In media, male characters are defined more by what they do rather than who they are. Female characters, on the other hand, are defined more by their attributes, the most primary of which is their femininity.
This trope is about the female/male = passive/active dichotomy. Essentially, it's the idea men are required to be active and doing things in order for them to deserve a role in the story, but women can just sit there, looking pretty, emotionally reacting to events and that's perfectly acceptable.
Like many Double Standards, this trope can be considered offensive to both genders.
Part of this trope refers to how characters function to advance the plot. While male characters will be directly involved in the action, or manipulatingthe actionbehind the scenes in a comprehensive way, female characters, when they do take action, often take it in the form of inspiring, motivating or nagging a male character to do something. See Lady Macbeth, Hen Pecked Husband.
And, yes, it also applies to that meaning of "action" as well. Traditionally, women were considered virtuous by their chastity or, their lack of action. Whereas, of course, a "lack of action" for a man generally has negative connotations.
This trope is a possible consequence of Men Are Generic, Women Are Special. Since men are generic, any individual male character has to do something special to stand out. But because women are special, a female character just has to be, well, female.
See also Mars and Venus Gender Contrast and Men Are Strong, Women Are Pretty.
Dr. Roy F. Baumeister, a Psychology Professor, tries to argue that this trope is innate in our species instead of a cultural motif in his book Is There Anything Good About Men? He writes: "Perhaps nature designed women to seek to be lovable, whereas men were designed to strive, mostly unsuccessfully, for greatness."
It's also why Abuse Is Okay When It's Female on Male. Men are supposed to "stand up and defend themselves", and thus a male who "lets" himself get abused by a woman is somehow seen as not really being a man at all.
Also, because women are objects and not actors, female violence necessarily lacks potency.
Or maybe because men are the actors any abuse must have come from the man's moral choices.
The number of Hollywood romances that incorporate this plot line: boy only wins the girl once he stops being passive, stands up for himself and beats up or humiliates another boy who's been bullying him. And the girl must let him come to her instead of trying to meet him halfway. No Guy Wants to Be Chased.
The wives of male politicians and monarchs tend to attract far more media attention than the husbands of female politicians and monarchs.
Also, female celebrities will often be criticized/scrutinized for how they look or dress, whereas male celebs only make it into the gossip magazines when they actually do something interesting.
Women are seen as virtuous due to their chastity; men are seen as virtuous due to their morality. In this circumstance, men who haven't taken action aren't even seen as men at all. This leads to some Unfortunate Implications regarding characterization. Male virgins are often portrayed as creepy losers while female virgins are seen as morally perfect in ways unrelated to their sex life. This gives the impression that a chaste woman is automatically a good woman with a strong corresponding implication that a non-chaste woman is bad .
This is likely why there is an Action Girl trope, but no Action Guy trope. A woman as an active character who can take care of herself is still considered noteworthy enough to be a trope in and of itself, whereas a man is an "action character" by default, and only the aversion is tropeable.
It may also be worth noting that female subversions are more common these days than male ones, which implies an increasing awareness with regard to how this trope affects women, but little attention to how it affects men.
A large number of Non-Action Guy characters however remain active in less direct forms however usually as a trickster or manipulator of some sort but never as a 'feminine' passive object.
There is also no Spear Counterpart for Faux Action Girl. If a supposedly badass male character fails to live up to his reputation, he is usually called out on it in-universe, whereas female characters who fail to live up to expectations tend to go unnoticed often leading to the implication female badasses are automatically held to have inflated and therefore easily disbelieved reputations.
During a past discussion on whether to split off the male examples of Mad Scientist's Beautiful Daughter, it was noted that one difference between them was that male characters were much more likely to take an active role and become protagonists in their own right, while many female examples simply pulled a High Heel Face Turn and did nothing much in particular outside of that. Or, to put it another way, a woman is now considered "good" simply because she decided to stop being "evil", whereas a male pulling a Heel Face Turn would have to do more in order to prove his worth as a good guy.
The Final Girl has its roots in this, too. The Final Girl, after watching everyone else around her get killed, eventually steels her courage and fights back. Part of the reason a "final guy" doesn't really work is that a male protagonist shouldn't be afraid (even if the killer is a six-foot-six maniac Dual Wielding chainsaws) and should be fighting back the entire time.
The whole basis of the Smurfette Principle revolves around this trope. Male characters need to be distinguishable by character and concept, but a female character stands out just by virtue of being female. More recent media that has The Chick become the girly girl in a Tomboy and Girly Girl pair of females has to distinguish the two females by making one of them a girl, and the other one a girl who acts like a boy.
A female character's competencies are more likely to be seen as innate rather than earned through action, thus undeserved. Thus female characters who are unusually competent are far more likely to be accused of being a Mary Sue than for "unusually competent" male characters to be accused of being a Marty Stu. This of course creates a vicious cycle, as authors may try to avoid Sue criticisms by making their female characters less capable which in turn causes them to be criticized for being too imperfect.
Often used to justify personal interest in Slash Fic amongst, say, straight men or lesbians, with its authors saying that the male characters tend to be more interesting and better written as a result of this effect.
Might explain the high number of women who are Stuffed in the Fridge in comic books, as well as fiction in general- a superheroine who is brutally murdered is a tragic victim who warrants our outrage, while a male superhero who gets killed except in the most extreme circumstances runs the risk of being perceived as a failed superhero.
An Answer to Readers (About a Woman President), The Objectivist, Dec. 1968, 1:
"For a woman qua woman, the essence of femininity is hero-worship—the desire to look up to man... Hero-worship is a demanding virtue: a woman has to be worthy of it and of the hero she worships...the higher her view of masculinity, the more severely demanding her standards. It means that she never loses the awareness of her own sexual identity and theirs. It means that a properly feminine woman does not treat men as if she were their pal, sister, mother—or leader."
The basic concept of a wizard as opposed to a witch. Wizards are usually portrayed as having gained their power through scholarly effort and studying magic much as if it was a science, but witches usually are presented as having gained their power through sex with the Devil, or through having their power inborn. Men work to gain magical power; women either just are magic or gain it through the power of a male demon. Let's not go into the fact that wizards are usually good guys, and witches evil.
Vikings considered magic an inherently feminine trait, to the point that a man who pursued magic was considered to be inherently feminine himself.
When you see some people talking about characters in a work of fiction, or sometimes even non-fiction, if you talk about how (for a hypothetical example) Bob has a negative character trait, then it is considered a negative trait of Bob, but if Alice has a negative trait, then these people will talk about Alice as though the author thinks this way about all women, not just Alice, even if Alice is the only one with this flaw.
At the end of the movie, Hancock is off saving the world while his ex-wife and the only other super-human of their kind, Mary, is content living with a mortal husband and bringing up a mortal kid..
Sleeping Beauty has Prince Phillip who faces a fire breathing dragon to save Princess Aurora while she lies asleep looking beautiful. A number of other Disney movies have the genders reversed but this is the one with most Fairytale Motifs, knight, princess, castle, dragon, and king.
Also interestingly inverted in that Prince Phillip is technically the hero, but the fairies do most of the work.
In "I See the Light", a song from Tangled, The two protagonists have similar yet slightly different lines. Rapunzel's line is "I'm where I'm meant to be", whereas Flynn's is "I'm where I'm meant to go".
A common criticism of The Railway Series was that most of the female characters were coaches, while all of the male characters were engines (meaning that the females were incapable of doing anything unless they were being towed along by a male.)
Zig-zagged in the Tolkien 'verse. Pretty much anyone with any kind of supernatural powers, male or female, were either created with those powers inborn (the Maiar and the Elves) or had powers granted to them through various Rings. Galadriel fits the trope fairly well in The Lord of the Rings, as she doesn't do much of anything beyond giving gifts and advice to heroes. However, Action Girls such as Éowyn and Arwen invert the trope, with Éowyn even dispatching the Witch-King of Angmar, leader of the Nazgûl. Even then, her status as female is part of the Loophole Abuse to get around the prophecy that says "It is not by the hand of MAN that the Witch-King will be slain".
In this way, Éowyn actually points out the mistake the Witch-King (and everyone else) was making in not even thinking of the possibility of a woman slaying him.
In the Twilight series, Bella stands around while two supermen fawn over her and their families promise to lay down their lives to protect her. Everybody either loves her or wants to kill her to spite the Cullens, but about the only thing about her that stands out is that she's immune to mind reading. This, of course, is a trait she can't control and didn't even know about until Edward told her. On the rare occasion when she is called to action, it's usually just to find a man so he can take care of the problem.
Live Action TV
The reality TV show Survivor generally has this during the course of a season, with women often just lying around in bikinis looking pretty while the men of the tribe are often shown chopping wood or helping out around camp. There are of course exceptions to this too.
Played straight and subverted with Russell's "Dumb Girl Alliance"—Russell used the women purely to pad out his numbers, assuming they would see him as a protecter and let him do all the strategizing. Of course, Parvati eventually took advantage of that and outwitted him.
It's worth noting that he used this exact same strategy to get to the final Tribal Council. Twice. And that most of the women in his alliance (and his tribe in general) were Too Dumb to Live.
In Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Det. Elliot Stabler is a devoted father of four and his partner Det. Olivia Benson is the product of rape. On the job he has rage for the perp and she has empathy for the victims. However, working around as much ugliness as they do, maintaining the ability to care about people is one of the hardest things. Stabler's lost it. In more ways than one.
This trope seems to have been deliberately subverted in the third series of Downton Abbey, which is filled with proactive women and helpless men. Regardless of the troubles beset them all, it’s invariably the female characters who set out to get things fixed whilst the men dither about helplessly. Robert is rendered virtually useless by his bad investment decisions, leaving it to Violet and Mary to hatch a plan to acquire money from Martha. Matthew frets over inheriting money from Lavinia’s father and it’s up to Mary to discover the true circumstances of the bequest. Edith doesn’t care that Strallen is too old to be her husband, but he gets a guilt complex over the whole thing and jilts her at the altar –- she then has to put up with snide comments from her father over her desire to enter journalism. And every time Anna comes up with a new idea to get Bates out of prison, he hems and haws over whether it’s worth pursuing. Time will tell whether the trend continues.
In Bonnie Tyler's song "Holding Out for a Hero", the singer keeps making demands for a man with Action Hero qualities without doing anything herself. In the video, even though the whole thing revolves clearly around Tyler and everyone else is just an accessory, and women are actually in the majority among the performers, Tyler does nothing (besides singing, of course) but hang around Holding Out for a Hero and being a Damsel in Distress, and the other female performers only dance and sing in the background, while the faceless male performers play the part of the villains and the hero who fight it out over Tyler.
Played with in Exalted, perhaps unintentionally. You see, there is this big Sun God guy, and all his chosens have superpowers tied to their Skill, i.e. what they can do. On the other hand, there is this Moon Deity, who is a woman, a man, and everything in-between. S/he has chosens too, and their superpowers are tied to their Attributes, i.e. who they are. For each chosen of the Sun, there is a chosen of the Moon destined to be his/her mate, and this mate has a hard time defying his/her will, which doesn't help the implication.
An interesting example is the latest release of Halo Combat Evolved action figures. The Master Chief figure has twenty-six points of articulation. The Cortana action figure released in the same wave? Zero. She's got that cocked-hip thing going on, though (see the page pic).
This is fairly common with action figures, because the articulation messes up the lines of the body. Frequently, the non-sexy characters (read - male characters) in a figure line have plenty of articulation, but the sexy characters (read - female characters) will have significantly fewer points of articulation, often only having a few arm joints and nothing else, or outright being a statue.
Rune Factory 2 has a particularly egregious example in the opening for part 2: despite technically being the same character, the male character is shown fighting monsters (or running away from them) or planting crops while the female character is only shown twirling through flower petals or being surrounded by friendly monsters.
In-universe example in Rocko's Modern Life. Rocko, Filbert, and Heiffer put together an animated cartoon called Wacky Delly, and each one makes a character. Rocko's contribution is Betty Baloney, whose character concept is "She's a girl!".