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, Henpecked 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.
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Anime and Manga
Sakura from Naruto is a perfect example of this trope. She's strong, highly intelligent, and incredibly talented. She possesses all of the traits which you would expect from a badass ninja warrior... but she just isn't one. Whenever things go down she's always (with one or two exceptions at most) immediately reduced to standing on the sidelines, crying about how she hopes everyone comes through okay, while the male characters go out and take care of business. She is a ninja warrior, but only the males in the series act like ninja warriors.
Worth noting that there are quite a few proactive female characters, just that Sakura's example is egregious because she's supposed to be the female lead.
Anzu/Téa from Anime/Yu-Gi-Oh! is a good example. She has been shown on several occasions to be a skilled duelist, but she is never treated as though she might be interested in taking part in duels except when she is forced to by the circumstance: e.g, Yugi is too depressed to duel because Kaiba has just defeated him, or a member of the Big Five picks on her as an easy target. She is capable of being a good duelist, but as far as the story goes, good duelist is who she is, not what she does.
Most of the plot of Knowledge is Power seems to be driven by the male characters, with even Hermione being relegated to a supporting role even though she's named in the header.
The Phantom Menace is mostly an inversion of this, with Queen Amidala leading the charge to take back her planet while Anakin merely follows, though he does blow up the Droid Control Ship thus winning the day. By the time Star Wars gets to Revenge of the Sith it's all about how Anakin turns into Darth Vader while Padme is merely his pregnant wife who dies of a broken heart. She originally had a political role in helping set up what would eventually be the Rebel Alliance, but it all ended up on the cutting room floor.
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. Also, Hancock was always saving her whenever they were de-powered in the past.
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 the most Fairytale Motifs: the 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 the Back to the Future films, female characters are only there to serve as Satellite Love Interests and victims to male characters. Not one of them has a active role in advancing the plot. In fact, they had to basically write around one (Marty's girlfriend Jennifer) because she was brought to the future in the end of the first film, but when they actually started making the second film they realized they did not know what to do with her. Rather then Retcon her away, they solved this problem by making her stay sedated for much of the film. See Back to the Future's entry under The Load.
For a film that's ostensibly about female empowerment, the female characters in In a World... are remarkably passive in the two main romantic subplots:
Carol sleeps with Gustav when he hits on her despite not liking him much and seeming actively put off by the fact that he sees nothing more in her than that she's "pretty," apparently for no better reason than that it's less trouble than actively rejecting him.
Then she waits patiently while Demetri Martin's character goes through the awkward, halting motions of courtship rather than take any initiative herself despite the fact that there's an informed mutual attraction.
When Moe's attractive neighbor asks to use his shower, he actively attempts to sound out the sexual possibilities, clumsy as his attempts may have been. By contrast, his wife Dani merely smiles and blushes when an attractive Irishman flirts with her and eventually seduces her into cheating on Moe. When this causes a Second Act Breakup, it is Moe, not Dani, that performs the grand romantic gesture that reconciles them.
Noah: The women don't really have a purpose in this film other than being wives and mothers, nor do they do much of anything. Best example of this in the film is when Noah is trying to kill Ila's daughters. Both she and Noah's wife both stand there and watch, instead of even trying to fight him. Ila doesn't even try to run away. if he had decided to go though with it, they would have just let him do it.
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.)
Action Girl Éowyn averts the trope, even dispatching the Witch-King of Angmar, leader of the Nazgűl. 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", a thing she points out. She also decides to Stay in the Kitchen upon meeting and marrying a Gondorian noble. In fairness, he also settles down and becomes a Non-Action Guy; he was never a warrior by choice, only taking up the sword in a defensive war against an imminent threat.
Aragorn's Love Interest Arwen and Sam's Love Interest Rosie Cotton are barely even characters, sitting at home and waiting patiently for the menfolk to come back from the war and marry them.
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.
A Song of Ice and Fire has the Faith of the Seven, a quasi-Catholic Church based around worshiping seven aspects of one godhead. Aside from the Mother and the Father, the male aspects are the Warrior and the Smith, whereas the female aspects are the Maiden and the Crone. In the south of Westeros, men are defined by craftsmanship and valor whereas females are defined by simply being marriageable, and their religion is constructed to support that. Justified in that George RR Martin isn't particularly enamored with the feudal socioeconomic system in his books.
Zig-Zagged in Frankenstein, which we should note was written by a proto-feminist. For the most part the women are completely passive while the men are active as complete idiots, but it's Victor's cousin who takes charge and acts as a character witness (to no avail, unfortunately) when her friend is charged and falsely convicted of the murder of their youngest brother.
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).
Helped and yet played straight with a new figure for Halo 4. She's given articulation, but it's limited (9 points) in comparison. And results in an unaligned mess of parts in anything but her neutral standing pose anyway. A well engineered figure with feminine proportions isn't impossible, MacFarlane.
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 Pokémon Black and White we get Bianca, the first rival in any of the Pokémon games to actually give up on being a pokémon trainer. She starts the game just as excited as the main character and the male rival, Cheren. She even says it's her life's dream to be a great pokémon trainer, and has a small story arc devoted to convincing her father she can handle it. Her strong will holds out until about halfway into the game where she decides she'll never be able to compete with her friends and gives up. She never battles again until post-game, and even then only if the player specifically challenges her.
She does seem to have gotten a bit more spirited by the time Pokémon Black 2 and White 2 comes around, judging by the fact that she's okay with fighting in the Pokémon World Tournament.
The Valkyrur of Valkyria Chronicles fall into this, at least for the first game. The militia is full of male and female soldiers who are uniquely distinguished on their own merits, but the Valkyria are a race of (apparently) all-female superhumans who are just born more powerful than everyone else, and that's why their powers are evil.
In Fire Emblem Awakening, all of the characters get an individual ending, which changes if two characters marry in game. Most of the time, all of the men's endings are the same, while the women are said to support them in some fashion instead of going off to pursue their own interests. There are a few exceptions, however - a paired Avatar's ending is always the same, no matter the gender, stating that the one thing historians know is that they loved their spouse above all else, Maribelle will always become a magistrate in all of her endings (her pursuing this is mentioned in several of her supports), and Sully and Stahl, the game's resident red-and-green cavalier duo, get a unique ending in which both pursue defending their realm together. Another amusing exception comes if one pairs a woman with Kellam, who spends most of the game being ignored - it's the woman's solo ending, with "her husband's name has been lost to history" tagged at the end.
Parodied with Lampshade Hanging in Sluggy Freelance, in the chapter "Summer Vacation": The women in the group talk about how the men have been doing stuff all the time during their vacation, and maybe they should try to accomplish something too, but all they in fact get to do is perform in "gratuitous bikini-shot Sunday" as they talk.
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!".
Inverted during the 2014 World Cup with this Buzzfeed post about how handsome and sexy Spain's team members are. The post talks about their physical attributes as many fangirls do, and as many men's magazines talk about women. This article was posted just before Spain lost to the Netherlands 5-1, so many commenters (mostly male, but some female) made derogatory comments about how the team was full of pretty boys who couldn't play soccer (never mind that the Dutch were getting revenge for the 2010 World Cup final and that Spain lost its first match in 2010 and still won the World Cup).