One article has captivated the entire literary community since its publication last week: “I Hate Strong Female Characters,” by Sophia McDougall. For modern readers and writers, that’s just about as offensive a statement as you can get. And written by a WOMAN? How dare she, right? That’s definitely what made me click, although I almost didn’t want to, on the sheer concept of it.
It was a smart publicity move, and beginning the article with a photo of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this author clearly knew what she was doing. Pairing an unpopular statement with a popular picture, the author ensured readers from every angle of the issue would be invested.
Before I get too far into this article, let me promise you I am not going to devolve into man-bashing. That’s not what this is about.
This article identifies—and participates in, IMHO—a layer of problems thicker and more tear-producing than an onion. The article was so revolutionary in its anti-revolution that everyone wanted to respond. (Seriously, Google “strong female characters”–pages and pages of responses to this one article!) I wanted to, too, but it’s taken me till now to know what my response would be. Because I find myself arguing for both sides.
McDougall’s main issue with Strong Female Characters (hereafter, “SFC”) is that they shouldn’t be described as “strong.” They should automatically be strong, and it shouldn’t define their character or role.
To address an issue this complex, we have to rewind and see how we’ve gotten here. One of the most valuable aspects of my undergrad English program was intense critical theory: learning how to read on a deep, comprehensive, and analytic level, pulling in companion texts for everything. While perhaps frustrating and complicated at the time, the lesson is so important: context is everything. “No man is an island,” says John Donne, and indeed, no book is, either.
Well, maybe except this one.
Every great idea we have is either an action or a reaction to society. Every concept of normalcy—and our decision to participate in it or not—is also a reaction to society.
Don’t be disheartened; that doesn’t take any of the greatness away from individual heroism. For what good are heroics, ideas, change, without people to enjoy them?
What I’m saying is that “Strong Female Characters” are a reaction to society. It’s a society that has been largely patriarchal for millennia, where men are “strong” and women are simpering. So if we go back, WAY back, to the beginning of stories, were men described as strong? Beowulf, Hercules? Of course they were. It’s just not as celebrated anymore, because it’s been done. It’s much less unique, now that there are gyms in every neighborhood. And finally, in our modern age, the women are catching up, and it is a beginning of a new kind of storytelling.
In my critical theory class with the brilliant Robert Dale Parker at UIUC, we learned that there are defaults that readers assume, given no details about a character. The default character in Western literature is now, and has been for awhile, the white male. Let me prove my point using Facebook:
A racial debate is a whole other can of worms, and I’m not going to get into that in this post. Yes, the above Facebook guy could be many different races. It’s possible this could be a woman’s haircut, but it would be a “masculine” haircut. However you look at it, the default assumption is male, and it’s a role everyone is trained to slip into without a second thought. Again, I’m not man-bashing here. What could we do, in a language where we’re supposed to use male pronouns to indicate gender neutrality? (They weren’t always–check out Old English’s pronoun table.)
It comes down to stereotypes. The “strong female character” is a backlash against the female characters of days past–who were commonly, let’s face it, weak. (I know there were exceptions, and I love them for it, but I’m talking generalities here.) The SFC is only a stereotype now because our society is hyper-aware of centuries of inequality, and thus writers vehemently tend to avoid “weak” by creating the opposite.
The problem, identified in Rose Fox’s article for Publishers Weekly, is when writers make SFC only the opposite of weak. But that’s just a problem of bad writing; no character, male or female, should be single-dimensional. “Why aren’t male characters described as strong?” asks McDougall. Well, I think that many still are, but I get her point–it’s not as common anymore as it is a primary descriptor of female characters. SFC are described as strong because our default assumption, from millennia of stories, is that women will not be strong. My mom made a great point when I was talking to her about this article. “It’s the same way female characters aren’t described as sensitive, but male are.” Exactly! No one wants a sniveling crybaby for a fictional crush, but every woman wants a man who “gets” her and is empathetic. (Google, why are you showing me pictures of naked men when I’m trying to find a picture for this? You’re ruining my argument.)
“All the princesses know kung-fu now,” McDougall’s mother dismisses of her compliment of Fiona’s skills in Shrek. Is this a bad thing? The cool female characters now are all fighters. It’s no longer trendy to sit by and let men have all the fun/do all the work. McDougall’s argument that it’s never been OK is valid–but I’m recognizing the change. We have to say the females are strong because we are breaking the cultural stereotype that they are not strong. I can feel the tide turning in literature and film–which is, of course, a reflection of our society, too.
Young-adult literature, which you know is my favorite, is doing more than its fair share in the changing. Kudos to them, because this is influencing a generation of teenagers (and “young-minded” adults like myself and YOU I am sure) that women can do anything they want, be it kick butt, make pie, or make pie while kicking butt.
One of the bloggers I follow, Tara the Librarian, wrote a great article in response to the SFC debate, in particular, McDougall’s claim about the lack of female characters in literature/movies. “This, my friends, is why I LOVE young adult novels,” says Tara. “Our world is dominated by female protagonists. They own the spotlight.” Agreed. And I also agree with Tara (and disagree with McDougall) that having women in the spotlight does not make media less appealing for a unisex audience. Men are already slipping into female narrative identities without effort; just look at the Hunger Games success.
But here is where I disagree with Tara: “It’s easy to think about the physical strength of our female characters. But what about other characteristics? Do women always have to be strong?…I am guilty of using the word “strong” to cover [other good] traits, but the fact is that ‘strong’ is just a terrible adjective. Women are not just strong.” The fact is that right now, “strong” is an adjective that DOES imply other good character traits in women–cunning, intelligent, emotionally resilient–because it is melding the stereotype that women already had with strength. “Strength isn’t just physical,” said my mom, with another pearl of wisdom when we were discussing this. Agreed! And as long as writers remember this and build real characters, not just gym rats, we’ll keep reading. “The only cure for SFC Syndrome is for writers to work on making all their characters well-rounded and interesting and complex and real, with a mix of physical, emotional, psychological, familial, professional, and social strengths and weaknesses,” says Rose Fox.
Although I’m usually against stereotypes, the SFC is one I’m happy with. Even if the heroines we love so much now (Katniss from The Hunger Games, Clary from City of Bones, Catwoman in the newest Batman installment, Merida from Brave) might seem over-exaggerated in the retrospect of future centuries, what a cool exaggeration to be known for. As a woman, a reader, and a writer, I will proudly dance on the line of being ridiculous in the name of being anything but weak. SFC have a lot of making up to do for stereotypes of the past. Hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, we will assume as a culture that female characters are strong unless we are told otherwise—and for that matter, that male characters are empathetic.