A post came out in the NewStatesmen today by Sophia McDougall called “I Hate Strong Female Characters.” A lot of you may have already seen it. It’s been shared by lots of people I know, I’ve seen links from several sources show up on my dash, and I RTed it myself earlier today.
I highly recommend you read it for yourself, but the gist of it is that Hollywood has taken the call for “more strong female characters” to mean that we literally want strong female characters. That THAT is the way to combat the stereotypical female characters that have always existed in Hollywood movies (i.e. damsel in distress, sexy eye candy, etc.) and provide appropriate representation for women in films and television (though this is much more a problem you see in movies than TV). Moreover, that the public also often misinterprets the idea of wanting “strong female characters” to mean this, and that male characters (protagonists in particular) are not held to this same intensely literal meaning when categorized as strong male characters. Male protagonists are allowed be a number of different, varying things, and strong in ways that may not always include or highlight physical (or mental or emotional) strength. And the post also brings up perhaps the worst offense of all, that female characters categorized as SFCs are often shown displaying excessive amounts of strength or physical aggression towards men in ways that would cause us as an audience to recoil if the roles were reversed and it was a man acting that way to a woman — the reason being that the audience assumes (or the people behind the film assume the audience assumes) the female character is “weak” until it is unequivocally proven otherwise, something the male characters don’t have to prove.
The article really covers everything, and I agree with it so very much, but this is something I’ve been thinking about incessantly for the past year or two, both in my writing and in watching things, so I’m gonna talk about it because it’s my tumblr and I want to.
"Is Sherlock Holmes strong? It’s not just that the answer is “of course”, it’s that it’s the wrong question.”
Vulnerable Dudes, Invincible Gals
If you follow my TV twitter, one of the things I talk about somewhat frequently when it’s airing are my grievances with Warehouse 13. It’s one of my favorite current shows and Claudia is one of my favorite characters, but both she and Myka (the two main female characters on the show) are often victims of this SFC thing. There are five main characters at this point, three men, and two women, all of varying ages, and they all receive fairly similar amounts of screen time. But my god, if you tallied up the number of times Artie, Pete, and Jinks are either under the threat of imminent physical danger, get injured, or have to deal with really difficult emotional situations compared to how often any of that is true for Myka or Claudia, it’s a VAST difference. It’s like the show has taken the idea of “damsel in distress” to the extreme opposite and refuses to almost ever let our two female protagonists need rescuing, or be vulnerable, or ask for help. And it hinders their character growth.
Myka, Claudia, and Artie have backgrounds that are based largely in being or feeling as if they’re on their own, having or needing to do everything themselves, and not being able to show weakness for varying reasons. And with all three, it’s presented as something that needs to, and now can be, overcome, because they have a team that has their back. But the only arc we’re really allowed to see with this is Artie’s. Whereas I would argue that the most compelling and necessary arc to have seen on screen would have been Claudia’s. She lost her entire family at a young age, was in foster homes that we now know were at least sometimes abusive, was in an, again, abusive, mental hospital for some of her teenage years, and appears to have forged zero retained connections in her entire life prior to the Warehouse. But we only occasionally get throw away lines to any of this, and are generally supposed to see her as a well-adjusted, strong, kick-ass girl, despite coming to the show and the team almost immediately following these events. And, despite being the youngest agent and by FAR the least experienced, she manages to almost never be in any imminent danger or get hurt while fighting the bad guys, whereas Pete and Artie so often are. More than that, when Pete and Artie (and Jinks) are in danger or injured or need to be saved, it’s very often used as character development. They need to learn to trust somebody, they need to learn to ask for help, they need to know they can rely on their team, etc. etc., which SHOWS WH13 knows how to properly use the whole “in jeopardy” trope for more than just cheap thrills, but they all but refuse to allow female characters the same opportunity to grow from moments of vulnerability. Presumably, out of the fear that they would get criticism about making these always-applauded-as-strong female characters weak.
(Side note, I could write an entirely separate post about how the female characters in WH13 have almost all of their meaningful interactions and moments in the show with male characters rather than almost EVER with each other, but, yes, that’s an entirely different post.)
"We need get away from the idea that sexism in fiction can be tackled by reliance on depiction of a single personality type…"
Kicking Ass & Getting Rescued
A lot of shows I watch allow their female characters to show strength — physical, emotional, mental, what have you — and still have absolutely in-character moments and arcs of vulnerability. Aka….be like real human beings. Lost Girl, Once Upon a Time, Pretty Little Liars, and one of my favorites to point to for this, Rizzoli & Isles.
Jane Rizzoli is a cop. She is a badass cop. Constantly kicking ass and saving people, including the cops she works with, her friends, and her family. From the beginning of the show, Jane never has to prove herself. The other cops treat her with respect, know how damn good she is at her job, and always have her back. There are times throughout the series, including the pilot, where Jane is the one who needs saving. It never undermines the balance of power or respect within her circle — they all need saving sometimes. She’s proud and hates being seen as vulnerable, but whenever that comes up, other characters reassure her that they know she’s beyond capable and sometimes people need help, and it’s okay to ask for it. And more than that, they don’t just say it, they act like it. Constantly. In every episode. Maura Isles isn’t physically strong like Jane, and she is generally opposed to violence and very rarely, if ever, utilizes force or physical aggression. But she’s a brilliant, brilliant doctor and a kind person and all those people respect her in the same way they respect Jane and treat her as an equal. Because, you know, she is.
It’s a show where both female protagonists are allowed to get into dangerous situations and be rescued — sometimes by dudes, sometimes by girls, sometimes by themselves. It’s a show where they are allowed to freaking break down with emotions (when it’s fitting for the story/scene) over anything from family, relationships, crime situations, friendship — whatever they are upset over enough that it calls for that. It’s a show where female characters (and male, though their arcs are secondary to the show HOW REFRESHING (but really, the recurring guy characters in this show are great, too)) are allowed to show emotions and vulnerability and it is STRIKING. I remember being utterly confused by the female protagonist cop being afraid and needing to be rescued from this criminal she had a violent, scarring past with in the first episode. And it actually struck me — why do I find this unnerving? Why is this strange? Why do I expect the female cop to kick everyone’s ass and never show emotion and be one of the boys and prove herself and her strength week after week? (PS I’ve never enjoyed shows like that, which is why I rarely watch crime-related shows.) And as I kept watching, I realized I had those expectations because it’s what Hollywood always presented me with, yet everything that happens in this show in terms of character is so profoundly natural and relatable it makes me question how we let Hollywood get by with showing us anything less.
And you know, through it all, Jane is still proud, still doesn’t like to be seen as vulnerable. It’s consistent. It’s who she is, and maybe it’s not something that will ever change. It’s presented as kind of a constant flaw that sometimes makes her great at her job and sometimes gets her into trouble. And regardless, the show still gives her these moments of having to accept help and everyone reassuring her it’s okay.
“I want a wealth of complex female protagonists who can be either strong or weak or both or neither, because they are more than strength or weakness.”
Vulnerability =/= Weakness
Now I’m going to do something I don’t generally like to do on tumblr anymore, which is talk about The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, and Lydia. (I figure most of you following me know the show, if you don’t, it’s this thing I wrote for not too long ago which also had a spin off.)
Before I do, I want to throw up a big disclaimer that I realize there are many reasons why some people didn’t like Lydia’s arc — it didn’t go the way you wanted it to, it was too overdramatic, you thought things should have been labeled more blatantly, it deviated too much from the novel, it was too much Lydia and too little Darcy, etc etc. You’re allowed to not like it! That’s great! Seriously! Not everyone is going to like everything, and I get why some people didn’t, I absolutely do. I’m not trying to convince anyone to like it, or that it was good or right or whatever. I just want to use one of the criticisms I saw to illustrate what I’m talking about with this post.
One criticism that I saw pop up here and there for Lydia’s arc towards the end of the show was that we’d taken this spunky, vivacious, unapologetic girl and made her broken down and sad and weak, and that that was basically a useless character who was no longer a SFC and the message was that being submissive and quiet was appropriate and being loud and into partying was not. Moreover, that we were saying (or more specifically, that *I* was saying) that she needed to go through an awful situation and be treated terribly in order to “learn her place” (aka be submissive and quiet) and that that was messed up.
I violently reject the idea that allowing yourself to be vulnerable and ask for help makes you weak, either as a person or as a character. It’s a criticism I saw of Lost Girl recently, as well. That Kenzi is a “weak” character because she’s too dependent on Bo and their friendship. It’s almost funny, because it reflects a societal stereotype of “manliness” that you see people often trying to break down these days, in reality and in media. Showing emotions isn’t manly. Asking for help isn’t manly. We recognize not only the idiocy but the damaging effects of those statements. We’re seeing a rise in male characters who are not only allowed to, but applauded for, showing emotions and breaking down and learning to rely on others (male and female, romantic and not) in order to combat this longstanding gender norm. And yet I keep seeing these same critiques against female characters, claiming that these moments of vulnerability are what transform otherwise “strong female characters” into weak ones. It’s likely an attempt to correct the use of female characters as nothing other than something helpless to be saved by the heroic male protagonist, but it’s swinging the pendulum way too far, and it’s no good.
Now, with Lydia, there were also critiques that her agency was stripped away which could also be why some people thought she became a weak character. I don’t disagree that some choices were taken out of her control, but a) yes certain things I wish would have gone differently with that, b) there are always going to be things that are out of a character’s control, that’s part of the journey (in this case, Wickham’s actions), and c) the planned arc was cut short abruptly after the final LBD episodes had already been filmed and would have shown her both taking that back and slowly figuring out how to gravitate back towards her enthusiastic self because no, becoming quiet and diminutive is not character growth and becoming a shell of her former self is not an accomplishment to be celebrated. Obviously the last point is irrelevant to the story because it didn’t happen, but I think intent matters in a different way, namely, in relevance to a discussion/post about how female characters are being approached by writers/producers/etc.
Point being, sometimes having bad things happen to a character (whether in or out of their control) and breaking them down to a state of vulnerability and apparent “weakness” is a tool for character growth, the same way as tragedy can cause a person to change and grow and learn new things about themselves and life in reality. With Lydia, it was about her learning that it’s okay to not always be okay, that you don’t always have to be the same exact bright and loud person you think everyone expects you to be, and that being open with the people you care about and asking for help when you need it isn’t something that should make people think less of you. Because those are all things she’s never understood or been able to do and she needs to in order to develop healthy relationships and make it on her own.
With a character like Lost Girl’s Kenzi, her relying on Bo’s friendship isn’t some “weakness” to overcome because needing people doesn’t make you weak. Girl spent her entire life on the streets fending for herself, she can get by. But her friendship with Bo makes her STRONG, in the way that word should be used and interpreted. It makes her believe in herself and her worth as a person. It makes her fight for her friends and what’s right, constantly throwing herself into danger even though she’s physically one of the weakest characters on the show. It makes her loyal and brave and it helps her deal with her fears and her past when they come up because she knows she’s not alone.
Do you label conclusion sections? Idek. Whatever, this is taking forever.
Are characters going through difficult situations going to be broken down sometimes? Hurt, emotionally or physically? Unable to care for themselves? Yes. Regardless of gender. That’s pretty likely. But so are people. It doesn’t automatically make them weak, physically or emotionally. And what if it does? What if an injury or a disability or merely their size or lack of muscle or training makes them unable to fight? What if depression, either from a specific event or just because sometimes it’s a thing that happens to them, makes them emotionally unable to deal with even the most mundane aspects of life? What if crippling love or fear or addiction or what have you makes them unable to see things clearly and causes them to make decisions based on things outside of themselves and their beliefs and internal compass? Being weak sometimes doesn’t make you a bad character anymore than it makes you a bad person. It doesn’t define who you are. It can, and sometimes that’s what a character has to overcome, but that’s okay, too.
I love seeing girls kick ass. No, seriously, I love me a good fight scene. It’s why I turned my brain off and watched every horrible episode of the Charlie’s Angels series that failed massively on ABC a couple years back. But at the end of the day, I want characters that learn and grow and fall down again and keep getting back up. I want stories that don’t have a character Overcome Their Obstacle, either in a backstory or in the main plot, and then suddenly everything is fine and my god they have learned everything they needed to and become absolutely fantastic because they can handle anything. Life isn’t linear, nor is it a simple Hey I think I’m good but really something needs to be changed, Oops now I’m broken down and defeated but, Lookie there now I’ve got that one thing fixed and everything is clear sailing from here. Life is constant struggles and relapses and fears and moments of strength and moments of weakness and failure and overcoming adversity and so very, very many things.
I know you can only do so much in a story, especially one as limited as a movie, but we let our male protagonists, overcoming whatever their Story Obstacle is, have all these little flaws and quirks that go uncorrected, because they’re human, but so often female characters just aren’t allowed the same room to breathe. The same space to just be who they are without proving anything or having to correct every single misuse of women in media somehow magically at the same time.
Saying a female character has to be “strong” and not show vulnerability or weakness or whatever not only gives us kind of boring characters to watch, but it’s detrimental to people as well. Declaring female characters who show weakness as Absolutely Weak Characters and setting back feminism or whatever sends the message that actual real people who experience those same things are worthless, too. You need someone to rescue you, physically or emotionally? Wow, way to not be a strong independent woman, thanks for helping out the cause. Something shakes you to the core and you can’t just pick yourself back up and keep trucking? What a failure. It’s messed up.
I just want my characters, both the ones I watch and the ones I write, to be people. And the thing about people is that every one of us approaches and handles things differently. There is no single “right” way to make a character “strong” or three-dimensional. No formula or stereotype to match. Just make them people. If they’re real, that’s what makes them “strong.”