Saturday, 31 January 2015

Unravelling the 'Strong Female Character.'

Over the last few decades there's been a change in attitude to female characters - in books, television, films... pretty much all media actually.

Back in the Dark Ages of yore we all (apparently) liked to read about hapless captive-princess-types, who were stunningly beautiful, so sweet-natured they practically farted rainbows and could transform every man in existence into a love-drunk white knight simply by aiming their impossibly lovely gaze in his general direction. Solve her own problems? Nooo! How bloody unromantic is that? Much better to have her flop around being all trembling and powerless at her horrible, perilous situation. But not - heaven forbid! - angry or grumpy, or even the teensiest bit cross about her trauma, because such behaviour is soooo not feminine, y'know? Bearing her misfortunes with resignation and infinite optimism is how the girl does it - if she wants to actually be liked for the beautiful, non-threatening quest mcguffin she truly is, of course...

Mmmm.... yeahno, actually. Most women have to solve their own problems in their real lives, so fictional female characters who rely on their magical beauty-powers to get everyone else to do it for them are not exactly helpful role models in that respect. So we all started to wise up; the Female Lead Character needed a serious makeover if she was to appeal to the modern reader. And so, if the weak, passive female character was no longer acceptable in fiction, she shall henceforth be replaced with....

The complete opposite! Ta-daaah! Ladies and gentlemen, meet... the Strong Female Character!

And the world rejoiced. Strong Female Character? That sounds gooood. It must be good, because it sounds completely unlike the one we had before and we already know we don't like her any more. So.... how to make a Strong Female Character then? Mmmmmm, lemme see....

Oooh, I know - make her do everything a man can do! But better! And in sexy clothes (but not too sexy, 'cause she's not an object of lust any more, remember? Unless of course that's entirely her choice and she's doin' it for the empowerment, gimme five, sisters!)

Oooh no, wait, I got a better one - make her intellectually superior to 98% of the men around her! In which case she'll need to be a bit of an ice queen, maybe even a ballbreaker. No man could ever be a match for her when it comes to braininess - not that she'd even be looking for a man in that way of course, because she's, like, sooo above that sort of nonsense. In this lady's world, men are the weaker sex, and if they dare to be attracted to her for reasons other than her phenomenal boffin-power they can say hello to a sharp kick in the 'nads.

And lots of people clearly went "Yeah!" to all of that, because from that moment on there were quite a lot of those types of 'Strong Female Characters' karate-kicking and equation-solving their way into fiction. All fine and dandy. But then at some point something changed.

Having 'Strong Female Characters' stopped being merely a cool thing to do and started being a mandatory default setting for every female character in every book ever. And if you're a female writer, the pressure to conform is double-strength - because if your Female Lead Characters are not Strong With a Capital S, you're letting the sisterhood down. Yeah, you - personally and wilfully, you traitor!

And so we had the Buffys, the Witchblades, the Seven of Nines, the Katniss Everdeens. All fine characters in their own right, but... the gold standard for Strong Female Characters? How many women in the real world do you know who are just like them?  Is being super-brainy or able to kick butt in a fight the only way a female character can be defined as 'strong' now? And if she fails that test, is the novel she's in doomed to fail along with her?

In Redemption (my current w-i-p) my main character is a female called S12, and the story is told from her POV. So... is she a kick-ass babe who can handle herself in a fight?

Errrr... no. She does have some specialised skills, and she would certainly try to defend herself physically if the situation required... but the odds of her succeeding in smacking down a would-be assailant are pretty darn small. She's learned that negotiation is a much more effective strategy for her. Yeah, I know - that much-maligned 'feminine' trait of trying to resolve things peacefully!

O-kay.... butt-kicking's not her thing then, so she must make up for it by being super-smart, yeah?

Errr... no again. She was raised in the ghetto zone of a future earth, which means that, while she has a level of street-smarts necessary for survival in such a harsh environment, she aint no college graduate. But she's savvy enough to know that sometimes playing up to her apparent 'dumbness' can make a smart person tell her things they wouldn't tell her if they thought she could understand them. Tsk tsk - pretending to be an airhead to manipulate people. How horribly anti-feminist!

Ahhh... okay, but she's still a confident, independent woman who always behaves appropriately for the situation, right?

Errrr... you already know where this is going, don't you? She tries to do the right thing... mostly. She even gets it right sometimes. But many other times, she gets it woefully wrong. This is mostly because in her previous life in the ghetto her survival depended on being subservient to men, in a big way. Now she's suddenly found herself in an unfamiliar environment where she doesn't have to play that role anymore... but it's all she instinctively knows. And since no-one in this new place seems in any hurry to state what's required of her instead, the only way she can learn is by trial and error. A lot of error.

So how does she score? In terms of the Popular Concensus for what constitutes a 'Strong Female Character,' it seems she pretty much goes against most of the ideals. But to write her any other way for the story she's in wouldn't make a lick of sense. She's who she is because of what's happened to her before the story begins - and what happens once it does and what will have happened to her by the time it ends.

In short, she's not the 'Strong Female Character' beloved of the traditional default requirements. She's a fish-out-of-water, good-intentioned-but-flawed female character who's trying to find her way in the strange and scary world she's been dropped into. Is that so bad? Is that really a handbag-slap across the face of feminism?

For a long while I was seriously worried I was the only one asking that kind of question. But this week I found out I'm not. In this guest post on Chuck Wendig's terribleminds blog, the author S.L Huang discusses the idea of flawed female protagonists, and in it she also references this essay by Rose Lemberg. It seems the idea that all of them must be kickass and super-capable might finally be losing its appeal, and a new generation of readers are looking for more down-to-earth characters they can relate to instead. Because when it's not done well, isn't the kick-ass, super-capable Strong Female Character really just another version of a Mary Sue? Male characters have the freedom to be anything and everything in novels. Why are female ones only allowed to be awesome role models, simply to avoid being branded an outdated - and 'chauvinistic' - stereotype?

What do you think? Should we continue to champion the Strong Female Character as an ideal? Or should it be enough to just accept them as 'a female character' - in whatever of a million different flavours that happens to come? Y'know... kind of like females in real life?

1 comment:

  1. I agree with S.L. Huang (in that post on Chuck's blog), in that we definitely need to present women in all their variety in fiction, and not just the "strong" type, the almost masculine heroine who defeats all evil despite being a woman. I'd love to read more female protagonists who are strong and admirable because they are women.