Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Writing Strong Women, Part I: How It All Goes Wrong

Bradamante, as depicted by H.J. Ford
I think I've had to mention the problematic depiction of gender in at least half the fantasies I've reviewed. It's either a manly power fantasy where women are secondary objects of desire, or a pink-glittered melodrama about psychic unicorns, brooding prettyboys, and angst.

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.

One of the first mistakes a lot of authors make is equating 'strong' with 'masculine'. Being capable with a sword does fall under one definition of 'strength'--but pure muscle isn't what we're talking about when we say 'a strong character'--despite the many authors who seem to think that if you throw on a chainmaile bikini and spatter her with blood, the reader will have no choice but to take her seriously.

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 character can also be strong even if they are in a weak position--indeed, what more opportune moment for their strength to show through than when they are trapped, up against the wall, their freedom and choice ripped away by some domineering power? In that dire moment, what will they do, give in, or persevere? Will they maintain some autonomy even in the face of overwhelming force, however minute? A character can even lose and remain strong, if they fought to the end, or sacrificed themselves to something more important--or just stayed true to who they were.

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
It's also not about her appearance. A woman being attractive, or stereotypically feminine does not make her weak--because being a woman is not a weakness. Depicting your woman soldier as tall, muscled, flat-chested, scarred, unattractive, and rocking a crew cut does not make her strong--just as dressing someone in a black trenchcoat does not make them a badass. Desexualizing her, either through her appearance, or her character, is not a solution. It's either another case of defeminizing, or playing into the Madonna/Whore complex, where a woman who refrains from sex is seen to have the strength of 'virtue' (a word which literally translates to 'manliness')--and of course, making her sex-crazed is just playing into the same set of expectations: that a woman's personality is defined by what does or does not penetrate her.

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 not about forbidding authors from having misogynistic characters in their books, or saying they shouldn't write a world where men have power and women don't, or from ever depicting rape--these things are a part of human culture, and so they should be explored in our stories. Their presence does not diminish female characters. Every strong character needs challenges to overcome, and a strong woman in a patriarchal culture is going to have a lot of challenges to test her. Indeed, one of the best ways to take down something like misogyny is to depict it in all its ugliness.

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?
In the Disney/Pixar film Brave, the main character, Merida, is in the cliche princess conundrum: she doesn't want to do what her parents say, and marry some suitor, she wants her freedom. Yet that freedom hurts her family, and her whole clan. It places them in a dangerous position, where they might be attacked or starve. It's not as if she's trying to alleviate this in other ways--she's good with a bow, but she doesn't seem to be bringing home food for the clan, or defending it against outsiders, or being a leader in some other way.

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
There is a weird thing I've noticed in a few in sitcoms, when they show a renaissance festival, where the king is also the owner, or has some kind of real power--that isn't how it works. That's like assuming that the guy playing the president in a movie must also be the director--yet we do thoughtlessly make these assumptions that role and personality must go hand-in-hand.

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.

It's also not enough to have other characters talk about how competent and willful she is--or even worse, to have the narration simply tell us that she's strong. Firstly, you should never have the narration or characters sitting around telling us what the other characters in the story are like. You have to show who they are by what they say, and by what they do. Secondly, if you spend all that time trying to convince us she's strong, only to demonstrate through her words and actions that she's anything but, you've just made it clear to the reader that you have no idea how to write.

Ma-Ma from Dredd
So, you could have a female character who is a physically weak, cowardly slave who lives in a misogynistic culture that controls her life--and thinks the culture is right to do it--who doesn't know how to defend herself, looks stereotypically feminine, isn't disagreeable or shrewish or sexually disinterested, doesn't spout feminist rhetoric, is the only woman in the story, and only appears in a single chapter--and she can still be strong! Conversely, a muscled-up, weapon-toting, asexual female character who loves to disagree and is a dyed-in-the-wool feminist could be a flat, weak one--because strength of character has nothing to do with her role, her appearance, her opinions, or her gun.

So, where does it come from, then? I'm afraid that will have to wait until Part II: Independence in Action.


  1. Interesting blog, I can't help but wonder are the photos examples of good or bad feminist types? Brave you made quite clear, so I assume it could be a little bit of both.

    1. A bit of both, yeah--I thought it might be interesting for readers to ask themselves whether they thought various characters were strong or not.

    2. Yeah, it was that bit at the end that had me a little befuddled, especially when it came to the Firefly visual representation. I was wondering if you saw Zoe's character in the same negative light, because aside her gruff war vet bravado, I found a lot more to her character.

    3. Yeah, that was more to illustrate my point about how a strong woman character could be gun-toting and no-nonsense--but those aren't the traits that make her strong.

  2. Ah, this blog is going along very well, I can't wait for the next part!

  3. I concur. A lot of YA novels are guilty of this "I'm badass because I hate girly things" trope. This is why I try to make my characters have a balance to them and have a reason behind their actions, instead of rebelling for rebellion's sake. (Then again, I'm reading mostly about teenagers and only a few years ago I also went through the same phase.)

    I love your blog. Keep it up!

    1. Hey, thanks, glad you like it. I'm always working to get more posts out--but it can be a struggle.

      I try to make my characters have a balance to them and have a reason behind their actions, instead of rebelling for rebellion's sake

      It's not that I think it's automatically bad to write a 'rebelling for the sake of it' character--it's a type that deserves to be explored. It only becomes silly when the author starts taking the character's arbitrary rebellion seriously and acting like it makes them 'edgy and deep'.

      But I think that's true any time you're writing characters who are naive jerks: there has to be some irony and satire of that behavior in there in order to make the situation engaging for the reader--otherwise you're just watching a naive jerk be a naive jerk, which is pretty dull.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Hey, I recently watched Brave again with my little nieces and nephews and remembered this post, so now I have to respectfully disagree with the things you mentioned about her.

      The thing about Merida's stubbornness is that that was the point of her character. In the beginning, she went against her mother's wishes and possibly endangered the future of her family and kingdom because she felt like her life was controlled, like her mother never really listened to her. (I think a lot of teenagers can relate to this want of freedom.) The latter is also her mother's problem with her, and they were never able to open up with each other. I don't think Merida's "I'll do whatever I want" attitude was portrayed as strength; they were clearly her flaws. Throughout the story, she was her own worst enemy.

      The film's message was how selfishness was self-destructive and how "our fate lives within us; you only have to be brave enough to see it." Both Merida and her mother were cowards in the beginning, in a way that they couldn't honestly face each other, but eventually learned their own personal faults and, together, tried to mend what was broken. As her mother pointed out, they both changed.

      So, I believe that in that sense, Merida IS strong, not only because she can wield bow and arrows, but because she was (or eventually became) brave enough to admit her mistakes, swallow her pride, and learn the importance of family.

      In conclusion, I don't think the writers are to blame for anything. They just showed a flawed character who learned her lesson.

      What do you think? :)

    4. I might agree if the story had shown Merida having to actually take responsibility and do things she didn't want to do to help the clan, but instead, she just manages to convince the other clans to let people marry who they want--which to me implies that the story is justifying her rebellion, not demonstrating that it was a flaw.

      The fact that the ending is about forgiveness and unconditional love means that she isn't being held accountable for her actions--she isn't taking on a responsible role, she's just being forgiven and allowed to continue doing what she likes. At that point, what earlier freedom is she giving up in order to preserve the community?

    5. Well, she did almost end up accepting responsibility and the marriage, except she was stopped by her mother because she (her mother) felt like Merida finally understood the things she was trying to tell her in the beginning. The thought is there; it just wasn't fulfilled.

    6. I think fulfillment is a pretty important part of the character arc--without that, the 'aesop' is broken.

      I mean, if the message is supposed to be 'stop being a self-absorbed prat and take some responsibility', but ultimately, Merida gets away with being irresponsible and isn't held accountable for her actions, then the supposed message is fundamentally undermined by what the story actually gives us.

      Though the authors seem to want to say something about accepting responsibility, that isn't actually what they end up doing, which leaves Merida a brat who skirts culpability, leaving the message something like 'do what you want, seek forgiveness later'.

  4. Clearly this is one of the best your writing here Keely. So much thing I agree upon the points in this article that I can hardly find any flaw. This is peculiarly spot on because you know, here in video game industry/culture the talk of women role in video game is a hot subject, especially after some feminist called Anita Sarkessian decided to make her own video regarding the subject via kickstarter. That of course, make the internet thrown into the flame because she have bad track record on making criticism and silencing those who disagree with her. So, everytime her video release, the debates rage on. I've seen that both side of the debater, opponent or proponent is very misinformed. Their conception of a strong female character is usually too shallow or fall into the trap like you've just desribed here. But worst is still the proponent since from their argument I can see clearly that most of the time, strong women character of their version is the one like Katniss (maybe this is unfair generalization, but their conception is still weak overall). Maybe next time when the debate rages on again, could I post this and redirect here?

    Can't wait for the second part Keely. Keep it up!

    1. Yeah, there has been a lot of virulent debate over the subject on the internet. I was actually optimistic about Sarkeesian's video series, but so far, it hasn't really done much for me. I don't think it's bad, but it's not exceptional, either.

      I guess if you want to link people to my blog, that's up to you, and whether you find it useful. Thanks for the comment, glad you found the article to be good.

  5. The woman in Scarlet Sister Mary nailed it for me, a strong woman.

    1. "Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong."

    2. Roxanne Russell said: "Scarlet Sister Mary nailed it for me"

      I haven't read it, though I do know it by reputation. What made the characterization stand out to you?

      MovieGuy said: "Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant . . ."

      Heh, I do like that quote. That's part of what I was trying to talk about here, where in a group of individuals in a story, all the men get to be 'the smart one' or 'the brash one' and the woman is stuck with being 'the chick', as if that were a defining personality trait.

  6. God, I'm glad I found your blog. Your analytical pieces surpass even your reviews for wit and insight. For someone with such provocative opinions (I doubt we have much to agree on with regards to Game of Thrones on HBO, The Hunger Games, Discworld), I can find nothing to disagree with in the theses of any of your essays.

    1. I haven't seen the HBO series, actually. I wouldn't be surprised if it was better than the book--since having scriptwriters and directors streamlining it, and actors putting feeling into each character seems like it might improve things.

      But thank you very much for your kind words. I'm glad that you find my analyses agreeable, even if we don't always share opinions on books.

    2. You might even find that you like George R.R. Martin's writing better in the episodes he does for the show; he adjusts to the show's changes of plot and tone without missing a beat. And the acting IS excellent, in particular Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister, who can put a scene in his pocket and walk away.
      To return to the original topic of your discussion, some of the strongest female characters I've encountered in books include:
      Sam from American Gods- she's not even in that much of the novel and she's still as vibrant a standout as any of the stranded deities.
      Thorn from Jeff Smith's Bone series- Smith says she was inspired by his wife; if that's true, he knows her as well as any spouse can know their partner. It really shows in his writing and drawing.
      Angua from the City Watch novels in Discworld- I could pick any one of Pratchett's many great female characters, but Angua's balancing act between a relationship, her job as a cop, and her werewolf instincts makes for engaging reading.
      Trillian from The Hitchhiker's Guide- she's just as in on the cosmic joke as anyone else. Just as funny, cruel, and sad.

    3. "You might even find that you like George R.R. Martin's writing better in the episodes he does for the show"

      Yeah, could be--though my experience on GR with his fans makes me never want to hear about him or his work again.

      "I could pick any one of Pratchett's many great female characters"

      I've never liked Pratchett's writing, though a lot of my friends are big fans.

      "Trillian from The Hitchhiker's Guide"

      Yeah, I think she's a pretty good example. She's got her own desires and motivations and isn't defined just by her femininity--she's also very smart and capable.

  7. About Scarlet Sister Mary- she is raw & real. Torn by the struggle between self & society, but willing to risk an exploration. Her final decision is to be bound by society, but it didn't diminish her character to me.

  8. Would you say Queen Elinor was a strong female character? She did seem to act independently to better the lives of others. As shown when she steps in to break up a crowd and figures out a solution for everyone.
    Then again, the whole movie kind of made me sick and if a strong character takes skill then there's probably some writing flaw preventing her becoming one.

    1. Footnote*sick(When I see the over rehashed themes from every Disney movie and then some, such as the robin hood arrow spitting cliche. The haphazard, contrived characters and plot. And lazy racism.)

    2. Huh, I don't know. I guess I was just taking her as the 'mother' and 'queen' character, who usually have some kind of power, though it's often a cliche type, built around nagging and guilt.

    3. She was naggy but I never saw that as a strength just her social intelligence. But there wasn't enough of that portrayed. I'd find it more intriguing if she was the main character.
      Then again they might not be able to keep it up

  9. You know, that point about strong women confirming the status quo is a really good one. I used to be annoyed when female characters did that, but then I remembered in King Lear Cordelia boldly refuses to flatter her father and claims that she'll reserve half her love for her husband. Even after she gets married, she still leads an army into battle to reclaim Lear's throne. Subconsciously I disagree with the idea of a woman's life revolving purely around her father and husband, but I can still admire the spirit and fortitude it takes for Cordelia to defend herself. I guess it's really the agency part that matters. It's kind of odd that a character like that is actually way more interesting than a faux-feminist like Katniss, even though my personal opinions align more with the latter's. And the fact that Shakespeare, a guy who lived hundreds of years ago, is actually more "feminist" than Suzanne Collins.

    1. Well, I think it's tempting for all of us to gravitate toward characters we agree with, and conversely to dislike characters who have very different points of view. However, this doesn't mean that the first kind are good characters, or that they are well-written, or that the latter kind are bad characters, or poorly-written. It can be hard to look at something and say 'I don't agree with any of this, but it's thoughtful, and very good' or vice versa--but that's a necessary skill for a good writer to have, it's an important part of critical thinking.

      You bring up Shakespeare, and in fact he's considered the prime example of an author who can get into the heads of his characters, no matter what they believe, what sort of person they are, or what side they are on. He never makes one side flat or predictable, he always makes sure that every character has good reasons to do what they do, strong internal motivations. It's a skill I think we should all try to perfect, not just as writers but as human beings: learning to really get into someone else's head, to understand them, and see things from their perspective.

    2. That's true. I remember having a weird experience with a book I really loved on GR and found a negative one-star review of it--and yet it was so well argued, spot-on, and funny that I couldn't help agreeing with everything the reviewer said. I still loved and defended the book, but I could imagine hating it too. After a while, it gets kind of tiring to "renew" the same old opinions again. One of my teachers told me that one of the main attractions of acting is that people get to take on roles that would be unacceptable in real life--like a serial killer, psychopath, beggar, etc. Haven't actually tried that out yet, but I imagine it must be an enlightening experience.

  10. I'm so happy I found your blog because I love your Goodreads reviews, and I know this was posted a long time ago, but I just...I was blown away by your writing. I totally agree with you when you wrote, "A female character can be strong without spouting cliches about equality--indeed, she can remain strong even as she confirms the status quo" and "Making a character contradictory and argumentative is not the same as making her strong..." because in a lot of YA and Fantasy novels, casting masculine, argumentative characters to represent strong women has become the norm. I find it infuriating. I mean the term is "strength of character," meaning personality and will, not brute force. When I read books, I'm looking for complexity because strength, like all human characteristics, is complex. But my favorite part was by far "A character is not their role" because that is biggest misconception in literary world. Especially newer books.

    1. I'm glad that you found the post to be worthwhile. The issues I talk about are definitely ones I see everywhere in pop culture today, not just in books, but in movies, TV, comics, and other media.

      It's obvious that these creators are trying to make better female characters, they just don't understand how. They have other characters talk about how strong they are, they give them weapons, they put them in dynamic poses on the cover, they make women soldiers and warriors--but then they completely fail to actually make them into self-reliant individuals.

      They are blind to the problems they put into their work, the misconceptions and cultural prejudices, because it's what they were raised to believe. And then the audience, who were raised to believe the same thing, react positively when they see it repeated on the page. It's comforting to read stuff that agrees with us, and tells us that we are right in our assumptions--but of course, stuff like that just increases the bias and self-righteousness of the reader.

      Hopefully it's something we'll get better at in the coming years, since there is so much focus on the issue right now, and so much discussion. I'd certainly like to see an improvement there.

      In any case, thanks for the comment.

  11. Thank you for this blog, your texts are definitely food for thought (although you seem to treat some of the stories I love a bit harshly ^^). As for strong females in fantasy - I could come up with some examples from paranormal romance (or books on the border between that and fantasy); I'm not sure if you ever tried that kind of stuff - Anita Blake (the earlier books), Rose from Vampire Academy; it's been a while since I read them last, so I'm not sure about complexity of their characters; what I do remember though is that they never gave up, were extremely (almost stupidly) brave, had tough and dangerous jobs (yeah, right, don't confuse jobs with personalities - but in these two cases, their jobs were clearly the consequences of their characters and 'drives' so to say), and yet remained feminine in the sense they cared about their looks, liked to wear pretty clothes, and showed clear interest in men, flirt and sex. All in all I can't claim they're extremely original and whatnot; but they definitely had strong will, motivations, and what's best, they were tough and persuasive enough to get what things done.
    Sorry for the rant, but I've already refrained from commenting on another of your articles, and I'm simply not strong enough to do that twice.