More Thoughts on Female Characters

This post is inspired in part by this article on ‘Strong Female Characters’, but I’m more interested in addressing how female characters are often critiqued as representing the author or creator’s opinion of women, but the reverse does not hold true for male characters. Thus Twilight is criticised for painting women as weak and dependent on men, but not for displaying men as domineering and controlling. It would take an entire post to adequately discuss the extent to which I think Bella or Edward’s behaviour is a) condoned by the work as a whole and b) emblematic of the behaviour of their gender as a whole in the text, but I brought it up because I think Edward is at least as flawed an individual as Bella, but the books are rarely accused of misandry.

In part, I think writers themselves are responsible for such criticism because they apply the Smurfette principle, whereby male characters have discrete personalities but a female character’s personality is her gender. That is, if a writer only creates one or two significant female characters, then those individual female characters bear the burden of representing their sex in a way that the plethora of male characters do not. Other times they assign particular ‘feminine’ traits to all their female characters, like making them all physically attractive, or making them all mothers or desperately wanting to be mothers.

Sometimes, though, it’s not because of a lack of diversity in female characters. One woman does something considered ‘weak’ or stereotypical, and the writer is accused of viewing women that way. I think this is an interesting conjunction between feminism and patriarchy, in that it is said in defence of women and out of a desire to see unstereotypical female characters, but at the same time such comments appear to buy into the Smurfette principle. It is because of the idea that female characters are defined by their gender that audiences also see female characters as defining their gender. A male character with an uncontrollable temper isn’t evidence of misandry; so too a female character who adores children isn’t evidence of misogyny unless the work appears to suggest that all women ought to be this way.

I could hardly argue that the blame rests entirely with the people decrying stereotyped female characters, however. After all, these stereotypes only exist because so many people have written women like this, and there are people who still view women in this manner. Nevertheless, I think there is sometimes a freedom in writing male characters that doesn’t come with writing female characters because the character’s flaws are viewed as individual flaws, not gendered flaws. For this reason I think that attempts to make writers and audiences consider stereotyping in portrayals of female characters can backfire, because if a writer finds him or herself criticised for trying to create interesting, flawed female characters then he or she might just stick to making the interesting characters male.

Now obviously not all flaws that female characters possess are stereotypical female flaws. However, if you’re creating multiple, different female characters you may well end up with one who displays a stereotypical female characteristic, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. All that being said, I’m not saying that people should stop commenting on and critiquing characters with stereotypical female traits, but that those traits can’t be looked upon in isolation. Is the woman who loves to cook also one who pursues her own dreams and loves good food, without caring for how it affects her appearance, or is it a story in which all women love to cook? Likewise is the woman who submits to men in her life treated as being flawed in this regard or does the book endorse her behaviour? The latter examples in both pairs are deserving of of criticism thrown at them, whereas the former are, in my opinion, treating female characters more like male characters: as a summation of characteristics, positive and negative, without necessarily giving regard to gender.

I think it’s important to note this distinction in order to see more and better female characters. It gives authors the freedom to write female characters as people, flawed people, because it means that those flaws, if treated well and assigned to individuals rather than a gender, won’t come back to haunt them, After all, the only way to attain gender equality in literature is to treat male and female characters the same: as individuals.


3 thoughts on “More Thoughts on Female Characters

  1. i think the process of struggling to gradually emerge from beneath the burden of gender stereotyping echoing that of race stereotyping. It has taken over half a century for us to get to see a full range of personalities and roles in “non-white” characters without this being condemned as racist or stereotyping in films and TV. However, at present I see some distance still to be covered in the case of gender before the goal is reached and the issue becoming merely a historical footnote. Meanwhile many books and magazines, I think, have yet to achieve even this level.


    1. I think you make a good comparison between gender stereotyping and ethnic stereotyping, though I’m not sure that I would agree we do see a full range of personalities in people of colour, in that they’re often relegated to secondary roles (and thus receive less character development). That said, huge headway has been made in the past several decades in the representation of both female characters and characters of colour, so I hope it does eventually become, as you put it, a historical footnote.


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