One of the things that I've noticed related to this phenomenon - aside from the fact that there are few good female antiheroes because female characters are supposed to be "role models" - is the way that the death of a love interest is treated when the genders differ. When a man's love interest dies, he is supposed to be broken and guilt-ridden over her death, while women go on, to prove how strong and independent they are. Unfortunate Implications much?
That's not a subversion, it's an inversion. A subversion would be the Non-Action Guy rescuing himself, or the Action Girl getting captured and then rescued by the Non-Action Guy, or the inverse. Or the Action Girl failing to save the Non-Action Guy. Here's an idea, if you're so worried about gender double standards, DON'T DIVIDE YOUR CHARACTERS BY GENDER. Don't balance your Action Girl with a Non-Action Guy, have an Action Girl save your Damsel in Distress. Have no non-combatants. Have some of both genders that fit the roles you're so keen on playing. As for the first poster, that depends entirely on the characterization. If a tough guy doesn't cry when he loses his love, it's because he's completely heartless. If a sensitive woman doesn't power through, she's really just a limp noodle of a person to the core. But a sensitive guy will power through and a tough woman will break down. Well, maybe not the tough woman, they're working too hard in breaking the sensitive woman role to give in now.
Thing is, 'don't divide your characters' is something that can be very easy to say but less easy to do (or at least do well). The reason these binaries have lingered so long is that they're easy and convenient shorthands, particularly around gender — in many cases, authors and readers both use and react to them almost instinctively, and it can be very hard to even recognise them, much less break out of them. And even if you do, it can be very jarring and disconcerting and easy to react negatively to it. Not saying this is right, but it's a factor.
I have no problem with strong female characters themselves, but what bothers me is the fact that they're treated differently from strong male characters by both creators and audiences. The Whedon quote sums it up nicely, about how it should'nt matter. Something else that bugs me is the actual name of the trope (well, not the trope name, but the phrase it is derived from). "Girls need role models." I agree. But I don't understand why males can't be female role models, and why females can't be male role models, which is what the phrase and trope name implies. Haven't there been studies showing that gender isn't nearly as black and white as what we used to think it was? If I'm a male and I think Ada Lovelace is a great person who made important accomplishments, can't she be my role model? If I'm a female and I think the same of Mark Twain, can't he be my role model? The entire idea seems outdated, not just the lack of strong female characters. Yet far too many creators (that is to say, almost all of them) stick to old-fashioned and outdated ideas of gender and sexuality. Finally, this also seems to be a problem because Most Writers Are Male they have to look at things from a male point of view. If male writers (and female ones) could step outside of the gender box they've built for themselves enough to feel genuine empathy for their "opposite" genders, wouldn't these problems be resolved? Can't we just strive to do that?
Because men and women are two separate societies that pretend to live together. Girls need role models to show them how to be women. A man can't show you how to be a woman. Because he's a man. The opposite gender can be a role model, but only in a general sense, of how to be a human being. Unless you're rejecting gender roles entirely... which is actually kind of impossible. Gender politics have been in upheaval for a hundred years. Everyone can't agree on what anyone's gender role should be. Should women be traditional men with the wo filed off? Should men be traditional women with wo tacked on? Is there some kind of middle ground? Where is it? Should men be passive? Should women? Should women be active? Should men? Should it be both? All at once? Answer those questions for the whole world and then you'll get your ideal reality.
That's the problem right there. You're speaking as if gender roles are needed. Hell, you pointed out how people are constantly disagreeing with eachother about how the two groups that make up the entirety of the human race are supposed to act. What I don't get is why people born into certain groups need to act a certain way, for the most part. A person's sex should be irrelevant until it's necessary. We don't need a middle ground nor completely different methods for how men and women are supposed to act. A person should act in the way that they feel that they should be acting without regard for how anyone else feels unless their actions begin to negatively affect others in ways they shouldn't or it's clearly not in their best interest to be acting however they want. Sure, we may have certain natural sex-based predispositions, but we're not wild animals. As the person above you pointed out, your sex should not affect your ability to be able to appreciate the accomplishments of somebody of the opposite gender when their gender has absolutely nothing to do with what they accomplished.
Original troper here. I agree completely with the above reply. Why do we need gender roles in the first place? If treating them exactly the same hinders personal safety (and perhaps there are a few examples of that) then guidelines may be kept, but exceptions to the rule should not be viewed as odd. I suppose the whole thing boils down to perception. We perceive the differences biologically and so think we must be different in general. More than that, because of the way our brains work human minds have gravitated towards the idea the men and women are opposites. Both of these ideas are outdated and incorrect and only have any meaning whatsoever because people artificially tack it on where it isn't needed. In almost every situation barring specific circumstances where personal safety is a factor, let us simply treat both genders the same. In every way. Well, okay, for aspects of sexuality differences can certainly be recognized (which is a major thing and probably has a good deal to do with why gender roles are there in the first place) but in everyday life? No. Hold the door open for men and women. If you're willing to fight people (I'm not, but bear with me) be willing to hit both men and women. Talk to them without changing your speech or subject regardless of gender. Just be completely equal in treatment (and, preferably if possible, perception).
Gender roles are not strictly necessary, but gender identity is an important part of one's overall identity, and if you don't see people of your own gender doing something while you're growing up, you're not likely to see it as something you can do and be successful at. So yes, it is important that girls get to see female characters in fiction doing all the amazing things that male characters do. And it's also important that boys get to see male characters being good at things normally thought of as "girly" without being shamed for it.
Original troper again. I never said that it's not important for girls to see female characters doing the things a man does. I simply said that girls can and should be able to have male role models as well, and guys can and should be able to have female role models. Also, just because you don't see someone of your gender doing something often doesn't mean you're unlikely to be successful in that; well, not most of the time, anyway. It quite possibly is because of said gender roles that that is the case, and this applies to both genders. For example, in the U.S. grade school teachers are predominantly female, but that doesn't mean a male can't do the job just as well. It's based purely on the individual's skills. In the end it makes far more sense to judge someone's capabilities on their specific skill-set and knowledge in a subject and not remotely on their gender.
People need role models who are like them.
But what do we mean by like them? Aren't role models really meant to be subjective to what the person aspires to be or be like?
Believe it or not, gender roles aren't entirely cultural. Nature trumps nurture more often than not, as the sordid tale of David Reimer demonstrates.
To the original question here: If your question is really just "Can't girls have male role models?" then answer is yes, they can. It's unlikely that people doing this trope are disagreeing with that. Just because the phrase used doesn't get awkwardly long going on about what kind of role models it means and for what reason doesn't mean it's simple-mindedly stating that all girl role models need to be girls and there are no role models for girls right now. That's just not the point. The point is that they need female role models as well, as agreed above. And that we can't just skip to the ideal state where no-one cares about gender where it's not relevant, when they now do care. If it's the case that there are structures in place that enforce a negative homogenity on female characters, and these affect people who are forming their identity, then there's need for "role models for girls" in the sense of this trope. The characters are treated differently because the relationship of the ambient culture to them is different, and you have to take that into account to change things. In fact, the very fact that females are portrayed in more limited roles (and also the way males are portrayed) is presumably enforcing these stereotypes that you don't like.
The thing is, the Whedon quote is one of those things that is easy to say, but less easy to avoid. Of course gender roles shouldn't matter. Of course there's little practical difference between the genders, of course men can inspire women and vice versa. But in practice, our entire society is based around gender roles that have been ingrained within our culture over decades, if not centuries, if not millennia. I'm not saying this is right, but just saying 'they shouldn't matter' as if that's the end of it is a little bit naive, since they're in many ways a fundamental part of our society and they're not going anywhere without a lot of time and resistance. Yes, we've changed a lot as a society when it comes to gender, but there are still plenty of deeply ingrained ideas about gender that, 'outdated' though they may be, have been here to stay for a good long while and show no signs of disappearing soon. They shouldn't matter, but for a lot of people they do. Creating female role models for little girls is just a tactic to try and break down these roles and introduce alternatives to the mainstream bit by bit, one piece at a time, and like any tactic it can be used poorly and it can be used well.
There's another problem with this trope that hasn't been brought up yet. Because we need strong female characters, we tend to believe that it has to be that they are rough and physically-oriented and capable of fighting. I'm sorry, and I love to see a girl fight as much as I like to see a guy fight, but there's a huge problem with that logic. Females who just fight are as vain and undeveloped as the other extreme of simpering, useless liabilities that have existed in female characters as well. Combine that with some disinterest in female character who are gentle and compassionate and strong-willed, but also sweet and you have a major problem. I am of the belief that a female character can be kind and kick someone's ass, and be stronger for it; to maintain a strong will and combat capability while also having a positive outlook and care for others puts a lot of pressure on those females. Even if they do not fight, maintaining that ideal in a fighting series where things are tense and trouble can happen at any moment is very disheartening. A female character is not weak for having those things. In fact, I find them more strong and capable than the Action Girl.
It was a different person, but I'm very happy to see that others hold the same views. For the record, I've always liked the gentler female characters over the strong ones when I simply like them. It is harder to be someone who can stand up for themselves in a tough society, but have a strong compassion for their fellow person. That's what fascinates me about them if they are well-written. Even if they tend to find themselves in trouble or express danger, their strong will makes me very interested.
To branch off on a tangent for a moment, what the troper a couple comments up said about a female character essentially being under pressure to be everything at once is very true in real life. I believe there have been a few books written about how girls today are supposed to follow the "old-fashioned" standards for girls (always be pretty, kind, altruistic and emotionally available), while also displaying masculine ambition (assume leadership roles, become an accomplished athlete, attain perfect grades to get into a top college). I know this trope is more about Action Girls, but something can be said for the real-world intellectual equivalent. I believe it's called the Supergirl Syndrome, or something like that; you've probably heard of it before and how it has led to depression, eating disorders, and worse: these girls who have perfect bodies, hair, skin, teeth, the most fashionable clothes, who are always so sweet and make time for everyone, friends, family and boyfriend alike, and do hours of volunteer work every week, but they also are the captain of three sports teams, president of half the clubs their school offers, get straight-As in their all-honors/AP classes and have their hearts set on Harvard for undergrad and then medical school. Who's to say that these Badass "role models" don't inspire this do-it-all attitude, or make it look realistic, the only difference being physical prowess as opposed to intellectual ambition?
I have to ask though. Can male characters also be compassionate, gentle, and strong-willed as well? As much as female characters get grilled out for being those, so do male characters.
Of course. First trope I can think of off the top of my head that values those and is usually male is the Gentle Giant.