Apparently, when I promise to blog more I stop blogging for months at a time; when I say I’m too busy to blog, I get out a record number of entries (for me) in a month. Go figure. But one of the cool things to come out of the Dr. Horrible discussion (at least for me) was a long list of things to blog about.
Here’s one thing that came up a lot in that discussion: Strong Women. Because I felt very much that Penny was a weak character, and many people responded that she was very strong in nontraditional ways; in other places I saw a lot of angry muttering that not every female character needs to kick ass, and that Penny would have been ruined if she’d kicked someone in the face, in response to people wishing that she had been stronger. And the thing is, all of the above are true, and non-contradictory.
The heart of the problem is this: there are two meanings of “strong” in play here, and that’s making the discussion a lot harder to have. In one of my very first entries, I actually wrote this in a footnote:
I call them dynamic female characters rather than strong female characters to avoid conflating the idea of a well fleshed out, well written female character with a female character who is physically strong.
Still true! Basically, what we’re looking at is two definitions: physically strong (or emotionally/mentally/etc), referring to a character trait; and strong characterization, referring to well-written, three-dimensional characters. Penny from Dr. Horrible was, I think, emotionally strong — she was quietly, optimistically trying to make a difference in the world, from what little we saw of her personality — but was weakly written because we saw so little of her personality in a story that could have given us much more. What motivated her to help the homeless? What was it about Hammer that enamored her to him? What would her idea of a happy ending have been? I’ve got no idea. I know she was nice, and pretty, and very well-acted. But her presence in the story wasn’t as a character, it was as a prop; she provided motivation and a point of contention between the men. Penny may have been a strong person, but she was a weak character.
I suspect that the fact that Dr. Horrible was by Joss Whedon made the distinction even less clear — after all, Buffy is an iconic character. She’s strong, in that she’s able to throw her enemies across the room; she’s strong, in that she has her own motivations, a developed personality, and she was able to grow and change through the course of even just the handful of episodes that I watched. So I was disappointed that Penny was “weak”: not that she didn’t have Buffy’s superpowers, but that she didn’t have Buffy’s agency.
This is why I prefer the word dynamic to strong when discussing the quality of presentation of female characters. But overall I don’t think it’s a very hard concept — but often the two meanings of strong are mistaken and it’s rarely a good thing. I’d much rather read a story about a dynamic woman who is rescued from danger by a man than read a story about a physically strong female caricature who always rescues herself. Either way can be done well, but to tack physical strength on to a dynamic hero who doesn’t need it — who’s dynamic in other ways — can be confusing and detrimental. So to illustrate this, I’m going to critique a movie I actually really enjoy (Ever After) behind the cut.
First off, I like but don’t own Ever After, so I’m describing and quoting from memory. But I definitely really enjoy it; I can never flip past the flick when it’s on TV. It just makes me feel good, and it pretty excellent from a feminist perspective. Drew Barrymore’s character, Danielle, is a reimagined Cinderella: her father died when she was young, leaving her with a step-mother and two step-sisters who treat her as a servant while they spend away her father’s fortune and fail to keep up his land. Danielle’s initial motivations have absolutely zero to do with Prince Henry: she wants to fix the problems on the manor — ideally by finding a way to get her step-family out of her hair — and she wants to rescue a servant sold into slavery to pay off her step-mother’s debt. It is through the course of working to accomplish these things that Danielle meets Henry and they fall in love.
Even better, what’s clear about Henry is that he loves Danielle because she is smart and witty and not afraid to speak her mind. She scolds him and he is both outraged and fascinated. She makes him think, question his life and his goals, and leads him to try and do better. He loves her for who she is, and in the end he realizes that and proposes to her, even though she is a peasant. For her part, Danielle initially has no interest in Henry (she even wishes her step-sister on him) but grows to respect him when he proves that he is intelligent, and further, that he respects her opinion. The relationship as presented is one where their happily ever after rings of partnership and mutual respect.
So where does the criticism come in? Danielle is, obviously, a very dynamic character. I suspect the film was deliberately trying to present a female hero who’s primary character strength was her intelligence, and it succeeds. But there’s an awkward scene near the end: after being humiliated at the ball when Henry finds out she’s a peasant and rejects her, her step-mother sells her to a skeevey, greasy nobleman who is clearly interested in her for nefarious purposes. She is serving in his castle, wearing chains. But then she picks up a sword, declares her father trained her well in swordplay, and threatens him until he gives her the key and she frees herself. Of course she runs into Henry on his way to save her.
Now, as a concept — Danielle can save herself, she doesn’t need Henry to do it for her! — this is great. But the execution makes no sense whatsoever: Danielle says her father taught her how to use a sword, but he died when she was eight, which is ten years ago. How the hell was she so skilled? And it does not see to be a bluff, as she picks up a sword and controls it perfectly. It would have made a lot more narrative sense for Danielle to think her way out of the situation by tricking her captor. Or even to have Henry sweep in to the rescue — I would object if the movie hadn’t made it so clear that he really does respect her, and that she is not a damsel in distress, but this was all obvious by the movie’s climax. Either way would have worked well; instead, there’s an awkward attempt to shoehorn in physical strength* where it doesn’t make much sense. Danielle’s character didn’t need this, and the movie would have been smoother without it.
I am absolutely on board with the idea that there are more kinds of strength than purely physical. A character doesn’t need to be buff, smart, tough, level-headed, or even nice to be dynamic…And I’m much more interested in traditionally weak, dynamically-written characters than in characters who may be strong in the physical, mental, or emotional sense — but who are weakly written.
* In fairness, Danielle was already physically strong and active — this is a very specific kind of physicality here.