Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Problem With "The Problem" of Strong Female Characters

A couple weeks ago I was browsing reddit when I came across this post: "when you write a female character and she is strong just because she is just like a dude, you kill the whole point of writing a female character."

Yeah. Today we're gonna talk about that. *cracks knuckles*

Now I've written about what I believe is the core tenet of writing strong female characters before, and I'll continue asserting that while also talking about gender roles, identity, and genderization. Specifically, I'm gonna talk about what it's like to be a person who embodies many of the things that are supposedly "killing the whole point" of a strong female character.

Because what people really mean when they say things like this is that women who "act like dudes" are therefore dudes, not women at all. What they're saying is that the character isn't "womanly" enough to be a strong female character. They might as well just be men.

I've seen it a million times. Writers and readers alike blast the beer-drinkin', videogame-playin', sport-excellin' lady character for being too much like a man. She's unrealistically, physically strong. She swears. She picks fights. In fantasy worlds where combat's often a given, she solves her problems with violence instead of a quick whip of her healer's staff.

Basically this:

A strong female character ought to be strong in the womanly sense, you see. A protective, caring mother perhaps - a role model for her children. They should at least be "realistically" weaker than men, beating their strong, masculine enemies with women's intuition and just a little bit of being kidnapped.

A strong female character shouldn't be physically superior to a man, or daydream about gunplay instead of space charity work, or get aggro in an ogre's face because Gods, that ogre deserved it, because women don't do those things.

Except, you know, we do.

I am one of those women who could be considered "dudely." I've played sports all my life, guzzle beer with the best of them, have been called dyke and butch and she-man for beating someone down in Gears of War, and if I lived in a fantasy world, chances are I would pull an Arya Stark (awesome example of a strong female character) over a Cersei Lannister (ALSO an awesome example of a strong female character. Don't be confused. I'll explain.)

It's personally meaningful to see "dudely" women represented, women who would make similar choices to me, women who would choose the way of the sword or respond to violence with self-defense instead of rolling a persuasion check

But it turns out that many people see these personalities as too masculine, therefore robbing women of actual representation. This sort of begs the question: why are things like taking charge and joining in on combat "male activities?

Summer: "Oh right. Because there's something about having a wiener that would make me better at walking through a hole?

One may cite humanity's history as reason enough for this, but how does that explain someone like Jeanne de Clisson, a 14th-century French noblewoman who sold her estates and took to the seas to be a pirate in arms against the French King who wrongly took her husband's life? How about Lady Fu Hao of the Shang Dynasty, or goddamn freaking Boudica?

While history certainly supports the notion that a majority of women were in traditional roles, and that mostly men took on combat and leadership roles, this only proves that it was traditional (due in large part to societal constructs) and has nothing to do with a woman's ability - or even desire - to do these things.

So does it really make someone less of a woman to participate in an activity or have a personality more predominantly associated with the opposite gender?

These questions aren't just asked of female characters, but of real women. I can attest to being judged for just my appearance - for my lack of makeup, for my hate of dresses, for my pokemon-themed t-shirts and jeans. But there are also women who rock their makeup, who rock their dresses, who embrace their femininity, and they're judged, too. They're called "slut" or "vapid" or "probably a prissy bitch." And this is just clothes I'm talking about; let's not even jump in to what it's like to be a girl gamer (or developer, by god), or a professional female athlete (paid how much less?). 

Credit to @rasenth Full comic here (it's worth your time).
In many ways, I feel like the reason writers at large still struggle with the strong female character is that we're still struggling with respecting and understanding women's identities in real life. 

To highlight this, why don't we have a Weak Male Character? Why don't we scrutinize and categorize what male characters are allowed to be? Why is it male characters can be anything - dudely, not dudely, and be free from this kind of dialogue? They're always a man at the end of the day. But women characters... Are they womanly enough? Are they strong enough? Are they too motherly? Are they too dudely?

The need for strong female characters rose out of a lack of representation in popular fiction. We never asked for these representations to be physically strong - just strong characters. But it turns out, there is such a thing as a physically strong character, who is also a strong character in the literary sense. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Writers need to understand that women come in a variety of different flavors, just like men. There are fit women and weak women and angry women and calm women and polite women and rude women, and guess what? They're all women. 

You might read about a woman who doesn't fit your idea of a woman. Maybe she doesn't act like you - as a woman - would, but that's why we need all sorts of women represented in fiction. 

So you writers out there penning the next Xena, or the badass Wonder Woman - you keep doing what you're doing.

And for everyone who ever wonders if their character - male or female - is strong, here's a quick checklist for ya:
  • Give them agency
  • Give them personal stakes
  • Make them make choices that affect the plot 

(I mentioned at the beginning, but just in case: I totally wrote an article all about writing strong female characters. Hope you check it out! Or not, that's fine, too...)


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