Strong Female Characters and Devaluing the Feminine

| Monday, February 13, 2012
Today's Tune: Stronger

Yeah, Britney Spears is my song today. DON'T EVEN CARE.

So. Strong Characters. In particular, Strong Female Characters. We all have different ideas about what they mean and how they should be represented. I know I certainly have a lot of ~*opinions*~ on the matter.

I am most definitely not the first person to write about this. I very much recommend reading those posts and several others. They all raise a variety of excellent points, some of which I'm going to rehash. I'd like to divide this post into two particular sections of focus: "strong" does not have to mean physical strength, and the erasure of feminine qualities in an attempt to eradicate "weakness."

"Strong" =/= Physically Strong

We're all fully aware of the wide variety of sexy young fictional women who are well-versed in the art of waif-fu and capable of kicking your ass all the way up to your teeth. On the surface, this is an understandable pushback against the frightened rabbit model of female character. She doesn't have to depend on the physical strength of the male hero to save her skin -- she can do it herself. It's a literal metaphor for "being strong." She's actually physically able to fight back.

This tactic in and of itself is not a bad thing. I want to make that clear. I think it's fabulous that it's become acceptable to allow that women can be physically strong. That's not really my issue. My issue comes in when the ball stops at physical strength.

It often seems that people writing these sorts of kickass Action Girl heroines fail to allow for any character development beyond her ability to totally wail on the bad guys. She shows little emotional development, little internal strength,and few genuine flaws to complicate her character. Writers lean so heavily on proving how STRONG she is that they make her close to perfect. She crushes the affection of men and rarely has her own heart broken because she's a STRONG LADY. She wins all the fights because she's a STRONG LADY. She's a super genius and a wealthy heiress and skilled in electronics and computer hacking and vehicle maintenance because she's a STRONG LADY. You see where I'm going. There are no complications. No holes. No substance.

We need more realistically built female characters. They can have superpowers or heavy artillery if they must, but they should also have emotional arcs. Realistic motivations. Genuine character flaws. Relationships with other women that don't always involve talking about men.

My other issue is the tendency to make these super-strong heroines a certain physical type. Mainly, they're slender, petite, young, and very stereotypically attractive. As one of the previously mentioned articles states, her pretty face is never marred, despite the fact that she gets the CRAP BEAT OUT OF HER. She's not represented as a realistically physically strong body type. She's rarely large, overweight, or broad shouldered. Look, I am a petite woman who has taken martial arts. In a fight, I might be able to do some moderate damage and get away. But get into a real knock-down drag-out fight? No. I am secure enough in myself to admit that I cannot overpower most large men based on weight difference alone.

I'm not saying it's impossible for a small woman to be a powerful fighter, but I don't have a problem saying that I am not that woman. Even if I trained to be a boxer, I wouldn't be that woman. It's very clearly indicative of our culture that we don't usually cast physically strong women as anything but young and sexy. We do it because of the pressure to "give people what they want." To give them sexually available, pretty, skinny young ladies. Ladies (cisgendered) women want to be and (cisgendered) men want to be with. It's ridiculous and exclusive.

And because I know people out there always like to go DAMN FEMINISTS WANT EVERY WOMAN TO BE A FAT UNATTRACTIVE SEXLESS HAG WHO WEARS BURLAP SACKS, I'll just clarify that YES OBVIOUSLY, THAT'S WHAT I WANT. IF YOU ARE NOT A TOTAL UGGO YOU CAN GTFO. Sarcasm. No. I'd just like some variety, is all. Also, stop equating "fat" with "bad/unattractive," IT IS REALLY OLD.

Anyway, this all sort of ties in to my next point.

Feminine =/= Weak, Masculine =/= Strong

Part of the push toward the Strong Female Character includes a push toward devaluing the feminine in favor of the masculine, even while keeping the ladies gorgeous and perfectly coifed. The characters I refer to are often the only valuable female character in a sea of male characters. They rarely interact with other women, let alone are good friends with any. Because other non-strong women are just so boring and useless, you know? They can't be bothered with normal female friendships and support. They're too busy proving that they're one of the guys.

We see this not only with the physically strong ladies who know how to hack computers and spit after taking a shot, but with other lone wolf female main characters. They don't want to be around other women because other women are vapid, frivolous, stupid, pathetic. Not like Female Main Character. She just gets along better with men. Because she's more like a man. Because men are better. Can you see the issue here?

When writers are creating these Strong Female Characters, they are doing so by devaluing the feminine. She doesn't know anything about makeup or fashion (despite the fact that she's always both made-up and perfectly dressed). She doesn't care about relationships, she just wants to bang and run (despite almost always falling for the male hero). She's cold and sarcastic, because emotions are for wusses (even though she'll openly weep when the hero nearly dies). It's contradictory in every sense, but these are still the words that spill out of her mouth. Everything considered stereotypically female -- emotion, frailty, maternal instinct, talking things out -- is considered useless. In order to be "strong," she has to shed all these useless things and be one of the dudes.

This is why I love characters like The Bride (Kill Bill, pictured above), Faith (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and Sarah Conner (Terminator). They hit all the buttons for physical strength and attractiveness, yes. However, they're allowed to be female. Strength is not something solely found in masculinity. They're mothers and scared teenage girls with mommy issues. They act on emotion. They cry. And they fight. They don't fall into some neat little masculine-or-feminine box.

None of us fit into those boxes. Women don't exist on one plane, men don't exist on another. We are blends of our experiences and personalities and choices. Our strengths come from everywhere. So do our weaknesses. Well-rounded characters are not created based off of some cookie cutter trait. They're built from scratch and molded by background.

How do you feel about Strong Female Characters? Who are some female characters that you find both strong and well-rounded?


{ Christi Goddard } at: February 13, 2012 at 5:53 AM said...

I honestly enjoy few female characters. I tend to gravitate towards stories written about boys/teens/men. That being said, my first book is about a girl, so who knows where that came from ;-) I enjoy female characters who are strong but not 'bad ass,' ones who can make quick decisions and handle the responsibility of their mistakes without breaking down into an emo parade, ones that grit their teeth and basically say, 'okay, so I won't do THAT again, but here's to learning from it and doing better next time.'

{ Jaron Frost } at: February 13, 2012 at 7:39 AM said...

I cringe whenever a movie includes one of those "kick-ass girls" for these very reasons. They are incredibly shallow and boring as characters.

Off the top of my head, I'm thinking about the show Firefly as an example of some strong female characters. Anara doesn't fight, and yes, she fills the "sexy" role for the show, but she still has a lot of power as a character. She is independent and takes pride in what she does.

{ We Heart YA } at: February 13, 2012 at 9:56 AM said...

Yes time a billion to this post. That's, like, really all we have to say about it.

(Also ditto to Jaron's comments on Inara from Firefly.)

We have to admit, we all 4 felt such relief as we continued through your post. We thought about our own heroines, and how they stacked up against your thoughts and criteria. We're proud to say we think they all do quite well. :)

{ Kurt Hartwig } at: February 13, 2012 at 10:10 AM said...

Alice in THE MAGICIANS is solid, but - SPOILER - she dies. Self-sacrifice is another cheap-shot at feminist impulses.

On a lighter note, most of the main female characters from FARSCAPE play out well.

And more seriously, Octavia Butler's Lilith is strong (from genetic engineering) and resolute (by personality).

{ Old Kitty } at: February 13, 2012 at 10:32 AM said...

My only realistically strong female character on telly - physique and character - was Lucy Lawless's Xena. Those broad swords are HEAVY! You need MUSCLES! She had proper thighs too!

I also love this scene in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Michelle Yeo and Ziyi Zhang are fighting it out in a room with a load of weaponry. Michelle grabs the first weapon she could and nearly falls over unable to carry it cos it's so big and heavy. It sat so odd in a film with lots of flying around and impossible but beautifully choreographed fight scenes.

Take care

{ Caledonia Lass } at: February 13, 2012 at 2:37 PM said...

Good post! I find that most strong female characters I read about are just male characters in women's clothing. They are all those points you've presented. The lone wolf, they hang out with men, they are cold, sarcastic, etc. But if you scratch beneath the surface (what little surface there is) they are really just male characters. When I find a good, strong female character, she has more to her and likes fashion or is capable of being a woman even after you examine her character from all angles. But this is a rare thing. One of my favorite strong female characters is Joanna Brady in J. A. Jance's novels. She's my favorite!

Anonymous at: February 13, 2012 at 3:23 PM said...

This is from TV, but Starbuck from the new Battlestar is my favorite.

{ vic caswell (aspiring-x) } at: February 13, 2012 at 6:41 PM said...

a couple have mentioned inara from firefly, but i would suggest kaylee as being a strong female as well. not so much physically, but she takes stands she might not have the muscle to back up. and zoe as well- more physically strong, but she is certainly not a man, while more masculine than others... even river dances and acts clearly feminine while being physically strong and intelligent and in moments emotionally strong, though not psychologically...

i've only read the first two book in the a song of fire and ice series. and while essentially ever character is despicable in their own ways- they are also strong in their own ways. they are all very, very human. and their are many women who maintain their femininity within their strength- as well as some that cast off their femininity- but everything is handled on a character by character basis.

{ Janna } at: February 14, 2012 at 9:11 PM said...

"They rarely interact with other women, let alone are good friends with any. Because other non-strong women are just so boring and useless, you know? They can't be bothered with normal female friendships and support. They're too busy proving that they're one of the guys."

Yes! I hate that so many books/comics/tv shows/movies just have the one "token" female (or a Betty/Veronica rivalry) in a sea of males who are allowed to be different from each other but still valued despite/because of their differences. This is one of the things I like about Joss Whedon, as Vic Caswell points out above. He allows for a broad range of female characters who have different personalities and yet co-exist and value each other.

{ Emily White } at: February 15, 2012 at 6:53 AM said...

Yes! Yes! Yes! I couldn't agree with you more. This is why I LOVE Bella Swan. She is so anti everything we've been told a strong female character should be. She's physically weak and clumsy. Her life keeps getting saved by other people (not just Edward, by the way--Alice and Rosalie save her, too). But when told she needs to either sacrifice herself or let someone she loves die, she doesn't even blink. That's strength. How many people crumble when faced with that choice?

Great post, Maybe!

{ Kurt Hartwig } at: February 15, 2012 at 9:05 AM said...

Contrasting my own snark at cheap self-sacrifice is this comic based, apparently, on real events in the aftermath of earthquakes in China.

{ Asia Morela } at: February 17, 2012 at 7:34 AM said...

Great post! I agree 100%. I wrote a (shorter) post myself in the same spirit:

Merrian at: February 17, 2012 at 7:57 AM said...

Great post I have grown a serious dislike for the Honor Harrington books by David Weber for all the reasons you outline above.

Rae Carson's Fire and Thorns YA fantasy has a great heroine who is seriously overweight and lacking in confidence. It is her thinking and relationship and observation skills together with courage and faith that make her a leader and equip her to save the day

{ K. Traylor } at: February 17, 2012 at 12:02 PM said...

This is a great post-- thank you! I especially agree with your point about "tough" female characters and their inability to interact positively with other women. I've noticed that phenomenon in series as disparate as the Anita Blake books and Laurie King's Mary Russell series. My favorite, favorite, favorite part in Kill Bill is the moment in O-Ren's arc where O-Ren and the Bride share their "silly rabbit" joke-- it's a moment of pure friendship that made me love both characters about a thousand times more.

Braak over at Threat Quality Press makes a similar point in his post "Why I Hate River Tam," about how River is basically just a male protection fantasy (she's smart and can kick some ass, but she's also tiny and fragile and vulnerable and just needs you to take care of her, Cap'n Mal).

Have you read Tamora Pierce's Immortals Quartet? I was really struck by the bit in Emperor Mage where Daine is shouting at Numair's old girlfriend about her silly, useless little feminine fripperies, and the woman says something like, "What's wrong with liking pretty things and wanting to make things nice for people?" That passage caught me up short, because at that point I'd been reading a lot of badass-heroine-with-sword YA novels and had started putting on the approved "feminist" disdain of things like dresses and needlework, completely disregarding the fact that up till I started reading YA I'd been a hardcore, Pony-owning, lace-loving, princess-drawing, fairy-tale-reading girly girl. You like what you like, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Also: I suspect that a lot of the people who scorn the traditionally-feminine in search of empowerment would be 100% okay with men who wanted to put on pretty clothes, wear makeup, go shopping with girlfriends or learn ballroom dancing. Real gender equality would be where anyone was free to perform whatever gender role they liked, regardless of genitalia, without being judged for it.

*rambly comment is ramble*

{ toripak24 } at: February 17, 2012 at 2:16 PM said...

You nailed exactly how I feel! I love female character who can do some major damage in a fight but by God am I sick of that being their only trait. I kind of like Bella Swann for the same reason Emily did. She is feminine and strong and people complain about her. I also noticed the love for Joss Whedon characters on here. Many of my favorite female characters are from his shows. The video game series Fire Emblem also has lots of my favorite female characters. Gemma Doyle is a great female character too. She is shows strength through feminine qualities.
All this said, another thing I am sick of is the male character becoming useless just to show how awesome the female is. My favorite casts of characters include strong females and males!

{ Rachel Stark } at: February 19, 2012 at 8:41 AM said...

I adore this post!

I love me some butt-kicking lady heroes, but for a long time I've been frustrated that so few books or movies seem to be able to imagine a woman who's strong in a way that isn't masculine. I so agree that these stories are attempting to create strong women by devaluing and disowning the feminine.

My other pet peeve about these characters is the number of them who seem to have come by their strength as a result of trauma in their past. The strong, but deep-down-screwed-up-and-in-need-of-saving woman trope is one I've had enough of. It's as though society sees a woman who can throw a good punch and needs an explanation for what's wrong with her -- what makes her act so masculine. Invariably there's abuse or rape in her past. Ick.

I agree with Jaron on Firefly, and want to point out Zoe from that show as well -- a total opposite to Inara, but not a character who ever has to apologize for being strong in a masculine way, or explain herself when she wants to act feminine. And I love the show Battlestar Galactica for forefronting a variety of strong female types; yes, they include Kara, who is masculinely strong and deeply troubled, but there's also Dee, who is quiet but stands up to her leaders when it's called for, and President Roslin, who leads with cunning and compassion and doesn't feel the need to explain herself, and Sharon, who guides with her heart, and so many more.

Finally, in terms of books, I have to commend Kristin Cashore's wonderful characters, who even when they're troubled are so complex that they're whole, real, women. And in a media world that can't make up its mind between pathetic waifs and waif-fu, a fully realized woman, in all her complexity, is the truest feminist character.

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: February 20, 2012 at 12:06 AM said...

I heart the comments on this post so much. You're all fabulous, thank you for the fantastic responses <3

{ L } at: February 22, 2012 at 6:35 AM said...

Lisa Simpson is on a neverending quest to effect change in the world, she always wears pearls, and this is her stationary. ;)

{ DB Graves } at: February 22, 2012 at 11:16 AM said...

All I can say is... I heart you! You are SO on my team.

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