Thursday, October 17, 2013

Strong Female Characters Are a Cop-Out

What Makes a Strong Female Character?
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About two months ago, there was a lot of chatter about this article on essay on why the author hates the label "strong female character."

Here's the gist: "strong" has become another label that female characters now need to fit into. Princesses who know kung-fu, smart female characters who need to beat up a man for the audience to buy them as a's become a trend, which devalues the whole idea.

The One with the Chinese Food
I hate the phrase "strong female character." It implies most women aren't strong, that there are so few strong ones we have to designate them with signs, like an endangered species. We call Chinese food Chinese food because it's different, not normal. In China, as the old joke on Friends goes, they just call it food.

It's hard to keep this discussion from devolving into semantics, the way it would in a grad school lit class ("Who defines 'strong'? Isn't 'strong' just another construct created by the existing power structure?"). I hate those kinds of discussions because they ignore what's real and here and now. It doesn't matter who defined it if the thing is what it is, and the "is" is what we all have to deal with.

Amelia Earhart
Is she a strong female?
Or does she need nunchaku?
Dealing with the "Is"
Let's get back to the idea of a "strong female character."  What the hell does that even mean? Who is this bastion of female badassery?  Does she have physical prowess, a la Lara Croft? Is she scheming, like Cersei Lannister? Or does she have a spirit of adventure, like Amelia Earhart? If a character has all of these, she's too good to be true. If a character only has one, does it mean she's 2/3 weak? Which of these traits most conveys strength? Is it even possible to decide?

The recent flurry over "strong" female characters focuses on physical strength and mastery of the male characters. That's fine. I have no problem with that. If that's the tale those writers want to tell, they should arm their characters, male and female, with the resources needed to survive in that world. They'd be dead otherwise, and being dead would suck.

I do have a problem when female characters who don't know kung-fu or how to fire a 12-gauge aren't deemed strong. What if they can't do a single pull-up? What if they've lost every race they've ever run? It doesn't mean they can't fuck your shit up. It doesn't mean they're not strong within the world that author has created.

Examples, You Ask?
Let's look at two Disney villains. Would anyone say Maleficent is NOT a strong female character? I doubt it. She's intuitive. She's manipulative. She's regal. She delegates. She remembers shit. She can get her hands dirty when the situation calls for it. But she performs no special feats of strength. She has magic and minions to do her dirty work. Does that mean she isn't strong? Of course not. She's fearsome.

Ursula is a similar character of undeniable strength. She rules her under-the-sea kingdom with an iron fist. She's also intuitive and manipulative. She delegates . She remembers shit, too. But she's not going to do any pull-ups. She's not going to fire a gun. She does not know kung-fu. She's powered by rage, if anything. Does it mean she's not strong? I don't think so. She's a pretty powerful enemy.

So are these "strong female characters"? Or are they just characters?

What about Examples from Actual Books?
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You had to know this was coming.
When I think of strong female characters I've admired, they were all off-kilter in a way:
  • Turtle, from The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. A 12-year old who packed her cavities with bourbon-soaked cotton balls. Who learned to play the stock market to try and win old man Westing's fortune. Who kicked the shin of anyone who messed with her. But was she physically strong? No. She was a girl.
  • Princess Eilonwy, from Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles. She was kind of a tomboy, preferring pants to petticoats. She wanted to go on adventures with the boys. She wanted to rough people up when they pissed her off, but wanting didn't always match her abilities. She talked a tough game, but it was just a game. She wasn't actually going to take on the Cauldron-Born herself. She couldn't.
  • Amelia Peabody, from Elizabeth Peters's series of mysteries. Ah, Amelia. She also wasn't physically strong, no more than an average woman who gets out of the house and is active, hence her need for an iron-shafted parasol to bonk people on the head. But she was smart, funny, crafty, daring, and ferociously protective of the people she loved. She explored pyramids in an age when most women got winded dusting an endtable.
  • Honor Harris, from The King's General by Daphne du Maurier. Holy crap. This woman survived a revolution using her wits alone. She was paralyzed from the waist down, which means she couldn't even move under her own power. There is nothing physical she could do to defeat an enemy. Yet she survived when lots of the other characters didn't. 
  • Arya Stark, from Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin and whoever writes all the TV show episodes. True, her character wants to learn to fight and wield a sword. But she kind of sucks at it. She's disarmed pretty much every time she tries to take someone on with her sword. But she's still alive when a hell of a lot of her family isn't. She's crafty. She's smart. She listens. She sticks up for her friends, at great peril to herself. She isn't afraid to say what she thinks, especially when she insists The Hound should die for killing her friend, a low-born butcher's boy. Any of the sword-wielding male characters could off her with a single stroke just to shut her up. But they don't. Does that mean she isn't strong? (Full disclosure: I've watched the show. I have not read the books yet.)
I want to see more characters like these. They're not perfect. They're not brilliant Harvard-educated astrophysicists who also look like Eastern European supermodels and who also have black belt kung-fu skills and who also like to wear black leather and get freaky in the bedroom. Too often, writers mistake "perfect" for "strong." At least until these "perfect" "strong" women have to be rescued by the hero. Then all that perfection just goes to waste.

That's right.
The queen's a badass.
Hell, Turtle Wexler doesn't even have basic oral hygiene down. But she won a fortune and beat out an apartment building full of adults, all theoretically older, wiser, and more experienced in the ways of the world. NO guns. NO kung-fu. NO physical skill of any kind. Honor Harris doesn't even have the use of her legs, and she cares for her lover when he's wounded in the English Civil War.

Strong is not muscle. Strong is not weapons. I am so tired of these two things being conflated with "strong" when it comes to discussing female characters. Can Joss Whedon write a strong female character without giving her strength or weapons?

"Strong" can't be taken out of the context of the work in which those female characters appear. It ruins everything to take a fictional character and hold her up to the same sunlight that illuminates my crows-feet. She's not next to me. She doesn't even exist. It can't and shouldn't be done.

She can only be judged on her strength in the world she lives in. How does she fare, mentally and physically, against other women and men? If she's only stronger than other women, how strong is that, really? If she's strong than some men and some women, she's doing slightly better than average. If she has the guts and smarts to beat out men and women and be the top dog in her book's world, she's a strong female character. Even if she can only do two push-ups, has never fired a gun, and flames don't shoot out of her eyes.