Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Writing Strong Women, Part V: Where are the Strong Women?

Kate Beaton's 'Strong Female Characters'
Last time, we talked about the relationship between a woman and society--but there is also an odd relationship between the idea of the 'strong woman' and society: despite the fact that she's discussed so often these days, nothing seems to change about how women are portrayed--or at least, not for the better. As pointed out in great articles like A Plague of Strong Female Characters, Why Strong Female Characters are Bad for Women, and I Hate Strong Female Characters, as well as Kate Beaton's comics on the subject, 'Strong Female Character' has just come to mean emotionally damaged, commitment-phobic, laconic, and gun-toting.

Usually she'll have a rape backstory, too--and if she doesn't have one to begin with, a later writer will add one. It's really just another way to do 'damsel in distress', but with a female hero: in the standard formula, the bad guy shows up, steals the girlfriend, and then the male hero has to get revenge and save the girl; for a so-called 'strong woman', the villain steals the 'innocent girl inside her', and so she must go on a quest and get that part of herself back, by killing him. A lot of writers seem to think the natural state for a woman is frilly and sweet, but that a quick application of sex crime is all it takes to make her a violent buttkicker. Even Joss Wheedon, much lauded for how he deals with female characters, couldn't resist making the entire background for mystical female power in Buffy The Vampire Slayer into an extended rape origin story.

Lt. Ellen Ripley
Pretty trite, I know--but at least it's not as bad as hurting a female character in order to motivate the male hero--if there's one thing you learn from these articles, please let it be 'a woman's physical and emotional pain is not just a convenient way to make a man angry' (I'm looking at you, Christopher Nolan). Of course, just because people like Nolan and Whedon sometimes falter, that doesn't mean we should condemn their work out of hand--but if such respected creators can still fall into uncomfortable implication land, what can we do differently?

Well, the first thing to remember is that in the phrase 'Strong Female Character', the adjective 'strong' is there to modify 'character', not 'female'. We need to write a strong character, period. The old cliche is 'write a man, then change the sex'--which can certainly work. In Dan O'Bannon's original script for Alien, none of the characters had a gender until specific actors were cast to play them--that's why they were all known by their last names. Ripley didn't even have a first name until the second film. She's been heralded as one of the strongest female characters in any story (and certainly any genre film), and it's mostly because she was a character first, and a woman second. Like most male characters, she was given personality and motivations to set her apart, and these traits had nothing to do with how she was gendered.

A great illustration of character first, gender second comes from videogames, where you can often choose the gender of your main character. For those unfamiliar: in quite a few games, you can select whether the hero of the story is a man or a woman. Yet, throughout the story, they have the same friendships and relationships, make the same decisions, take the same actions, say the same words, struggle through the same hardships and losses--the only difference is a cosmetic one. (Unfortunately, this 'generic hero story' often means glossing over the culturally-specific experiences different people tend to have--for example, the fact that every character in the story treats a black female hero the same way they would a white male one, which is a subtler kind of whitewashing.) If it helps, you might want to think to yourself, as you're creating characters and writing dialogue, 'would I still write it this way if the character was of the other gender?'

At least the snake tail looks natural
But of course, one can also take the 'write a man, then change the sex' advice in a less productive direction, creating another cliche, the 'wo-man'--a standard masculine hero, only with a set of boobs bolted on, a la Michelangelo. Instead of this, we should try to recognize that in every person there are a lot of traits that have nothing to do with sex, or gender, or sexual preference.

That's part of what makes it unfortunate that, by the time Ripley does get a first name, her personal strength is transformed in to a feminine cliche: the strong mother figure--and then she has to imitate masculinity by picking up a gun and battling her way through a giant murder-womb ('nuke it from space!').

But she didn't need the gun the first time around to be heroic, so why add one now? Wasn't part of her strength the fact that she survived without being a napalm-fueled killing machine? It's the same problem we get with Sarah Connor in the Terminator franchise--hell, even before she gets pregnant, her whole life is defined by her role as a mother. She's important not because of her own competence, but because of her ability to produce a competent and important man at some point in the future--and she has to transform herself from a fluffy-haired waitress into a gun-toting, musclebound badass in order to do it--her femininity must be suppressed in order for her to be effective. Another strike against Whedon is that he did the same thing to Black Widow. Now, this doesn't necessarily make these women weak characters, but it does align them more closely with cliche feminine roles. Where's the film about the woman who protects her child without having to resort to laconic violence? Where's the woman who doesn't feel a need to be defined by a child in the first place?

I know there are certain biases built into fiction--expectations about how characters should behave in a story, even though real people don't behave in these stereotypical ways. My roommate in college once wrote a story with a generic heroine, then gender-swapped her. When he read the story in class, everyone was confused--specifically because at one point, when things weren't going well, the now-male character broke down and cried. This so upset their sense of narrative propriety that they spent the rest of the class period talking about 'what it meant' about the character, what must have happened in his past to make him this way.

Now, I've seen many men cry when things went wrong--even minor things, and especially if they were already stressed out. Some of them were big, strong, manly men, too. Yet somehow, in the context of a story, readers have trouble accepting this, and go searching for some larger explanation. Now, I happen to think that engaging your reader like this isn't necessarily a bad thing--undermining their expectations, forcing them to think--after all, my friend's classmates all praised him for making such a 'deep, complex character', but each author must decide for themselves how much they want to cater to traditional narrative expectations.

Ensign Sue Must Die
Another problem is a lot of writers think 'strong female character' means having no flaws--or only having flaws that could be broadly defined as 'being a woman'--but it's not a character's strengths that make them unique, it's their weaknesses. Ironic as it may sound, flaws make for a strong character. It means that they have an internal life, that they will come across as vivid, dynamic, conflicted, and motivated.

After all, what do we call it when an author creates a super-competent character who has no flaws? That's right, the much-maligned Mary Sue. Male characters are allowed to be off-kilter--even heroes like Batman or James Bond are allowed to be disturbed, or goofy, or troubled, or damaged--while women are all-too-often relegated to dull, unadventurous 'good-girl' stereotypes.

In movies, TV, and other stories, you often see these bland, sexy women characters onto whom the writers have grafted some skill--she's a scientist, she's a super-hacker, an archaeologist--as if that makes her personality any less weak. Really, giving them all of these 'powers' without actually making them competent or complex is just another way of putting a woman on a pedestal, which of course, is abusive behavior. No one can live up to the pedestal--no real person, and no character--so, sticking them up there is always going to be at the expense of their capacity to be sympathetic, down-to-earth, or realistic--their capacity to be flawed. Putting someone on a pedestal makes their life all about you.

Plus the fact that, when you start making these female side characters competent badasses, it makes no sense for the schlubby male protagonist to be the hero of the story. Why are they secondary to him, why are they the ones who get captured and he has to save them? Well, it's a combination of the need for a down-to-earth, everyman hero and the attempt to make female characters 'strong' by grafting on karate kicks and scientific acumen. Sure, it's possible to do this as a clever subversion, as in Big Trouble in Little China, but the difference is that when you look at Jack Burton's actions throughout the film, it becomes clear that he is an incompetent sidekick who mistakes himself for the hero. Like the Van Helsing example from earlier, what's important isn't the character's outward appearance, or what we are told to think of them, but what actions they actually take in the story. Do they generally succeed or fail, do they help others, or do they need help from others, do they tend to be proven right, or proven wrong, do they lash out insecurely when challenged, or take it in stride?

As you may have noticed as you progressed through these articles, pretty much everything I've said is just basic writing advice for any character--male, female, or sentient rock: a character should not just be a secondary appendage of other characters, they should have their own desires and goals, they should be active and culpable for their choices, implying that they have a life outside of the story instead of simply appearing when it's convenient and then disappearing back into the authorial toybox when it isn't. They should have just as much variety as any other character, not only in the roles they play, but in terms of personality type, appearance, morality, sexual preference, &c. This is basic stuff.

Same character, different voice actor
Most authors seem to be aware of these basic rules when it comes to their male characters, so why do they suddenly forget them when it's time to write women? Clearly, they must think of women as being fundamentally different from men, so they approach those characters differently. That's the secret to writing strong female characters: don't stop doing all the things you would normally do to create a good character, just because she's female. Don't start treating her completely differently than you would any other character. Don't rely on old archetypes like 'slut', 'witch', 'mother', 'nag', 'ice queen', or 'good girl' instead of giving her an actual personality. Don't write her as strong when she first appears, only to make her secondary and inactive the moment your nerdy, boring hero arrives on the scene.

Also, don't have her overcompensate, as in the Captain America example from the Sophia McDougall article I linked to earlier, where Peggy Carter physically attacks a man who talks back to her, then fires live rounds at the hero for kissing another girl. This kind of overcompensation is always a sign of weakness, not strength. It's like an abused dog who tries to bite anyone who comes close to it--it's the outward symptom of insecurity and fear.

A character who is sure of themselves has no need to lash out at every perceived threat--they carry themselves with natural confidence and can afford to ignore minor slights. Think of the old samurai cliche of the great swordsman who sits alone, trying to eat his rice in peace, paying no heed to the insults and threats of the local thugs, attempting to deescalate, until at last he is forced to defend himself (or someone else). If your female character has to attack people and yell her way through every other scene in order to assert herself, that's going to read as stark insecurity--a sign that she does not possess the inner strength to do what needs be done. The whole cliche of the unemotional, I-don't care-what-you-think 'strong woman' is built on someone who is so emotionally damaged that she's lost the capacity for trust. Antisociability is not the same thing as self-reliance.

It's a common dynamic, one we can see in the hidebound movie scene of 'man says something inappropriate, woman slaps him'--though I wonder how often people consider what that implies about the characters. If two men were talking and the same thing happened, we'd read the slapper as being weak and over-emotional, because he's responding to mere words with physical violence--he's overreacting. And yet, we tend to accept it from female characters, so why is that?

What it suggests about our culture is that a man's words simply have more power and authority than a woman's--and hence, that either the woman can't come up with a suitable comeback (because women aren't allowed to be witty and biting), or that no matter her reply, it simply wouldn't be taken seriously (because she is a woman so her words have less weight). So instead, she resorts to physical violence, and we accept this response as fair, suggesting that a man's words are as powerful as a woman's actions. That's some thorough disempowerment there

Another thing you may want to consider in your stories is exploring not just one woman--or even a few female characters--but actually looking at female interrelationships. I don't mean female rivalries, because those are all too common (the idea that 'women can't get along' is a pretty tired cliche), but actual female friendships, and mutual reliance. There are so many paeans in this culture to the 'bromance': The Odd Couple, Buddy Cop films, Jay & Silent Bob, Adventure Time--while women in stories often exist alone, relating mainly to male characters, or at most engaging in catty, petty rivalry with other women. Remember, people are social animals, they don't live in isolation, and interrelationships are a huge part of who we are. By absenting female socialization from stories, you isolate female characters, so that they have no opportunity to develop outside their relationship to men.

Beyond that, if the setup on the show is a bunch of men and one or only a few women, then the representation of how people socialize and how friendship works is going to be masculine by default. The women in the story end up existing only in relation to men, and as such, they are also defined by the masculine default--but as being secondary, or outsiders, or the butt of jokes--again, they're just the 'group chick', set apart solely by their gender, by how much they deviate from the 'male norm'.

Xena: Warrior Princess
One of the unique things about the old Sword & Sandals show Xena: Warrior Princess was that it was fundamentally about female friendship. Just as Hercules and Iolaus palled around, joking and relying on one another through thick and thin, so Xena and Gabrielle demonstrate that the same formula can be equally effective when applied to women--indeed, their exploration often had more depth and pathos than the goofy bro-dom of Hercules. The fact that both ladies were butt-kicking warriors made it a bit silly--but then, so were their male counterparts, so part of it is just the genre

And hey, as long as we're creating female interrelationships, we can also make women strong by stressing their social power. Of course, this can start getting into cliches of 'men are physical, women are social', but if that is a common value in the society you're portraying (as it is in many societies) then it can be a very effective way to make a strong woman character without resorting to a lady knight or some other anachronism of 'male role+boobs'. Hell, I'd suggest it's equally important to stress the social power of your male characters--far too many of them end up wholly reliant on their physical abilities, while never highlighting the social struggles that would naturally crop up in any story, which means we're missing out on the aspects of personality those struggles might reveal.

Overall, we don't want female and male 'equality' in a mathematical sense (one woman for every man)--it's more like the way that different types of animals are equally competent at their particular niche. People often misrepresent evolution--it does not mean that more recent forms of life are in any way superior to earlier forms. Being human beings, with all our cities and electric lights and such, we might sometimes imagine ourselves to be 'better' than squid--to be more 'highly-evolved'--but stick a human being a few hundred feet under the water for a couple days and see how that goes. Human beings and squid and every other animal on the planet are equally as evolved--they're just all evolved to deal with different sets of circumstances.

It's the same with 'character equality'. It's not that men and women need to be represented as being the same, having the same strengths, weaknesses, desires, habits, and roles. The idea is that each character--independent of their sex--has their own personality, their own dreams and fears, their own flaws and motivations, their own moral center. Every character should be fully-formed. Even if they sometimes lose, or give up, or make bad decisions, it's important that they do these things because that's who they are--not because of some narrative expectation, or because it plays into some social ideal or fetish, or genre cliche.

Don't write a strong woman, write a strong character. She can fail, she can cry, she can give up, she can be irrational or angry or ignorant, she can be physically weak, she can get stuck in bad positions, she can be incapable of physically defending herself--all of those are fine, as long as she's still a vivid character with an internal life. Don't make her a type--don't make her strong 'because she's a mother' or 'because she was raped', don't make her weak because 'she's over-emotional and in touch with her feelings', or because she's a valuable object that men compete over, don't make her a threat because 'women use sex as a weapon'--in short, don't seek out cliches of femininity in order to excuse her behaviors. She does not need to be excused. She needs to be set free, to have just as much variability and complexity in personality as any other character in a story--and she needs to exist in the context of a whole world filled with other women who are completely different sorts of people.

That's the big message here: never just represent one woman, demonstrate that in your story, in your setting, all women are living their own independent lives. Don't ignore or downplay fifty percent of your story's population. They need to be present, not just as a token example (or three), but as an integral part of society--of life, of politics, of art, of relationships, of family, of religion, of war, of rebellion, of wealth, of poverty, of race, of caste, of class, of risk and curiosity, and every other thing that makes us human--just as they are in the real world.

So, that's the end of my series on writing female characters--at least for now. Next week is another request article from one of my readers: my list of suggested comic books. Until then.


  1. An entertaining and enlightening series on a very important topic! I can't wait for more! :P

    Have you thought about putting your blog posts into categories? It's not necessary right now but, you may need to start soon with the way you're going.

    1. Yeah, I'll probably have to start using tags soon, to help people navigate.

  2. Great series. A lot of what you wrote is stuff I try to think about, or just take for granted, when writing any character, but it's always good to be reminded.

    I like your point about violence or physical prowess often being the stand-in for power. IMO this is where a lot of the problem stems, and it's a big assumption in any action-oriented genre. I also think genre plays into this issue in general, the perception being that certain genres are geared to one gender or the other. "Chick flicks" are generally better at depicting relationships between women and rich female characters, but they do carry certain assumptions about the audience as well. Which you do note, of course.

    1. Hey, glad you liked it--I know what you mean about how it's nice to be reminded. I mean, I know all these things, to some degree, but that doesn't mean I won't still slip up if I'm not careful when I write.

      ""Chick flicks" are generally better at depicting relationships between women . . . but they do carry certain assumptions about the audience as well."

      Yeah, it's funny, because a lot of woman-centric stuff, like chick flicks or romance novels, don't really portray women in any better light--a lot of times, in chick flicks, the woman is defined by her relationship to men, her need to be with men, to be a mother, and her life outside of that doesn't add up to much.

      But then, the stereotypical representation of men in male-oriented movies also tends to be pretty insulting to men, playing on the other set of stereotypes of what a 'real man' is supposed to be. It's not like all male characters are great and all female characters are flat--a lot of times, everyone's flat and cliche.

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  4. I'd like to see examples of female characters from literature, film and television that you consider strong. I know you have thus far displayed many characters in these articles but I can't help but wonder.

    But from here on, I'll definitely reconsider who I thought was once a "strong" female character. Ripley, I always assumed, was portrayed strongly in the first two Aliens as a strong character until you mentioned her cliches in James Cameron's sequel.

    1. Yeah, I felt the same way about Ripley until I started writing this series and really took a look at how she is characterized. Now, I'm not saying she isn's a strong character in Aliens--it's just that Cameron seems to be trying to excuse her strength by relying on cliches of femininity. That doesn't negate her strength, but it does diminish her, somewhat.

      I definitely think she's a strong character in the first film--extended underwear scene aside. I mean, sure, she's a 'Final Girl' in a horror movie, but she's not being defined by her sexual life, or lack of it--so I don't see that trope as defining her or taking away from her strength as a character.

      As for other examples, it can be hard to find them. I've been thinking about this, because a lot of people have asked me for examples, but I'm not sure I can think of any 'pure' examples besides Ripley in the first film. I mean, to some degree, it takes a lot of thought an analysis for each character to figure out what they really represent in the story--which is why a lot of characters seem strong until you actually look closely.

      So really, in order to make a list of legitimately strong female characters who haven't been either defeminized, or given feminine excuses for their strength--or both, as in Sarah Connor's case--I would really have to go through and analyze all of those different characters to look at how the author talks about them, what they do, their consistency--a lot of different details.

      That's why I don't feel I can just come up with a list off the top of my head. I mean, I sat there and started trying to think of examples, and I thought of Ripley, and then realized how she's undermined, and of Sarah Connor, and then how she gets the same treatment, and Zoe from Firefly, and how she's largely a 'wo-man'--a stereotypical male character played by a woman. So, I have to say I'm not sure. It's not that these women aren't strong characters, in their way, it's just that I can't think of a good example of a strong woman character sho doesn't get stuck on these same cliches.

      And it feels like for a TV series, it's going to be almost impossible, because there's going to be some episode in there that undermines the character with one cliche or another. Then again, just because something is a standard element of storytelling doesn't make it 'bad'--I mean, it's not that a mother shouldn't be protective of her child.

      I guess what I'm saying is that it can be easy to get caught up in details and then to write off a character, even though they may be well-written and have a lot of strong character traits, otherwise.

  5. Could I quote one of your opening lines in Part I as an inside jacket blurb for my fantasy saga? Specifically, "...a pink-glittered melodrama about psychic unicorns, brooding prettyboys, and angst" sounds like the quintessence of everything I've ever written! So funny. The rest of the article was pretty good too.

  6. Wow, really? I was sort of kidding, but now I might actually do it. It could work as a reverse psychology on readers to make them pick up my book, and then if they really do think that it's one of those pink-glittered melodramas after all, well, they can't say they weren't warned.
    ....I've never seen Alien, and am likely to remain ignorant, therefore I remain happily malleable in regards to whatever anybody else who ever lived has to say about it.
    Do you have a bias against unicorns? Because that might put you off my book (even with your quote!) if you ever came across it. I don't blame you if you are. I am positive that unicorns are the most worn out animals in the bestiary.

  7. interesting stuff but and I liked it for the most part. However your complaints about Ripley is kinda retarded. Of course she's going to have maternal instincts turn on around a kid because that's one of the most ingrained human instinct and would be weird and even alienating if she doesn't.

    If we flip the genders it would be work the same way because men too have paternal instincts and taught bemail responsible for for children in general. It's called being a decent human being!
    And it's not a novel thing in fiction either. Kratos was not the first mopey dad. John Matrix of the wonderfully over the top 80's action movie: Commando, pretty much conquered half of South America because his kids has been snatched by his treacherous former teammate. Darth vader sacrificed himself to save his son.

    Also both Ripley and Connor were in situations where using guns were the sane and logical because when it comes to extraterrestrial murder dildos or time traveling Austrian death machines, a high powered gun is exactly what people with functioning brain would settle on, be it a man, women or pangendered kentaur.

    1. "Of course she's going to have maternal instincts turn on around a kid"

      You're acting as if the movie is real life, and this kid just happened to wander along. The screenwriter could have chosen from countless character arcs and motivations when writing about Ripley, but from all those they specifically chose to make her story revolve around a child and cliches of motherhood.

      A reasonable male character would also have wanted to protect the kid, sure--but even in cases where this is a motivation for a male hero (Jurrasic Park, War of the Worlds, some of your examples), it tends to be made clear that this level of caretaking is a challenge for him, as opposed to something he just naturally falls into immediately (like Ripley does). With your Vader example, his sudden turn at the very end of the film is a completely different characterization from the care and nurturing written into Ripley.

      Or in the Commando example, my recollection is that the actual child is absent for the majority of the film, and shares few scenes with Arnold. So even when the same motivation is used for a male character, he tends to be shown as the distant protector, not allowed a close emotional relationship with the child, which is just another bad cliche. We definitely need to see more close, caring father characters too.

      "when it comes to extraterrestrial murder dildos or time traveling Austrian death machines, a high powered gun is exactly what people with functioning brain would settle on"

      This just shows that you haven't been paying attention to the movies. In Aliens, we get long, loving scenes of all the commandos arming up and getting excited to see some combat--but then they are all wiped out. The trained soldiers who bring in the big guns are shown by the movie to be fools.

      Indeed, the most successful character in the film is Newt herself, who survives by hiding, and for much longer than any of the colonists or marines, despite being unarmed. If Ripley had followed the logical progression of the film itself, then her method of saving Newt should have involved a lot of hiding and crawling through narrow passages. After just having watched a bunch of trained warriors get slaughtered, why would it make any sense for a random civilian to think strapping on a big weapon is going to help her in any way? It's goofy action movie schlock, like cars exploding when people shoot them.

      Likewise, in Terminator we see the robot just effortlessly mow through a whole police department of armed, trained guys--and once again, we are shown that the most effective technique is hiding and running away. Indeed, the ultimate victory in all the early Alien and Terminator films involves luring the monster into a convenient environmental trap (sometimes several), because it has been made clear for the past two hours that guns just won't cut it.

  8. Killing the love interest to motivate the main character is the same sort of sacraficial lamb as any other. It doesn't have unfortunate implications. They could use parents, siblings, children or even friends almost the same way as a female love interest.

    Those female revenge stories with typical backstories are not meant to have social commentaries about females. Most of are simple power trips the same way as the stories with male heroes. There's a whole explotation genre built around it.

    Sarah Connor and Ripley are still strong female characters despite their role as mothers being important.

  9. Sorry, but there are few things in there that are quite far-fetched.
    I don't think that interpretation even crossed Joss Wheedon's mind when he came up with that idea. It didn't occur to me, and probably most fans don't think of it that way.

    1. No, certainly it didn't occur to him, nor does it tend to occur to most people who watch his work. That's precisely the problem, it's why I write. People act and create without thinking, they consume TV and movies without thinking, they just take it all in and rarely give it a second thought.

      But what you put into you brain is what you get out. Your ideas and assumptions about the world come from your experiences. Surely you've seen many people who live in a tiny bubble, and ignore anything that contradicts them. And as you say, they rarely realize that they live this way.

      The culture we are in and the identity we have changes how we view things, how we create. It's why it's so embarrassing to go back and look at early stories and posts, because it's just so obvious what the writer wanted--their psychology is on full display. It's embarrassing because of how it clumsily reveals our insecurities.

      People write Mary Sues and other escapist characters because they feel weak, and want to experience what it is like to be strong. People read those stories for the same reason. A lot of male, middle aged fantasy authors write long scenes about hot women with torn clothing. I don't think they are necessarily aware they are doing this, as much as they are simply writing to satisfy their own desires, their own narrow view. A view they never question.

      But if we start to think about what we write, and what we read, then we can begin to recognize the effect it has. We can see our own biases, and perhaps even move past them.

      I mean, the fact that Joss has long, slow shots of barefoot women in every piece he makes shows his particular bias. He may not even recognize he's doing it, he's just filming what he thinks of as pretty. Nor does this mean his shows are bad, or invalid--but like any piece of art, there is a particular perspective there, no view is neutral and unbiased. I can appreciate his excellent work, on one hand, while still rejecting his short-sightedness elsewhere.

      He admitted publicly that he has problems with how he treats women, with the way he exerted power over them in personal situations. He looked into himself and found that insecurity, he addressed the problems it has caused, and he seems to be trying to change it. Like any good artist, or any good reader, he addresses and recognizes his own bias, and appreciates an opportunity to grow.