There’s a cry for “Strong Female Characters” that still echoes through media. The phrase “Strong Female Character” is still used despite the fact that many people have pointed out it’s a frustratingly vague phrase that doesn’t mean what we want it to mean most of the time.
So to clarify – generally people get the idea that in order to make a “good, acceptable” female character, she must have a lot of “masculine” traits: actual physical strength, ability to fight and defend herself, mechanical know-how, dominant personality. Also she shouldn’t wear a skirt. Boo, skirts!
I really hope that in general we can understand that “strong female character” was supposed to mean “a female character who is three-dimensional, or a strong character who is female”. But even in that case, just saying “strong character who is female”, there can still be that same wrong idea that a strong character is a strong person. That’s not always the case, you know. An insecure, physically weak character who is well-developed is still a strong character in the sense of being a good character. In real life, there are certainly a lot of women with dominant personalities, fierce and driven and determined, impatient with others, women who exercise and are physically strong. There are a lot who are meek and lack physical strength, who are sweet and very concerned with others. And there’s a billion variations thereof, mixing those traits and a whole bunch of others. So making a strong female as a character, even well-developed, and sticking to that and that personality alone is just making a new crappy stereotype that funnels women into one narrow definition that maybe not all of us fit or even want to fit.
Apparently, it is offensive to make a submissive woman, even if she’s well-rounded. Damsels in distress, no matter how brilliant a personality, no matter what other skills she has, is just not okay (according to some “feminists”) because it still shows a woman who is, in one area that is apparently the end-all be-all area, weak.
A woman character who even wants a man is unacceptable, let alone one who “needs” him. It’s not okay for her to have a lot of “feminine” qualities, it’s not okay for her to have only “feminine” skills, it’s not okay for her to be meek.
Look, if you write a woman who can’t and doesn’t fight, who is physically weak, who has zero “masculine” traits, that’s okay and I’m irritated that we feel like all of our woman have to be Buffy.
Buffy’s a great character, love her, but not all of our women are going to be warriors. Some women ARE meek. Some women ARE humble and submissive. And that’s totally okay, it really is. They can still be cunning, thoughtful, they can still take action even if their actions are subverted – and that can be a source of conflict. Other characters can and probably should take notice of this. We’re afraid to show women this way, however, because of the social message that women are or should be quiet, submissive [to men], or otherwise a feature rather than a person. But here’s the thing about that problem – it has a really simple solution:
If you don’t want to send the message that women should be quiet and submissive to men, don’t support the idea that women should be quiet and submissive to men. Bam, done.
I didn’t say don’t have women who are quiet or submissive to men. No. You can have a character who is or believes something to which you are opposed. I have a character who is a homophobe, big time, I have characters who murder and torture and commit unspeakable acts. I have characters who come in all sorts of flavors of racist. Actually in my current WIP one of the MCs deals with racism against him with basically almost anyone. Am I homophobic, a murderer, racist? I suppose it’s not fair for me to say I’m not, but if I am, I’m certainly not to the extent of my characters! (Actually it’s pretty fair for me to say I’m not a murderer. I am definitely not a murderer.) You know why it’s important to include these things in my story? Because these things exist whether I write about them or not, and in the context of my story, it makes sense for them to exist right there. For me to not write them is just to weaken my story because in the world there are all types so in my story there has to be all types.
What does this have to do with strong women? If THE STORY doesn’t support sexist or misogynistic behavior, then what do you have to worry about writing that behavior in? It exists, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, and to address it would be better than to ignore it. What’s important is whether or not THE STORY – not characters IN the story but the narrative itself – supports this behavior as good.
And more importantly, there are all types of women. If you write all types rather than just one type, you are not presenting a role-model that you think women have to fit – whether the busty side-kick of man-accessory or the warrior woman of independence – but you are doing a real service to women by representing not a figurehead but women. Women who are smart – because she’s good at math or science, or because she’s a wizard in the kitchen, or because she’s a history buff, or because she’s crafty (like arts and crafts crafty), or because she’s a nurse, etc ect. Women who are blonde, brunette, red-headed, white-haired, long-haired, short-haired, blue-eyed, green-eyed, brown-eyed, flat-chested, busty, somewhere between, lean, slender, curvy, chubby, tall, short, gorgeous, pretty, homely, striking…women who are fashionable, women who aren’t, who are nerds or jocks or performers or homemakers or businesswomen. Women who are of every ethnicity and race. There are so, so many out there, so someone please tell me why we are quibbling about whether or not we write a flat damsel or a flat “strong” woman?
There are other things a woman can do and they aren’t less because they aren’t the same things we generally associate with a man as doing. (If a woman is less because she isn’t doing what a man’s doing, you’re still saying women is less because she’s only worth something when she’s pretending to be a man, by the by.) In our household, I am incredibly valuable to my husband because I provide emotional security to him. When he’s about ready to say “I quit” with whatever trial, I keep him going. Why, oh, why, is that trait criticized? That’s an amazing trait. That’s critical and important and precious. Is it a supporting trait? Sure, but there’s nothing wrong with supporting characteristics. Sure, it might be nice if once in a while the fighter meat shield in the adventuring party was a woman instead of just the healer, but there is nothing wrong with being the party healer! (to put it in swords ‘n’ magic RPG terms). If you have a woman who has the man doing all the fighting and heavy lifting, that could show not that the woman is helpless without him, but that she, as a wise person, knows her weaknesses and limits, and is smart enough to find someone who is trustworthy and can perform those tasks for her. No hero is weak for choosing a bow and arrow instead of a sword – no hero is weak for choosing his allies carefully – yet we criticize heroines as weak for doing just that.
Your woman doesn’t have to be “strong”, she just has to be “real” and damn what anyone else says. Because we’re writers, and great writers write great stories with real people in them.
So you know what you should write? PEOPLE. Who are female. And also male. And possibly robots and aliens and mystic races, I really don’t care. Just write ’em people as in not caring whether you’re writing ’em strong or not, just worry about who they are, where they’re strong, where they’re weak, and you’ll write what you need to do.