I seem to be focused on tropes today.
I just read a 1972 science fiction story, by a male author, in which the male super-rich-guy protagonist and his male super-artist/engineer buddy sit around talking about the various ways that “artists” (which is to say famous historical male artists) have “done” (by which they mean portrayed) women. But that's not what I'm here to post about.
The other major character in the story is a woman, the protagonist's lover and later wife, and he's kind of gaga about her, and he loves that she's awesome and independent, at one point he narrates something to the effect that he never grew bored with her, the way he had with all other women he'd encountered.
And I thought, hey, that's a trope. The singular exceptional woman. In a story in which there are no other women (or at least none of note), there is one superlative woman, who's amazing and awesome and self-assured and can do anything she wants to. And the men in the story love her, because she's so much better than all those ordinary mundane women who they've known previously.
And okay, I will grant that having an awesome woman in a story is a bit of a step up from the all-too-common type of sf story in which there are no women at all. And yet, no matter how awesome the Singular Woman is, it's not all that much of a step up, because the story still takes for granted that most women—in fact, all women except one—are uninteresting and not worth writing about.
(Note that this is somewhat different from the trope of The Chick, who's usually the sole woman in a team of men. The Singular Woman is not just the only woman who's a prominent character in the given work; she's also a paragon of amazingness, and is sometimes even explicitly compared to all other women, who don't measure up.)
Anyway, I'm sure none of y'all would write a character like that, but just in case you're tempted? I recommend, as a starting point for added depth, imagining that there's more than one awesome woman in the world of the story, and seeing what happens.
(See also Facebook thread for this post.)
After some discussion on Facebook, I added the following:
I think in my post I may have overemphasized the “there's only one prominent woman in the story” aspect of this, and underemphasized what I meant to be my main point, which is that in this particular variant of the only-one-woman thing, the one prominent woman is specifically much more awesome than any other women, because the protagonist is dismissive of ordinary women.
One famous example: Irene Adler from the Sherlock Holmes stories. As Watson puts it: “To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex.”
And in both the story I was reading last night (“Patron of the Arts,” by William Rotsler) and “A Scandal in Bohemia,” the Singular Woman is independent and free-spirited, and (iIrc) not necessarily tied down to just one man. She has agency and interiority, and she transcends all the stereotypes that the male protagonist believes about women. (Though she may adhere to other stereotypes about women.)
So in these cases, I think the male authors think that they're being woman-positive, by portraying a superlative awesome woman; but I suspect they fail to notice that they're implying or even stating outright that all other women are unworthy of attention or interest.