Friday, February 24, 2012

the dreaded "strong female character"

I’m actually kind of tired of this conversation. It seems to always be happening, and more often than not, those of us talking about this issue can easily identify what we hate and never identify what we love. We deconstruct, but never attempt to reconstruct, and this is dangerous.

If we’re constantly bashing the fictional women in the stories we read or watch or hear, for being too feminine or too masculine, what are we even left with? Everyone loves tearing down characters for not being strong enough or female enough… which is fine. But if we just leave it there, we do a lot of damage. Because the message that’s actually coming across is this:

True “strong female characters” are elusive. You can’t really know them – even when you think you do. We’re left wondering if maybe we haven’t even arrived at what it means to be strong and female yet.

Which is so not true, and never has been.

Honestly, all I want in stories is the truth. I want both my male and female characters to be real. And if characters are real, then they are going to be different kinds of strong.

Let’s take Firefly as an example. Of the nine main characters, four are female. I would argue that all four of them, while being completely different, are strong females characters in completely different ways.

Zoe is the traditional SFC. She’s a soldier completely loyal to her commander, a rescuer in the physical sense, and she knows how to use a gun and how to fight with her fists. She’s incredibly sexy, but she’s also intimidated by women who excel at domestic duties, and she struggles between loyalty to her husband and loyalty to her captain.

Kaylee is a highly skilled mechanic (a predominantly masculine role) always sporting grease on her face and eager to engage in shop talk. She is tenderhearted, a bit na├»ve, and believes in people’s inherent goodness more than anything else. When a gun is put in her hand, she can’t fire it.

Inara is a courtesan, and the one person with the most social standing on the pirate ship. She’s very comfortable with her sexuality and her career choice – which often puts her at the mercy of powerful men. She’s the one people open up to most, and feel most comfortable with. She doesn’t fight.

River is a child prodigy. She’s more intelligent than her brilliant doctor brother, and because of this and the experiments done on her brain, she’s seen as borderline insane. She’s supernaturally good at fighting – better than anyone else on the ship – and extremely dangerous. I like River because she represents a place for insanity within community - which is something I particularly care about. She may be dangerous, but she’s also brilliant and knows exactly what’s going on at all times. Most importantly, she defends the people she loves.

This is what I look for in stories: options. It's what I long for in this conversation. So, here are four options of what it can mean to be strong and female. But there are hundreds, maybe thousands, more.

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