on strong women characters

strong_womanGiven the positive response to the female characters in Faeries, I’ve been giving some thought to the issue of writing strong women characters. As a man, I’m often told that it’s not possible for me to do so.

It is true that Lacey, the young girl in Rocket Summer, is probably the least complex character in the script (and that has been pointed out by some readers). But it’s also true that she is the glue for that group of dysfunctional friends… a caretaker, a realist, and a “person of interest” for a pair of boys with very fucked up home lives, one of whom lost his mother at a young age.

Unfortunately, to some, that makes her “stereotypical”… a character whose only job it is to fulfill the traditional “female” roles of mother, lover, nurturer. Me, I take exception to the word “only”. It’s important stuff. And she’s conflicted about it in the process, and seems to be setting aside some of her own desires to take on that role. For me, that’s a strong, flawed, and thus interesting female character.

Some people are never satisfied.

Yet in Faeries we seem to have hit that indefinable nail. We set out to write a satisfying strong female lead, and the feedback has been very good.

So what does it take to write a believable, strong female character? (And no, Jack Nicholson’s character Melvin Udall didn’t have it right when he said “I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.”)

Shane Dayton put together a list of the “Top Ten Women Who Can Kick Your Butt“. Is that what it takes to be a strong female character, to simply be “as tough as a man”?

Hopefully not. This list from MetaFilter (2008) asked members to help build a list of top strong female characters, and specifically asked that the list not include “fantasy, bio-engineered women who are unique because they are unlike women and are powerful because they’re bitches” (paraphrasing). One respondent asked the fundamental question: “Depends on your definition of ‘strong’. Do you mean specifically ‘not in need of saving by a man’? Can a female character show weakness or vulnerability (i.e. cry, etc) and still be an answer to your question?”

Seemingly (thought not actually) in response to that, OverthinkingIt has an oft-referenced blog on Why Strong Female Characters are Bad For Women. The argument here is that although Hollywood apes creating Strong Women Characters, they almost always still need saving by the square-jawed hero in act three. Her thesis ultimately boils down to this: “[T]he feminists shouldn’t have said “we want more strong female characters.”  They should have said “we want more WEAK female characters.”  Not “weak” meaning “Damsel in Distress.”  “Weak” meaning “flawed.””

In the end, should we have to ask this question at all? Is it a sign that we’re seeking equality that we ask “how shall we write strong female characters?” Or is it a sign that we’re sadly lacking equality when we have to ask “how shall we write strong female characters?”

Joss Whedon spoke about the why’s and how’s of writing strong female characters at a 2006 Equality Now event…

I feel lucky that (so far) we’ve had positive responses (particularly from women) to the strong female leads in Faeries. I’m not quite sure how it happened. Perhaps it’s because we didn’t remove their reason or accountability… we didn’t make them superhuman, or bioengineered boy-toys… we didn’t make them strong by virtue of their being antithetical to womenliness… and we didn’t let the men-folk save them in act three.

We just let them be strong. And women. And characters.

Is it really just that simple?

5 thoughts on “on strong women characters

  1. Great post, Chip. One of the reasons Raiders of the Lost Ark is so memorable and demands to be seen repeatedly is not just to watch our “hero” Indy lashing his whip across continents in that wilted fedora and dusty jacket. Nope. (well, okay, that is a good time). It’s to admire the luster of Karen Allen’s performance as Marion Ravenwood. True, she could have been considered the standard female sidekick to the lead (actually, that ended up being Kate Capshaw in Temple of Doom – ugh!) but I would disagree. Without her no-nonsense attitude, razor wit, firecracker delivery and sensual side, the film would have fallen short of greatness. Real heroes need real heroines. In Hollywood and elsewhere, what’s good for the gander, is good for the goose. 😉

  2. Something I have noticed in my own relationships is that men’s strength is often very “visible”, whereas women’s strength is often “hidden”. Men have us beat in the physical realm (usually). And I think women are fine with that (usually). Physical strength is outwardly obvious. But inner strength is what I belive most women want to see in fictional characters. I believe that it’s difficult for men to recreate that aspect of women – because you rarely get access to our internal dialogues. We sacrifice so much more than most men will ever know. I also think of a strong female as someone who is self-sufficient without being controling or OCD. I watched a Jon & Kate + 8 the other day wherein Kate made Jon pick out her clothes, because she didn’t know how. That’s just ridiculous! It was like she was living in some Manocracy.

    1. Hi, Bree — sorry it took so long to post your comment! Something buggy in my WP… anyway, I think you’re on to something. Much is made of the “Mars/Venus” thing, and I was just having a conversation with a co-worker about how men want to “solve” and women want men to “empathize”. I don’t like to generalize, but if you’ve lived long enough you know there’s some truth to all that. Can a man write an “honest” woman character, when men (so often) struggle to grok how women think or what they want? Conversely, can a woman write an honest male character? I think so, but I think it’s simply harder than we imagine, in either direction.

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