Talking about “strong female characters” has been in vogue for a while. The argument was very hot after the fiasco that was Twilight, then gained popularity again with the wild success of The Hunger Games with its stellar lady-protagonist, Katniss Everdeen. Having a cast which features one or more “strong female characters” is a thing these days – a lot of people would say it’s an important or significant thing. Those that have read my posts in the past already know that I also value the utility of having women (and minorities and LGBTQ people, while we’re at it) represented in media of all forms, and I have briefly touched on the strong/independent female character before. Today I’d like to take that a little deeper.
The problem with this whole “strong female character” (henceforth known as ‘SFC’s’) thing is that a lot of people are fuzzy on what it means to write them, how to do it, and why. Further, there’s a lot of talk about the SFC and significantly less talk about the not strong but still developed female character. There’s no right answer here, of course, and I wouldn’t presume to possess the elusive strong heroine absolute truth. I would like to chat about my own observations and how I personally approach the issue as a self-proclaimed genre-writing feminist (one who probably fails at this task as much as she succeeds).
First off we have to have a definition – what is a strong female character? I recently had a conversation with a friend on the subject, and when I asked what elements he thought of when discussing SFC’s he initially identified it as being a “badass,” particularly when it comes to fighting and physical strength. I think this is a pretty common outlook – when people hear the SFC term, they think of a weapon-wielding take-no-prisoners woman with a take-charge attitude. A great recent example of such a character is Melinda May from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which any comic book movie lover should watch, if you haven’t tried it). May is a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent with just as many ninja skills as any man on the show, and some pretty impressive leadership skills when she lets them shine through. That said, to me it’s not really her physical strength that makes her such an impressive character – it’s how she interacts with her team. If May was just a hand-to-hand savant with no backstory or emotional attachments to people on her team, she would just be a shell of a character – more a weapon or an object than a representation of a person, which is just as 2-dimensional as the damsel in distress whose only function is damsel-dom.
This reflective conversation led me to the conclusion – one that is not terribly surprising – that I find strength in female characters who are detailed, appropriately flawed, and show strength through their personalities more than just in their physical abilities. This is of course a common feeling, and echoed nicely in a blog post by author Megan Cashman aptly titled Why I Don’t Write Strong Female Characters. Some of my favorite SFC’s have been women whose strongest attributes are mental/emotional, and who manage to maintain their femininity alongside an awesome character arc – among them Avry from Maria Snyder’s Touch of Power, Jadzia Dax from Deep Space Nine, and Dr. Elizabeth Weir of Stargate Atlantis (yeah, I’m a sci-fi geek). What’s interesting is the fact that we have this SFC term at all, while very few people go out looking for a “strong male role” in movies, TV and books. I have a theory on this one.
Women are chronically underrepresented in movies (could not find data on books) and for many years have taken the backseat as secondary characters as damsels or plot devices in books, TV, and of course in video games (just look at how few movies actually pass the Bechdel Test, imperfect as that test may be). A very recent post in The Mary Sue on Disney’s Maleficent did a pretty nice discussion on past portrayals of Disney women as compared to some of their more recent productions. Over time Disney has taken a more modern approach to female characters – i.e., making them “strong and interesting.” Part of this was attributed to having more women involved in the creative process, per an interview with Maleficent screenwriter Linda Woolverton. Disney has long suffered from portraying women as being tied to their ability to get a man, limiting their character development and reducing them to story tools at times. This isn’t specific to Disney, but Disney does make for a big shiny target. Disney, along with the rest of the media world, is slowly coming to realize that audiences want to see interesting, developed female characters.
The issue is not just that the audience wants more SFC’s, but that they want good characters in general, strong or weak, male or female. I would argue that writing good, interesting, varied characters means having a number of characters of both genders, rather than the over-used pack of men with a single token “badass” female. Joss Whedon, who I’ve mentioned many times, does a great job of incorporating women with various strengths and weaknesses. Firefly had a very balanced and fleshed-out cast, with men and women who were all over the spectrum for both physical and mental attributes. If anything, the underrepresentation of women in media has led to a very narrow playing field in which people group characters by “strong” or “weak,” when more than anything, we just need a better balance of all types.
Critics of the SFC meme feel that having over-powered female characters can actually set a poor example, and can lead to highly un-interesting Mary Sues. Starting out with a character whose strength makes her near-perfect limits opportunities for character development, and an unchanging character both precludes the ability to show strength through change and makes for a mighty dull story arc. So-called SFC’s are also sometimes written in a way which makes them come off as angry, cold, or simply as un-feminine women. A cheap and dirty way to make a woman “strong” is to make her as manly as possible and remove any supposedly feminine traits, such as removing compassion from a character (frequently and wrongly associated as a primarily feminine trait) and replace it with assertiveness (again, frequently associated as a male trait). I could write a whole separate diatribe on breaking gender barriers with male characters, but I’ll hold off on that for now. This post is rather lengthy as it stands.
Ahem. Almost done, I swear.
As a feminist I would love to say I write SFC’s all day long – that it comes easy to me, and I’m the master of SFC’s. To be quite honest, I feel that billing myself as the writer of SFC’s would be a little disingenuous. To start with, I have to own up to falling prey to pack-of-men syndrome in that I didn’t write very many women into Tragedy. I’ll be the first to admit that Tragedy only barely passes the Bechdel Test. I wrote a majority-male cast without really thinking much about it – to be honest, I prefer to write about men for some reason. All of that changes in Forsaken Lands 2 (“FL2”). FL2 incorporates approximately 200% more women into the main plot. This was important to me both as someone who is actually gaining a readership – giving me a certain responsibility to live up to my own standards – and as a writer who needs to stretch her skills. Writing mostly men for as many words as I’ve written gets repetitive like you wouldn’t believe.
I can say with some certainty that there are quite a few “strong” women in FL2 by almost any standard you can imagine. Two of the POV females meet “badass” criteria in physical ability and personality, but both also come with some emotional deficits (in one case some rather…extreme…emotional deficits). By contrast, Aia, the female protagonist from FL1 is… well, there’s a lot of *insert author here* with her character, so her traits came out very organically. Like me, Aia may be physically capable of many things, but she’s not very strong. I can’t imagine a situation in which someone could describe her as a “badass” with a straight face. In Tragedy she does not drive the story forward very much – but then nobody on her level is driving the story at that point. Tragedy is a lot of “WHAT IS THIS” followed by yelling and running, by design. It is about the unveiling of truths and the mad scramble to understand them.
While Aia is not a physically strong person, she is compassionate. She has endured a lot, and came through it without hating the world, and is also relatively intelligent. She has the Healing thing going on, which gives her a whole arena in which to be impressive. She may not be a whiz with daggers (like Teveres) or a leader (like Les), but she is a master at her particular trade. She is not an object to other people, unless you count the “evil forces” at work in the world (in which case all of the Deldri are treated as objects). She has self-determination, and she has flaws.
She is me, a woman, writing a female character – I feel it would be inadequate to simply categorize her as “strong” or “weak.” She’s herself. If you asked her, she wouldn’t understand what you could be referring to, either.
I think that’s quite enough from me. 🙂 It’s been one heck of a week over here with moving and entertaining houseguests. Slowly but surely life is starting to settle down and my writing life is getting more time to thrive. As a part of that thriving thing, I’ll be announcing a contest for early release copies of Broken on this blog tomorrow night. Check back to learn how to participate! You know you want to.