The Reverse Jane Austen Principle

If you watch a movie or cartoon or pick up a comic that involves a group of main characters you’re likely to find a mix of people in that group. Some white guys, maybe a black guy or an Asian guy, a girl or two and possibly a pet or sidekick of some kind. The stories involving groups like this vary. They could be solving mysteries or saving their planet or just kicking bad-guy butt. Regardless, one thing is virtually for certain – the girls will all have romance somehow worked into their description or plot.

I call this the Reverse Jane Austen Principle. The name was the result of an attempt to explain this issue to someone asking me questions about comic books. In trying to explain it, I found that the simplest way to phrase what I was saying was this:

It is a truth universally acknowledged by the entertainment industry that a female character in possession of a name and a ringless left hand must be in want of a boyfriend (and the name is really optional).

The characters aren’t always (or even often) exclusively there to be someone’s romantic interest or to moon over boys, often they have very interesting characters beyond this and frequently they’re interesting, powerful characters in their own right. But that romance thing does seem to always be there, which is not always true for male characters who have equally interesting, powerful character descriptions.

This means that you get things like the Justice League cartoon from a few years back, which had seven main characters, each a powerful hero. Of the seven, there were two who were women. Hawkgirl fell in love with Green Lantern during the course of the show and had a very complicated relationship with him and Wonder Woman got pretty squarely paired up with Batman, although they never did anything about this romance and all indications showed more affection on her side than his anyway. Of the three men remaining, everyone already knows that Superman is already taken by the mostly off-screen Lois Lane, J’on J’onzz is still busy mourning his dead wife (and probably considered too alien for a romance anyway) and Flash is something of a chronic flirt who never has a date. Even when they opened up the League and had more than enough female characters they could have paired those guys up with, they clearly never felt the need to do so. But Hawkgirl had to pine for GL even after he started seeing someone else and Wonder Woman was paired with Batman even though it made no sense for either of their characters.

The Reverse Jane Austen Principle means that Hollywood can’t seem to tell stories about women characters at all without injecting that bit of romance. It’s like they can’t imagine romance not being a fundamental part of any woman’s life, even if it doesn’t have to be so to men. For example, there is a movie coming out soon about a very influential Hawaiian princess who lived near the end of the nineteenth century and fought the annexing of her kingdom by the United States government. It’s called Princess Kaiulani (her name should have an apostrophe in it, but apparently they decided to drop it for some reason). The movie creates a romance for her that never existed and sets it as a major focus of the piece. In fact, the tagline is “her heart was torn between love and the future of Hawaii”. Except that it wasn’t.

I can’t think of a good biopic about a man to compare this to, actually. There are tons of movies about politicians with no injected romance (off the top of my head are All the President’s Men, Nixon and Thirteen Days, but there are tons of them). So why does the girl need romance? Every movie about Queen Elizabeth I that I’ve ever seen focuses more on her supposed romances with her courtiers than it does on her as a political leader (granted her father has the same problem, but he sort of made that bed for himself and now he’s stuck with it). Queen Victoria is the same way. She had a very long reign and a lot happened while she was queen, but the movies about her all seem to focus on her romances (real or imagined).

Comics seem to be just as bad. Unless a girl has green or purple skin (and even then it’s not a guarantee), she’s bound to be wrapped up in some relationship plot within just a couple of issues of her introduction! There was a really entertaining short run comic a few years back called Teen Titans Year One. It told some stories about the original Titans getting together and doing missions, but it sort of set them now instead of when they actually were a newly formed team (Robin IMed Kid Flash about a mission, for example). The original Teen Titans consisted of four boys and a girl – Wonder Girl. The boys all had plots involving their mentors being possessed and struggling with their roles within the group and things like that. What was Wonder Girl’s plot? She had a crush on Speedy and they went on a date at one point. Now, don’t get me wrong, I loved this comic. It told a great story in a funny, fresh way. But it totally adhered to the Reverse Jane Austen Principle, too.

There are occasionally exceptions to this principle, but they are extremely rare. Nerd girls can slip through relationship-free every once in a great while, but it’s very, very difficult. Usually they have to at least be pining for someone or aimlessly feeling worthless because they don’t have a guy. One notable nerd girl exception would be Velma from Scooby Doo (she is, however, only an exception if you ignore the movies or consider the characters in them different from the ones in the cartoons). Children can sometimes manage to evade this rule as well, but even they usually get trapped by it. River from Firefly got out of it because of the kid rule (even though she wasn’t actually that young, everyone but the bounty hunter treated her that way). It’s also possible to escape if you’re either the only character or if there are so many girls and so few guys that some girls have to not be paired up. Dora the Explorer, some of the minor characters from She-Ra and Flora from The Winx Club all sneak by this way.

But, sadly, exceptions are rare. For the most part, if a female character is included, she’s going to somehow be tangled in this principle. She might be in a relationship, like Arwen from Lord of the Rings. She might start out single but end up in a relationship, like Leia from Star Wars. She might be done with him, but can’t get disentangled, like Rachel from the recent Batman movies. She might be pining for someone specific, like Elisa from Gargoyles. She might be trying to avoid the whole thing and end up caught in a relationship anyway, like Megara in Hercules. She might be just pining for romance without anyone in particular in mind, like Aurora from Sleeping Beauty. And she might be minding her own business and have it thrown at her anyway, like Captain Amelia from Treasure Planet! Regardless, it’s everywhere. Few female characters can escape it.

This isn’t to say that you can’t have amazing characters and fantastic stories that follow the Reverse Jane Austen Principle because you can. Many of the movies, shows and comics I’ve mentioned are great and totally worth watching or reading. That said, I’d really like to see this stop being such a rule. I’d like to see more movies that don’t feel the need to make sure every female character is somehow either connected to a guy or wants to be. Just because she’s not married, doesn’t mean she necessarily has to want to be (or even spend much time thinking about it, because seriously, if my planet was blowing up or something, I wouldn’t stop to bemoan my lack of boyfriend). If Legolas, Buzz Lightyear and Obi-Wan Kenobi don’t need love interests, why do most female characters created by the entertainment industry need one?

17 Comments

  1. Anemone said,

    May 18, 2010 at 6:52 am

    I like this. This was something that really annoyed me about Coco Avant Chanel, too. And then try to get work as an actress without having to kiss someone (or worse).

  2. Beth said,

    May 18, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    What about Captain Janeway from Star Trek Voyager? She was a strong female character who may have ‘hooked up’ here and there, but 95% of the time she was alone and there was no real relationship.

  3. Rosepixie said,

    May 18, 2010 at 7:25 pm

    I didn’t say there weren’t exceptions, Beth, I just said they were rare. If I remember right, Janeway also believed she had a guy waiting for her at home, so she wasn’t entirely not paired off. I specifically remember her always having a picture of a man and a dog nearby. I can’t remember if he had remarried or something, but I remember her believing he was there waiting for her with her dog.

    I did think about talking about how Star Trek The Next Generation felt the need to pair off both of the two major female characters on the show (Troi with Riker and Crusher with Picard). Both relationships were complicated and messy, but they also both carried through most of the series in one way or another. The recent rebooting-of-the-series movie also adhered to this principle. Despite the fact that Uhura actually *wasn’t* really paired off with anyone in particular in the original show, she clearly had to be as the only woman in the main cast of the movie, so she became romantically involved with Spock.

  4. Eva said,

    May 18, 2010 at 9:58 pm

    I think Janeway had an out. She took on the “stone cold bitch” role (also sometimes known as “dragon lady”). In that stereotype she had a “get out of being romantic for free” card.

    That is a whole different Hollywood issue though…

  5. Austenacious » The revolution will include tea and cakes said,

    May 18, 2010 at 11:17 pm

    [...] The Reverse Jane Austen Principle, via Pixiepalace. To which we say, yeah! While also sidling offstage to watch 13 Going on 30. Again. [...]

  6. Janie said,

    May 19, 2010 at 3:57 pm

    The reason we have a Reverse Jane Austen Principle is that most people who create media are men. Men feel comfortable saying that the only thing women care about is finding a husband and making babies. It helps them not feel guilty for creating a glass ceiling that most women can’t crack.

    I believe there were more women in computer programming, film making, and other male dominated fields thirty years ago than there are now. It isn’t because women are not trying to break into these fields. It is because guys have entrenched themselves in there and don’t want to let us in. It is way easier to feel okay about it if you think that we are a bunch of vapid harpies who only care about trapping a guy into a loveless relationship and taking their money.

  7. Eva said,

    May 21, 2010 at 10:24 am

    Janie, as a computer programmer, I think I’m going to have to disagree with the generalization you’re making her. CS has a lot of issues related to gender, but most of them are not related to willful sexist exclusion from the job market. Not every industry or part of our culture is exactly the same.

  8. Rosepixie said,

    May 24, 2010 at 2:01 pm

    I’d agree that Janie’s statement is a bit of an over-generalization, but from what I’ve seen of certain industries (comics being a prime example), there’s probably more to that than we’d like to believe.

  9. Game Review: Puzzle Bots « Digital Changeling said,

    May 29, 2010 at 3:47 am

    [...] not terribly smart “American White Male” inventor. I understand when Hollywood goes all Reverse Jane Austin on stories, but this seems really unnecessary from a small studio. Come on folks, this is just a [...]

  10. covert vector said,

    June 11, 2010 at 8:30 pm

    Hey, you should tvtropeify this! It doesn’t appear to be there yet and would obviously be a great addition. http://www.tvtropes.org

  11. What does Bechdel really mean? « Digital Changeling said,

    October 12, 2010 at 10:43 am

    [...] you want a view of this from a different angle, I’d highly recommend Katie’s article on the Reverse Jane Austin Principal. It captures part of the phenomenon in a movie/tv show specific way and it’s alarmingly apt. [...]

  12. Linkspam: Feminism & Pop Culture said,

    October 12, 2010 at 10:27 pm

    [...] to from the above, Pixiepalace has won me over with her explanation of the Reverse Jane Austen Principle: “It is a truth universally acknowledged by the entertainment industry that a female [...]

  13. Sarah said,

    October 13, 2010 at 5:36 am

    To be fair, Obi-Wan’s belief system pretty much said “don’t fall in love”, and even after the Jedi weren’t a thing anymore, the odds are good being a hermit on a desert planet really isn’t looking for a girlfriend. That, and Buzz Lightyear hooked up with Jessie, but that wasn’t a fact until this summer.

    …Other than that, this is a great article!

  14. violetk said,

    October 24, 2010 at 12:45 pm

    not sure why you would call this the “reverse jane austen principle.” jane austen paired off everyone she could in her novels so it would make more sense to just call it the “jane austen” principle.

  15. Rosepixie said,

    November 9, 2010 at 11:47 pm

    I called it the “Reverse Jane Austen Principle” because it is a gender reversal of that first line from “Pride and Prejudice”. That line is about how an unmarried man must need a wife, but the tendency I’m talking about in media applies to women needing boyfriends or husbands. Thus, it is a reversal.

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