Sunday, August 18, 2013

Strong Female Characters

I've read several articles lately about strong female characters, what that term means, and the archetype traps surrounding those portrayals.

Sophia McDougall's I Hate Strong Female Characters

Chuck Wendig On The Subject of The "Strong Female Character"

Greg Rucka Why I Write Strong Female Characters

Athena Andreadis The Iron Madonna or: Kicking Ass While Female

(This came across my desktop Monday morning: The Mako Mori test as an alternate to the Bechdale Test. I LOVED Pacific Rim. Mako was a great character.)

although there are many others. There are also gifs celebrating a few well known writers for their "strong female characters"

But what does strong really mean? Physical strength is the cheap way out of it. Shooting or punching your way out of a situation doesn't make your character interesting or right. It simply makes them physically stronger or in command of more fire power.

Chuck Wendig touches on it best in his comments, but I'll say that a strong character of any gender is a person with presence. It's someone who commands enough attention to deserve center stage. It's someone who is an interesting story. So we're using strong here to define personality rather than physical strength.

Mattie Ross in True Grit is a strong female character. She's a young teen. Her strength comes from her unwavering demand for justice. For someone so young, she's already a stiff-necked Christian. You get the feeling she had to grow up fast, which means the adults around her failed her in some sense. She goes looking for a man who, in her words, has true grit, but by the end of the story, you realize she was the one who had it. She just needed a vessel to carry out her will. Mattie Ross isn't likeable. She isn't sweet. In a sense, she isn't very feminine and yet I have no problem seeing her as a realistic female character.

I was remiss not to mention Mako Mori of Pacific Rim in my first draft of this. She was a great character with agency. What I liked about her the most was that her "more traditional" values didn't make her seem weak. She had her own agenda and pushed it, but she understood heroism as being part of a team, not running off like, well, a typical American yahoo. I had a little bit of issue that her relationship with her Jaeger partner had have a romantic spin on it. I would have preferred simple professional respect, but that' a minor quibble over a stunning part well played in a big action movie.

Athena Andreadis brings up an interesting list of central female characters in science fiction that she calls Iron Madonnas. As many others have, I'll dismiss Padme Amidala (Or as a writer friend once called her: Princess Imadolly)  because 1) she isn't interesting, but that's hardly because she's female. Star Wars suffers from a dearth of interesting, dimensional characters of any gender, 2) she only exists to drive Anakin Skywalker's story, so she's just another chick in a fridge. 3) she's a chick in a fridge madonna, which is worse (But how sad is it that she's such a place-holder character when her daughter Leia goes down in motion picture history as the first princess EVER to be the hero? Leia grabs the gun, seizes control of her own rescue, provides cover fire, and finds the escape route! She's the original kung-fu princess. She lost all agency in later movies-- I guess they had to neuter her to make sure the story was still about the boys-- but for one brief shining moment, she was the most amazing woman in cinema history.)

But what about the others on that list? I have a small issue with Cordelia Vorkosigan being included. Saying she should have done more or shouldn't have followed the "trope" of becoming a mother and opting to live in a misogynistic society is like pointing to feminists from the 1960s and saying "You should have accomplished more!"  We're awfully quick to dictate the terms of our hero's lives.  One of the things I have enjoyed most about Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series is how one generation makes uneasy peace with a horrible truth, then the next generation comes along and screams "No! That isn't all right! I do not accept that solution!" Because constant reinterpretation of history and negotiation of our relationship to it is a huge part of the human experience, but it's rare to see anyone tackle that mess fearlessly in a novel. I don't feel that Cordelia sacrificed herself to eternal iron madonnahood. I think she gained what she felt was important with a good understanding of which beliefs would be compromised. And being a wife and mother didn't render her ineffective. She had profound influence over the next generation and sabotaged the foundation of male privilege in Vor society. Not bad. Not bad at all.
So where does QuiTai fall in the spectrum?

If I were to write a physically imposing character, that character's reaction to danger might be to fight her way out. But QuiTai's biggest strength is her mind. She will always try to think her way out of a situation first and resort to the physical last. When she gets hurt, it isn't to enrage a male and send him off on a heroic quest. It's the stakes in the game she plays. She doesn't want to be hurt, she doesn't enjoy it, but she doesn't fear it. 

She certainly hasn't lost her sexuality. Someone at some point is going to call her a slut. If it's meant as an insult, it is. I prefer to think of her as owning her body fully and without fear.

She's maternal. That should never be considered a weakness in a female character. There is nothing wrong with being female. There is nothing wrong with having characteristically feminine traits. It doesn't make a character dull, less than, or weak.

That's ultimately where the discussion of female characters should lead us, to the point where strong doesn't have to mean physical BAMF,  or having the most firepower. Maybe we should use central instead of strong. Looking back at literary history, in times that we consider horrible for women, writers had no problem creating interesting central female characters. My favorite example is Irene Adler from Arthur Conan Doyle's A Scandal in Bohemia. So what is our problem now? Why do modern adaptations of Irene Adler strip her agency? Why is there such a backlash against central female characters to the point where people feel a need to ask Joss Whedon and George R. R. Martin about their rare and apparently mind-blowing inclusion of them? I don't know, but it's interesting that these discussions ignore Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Amelia Peabody, and the Sookie Stackhouse mysteries, to name a few extremely successful series with admirable central female characters, but were written by women.    


  1. Except that Cordelia Vorkosigan, née Naismith, born rich and well-connected in an intergalactic culture, had many choices unlike 60s feminists.

    As for Star Wars: We Must Love One Another or Die,

    And until women are not only protagonists without excuses but also make up significantly more than the single exceptional presence, we're still on page 1.

  2. Athena - Thank you for commenting! I agree with many of your points, especially "And until women are not only protagonists without excuses but also make up significantly more than the single exceptional presence, we're still on page 1."

    This is an interesting dialog. I'm so glad it's continuing and so many different voices are being heard. What one person (me) may gloss over, another person may have better insight into, so reading all these articles is inspiring for me.