“Strong” Female Characters…and Why So Many of Them Bug Me by JC Andrijeski
This post is by JS Andrijeski and I have to say it’s one of the best blogs I’ve ever read. I laughed out loud while simultaneously agreeing with her and wanting to go through my writing and make sure I wasn’t doing any of the things she mentioned! Read the whole thing, seriously, it’s worth the time. I’ve also emailed her and asked her to be my best friend, so dibs
“Strong” Female Characters…
and Why So Many of Them Bug Me
by JC Andrijeski
I think one of the things I struggle with the most in reading, watching and otherwise consuming fiction these days, is that a lot of the female characters out there still really bug me. Movies are often worse than books, unfortunately, but that tends to be the case with cultural tropes in general…movies tend to simplify those popularly created characters down to a specific archetype, and then replicate that sucker over and over in a fictional assembly line. I don’t have a problem with that in general, because I understand the need for using archetypes in popular fiction…but if the archetype bugs me, well, then I’m stuck running into it just about everywhere.
I’m also aware that the archetype I’m going to gripe about isn’t one I would have had the luxury of griping about fifty, or even twenty years ago. Instead, it’s actually probably an offhand marker of progress for the gender overall…meaning, it’s the shorthand for today’s “strong woman” in contemporary fiction.
I actually discovered this syndrome (or started to notice it really) more in the negative than the positive, which I guess is the good news. Meaning, I noticed when strong female characters didn’t fit this archetype, and actually behaved like grownups. I think when it hit me initially was while I was watching Aliens for the first time in probably a decade. I was watching Sigourney Weaver as she suited up for that confrontation with the mama bug in the depths of the burning space station, and I thought…
She’s actually a woman. She’s not wearing high heels, a dress, or a lycra catsuit. She’s sweat-stained, dressed in practical clothing, above the age of thirty, and she’s kind of an ordinary woman who is going seriously badass over something that matters to her.
I mean, as a character, Ripley is extraordinary, yes. She’s also damaged goods in many respects, sure…but hell, I believed her. I believed a character like her could exist. She wasn’t a teenage girl holding a sword and scowling to look “tough.” She wasn’t some supermodel with a sexy smirk and a Zoolander-like pout as the camera zoomed in on a closeup of her smoking gun and arched eyebrows.
In other words, she wasn’t some twinkie lightweight I was supposed to believe was badass because she could do a bunch of ninja moves without smearing her perfect lipstick. She was an actual woman, not a girl playing dress up, as so many of the female action heros seem to be in the past decade.
Since then, I’ve thought a fair bit about what it is about so many of these “strong female” characters that irritates me…or, more often, makes me roll my eyes. It isn’t only because the vast majority of female action heroes are still stuck wearing skimpy costumes and making all of the obvious remarks. It isn’t because they STILL aren’t usually the ones who act rationally to figure out the problem needing to be solved…or even provide any of the major pieces of the puzzle without help from some outside source. It isn’t only because often I find them really unconvincing in a lot of the action roles for the reasons stated above, or because I tend to think a lot of the movie versions resemble Barbie dolls in scuba suits wielding automatic rifles.
Well, okay, it’s partly those things. The fact that many of these characters seem like they were written into existence by men (or boys) who spend way too much time playing video games probably doesn’t help in terms of keeping my eye-rolling at bay.
But really, the thing that bothers me the most I think, is how incredibly immature and two-dimensional the current image of “strength” seems to be, in terms of our culture in general. It also bothers me that the cult of youth has pretty much negated any image of womanhood that isn’t incredibly juvenile or condescending.
A caveat here – I know I’m not living the stereotypical life of an American female, and the majority of books I read and movies I see are still probably by and for that market. Now that I no longer even work in an office, my freak flag is probably flying higher than usual…so it’s crossed my mind that, okay, yeah, maybe I shouldn’t get a cultural vote in terms of compelling female archetypes in escapist fantasy. Maybe my oddball status means that I simply can’t relate to the catharsis these characters provide to many women. I even get that catharsis to an extent. There’s nothing more validating at times than to see a woman kick some serious butt…especially if your own reality consists of having to suck it up while your narcissistic boss brags about the four million dollar home he or she just bought after they laid off half of your department.
So on that level, yeah, I get it.
But I think my complaint goes beyond the mere lack of relateability for me, personally. There is something really, well…juvenile…in the way most women are portrayed in American fiction. I’m not talking about Twilight, either, or any other form of young adult fare. It’s really the “adult” fiction I’m referring to here, and the sort of adolescent stasis that most of the female characters seem to occupy.
From what I can tell, that immaturity often manifests in one of two ways. One is the type of lead female character you often see in what’s referred to as “women’s fiction,” where the woman is often plagued with some form of severe and often debilitating neurosis. This is the lead female character who is incapacitated by some life event and the whole point of the story is watching them decide to “start all over again” by going into what we’re meant to believe is some totally new and exciting thing…but usually is just a facelift on the life they had before (new guy, maybe from Brazil this time, new house, new job, maybe some new clothes, etc., etc.).
The other archetype of the “strong, independent woman” is the one I’d really like to focus on here, and that is the one most common in popular genre fiction (romance, thrillers, mysteries, science fiction, police procedurals, urban fantasy and so forth). I’d like to focus on this one for selfish reasons mostly, as that is primarily what I write, and what I generally like to consume.
The strong woman archetype I see in most of the genre fiction I read and watch these days seems to always consist of some variant of what I’m beginning to think of as the “Keira Knightly Syndrome.” By that, I am referring to that definition of a strong women that seems to invariably involve a lot of foot-stomping, chin-jutting, “sassy” comebacks and/or “trust issues” coupled with a talent with a sword and/or gun, and usually some kind of ninja skills. Generally, these characters are under thirty, thin, beautiful, well-dressed…and sadly have the personality of an emotionally stunted brat.
To explain the mental state of these women (or perhaps to compensate for it?) these characters are often gifted with some stereotypically “masculine” skill and/or profession, which seems to be intended to explain why they are the way they are. Like, say…they’re cops, or just really good with a gun. Or they’re pirates (as in the namesake of said syndrome). Or they’re bank robbers, or corporate lawyers, or airplane pilots, or mechanics…or sometimes classic “strong woman” characters, like Elizabeth Bennett in the remake of Pride and Prejudice.
These personality traits and tendencies are often significantly worse whenever a man is in the picture. It seems like every single one of these characters has read that book, The Rules…because they tend to treat their men like they’re drunk and trying to use them as pinatas with a blowtorch. They strike out at random, overreact to every perceived slight, make snarky and/or scathing comments and constantly remind the reader or viewer that they must be taken seriously (thus ensuring that they won’t be). We are constantly told that they are “strong” women. All of the male characters often make a big deal about how “strong” these women are, too…and (by implication) how different they are from all other women. They express suprise that a woman would have any of these traits. They express admiration at this supposed strength, too, and often cannot help but fall in love with them, even when the woman in question has the personality of a crazed wombat overdosing on steroids.
Often, this same woman gets angry at them for this (as they get angry about everything, generally, because getting angry and yelling a lot and throwing their weight around is what we are meant to believe all strong women do). So they fight the guy to get his “respect”…rather than just dismissing his blatant sexism as either an irritant or totally irrelevant to the main conflict of the story at hand.
The men, of course, are okay with this, because no matter how severe her personality disorder, this is all forgivable because the woman in question is “strong.” She is also invariably “hawt.” It’s sort of a codification of the somewhat sad truism that many immature people will tolerate a lot of ridiculous crap from someone who is beautiful, because, well, they’re beautiful, and beauty has its own compensations I guess.
As a writer, I know some of the character overreactions written into these works are likely being used intentionally as a means of providing additional conflict and tension (particularly between two romantic interests) which is deemed necessary to keep things “interesting” in the plot. But seriously, it’s really difficult for me to enjoy anything at all in a story when I keep hoping one of the main characters will unexpectedly die in a freak accident involving malfunctioning robots with ACME mallets…or maybe a possessed weed-whacker.
When I really think about this objectively, however, it becomes less and less clear if this is really an issue of gender primarily, or if it is a culturally distorted perception of what constitutes “strength,” mixed with a national obsession with youth and all of its trappings. Just looking at old movies confirms the change in what we want to look at in our visual media, and not only in regards to women. As recently as the seventies and eighties, there were a lot more actors and actresses who had that elusive quality of “character” in their faces, which often didn’t manifest until middle age, or even older. People looked like real people in many of those films, and they had the gravitas to go with it. Sadly, a lot of those faces were imminently less forgettable than the majority of celebrities are now.
Nowadays, if we are to believe fiction, strength means being good at things in which only young men were historically expected to excel. This includes expertise in some form of hand-to-hand combat––boxing, kickboxing, martial arts, swordplay, guns. It also means having a job in a field that previously only men were allowed to occupy––as a police detective, a private eye, a spy, a soldier, a bodyguard, even a high-paid corporate job in a cut-throat industry.
First, before people get the wrong idea about what I’m saying here, let me clarify my own biases. The thing is, I like a lot of that stuff. I studied martial arts for years, initially as research for a book, but I got completely hooked and ended up a ring fighter. I am totally fascinated by military strategy, pretty much from all time periods, but especially in modern warfare. I’m a WWII junkie, find guns and swordplay much more interesting than, say, football…and I’ve always wanted to find the time to learn to fly a plane. The truth is, I’m a bit of a tomboy. I was the kid who wanted a lightsaber more than a Hello Kitty purse…and who would much rather play at being James Bond than pretend I was one of the infamous Bond girls.
So my issue isn’t really with the supposed trappings of strength and their (at times) hypermasculinity. I understand the fascination there, because I share it in many respects.
My issue is more that I’m meant to buy into the fact that these same women, who supposedly possess these hyper-violent skill sets that require years of training and execution to perfect, still have the emotional maturity of your average sixteen-year-old. There’s some kind of disconnect there, between who I’m being told they are and how they actually behave.
And frankly, that’s probably what bugs me the most. I don’t believe these female characters. I don’t believe that character X is good at fixing cars as well as being a crack shot with an automatic rifle while looking stunning in a cocktail dress and bossing the men around at the police precinct where she works. I don’t believe that character Y is a martial arts master who can read minds but who also pouts and stomps her feet whenever the alpha male in the story doesn’t consult her opinion.
And the thing is, I want to believe it. To me, the fact that I often can’t almost undermines the idea that such women could exist at all (meaning the mechanic crack shot more than the ninja teleporting warrior princess…but you get the idea). It relegates these women to the role of pure fantasy…which I find frustrating, because personally, I don’t really enjoy seeing my female characters that way. I want to be able to suspend disbelief well enough to find them truly interesting. I want to actually see some of these “strong women” acting strong, which means acting like grownups and holding their own counsel when necessary…not simply looking like the centrefold in a Guns and Ammo spread. I want to see something real in there…something that feels hard-earned in the same way all of their badass skill sets were supposedly hard-earned.
Maybe part of this is that I don’t personally believe you can live an extraordinary life and avoid building character…at least not entirely. Yet so, so, so many of these female characters (and many of the male ones too) manage to do exactly that. They have all the skills and the cool jobs and the money…but absolutely none of the poise, wisdom, insight, intensity or depth that should accompany it.
It probably doesn’t help that I know some truly badass women in real life. None of them, and I mean none of them, would hysterically start yelling at a man and stomping her foot because he “wasn’t taking her seriously.” Nor would they simply close up and refuse to emote because, as we all know, “strong women have trust issues.”
(They also don’t generally do their best fighting in skin-tight, lycra catsuits, but that’s sort of a side issue…)
The point is, they wouldn’t need to do these things.
And really, this is the crux of the issue for me. The female characters that stand out for me and that I try to emulate in my own writing are the ones who don’t constantly try to convince me or anyone else that they’re strong, independent women who don’t need a man to protect them. They don’t yell and shout and pose with swords or kill thirty people single-handed in order to convince me they’re so “tough.”
They don’t have to. They’re too busy being out there in the world, defending the people they care about, facing their fears head-on, trying to solve the problems they’re dealt…and generally being bad-ass in the cool, understated, and infinitely more convincing grown-up kind of way. They’re people I can believe in, in other words, and maybe even try to be more like myself.