I believe we are at the point where mere strength isn’t enough for us, and the next stages of female characterization are where we should be looking. That next stage is all about diversifying, about asking “What makes a good character?” or perhaps “What makes a good female character?”.
What I am not saying here is that I am in any way opposed to the concept of strong female characters in modern media. What I am here for is to talk about what lies beyond them, what the next step for writing fictional female characters are, and what moving on to that next step requires from us as consumers and creators.
First I want to talk about what it is that excites us all about strong female characters. We all have certain favourites: Olivia Pope, Wonder Woman, Hermione Granger, Ororo Munroe a.k.a Storm are just some of the women I am sure we all could name for their power. We love the way they do their job and are the best at it. We love that they stand shoulder-to-shoulder with great male characters and their talent can not be denied. We want to know what they are doing next, we sometimes want to be just like them. We can see people in our lives embodied within them: our mothers, sisters, friends, lovers, our children even.
They stand as a monument to the strength of the everyday woman. They say: look, we can be powerhouses too! We’re strong and resilient and exciting and intimidating and just as good as any man.
Now the characters I mentioned above are similar in that they are all nuanced in their personalities. They all have moments where they are those powerhouses in their own ways, moments where they are emotionally vulnerable, and everything in between. Yet, we focus on their power, in fact we cling to it in some ways.
We tend to view it as the most important thing about who they are as a character when in fact there are so many other things that come together to make up who they are. There are so many things that come together to make up women in the real world too, but the perception is that power is not one of those things. In desiring an image that contradicts this perception we focus in on that thing we desire and it forces the character to be perceived as quite two-dimensional from the outside. Hermione Granger is nothing but “the smart one” until you read the books and understand the other facets of her personality. It makes space for creators to lump us with two-dimensional, uninspired women under the pretense that they are a ‘badass’ or ‘strong’ because those traits are what we respond to.
I would argue that pulling the focus off that one aspect of a character and appreciating female characters for all the parts that make them up will breed better characters. In the words of author and self-proclaimed feminist John Green, we need to learn to imagine them complexly.
When I hear people speak about a Strong Female Character, especially those working alongside men like Storm or Wonder Woman, the phrases often bandied around are things like:
“…she is just as good as any of the men on her team…”
“We all know she could kick any man’s ass…”
“She fights/talks/thinks like a man…”
The only way the average consumer seems to be able to describe these powerful females is do describe them in terms of men, because men are still the unit by which we measure strength. It is implies a male dominance over these women that are supposed to be just as powerful, because the only way we can understand their existence is by explaining it in terms of men. They can’t just be powerful in their own right, and I suppose that is because we women know that in reality we often cannot be strong in our own right. Our work and our ways of life and our everything is compared back to men on a daily basis so maybe this is the only way we can understand female characters because, sadly, it is the only way we understand ourselves and each other.
For some consumers, potentially even some of the people reading this post, the only valid female characters are indeed the ones that are strong and powerful. Female characters that are weak or helpless are deemed unappealing, stereotypical, and entirely anti-feminist.
Does that then mean that the only women that are of value, to these consumers, are those that are comparable to men? Or, more accurately, a stereotype of men?
We need to project our desire to be understood as our own entities into our understanding of female characters. Part of this is about refraining from using male characters as the scale to which female characters are based. The other part is about diversifying the types of female characters we have in the first place.
We know that the roles of female characters in most mainstream media, especially television and films is incredibly limited. There is this small, specific set of character types that they fall into, so much so that the characters we find that stand out from the norm we find either thrilling to the point of hoisting them onto a pedestal or thoroughly offensive.
For female women of colour, the room for deviation is even more limited, and met with ridiculous and often offensive, stereotypical reasons as to why they shouldn’t exist.
“Let’s be real, we all know black girls don’t speak that way.”
“It just wouldn’t make sense for the main character to be an Asian girl, they don’t have the right look. No one could relate.”
As a response to these ideas, women will cling to those exciting characters, those that are anomalies and go against the norm. The problem is that this rebellion clings to one character in particular, the strong female, and dismisses women that aren’t this as offensive or stereotypical.
I know a lot of women, and pretty much none of them are a Samus Aran or a Jill Valentine.
Most of us are pretty complex, miserable, angry, afraid, sad, and often unheroic human beings, male and female.
Some of us (and let’s be real here) are utter trash.
The thing is that the male characters that embody this imperfection are described as relatable, complex, flawed, and engaging. Where as women that are genuinely flawed or, God forbid, weak are dismissed as anti-feminist.
There is a hugely diverse cast of character types and mixtures of character types that can be played by men and indeed are played by men. There is a cast just as diverse for women, but they are not being portrayed because they are not being written. Laziness on the part of content creators prevents it. Supposed ideas of what the general public does or does not want to see by marketing executives who have no idea about what we truly care about prevents it.
Our lack of utter frustration prevents it.
Where are my female villains that aren’t walking personifications of a male fear of female sexuality?
Where are my muscular female super heroes that do not have to be attractive, only good at their job?
Where is that great American novel starring a jaded, miserable black teenage girl on a path to self-discovery?
Where are all the complex and interesting female characters that do not have a responsibility to necessarily be empowering for anyone at all?
Where are all my characters whose sex takes a back seat to what they are really about? Where are the fantastic characters that just happen to be female?
I made a tumblr post about this, short and unremarkable in a fleeting moment of frustration. I received some support from friends who felt the same, and I was proud for a moment I was not the only one who felt this way!
Then I realised that the few of us that co-signed that post were all just sort of sitting at home, frustrated and not really doing anything about it. We want the people in charge of that stuff to do something about it!
But then, we’re all in charge of it. Whether we are writers or readers, makers or consumers we have a responsibility to make noise about what it is we want to make and want to see.
This age of the internet, YouTube, blogging, and the ease at which we can put our creations out into the world for all to see the line between creator and consumer is almost non-existent. We all have the capacity to be both, and so all have the capacity to both create progressive content and to support progressive content. That commonly said adage ‘Be the Change you Want to See’ could not be more relevant.
We spoke earlier about the constant comparison of women, even strong women, back to men. This is an understanding of women deeply ingrained into modern culture and trying to dismantle that is not something I can do with an article. However, as a writer, I can create worlds in which that comparison does not have to be made. I can imagine and bring to life a world in which men and women are imagined complexly and separately, and people can thereby read that idea, absorb it, and think: ‘huh, I wonder if the real world could be like this?’
As a consumer I can look out for shows and books and games in which that comparison does not have to be made, tell those around me about them and spread that concept into other minds. We can use fiction to lead the real world by example. In the same way we have modern technology that was influenced by sci-fi like touch-screens and mobile phones, we can have modern philosophies influenced by fictional worlds.
Shows like How to Get Away With Murder or Black-ish are the kinds of shows that those marketing officials say are ‘too difficult to get out there’, ‘won’t appeal to the general public’. Marketing officials would say that the idea of the Doctor with a black female companion, or a companion he doesn’t have to be in love with, would just not go down well with the masses.
We need to keep bucking the trend and proving them wrong by making the things we want to see and supporting the things we want to see. Just saying we want to see strength makes it too easy, just saying we want to see strength comparable to male strength makes it easier still.
However, creators should strive to make their television and books and video games and everything else complex and diverse and ultimately engaging; things that are never easy to create.
Jaxx is a lover of words, lover of music, and lover of tabletop games. She is an English grad looking for a job, and in the meantime spreading her opinion all over the internet. She blogs, tweets, and writes about music for a site by the name of Crumbs For Men, and on a whole she is rather opinionated, rather British, and rather friendly (she hopes!).
Creative Writing: http://theinkblotrocks.blogspot.com
Featured image found on http://jamiefayx.deviantart.com/