Strong characters. Who are female.
|February 3, 2014||Posted by Jess under Ladytexts|
Screw writing “strong” women. Write interesting women. Write well-rounded women. Write complicated women. Write a woman who kicks ass, write a woman who cowers in a corner. Write a woman who’s desperate for a husband. Write a woman who doesn’t need a man. Write women who cry, women who rant, women who are shy, women who don’t take no shit, women who need validation and women who don’t care what anybody thinks. THEY ARE ALL OKAY, and all those things could exist in THE SAME WOMAN. Women shouldn’t be valued because we are strong, or kick-ass, but because we are people. So don’t focus on writing characters who are strong. Write characters who are people.
(Note: This post is not about calling out Madlori, or anyone in particular. She just made a widely-reblogged statement that expressed the objection to Strong Female Characters very well, so I’m using her quote as a jumping-off point. No disrespect intended.)
The idea, which I can get behind, is that insisting that all female characters be armored-bikini-wearing world conquerors is just another way of limiting female characters to certain “acceptable” types, and that too many of those characters are good at punching or kicking but when you get right down to it have little agency. I agree with that.
The problem, for me, is that the blogosphere seems to assume that the word “strong” in Strong Female Characters is modifying the word “female.” Too many Strong Females! they cry. It’s dehumanizing and reductive!
But I always assumed the “strong” modified the word ”character.”
In other words: Strong Female Characters doesn’t necessarily mean your female characters are physically strong. It means they are strongly-written.
See, my understanding of the phrase clicked many moons ago, lurking in someone else’s discussion on LiveJournal about different types of female characters. One commenter used Gone with the Wind as an example, and I’m paraphrasing here, but she said something like: “I always knew that Scarlett was strong, but I didn’t realize until I was an adult that Melanie was strong, too.”
Scarlett, despite her lack of battle bikini,1 is pretty much what we talk about when we talk about SFCs. She’s (relatively) physically strong, she’s mentally strong, she’s morally a bit iffy but goshdarn if she isn’t compelling. Melanie is gentle and physically frail, but her strength of character is undeniable. They are two completely different women, but they’re both Strong Female Characters.
Let’s try another franchise – how about Harry Potter? Hermione, of course, is an SFC – she rarely throws a punch,2 but she can fling hexes with the best of them, and also Harry and Ron probably would have died stupidly at age 11 without her. She’s got a core of steel, ferocious enough to imprison Rita Skeeter in a jar for year and erase her existence from her own parents’ minds to protect them.
And of course someone like dashing Auror Tonks is a SFC, but what about dreamy, gentle Luna, whose quiet fortitude is more like Melanie’s? Is the physically intimidating Bellatrix Lestrange not an SFC because she’s evil? How about Umbridge, small and twee and utterly corrupt, but capable of upending Harry’s world quite easily? How about Petunia Dursley, who has neither physical strength nor magical strength nor the moral courage to treat her dead sister’s son with kindness?
Let’s look at that last one. Though you can argue some measure of strength for most of them, Petunia is, in every way that matters, a terribly weak person. But she’s a strong character. She leaps off the page from the first description of her; in one sentence, we know her. Her choices inform the narrative; they shape who Harry is and how he solves problems (never ever ask for help or tell an adult, adults are not to be trusted). Her reactions to her sister’s memory are fascinating. She is not powerful, or brave, or good, or particularly intelligent, but she is a triumph of a work of fiction. That is writing a Strong Female Character.
So going back to that Madlori quote above – okay, fine, we’re coming at this from different angles, but we’re basically in agreement. She says don’t write SFCs, write interesting women; I say being interesting is what puts the S in SFC. Why split semantic hairs like this?
Because so much of the “whatever you do, don’t write a Strong Female Character!!!” backlash out there sounds so much to me like “whatever you do, don’t write a Mary Sue!!!” Or, you know, any kind of hyper-vigilant policing around what kind of female character is “okay” to write.
I mean, first of all, are we worried that there are too many badass action chicks out there? Because I’m here to tell you that those genres are still overwhelmingly occupied by men. I’m not terribly concerned that there are TOO MANY ladies with swords out there – as far as I’m concerned, there aren’t enough.
But more importantly – look, there’s a certain kind of dude who will always write Battle Bikini Lass (not to hate on Battle Bikini Lasses, some of whom are awesome – I mean, Xena is pretty close to one, isn’t she?), and she will always be a reward for the hero, and she will never have agency, and she will exist almost entirely to have parts of her anatomy bounce enticingly for the reader. But that dude is not interested in writing well-rounded female characters (unless we’re speaking anatomically), and he never going to stop writing Red Sonja ripoffs into his D&D-inspired epic fantasies, and basically I don’t care what he does.
But I’d hate to think of a young female writer out there, wanting to write about her kickass power fantasy, and too afraid she’ll be laughed at for writing a character who is “strong.” I’d hate to see “too strong” becoming yet more grounds for dismissing a female character out of hand. Well, more than it already has.
So please, instead of fretting over TOO MANY Strong Female Characters, instead of writing essays and comics mocking and dismissing and willfully misunderstanding them, let’s celebrate the fact that they exist at all. Let’s celebrate the ones we love, and the ones we love to hate. Let’s talk about what makes them strong characters, whether or not they can kick crime in the teeth.
And for those of you who create fiction, bring on the Strong Female Characters! Personally, I can’t get enough.