Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Why Write Strong Female Characters

As a writer and a feminist (and a writer who is a feminist) I am getting really, really sick of terms like Strong Female Character or Strong Independent Woman being used to bring characters down.

What. The. Actual. Fuck?

I want to say that I get the joke but honestly I don't. I am officially on the Internet, admitting that I don't now something. This is a 100% genuine plea for someone to explain to me how something that would be a compliment (to me one of the highest possible compliments) in the real world is a deathly insult to a fictional character. I am not being sarcastic. I am not being facetious. I genuinely don't get it.

I understand that in this video on female super heroes the Nostalgia Chick is using it to talk about characters written by men, to appeal to men. One of her main issues is that super heroine Barb Wire dresses "like a  real prostitute in the context set up in this world" and looses her temper when a man calls her babe. I think at one point she drops a flaming car on someone for that. 'Empowerment: as conceived by a thirteen year old boy' reads the Nostalgia Chick's gleeful caption. And she has a point. There's a difference between slut shaming and pointing out that someone is wearing an impractical costume for no other reason to get the male viewership up (because what man would want to watch something with a female protagonist unless she was half naked right?). To her credit the Chick acknowledges in the credits how close this line of argument strays to victim blaming and is uncomfortable with it. But she has a point. I've been going clubbing and on bar crawls long enough to know that if I go out dressed a certain way I will probably get hit on and frankly if I'm not in the mood it's a lot easier to dress down than to debate feminism with someone who is a) drunk, b) an idiot (knowing my luck) and c) in a noisy room while d) looking down my shirt. And no I shouldn't have to. You shouldn't either. Your wives, mothers, sisters, daughters and girlfriends shouldn't have to. I really hope that one day we'll move beyond that. It just hasn't happened quite yet.

Kate Beaton, creator of this has come out and said she's not criticising feminists in her comics. She's talking about Strong Female Characters. Who are completely different from female characters who happen to be strong. And nnnrrrrggghhh ERROR ERROR MR JELLY REBOOT UNIVERSE AND TRY AGAIN.

What I don't like about the term is that it's misleading. Where do we draw the line between a Strong Female Character and a female character who is strong? Is Princess Leia part of the problem? Or Buffy Summers or Hermione Granger? I have (lovely) friends who have genuinely told me that they don't like Zoe Washburne of Firefly because she's too strong and too independent and "the whole warrior princess has been done". Equal rights do not have an expiry date. A genuine quote (now forever seared on my memory) is "sometimes there's nothing wrong with wanting a hero to rescue you". And there isn't. In the 1950s!*

Where do we draw the line between a well written character who doesn't appeal to someone's personal tastes and a badly written one who is unsympathetic/unbelievable/both? Where do we distinguish between a so called "Strong Female Character" and a female character who is strong? Is Katniss Everdene okay? Is River Song? What about Princess Merida? Mulan? And if they aren't then what about their male counterparts: is there any attribute of River Song (except her origin) that can't also be said about Han Solo (or, in universe) Captain Jack Harkness? And does anyone really believe that those comparisons would even be made? John McClane is just too awesome: I mean sometimes there's nothing wrong with relying on other people, god! And don't even get me started on Batman: a martial arts master, genius, scientist, billionaire playboy and the world's greatest detective? Like anyone's going to buy something as patently unrealistic as that.

Female characters are held up to a far greater standard of scrutiny than male ones are. Catwoman will always** be a female character whereas Batman is just a character. She has to be a Good Role Model for young girls while still appealing to a male readership. He can just get on with kicking ass and wearing capes. No wonder that many so called Strong Female Characters aren't well received: they're trying so hard to appeal to everyone they end up being loved by no one.

Not feminine my ass.
There has been a lot of talk on the internet recently about the term Mary Sue and whether it's even relevant anymore. There are a lot of better articulated posts than mine (not to mention I could write a series of posts on this topic before I scratched the surface) so I'm going to link rather than write. There's a post here which defends Mary Sues, saying that the criticism against them is "a tendency to mock women for having wishes to fulfill, or for thinking there stories are worth telling." As someone who learnt how to (and how not to) write from Mary Sue parodies I disagree with this article but I thought the quote was interesting. As I said, I'll do a full post on  the issue of whether the term even means anything anymore another time.

But the basic argument is that Mary Sue has gone from meaning 'a character who does not serve the story but uses it for their own gratification' to mean 'a female character I dislike'. Mary Sue has a male equivalent Marty-Stu (or Marty-Sam, Gray-Stu etc) but the naming pattern suggests the truth: that the females are the most common and deadly of the species. Accusations of Suedom (the technical term) are far more common and more heated when aimed at female characters than male ones. I've heard Katniss Everdene called a Mary Sue because 'two boys are fighting over her', but no one seems to care that James Bond, Robert Langdon or Indiana Jones have at least one new love interest every film and/or book and never seem to call them after the story is over (kudos to Jones though: the reintroduction of Marion Ravenwood was one of the few things I thought Kingdom of the Crystal Skull got right). It's forgivable when a dashing man gets the girl(s) every time because it's harmless good fun but Katniss can't even have a single conflicted love triangle without being seen to rise above her station. Zoe Washburne has been criticised for having nothing inherently feminine about her*** (apparently her roles as wife and aspiring mother don't count) and could 'just as easily be played by a man'. By a person who idolises Jayne Cobb, by the way. Because a man being too masculine, that'd be just silly.**** Is it so hard to believe that in that world anyone who can hold a gun (and isn't trained in some specialised skill like healing the sick, keeping the ship running prostitution) learns how to use one?  Really?

This attitude has lead to the sinkhole of circular logic that I believe has contributed the growth of so called Strong Female Characters. As we know, characters have to be flawed. And because female characters attract this extra scrutiny female characters need more flaws to balance out anything that is better than average about them. So your respected doctor? She's either unmarried and childless because she spends all her time on her career (never because she wants to be), or an alcoholic, or has crippling self esteem problems. Your demon hunter? She can't get a date and/or has severe anger issues. So female protagonists are so weighed down by unnecessary flaws (as opposed the normal, compelling kind male characters get) that they can barely function. And so writing a decent female character becomes almost impossible and writers try and make them more likable by making them more flawed and before you know it it's goodbye Buffy and hello Bella Swan.*****

Not being one to depress everybody without at least suggesting a solution, it's time for the 'so what do we do about it' portion of this post. So what can we do? Firstly come up with a different term: faux-Amazons, Straw Feminists, whatever you like. Secondly read (or write, if that is your wont) realistic, strong, empowered women and make legitimately strong female characters the norm. Thirdly read Judith Butler ("gender is performative") or Simone de Beauvoir ("one is not born, but becomes a woman") or just about any gender theorist and realise that hardly any of this stuff we surround ourselves with is intrinsic to what parts we're born with and is instead just the product of millions of years of made up bullshit and really we're not that different from each other. And that is both possibly the most grumpy plea for tolerance on the internet in... oh at least the last four seconds and also the kind of thing I really wish we'd figured out by now.

I'm going to answer the question I raised in the title with the words of a writer who shaped a lot of my worldview as a child. Because of him I know that there are far more than one ways to be strong and not all of them involve karate, vampires and balls of magic. But if you want to spend your nights in the graveyard with a bag of stakes and holy water then that's god too. Doesn't make you any less of a woman.

'Really' counter: 7

Existential crises while writing this article: 2

Necessary disclaimer: I'm a huge fan of the Nostalgia Chick and I think Kate Beaton is pretty funny. I have massive respect for both of them, I just wish they'd use different language in this one specific case.

 *Okay, that's unfair: everyone is entitled to like whatever character archetypes appeal to them. I'm certainly not apologising for mine. But I physically cannot understand a form of wish-fulfillment where you actively want to be weak. The only equivalent I can think of to explain this to them is what if I decided I wanted to be ugly? They wouldn't understand me. I don't understand them. And that's fine because we're all different and etc etc but really? Your highest form of wish-fulfillment has someone else as the star. Really

**Always here meaning: until we as a society lower our tolerance for sexist bullshit. Hopefully that isn't the same thing as 'always' meaning: forever.

***Bear in mind that the three other women are: a high class prostitute; a mentally troubled waif/super soldier; and a cutesy mechanic with the romantic sensibilities of a fourteen year old. All interesting characters but would you really want to be them?

****Or too feminine. Whatever.

*****I like to read Twilight as a tragedy about the assimilation of a self absorbed teenage girl into a vampiric cult. Bella Swan is actually an incredibly flawed character. It's just a shame that very few of her flaws are intentional.

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