Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The "Strong" Female Character

We need to talk about something, guys. Something I feel very strongly about. 

There's a plague spreading across the forums and the general community. It's been building for some time, but lately it seems like I can't go anywhere without someone mentioning the "Strong Female Character." As in, a certain author's lack of them. Or how well another author writes them.

Leather pants again?

This is a very sensitive subject, which doesn't actually surprise me. You would think when people talked about strong female characters it would be like talking about any other subject of literature--a strong story arc, or well written scenes, perhaps about setting, or stage direction if the media in question is a movie.

But nothing turns into a sexist gender role discussion quicker than the discussion of Strong Female Characters. It seems like a no-win situation. 

If you're a woman, and you don't write female characters are a bossy, independent woman who "doesn't need a man", doesn't wear dresses, and is generally "one of the guys" (only better) then suddenly you're setting woman's rights back. Heaven forbid you just, you know, write a female character without regards to her gender, and develop her as a person with traits and flaws just like any other character. 

If you're a man, you are also shafted. You can write male main characters all day, but the minute you enter a female character into the mix, she falls under scrutiny. Suddenly, female characters in the male author's books are a symbol of his own opinion of women. If a female character is sexy and self confident, the male author is sexualizing the character into a plaything. If a female character is sassy and headstrong, he's parodying woman who are independent, and God help you if this independent woman character ever gets married. See, the male author really thinks every woman just needs a man.

If she had a man, she'd be smiling even wider!
The aspect I find the most irritating about this entire "strong female character" debate, is these characters are ALWAYS strong in the SAME exact way. She's in charge of her own sexuality, she wears tight leather pants and carries a big gun, she's bitchy and smarts off constantly, and the hallmark trait: the strong female character can kick everyone else's butt.

Don't get me wrong; there's nothing wrong with this type of character. Buffy is the quintessential example, and I love her. I also love Whedon's other female characters, because he seems to grasp that not every female has to be a Warrior Princess to be strong. 

But it annoys me that the implication is we have to turn our woman into men with boobs in order for them to be considered strong. Any other female character is therefore weak. Your Suzy Homemaker types are a disgrace to their gender, and so are the Waifs, the Healers, and the Librarians. Because we all know people can only be strong at one thing, and that's kicking other people's butts and not having the good sense to keep their mouths shut when talking to some huge demon that could squash them like a bug.

My current WiP has two female characters, and while neither of them fit the Buffy-Anita Blake stereotype, I still consider them strong. One of the two characters is actually quite passive and painfully shy, but she knows who she is and she's willing to stand up for her beliefs. She knows what she's willing to die for, and she knows what's important to her. She's not sassy--she blushes when people talk to her. She couldn't fight her way out of a wet paper bag, but that doesn't make her a bad damsel in distress stereotype. And let me tell you, her growth arc is probably going to be more satisfying than my other female character, just because she's moving from a place of feeling helpless and weak, to where she can defend herself and protect what she cares about. 

Where is the "strong" female character's growth arc? It seems if you're going to keep her strong, you have no growth. She can't fall in love, or get pregnant or have a family because then she's playing into a gender role she's trying to shun. She can't be beaten by another person (God help you if it's a male character) because we've already established she's awesome at absolutely everything.  

Awesome at hiding and writing and BREAKING MY HEART
In short, if you're not careful, these so-called strong female characters turn into stereotypes themselves. And here's a secret: those strong female characters you see on TV are still weak and vulnerable. Buffy still had fears and doubts and insecurities because she is a well flesh out character.

Most stories are about a character moving from a place of weakness to a place of power. Every story arc has a power shift in it, and if you boil all acceptable female character types into one narrow focus, you're robbing yourself and others of amazing stories. 

And while I am talking about it, doesn't it defeat the purpose of writing a female character we females can look up to if you're forcing a character to act a certain way JUST because the character is a woman? If you say she MUST act this way to be considered a strong female, aren't you doing the same exact thing men did for hundreds of years prior, when they said woman were only good for making babies and cooking dinner? You're just changing the parameters for the stereotypes, that's all.

From now on, all strong women should be nuns. That will subvert the "married with children" stereotype nicely.
 I am not saying sexism doesn't exist. It does. It's there, we've all experienced it one way or another, men and women. If a man wrote a female character as stupid and slutty, there only for the male main character's needs, the author would be called sexist. So why isn't it just as sexist to say female characters can only be sassy, smart mouthed, butt-kicking, "I only wear pants and I wear them better than men" woman in order to be strong?

Wasn't Anne Frank strong? Wasn't Rosa Parks strong? What about Mother Teresa?

How about the titular character on Bones, Dr. Temperance Brennan? How about Olivia Benson from Law and Order: Special Victims Unit? What about Katara from Avatar: The Last Airbender (the show, not the movie. The movie is dead to me.) (for that matter, just about every girl character in that show is awesome, even the psychopathic arch-villainess)?

I am not saying girls don't need better role models than Paris Hilton and Ke$ha, and every other perfect white blond singer/actress on TV who's brainless and just there for the male characters to sleep with. I just don't think having only one role model type is the answer.

Can't we just develop characters and not force them to act a certain way because of their gender or race?

I meant to blog about this before, but Natalie Whipple's excellent post: Strong Female Characters reminded me. So go check out her insightful post as well.


  1. :D The only thing more dangerous for a male author to write than a "strong" female character is a non-strong female character. Write about a housemaker that is happy in her roll and the internet will reach out of your monitor and cut off your penis.

    (I'm excited for you to meet Klara. She doesn't have a large role, but I think she'll make a great MC for the next book.)

  2. LMAO Teh Internets will indeed do that. Sadly I would not escape punishment if I were to write a Happy Suzy Homemaker. They would tell me I wasn't allowed to be a girl anymore or something.

  3. And here lies the rub for me writing a story with vampires. My female MC is human. Quite happy that way, in fact, and she's about to be a mother. But the male MC is a vampire. I don't have to tell you that, regardless of gender, he's stronger than her and he's gonna have to protect her from other supernatural creatures. But there's a difference between crying and wimpering about the big scary vampires, and doing the best you can with what you've got. Which is what all REAL strong women, especially mothers, do every day.

    But if Stephenie Meyer is allowed to write Bella and not catch enough flack to shove her off the shelf, I think we'll be fine. :)


  4. But strong doesn't mean "strength" in this context. It's a measure of character and self-reliance. A mortal mother could be much stronger than a vampire even though she is physically weaker.

  5. TLH: If you write well developed characters, no one is going to care you're writing about a vampire and a human who are romantically involved. And Joe's right. If your human female is strong willed, and stands up for herself, and knows what she wants, yet your vampire is a push over who does whatever his Master bids him (depending on your mythos), than your female is stronger than the guy. :D So you're all good!