as her creators are concerned, representative of the female sex.

A Galatea, in other words.

And she has to be. She has to be a postmodern Galatea because if she’s not, critics will say that she is being used to Make a Statement about All Women Everywhere.

You know what? That’s absolutely true. But it’s not true for the reasons you might think. It’s not because feminism is running roughshod over moviemakers’ hopes and dreams, or because political correctness is now as infectious as viral meningitis, or even because the reptilians have been in control of the White House for the past 150 years.

It’s because in a world full of wang, that female character is the only one reppin’ the vag.

There are TONS of male characters—usually straight and white—in media. So you never have the problem of people saying that any given male character is being used to Make a Statement about All Men Everywhere. How can someone accidentally make a statement with one character in a metaphorical cast of thousands?

But, you put the one woman in there, and boy howdy. Suddenly it’s statement o’clock everywhere except for the remote city of the Elder Things in Antarctica, and that’s just because everyone there is in a cryptobiotic torpor.

So there’s the problem. People say they want women in stuff, and then you put a woman in a movie or a book or a TV show and then suddenly there’s this huge backlash because whoa what is that one woman in that thing saying about all women? The Galatea Problem. No matter how inoffensive your Strong Female Character©®™ is, somebody will find offense. Somebody will think you’re making a statement, even if you’re not.

Luckily, I’m not one of those assholes who comes to you with a problem and doesn’t have a solution (because fuck those guys).

And the solution is simple:


The reason nobody ever thinks white dudes in fiction are Saying Something about white dudes in general is because there are so damned many of them. So the solution to the Galatea Problem is the same: write all the ladies. Female background characters, female main characters, female supporting characters. Have the cast of your story or novel or movie reflect the fact that FIFTY PERCENT OF THE PLANET’S POPULATION HAS BOOBS. Don’t include a token woman—fuck, don’t include a token anybody! Reflect the grand goddamned diversity of our universe in your cast of characters.

Tokenism is how you get stuck with black characters or women characters or queer characters who have to be Better because they carry the entire weight of their demographic when they could just as easily be one of many and have that glorious chance to just be themselves.

Look at Neon Genesis Evangelion. It’s got TONS of female characters, all of whom have their own strengths and weaknesses and triumphs and failures. Nobody ever feels like Evangelion is making a Statement About Women because why would they? The only statement there is that women are just as diverse and human as men.

Look at Batman: The Animated Series. My friend Sarah pointed this one out to me. You’ve got women on the right side of the law, like Renee Montoya and Barbara Gordon, and you’ve got women on the wrong side of the law, like Pamela Isley or Harley Quinn, and you’ve got women who swap sides when it suits them, like Selina Kyle and Talia al’Ghul. Then you have guest players like Zatanna and the Red Claw and the Phantasm. They’re not all crazy, they’re not all criminals, they’re not all good, they’re all just women.

Isn’t that awesome?

So go forth, my fellow wordmongers. Go forth, and write no more Galateas.

Just write people.

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