|Bradamante, as depicted by H.J. Ford|
And yet, until someone asked me flat out why I hadn't written about it, I never really considered it as a topic. I had just been assuming that either people had an inherent respect and understanding of other people, or they didn't--and that nothing I said was going to make much of a difference in that. After all, plenty of fantasy authors are deeply invested in misogyny--they want to write books where women are toys and objects--the most egregious example being Gor, though it's hardly the only one.
But then, there are other authors who are clearly trying to write women as strong, independent characters, but just absolutely failing. Why this happens is a much more intriguing question for us to explore than why some people are insecure chauvinists--and it also might highlight a few bad habits that we can look out for in our own writing.
Likewise, when we say 'a weak character', we don't mean he can't open a pickle jar, we mean he lacks strength of personality. A physically weak character can still be a powerful, consequential presence in a story--think of Gaius Baltar in Battlestar Galactica, who is an inveterate coward, but probably the most intriguing character in the series. Likewise, a character can be a musclebound killing machine and still be little more than an empty shell, in terms of personality--as all too many fantasy heroes demonstrate.
|Red Sonja by Cary Nord|
A princess can be strong--even if she's not allowed to make her own choices, even if she is married off and shuffled around against her own will. The defining trait here is that she has to actually have some will for others to disregard--some consistent desire within that governs her behavior, even when things don't go her way. A character is not their role. A princess can be a strong character, and a soldier can be a weak character. I can't tell you the number of times I've heard someone claim that a female character was strong because she was a soldier--that's her job, not her character, and the two should not be confused.
Can a male soldier be a weak character? Of course. So, why should a female soldier be any different? Once again, it's a confusion between a masculine role and actual strength. It's also pretty insulting, because it carries the tacit assumption that being a man, and doing male things, somehow makes you an interesting character--and so the only way for a female character to be important is to imitate masculinity. That's why you get teams of characters in which 'he's the leader, he's the strong one, he's the smart one, and she's the chick'. All the men get an individual character trait, whereas the woman is defined by the fact that she's a woman. All the female soldier is allowed to aspire to is being as good as the average man. It's like having a Black character and saying 'oh, he's complex because he's well-spoken'--it's a demeaning capitulation to stereotype.
|Walt Disney's Mulan|
Likewise, the woman soldier quickly becomes its own flat cliche, because it has no real basis, it's just saying 'well, women have historically been X, so I'll make her Y instead'--and contrarianism is not originality. Without a strong conceptual basis behind the character, she's never going to be anything more than a placeholder in the story. But then, a conceptual basis is not always a solution, either.
Even though women had a rather tough time of it in many cultures throughout history, that doesn't mean there weren't strong women in those lands and time periods. It's easy to point at real figures like Boudica, as well as fictional characters like Bradamante, but once again, we have to remind ourselves it wasn't the sword that made them strong. Cleopatra didn't need a sword to get things done, nor did Queen Elizabeth--nor, for fictional examples, did Lady Macbeth or Circe.
|Bust of Nefertiti|
It's important to have strong women characters not only in earlier periods, but of those periods--characters who make sense in the context of their culture, who were shaped by the experiences and upbringing they lived through in that culture. This makes it doubly unfortunate when so many authors writing in historical or invented worlds just end up shoving modern feminist rhetoric into their characters' mouths, even when it makes no sense. A Medieval nun has never taken a Women's Studies class--she has never heard of hegemony or Gloria Steinem, so her ideas about gender roles are going to be very different from those of a college freshman--but that doesn't mean our nun has to accept every cultural stereotype. Neither Margery Kempe nor the Wife of Bath was a third-wave feminist, but they still showed how it was possible to confound societal expectation and live your own life, even as a woman of the 14th Century.
A female character can be strong without spouting cliches about equality--indeed, she can remain strong even as she confirms the status quo. A female character can declare that she thinks the woman's place is the home, and that her role is to support her husband--but if she defends these ideals with will and decisiveness, then clearly, she possesses inner strength and purpose.
However, it is not enough for her merely to be stubborn and shrewish at every turn--the stubborn shrew is its own flat cliche of womanhood, after all--as is the 'ice queen'. Making a character contradictory and argumentative is not the same as making her strong--indeed, it often makes her come off as whining, sniveling, and unpleasant. There needs to be some driving motivation beneath her words that gives her stubbornness a purpose. There must be a genuine conflict between her and the characters she disagrees with--something substantial that she is fighting for.
|Brave enough to endanger your family?|
She doesn't have a good, defensible reason to motivate her--she just wants her freedom so she can play in the woods, like a child--and she's willing to sacrifice the wellbeing of everyone else in order to enjoy her little game. It's not really surprising that, in some foreign markets where community is prized over the needs of the individual, moviegoers hated her. In trying to make her strong, the writers accidentally made her into a villain: someone who doesn't care who else gets hurt, as long as they get to do what they want all of the time--but she has a bow, so she must be a strong woman character, right? It certainly seemed to fool people into thinking Katniss wasn't just another sexist cliche.
If being a strong character doesn't mean being physically powerful, it also doesn't mean being in a position of political or social power. One year, when I was working as an actor at a renaissance festival, some friends came out to see me, and when they saw the queen and the court, they asked how long you had to work there before you were allowed to play the queen. It took a while for me to explain that the queen is just another role--no more important than a miller or a beggar--and that it doesn't require seniority. In fact, I know a lot of very experienced actors who prefer to play beggars, because it allows you to have a much more vivid, intriguing character. Really, as royalty you mostly just end up being a photo op--not a very challenging or interesting role.
|King of the Hill|
Yet in life, or in any story, a lowly slave can be a fascinating, complex character with strong motivations. Simply making a woman a queen or a general or whatever does not automatically turn her into an interesting character. After all, there have been plenty of incompetent, ineffectual, dull people who found themselves in positions of power throughout history.
Women also don't need 'equal screen time'--this is not a call for affirmative action, or for the inclusion of more female characters. You could have a story that featured nothing but women, but if they are all flat cliches, the problem remains. Conversely, you could have a story where nearly all the characters are male, with only one female character appearing for a single chapter--but if she's fully-developed, complex, and has her own desires and motivations, then that's still a balanced portrayal in terms of depth of character.
|Ma-Ma from Dredd|
So, where does it come from, then? I'm afraid that will have to wait until Part II: Independence in Action.