Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Writing Strong Women, Part II: Independence in Action

Madonna, Whore, and Man in Le Fanu's 'Carmilla'
So last time, we talked about all the different things authors try to do to convince us that they've written a strong female character--despite the fact that such details have nothing to do with whether the character is strong or weak. What truly makes a character weak is when their actions and motivations are defined solely in terms of their relationship to other characters in the story--in the case of a weak woman, this often means that she is reliant upon the main character, who is male.

Women are impressed and intrigued by him, they follow him around, they arch their eyebrows at his quips. They get captured by the villain to provide something for him to do. Perhaps they come into conflict with each another over him, forming a love triangle, or some more complex polyhedron. Then, they sit back and wait for him to decide which one he wants to be with.

Of the stereotypes we discussed before, the Madonna always trumps the Whore--the femme fatale always dies, the final girl always lives, Éponine gets shoved aside for Cosette, and Arwen takes the prize over Eowyn. If you're wondering what makes Arwen the Madonna, it's her sacred, distant, mystical elf nature, while Eowyn's masculine notions of being a warrior sully her pure womanliness. Of course, I'm talking about the books--in the movies, both women get swords, in an attempt to make Arwen's distant passivity (which is now a somewhat passe cliche of womanhood) seem less like bland weakness.

What's particularly telling is how women fall for the protagonist even when he's a dull ass--either because the author is playing out his own fantasy of beautiful women fighting over an awkward weirdo, or because his male characters don't have any more depth than his women. In particularly bad cases, every woman who shows up becomes a love interest (except for the ugly witch, of course). We call this a 'harem story', and in anime, it forms an entire subgenre of works about boring men and the women who inexplicably desire them.

"What do you want to talk about?"
Of course, this isn't to say that we should avoid romances, or love triangles or other such entanglements in our stories--the real question is: do these women have a life outside of enticing (and being enticed by) men? I'm not talking about hobbies or skills, but actual personal motives: a sense of morality, a unique view of the world--an internal life that isn't dependent on the whims of some other character. When two women in the story are alone, what do they talk about? Is it their relationship to male characters in the story? That's part of the question asked by The Bechdel Test, one way of trying to determine if female characters in a story actually have personalities:
At some point in the story, do two women talk to each other about a subject other than a male character?
Of course, this need not be a strict guideline for writers, nor is it necessary in order to write a strong female character--but it does help to reveal how the relationships between women are shown (or not shown) in a given story--and also brings up the question of those women's interior lives, their desires and motivations. What are a female character's interests outside of the hero, his quest, and the villain? What was she doing with her life before the hero showed up? Did she just give up all her former desires when they met? What does she do when he isn't around to give her narrative purpose?

This kind of dependency can exist even for women characters in positions of power. Imagine a female villain: she wants to humiliate the hero, to destroy him, to hurt those he loves, to fill his life with pain--now, what is central to all her goals? That's right: the hero. Putting 'world domination' on top of this as some kind of excuse doesn't fix it, either--not only is it a flat, empty motivation that only serves as a convenience for the author, but the fact that the hero is the only one who can oppose her means that all her focus just shifts back onto him, anyway.

"She who must be obeyed."
Add to this the fact that she probably carries a secret flame for the dolt, and she's doubly-defined by him. Hell, she'll might even defect at some point and give up all her dreams of power and glory just to be with him--but since her villainous ways tend to put her on the 'whore' end of the scale, she won't get to become a real love interest--either she'll die saving his life, or the author will 'gift her' to one of the hero's friends.

Because, of course women are prizes given out to heroes for finishing their quest. It's one of the most basic structures in our stories, so much so that it tends to be taken for granted. Of course the hero ends up with the girl--we never question it, even if the author never actual bothered to develop any kind of emotional relationship between them.

So, if a weak character is one whose life is defined by others, then a strong character must not be externally defined. They must instead be 'active'--or as literary folk say, they must 'have agency', which is a big enough topic that it deserves its own post. For now, there's one basic question to consider: is the character acting, or only reacting? Is the course of her life defined by decisions she's made, or do the events of the world simply carry her away?

You see stories all the time where the main character has almost no choice in what they do: they're blackmailed, their friends are kidnaped, they're forced to act at gunpoint, they're imprisoned, and only break out when another inmate shares a secret plan, then some wise man figure arrives and tells them what's really going on, and any time they're about to be killed, a new character shows up at the perfect moment and saves them--at every turn, someone either tells her what to do next, or just pushes her out of the limelight and does it for her.

Sarah Connor of 'The Terminator'
In such a plot, the character has no personal goals beyond generic self-preservation, which is an avoidant goal, not an active one: the character only acts when forced, and only does what they have to do to survive. This means their only presence in the plot is reacting to threats. It's also the most universal and prevalent motivation in human beings, so it doesn't really confer much strength or personality. Pretty much anyone in the same position would act in the same way.

Instead of this bland motivation, she might make sacrifices for what she believes in--or even wimp out and fail to do the hard thing. Both make for a stronger sense of personality than just following an inflexible plot. Or the character could be working toward some personal goal which is constantly made more difficult by the challenges that come up. It's the difference between things just happening to the character, and things happening because of the situations the character puts themselves into.

A good example of how to separate active from passive characters is this analysis of the main female character from the movie Van Helsing. Though she is supposed to be strong and butt-kicking, when you actually review her actions throughout the story, it becomes clear that agency is denied to her, again and again. She must be saved and corrected at every turn. In the end, if the hero hadn't been there, she would have been dead a half-dozen times over, and mostly due to her own incompetence. Though she may sometimes be allowed to act, her actions are never the right ones, and she is always corrected by the superior male hero.

With female characters like this, who are defined by the actions of a man, he'll be the one making the decisions--the plot moves at his behest, and everyone else moves along with him. The 'Damsel in Distress' is a classic example of a passive character defined by the actions of another, and this is precisely the fate that waits in store for many supposedly-strong female characters: despite all their muscle, their stubborn temperament, their bow, and their bravery, they end up incapacitated or jailed by some guy, and then just wait around until they're rescued by another.

Another problem is that trying to make a passive character strong often results in jerks, as we discussed of the character Merida in Part I. Giving a woman strong opinions without giving her the agency to back them up leaves her hollow. After all, there are few things more annoying than the whiny, shrewish person who tells everyone else what to do, then never does anything, themselves. Anna from Van Helsing has this problem: she bickers with the hero constantly, but since he's always shown to be right, it's clear that she has no idea what she's talking about--an argumentative fool is not a character who the reader is going to take seriously--a male character who behaves this way will almost always be killed later (or nearly killed) to prove that point.

'Kiss Me Deadly'
For a false 'strong woman' stereotype like this, she often starts out disliking the hero, mocking and teasing him, saying she doesn't need him, but slowly growing to appreciate him, over time--after all, he does all the cool, important stuff, while she's relegated to little more than a passive sidekick, and all of her protests that she can 'do it herself' will be quickly disproven when he's forced to save her from her own stupidity. In more badly-written stories, there is no 'gradual dawning of feeling' at all--she'll just suddenly start spouting love for him out of nowhere. This is representative of another type of chauvinistic obsession: instead of the dull, pure, airheaded virgin who sweetly falls for the hero, we get a difficult, resistant woman whom the hero has to 'defeat', forcing her to love him against her will--the old cliche of the woman who slaps the hero for coming onto her, struggles in his arms as he kisses her, but then gradually gives in, quite literally unable to resist his rough advances.

The idea is that the more she resists the man, the sweeter his victory, because a girl who gives in easily isn't 'worth it'--after all, only a whore gives it up without a fight. It's the same creepy 'no means yes' idiocy which causes the stupidest of men to harass, stalk, or even assault women, because no matter what she says or does, how she resists or fends him off, nothing will stop him from believing that she secretly 'wants it'--which, quite frankly, I find rather sickening.

Of course, that doesn't mean we shouldn't depict relationships that start out rough and turn out well--or that we shouldn't include chauvinist characters. The real question is whether or not our story goes out of its way to excuse or justify such behaviors. The treatment of ideas and themes in our writing, as explored through the structure of our plot and the personalities of our characters is vital to how our stories turn out--whether they are thoughtful or insulting--but that is another topic.

Kate Beaton's Velocipedestrienne
For now, suffice it to say that our characters, their relationships, and our plot always have themes--things like hope, friendship, betrayal, faith, rationality, poverty, tyranny. Those themes will be there, whether we put them there purposefully or not, and I think it's much better for us to recognize them, and work to decide which themes we want to present, and how, rather than just let them fall where they may. It is only by paying careful attention that we can recognize our own prejudices, and avoid letting them dominate our writing.

If every religious character is a jerk, and every scientific-minded character a paragon of humanity, that's a book that has been stretched too thin by its bias, leaving no room for characters with any depth. The ability to write different types of characters who disagree with each other without turning the 'bad' ones into straw men and the 'good' ones into authorial stand-ins is called 'Negative Capability'. The difference in how various characters are portrayed can reveal not only political, cultural, and spiritual biases, but also gender bias. Such little details of characterization often pass beneath the notice of a reader who isn't looking for them--many writers don't even realize the implications they sow so deeply into their stories. We'll talk about how to ferret out those discrepancies in Part III: Subtle Inequalities.


  1. Negative Capability; now I know what was missing from what little Ayn Rand I tried reading, besides good prose.

  2. I just wanted to acknowledge my appreciation for these excellent blog posts, Keely. That's a thoroughgoing and very well observed dissection of the topic ... and it's not always easy to write about with such clarity and sense either.

    I'll be steering people in this direction when I want to explain to them why portrayals of women in genre writing/film is so often poor.

    1. Well, there are a lot of great folks out there addressing this topic right now, and I hope that's a sign that things are changing. I link to quite a few articles in my posts that I found inspirational, so it's not just me sitting here, speaking off the top of my head--I am trying to bring together aspects of the larger conversation, too. It's gratifying to hear that you find what I do to be useful, and I hope my posts will help to better explain the problem to the folks you send here.

      Thanks for the comment.

  3. "Another problem is that trying to make a passive character strong often results in jerks, as we discussed of the character Merida in Part I."

    Okay, I'm gonna have to stop you there, and make a counterpoint with my take on the character, based on what I've read in these articles so far. The way I see it, that's the point of the character. She has the mindset to question the societal pressure applied to her, and the strength of character to object to it, but she's still a child, even if she's of marriageable age. She's selfish, not uncommon for a member of the royal family, and her wish ultimately led to the near doom of her family, and that's the point. Just as, say Sansa Stark manages, in my opinion, and again, based on how you defined a strong (female) character, to be a strong character: there is a reason for her to be the way she is and to act the way she acts. She is a formerly idealistic girl who liked tales about knights and princesses, whose world views got shattered by the cruel reality, and that made her scared and more cautious with what she says and does, which is why she appears to fit into the damsel in distress template, but this is actually who she has become. She's not a prize to be earned by the hero as a reward for completing the quest (probably thanks to George's tendency to kind of kill the main characters), she is a well characterized actual inhabitant of the author's world, who acts within the rules imposed by the author, if you catch my meaning.

    Likewise, Merida makes a wish that threatens her family, not because of token feminazi pandering, but because she simply didn't know any better, because it was the first time she had the possibility to alter the situation of her family, but didn't actually realize that, since politics was of little interest to her, or something. She has a character, she has a goal, albeit undefined and childish, because, I reiterate, however capable with a bow she may be, her mind hasn't matured yet, so she made a mistake. That's human, that's strong character, why would you give her as a bad example?