Monday, March 28, 2011

What Makes a Strong Woman?

In the internet circles I travel in, it's hard to avoid running into feminist discussions, reviews of books with strong female characters, critiques of mass media's portrayal of women primarily as sex objects, so on, so forth. And while I'm a feminist, I'm not a Feminist, and so don't tend to enter in the discussion. I'm not confident enough in my knowledge of feminist politics, feminist history, and the current discussions of feminism online to do so. I'm always afraid that something I say will be a) stupid b) unhelpful c) coming back to haunt me when I'm published.

But. I really enjoy books and movies with strong women, and I enjoy writing strong women, and I've wanted to write this post for a while. Today feels like the day to do it. Nothing to do with internet circles. Just my mood.

The way I see it, there are two types of female characters. There's the woman who's written to a stereotype and/or a male fantasy, who's defined on some level by men, and there's the woman who's written without being defined and without being a stereotype, and who therefore comes across as an actual person. And Stereotype Woman comes in two types. She's either an actual stereotype, such as the nosy neighbour, the unsatisfied wife, the ditz, or the whore, or she's dressed in leather and spandex, given weapons and weapons training, and pointed at bad guys. There seems to be a subset of humanity who believes that a physically tough, highly sexualized woman in bondage gear is strong without needing motives, backstory, or a personality. Which is not to say that those kinds of women aren't occasionally fun to watch or read, but I wouldn't call them strong the way I'd call the Real Women strong.

The qualities that make a strong woman are hard to pin down. I'd say "All strong women are confident in themselves and dominant in relationships", the way a lot of urban fantasy heroines are, except I've seen female characters who are submissive, who lack confidence, who I wouldn't call weak. Most of those women are trying to get out of their situations, which I think is what makes them strong. Of course, both these types, and many more, are found in reality, so why not put them in fiction? Is a woman who takes matters into her own hands the only kind of strong?

Maybe, for one definition of the word. A woman who doesn't cave under pressure, who fights back and takes names, is the kind of "strong woman" we generally think of. I like these women. They're all kinds of awesome. But there's another definition of "strong" that also applies, and that's "well-crafted". Writers can easily create* realistic-feeling women who don't fight. A housewife who's not confined by cleaning, cooking, and children, who has hobbies, a social life, and political opinions, who's content to be background to her husband because she's an introvert and being dominant doesn't work for her. Or a cashier at the supermarket who has a horrible boss and hates her job, but still goes to work because her diabetes meds and student loans don't pay for themselves. They're strong too, just not the same kind of badass as the woman with the samurai sword who knows them.

Now, obviously writers can't develop every single woman in a story into a Real Woman. The minor characters who only get a scene or a passing mention don't need to be fleshed out to the same degree and can certainly be stereotypes or described in a phrase. Large amounts of detail for all characters is overwhelming and detracts from the protagonist's awesomeness. But, in my opinion, if a female character has more than a couple lines, or appears in several scenes, or has some affect on the plot, she should be a Real Woman.

Crap, you're thinking, I've got Stereotype Women all over this story! Breathe. That's fixable. Did you notice how I took common character types (the housewife, the bitter cashier) and added details? You simply need to give the stereotypes a background, or hobbies, or tastes, or any combination thereof, and you'll be better off than you were. I generally do this by taking a character type and adding in a couple unexpected but not-implausible details. A cat lady could be a former spy. A typical ditz-shopper type could be gay, or have a soft spot for alien invasion flicks, or be a hard-nosed reporter playing dumb for a scoop. The trophy wife may have married for money, but she's using it to save the Amazon rainforest and rehabilitate animals, not to increase her chest size or have a room full of shoes. … Suddenly they're a lot more real, no?

So watch for strong women, in books, movies, television, and reality. Celebrate them, because they're needed. And when you're writing, if you're a writer, try to put as many in as possible, and always ask, "Can I make this character female? Can I make her real, not a stereotype?" Because the answer's "Yes" more often than you think.

* Well, for a certain definition of 'easy'.


Reece said...

I really appreciated this because I'm constantly trying to make my female characters more believable. I really appreciate your suggestions.

On a slightly different note, I've noticed that the stories I like the most are the ones that have strong characters of both sexes that work together. For example, I love Sabriel, by Garth Nix, because the protagonist is a strong female character but she works well with the prominent male character. I admit I hate books that try to make the female character stronger by 1) belittling the male characters, or 2) making her (the character) hate men and look down on them.* To me those feel like cop-outs, like the author was either too lazy or too dumb to do it right.

* Not to say these should never happen. If there is a good reason for it and it improves the story, go for it.

Rosie Lane said...

Oh I have strong views on bondage clad terminatrix types. I have ranted on the subject recently, because they irritate me beyond measure. I liked them the first few times I encountered them in fiction, but then it got to the point where they were so ubiquitous in fantasy that they started to make me feel diminished for being a normal woman who couldn't kick anyone's butt in a fight.

I love strong women when their strength is in their determination or resilience, but I prefer stories which respect basic biology and the fact that we just plain can't hit as hard as the guys. Unless our children are threatened; I never thought I could fall down half a flight of stairs and still manage to hold a baby safely until I did it.

Great post, thank you.

Anassa said...

Reece - You're welcome. I hope my suggestions work! I tend to approach my characters as human first, gendered second, which also helps.

I definitely enjoy those kinds of stories too. Hate the ones where the woman is so awesome and strong and independent that everyone else gets sidelined. They're not necessarily cop-outs, though. Mary Sues tend to be an amateur thing, too.

Rosie - Agreed. They're too prevalent. We need more real female characters. And point about the biology. Most women I've seen who hit has hard as a guy are somehow enhanced, luckily, which lets me buy into the idea.