The other day Rhiannon Thomas, author of A Wicked Thing, posted about Disney’s new live action Cinderella. I highly recommend you go over and read her take; she does an excellent job of deconstructing the idea of a ‘feminist’ character. This is not a rebuttal to her post; I agree with her post and, if you’ve read my review of A Wicked Thing, you’ll know I love her interpretation of Aurora, who tends to fall into the kind-hearted, ‘feminine’ mould. It got me thinking, however, about the whole notion of the Strong Female Character (TM). You know, the woman who kicks ass and takes names, usually with quips and witty comebacks galore.
I hate the Strong Female Character trope, because it replaces writing fully-realised human beings with a series of checkboxes to appease The Feminists (dun dun duuuuuunn). We really don’t need more one-dimensional supporting characters who are snarky fighters that never faint at the sight of blood. That being said, there are a lot of well-rounded characters I adore who share superficial traits with the Strong Female Character: Katniss Everdeen, Celaena Sardothien, Buffy Summers, Devi Morris, Lee Chase, Isabelle Lightwood, need I go on? And so I’m torn when I see posts that say, for instance, that Kestrel in The Winner’s Trilogy is a refreshing break from the Strong Female Character. On the one hand, I agree, because I do think it’s refreshing to show someone using ‘softer’ skills, like intellect, in a high fantasy novel about political intrigue and war. On the other hand, the way the contrast to other characters in YA fantasy is made suggests a rather troubling outlook. It implies that all girls who physically fight their opponents are Strong Female Characters, and in doing so implies that women cannot enter into traditionally masculine genres without either falling into tropes or altering them to suit more ‘feminine’ characteristics.
Not all women who fight are Strong Female Characters (TM). For a start, there are real live women who do. Amassing all the fictional women who do under one trope name, however, is in my opinion part of a more general problem; that we don’t see female characters as people, but as representatives of women as a group. We’re not seeing them as individuals, but as a certain type of female representation. Harry Dresden has a lot in common with the Strong Female Character, but no one picks up The Dresden Files and sighs, ‘Ugh, not another Strong Male Character.’ That would be ridiculous, because no one looks at male characters as representing the entire male population.
The blame isn’t entirely on readers, of course. Readers categorise characters who tick certain boxes as Strong Female Characters (or even Mary Sues, for that matter) because we’ve seen so many who are one-dimensional walking, talking tropes. It’s easy, then, to become immediately wary when we’re introduced to a girl staking vampires with snappy one-liners because we’ve seen it before. Sometimes the similarities are simply too glaring to be able to really settle in and appreciate the character as a unique individual, but that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with the character, just that the character doesn’t work for the reader because of the reader’s experiences.
But the solution is not to shun all characters who resemble the Strong Female Character. Trying too hard to avoid the Strong Female Character trap means we avoid writing certain types of women. More than that, though, it means we avoid writing certain types of stories about women. Many traditionally masculine genres, like epic fantasy, tend to have protagonists who are bold, fearless, skilled fighters. That’s not to say we can’t bring more feminine protagonists like Lúthien Tinúviel or Lilac LaRoux into these genres, but rather we should embrace the full range of personalities and traits that women as a group possess.
One of my pet peeves is series where the cast are subjected to physical threats on a regular basis and the female characters take no steps to learn to defend themselves, without any explanation (admittedly, another of my pet peeves is stories where a character goes to a few self-defence classes and can suddenly fight off supernatural enemies 😉 ). I’m not talking about women like Laura Roslin who take a moral stance, or women like Willow Rosenberg who realise their skills lie elsewhere and use those to their advantage, but the ones who just seem to not even try. It’s frustrating to see people in danger episode after episode without it crossing anyone’s mind that they can do something to help mitigate the danger, but more than that, it means that these stories are not the women’s stories, but the stories of the men who inevitably have to save them.
Similarly, in Doctor Who the companion is always a perfectly ordinary young woman (at least in New Who) who, even though she may do pretty well for a normal human in the Doctor’s world, is still so often really no match for the alien threats. I don’t have an inherent problem with the Doctor’s companions being women with no particular skills who get by on wit, boldness and compassion. We need women who are thrust into situations far beyond what their experiences have prepared them for, and who rise to the challenge. However, River Song was like a breath of fresh air because, of the six women to play major roles in New Who, she was the only one who made a Dalek beg for mercy. Unlike the regular companions, she doesn’t need the Doctor to rescue her.
We need strong female characters. We need weak female characters. We need snarky female characters. We need kind female characters. We need female characters who represent all the different women and girls who read and watch these stories.