On “strong” female characters

I’ve been thinking about strong female characters a lot lately, and almost as though the universe was on to my post plans for Pub Crawl, the internet exploded with some fabulous discussions on this very topic earlier in August. Namely, Sophia McDougall’s ovation-worthy article on why she hates strong female characters.

Go on and read it. It’s long, but I’ll wait.

Sophia says pretty much everything that has been on my mind, and far more eloquently than I ever could. In case you didn’t read while I waited so patiently (shame on you!), the article subheadline says it all:

Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong.

She goes on to discuss, with examples, how men get to be a variety of things in literature/film, and while we don’t often ask if said man fits into the “strong” box, we always ask if the female does. As though being strong is the only way she can set herself apart. Without that strength she’s just another weak, boring, worthless female character.

Many of Sophia’s points remind me of this quote that I’ve seen circulating on tumblr:

Screw writing “strong” women. Write interesting women. Write well-rounded women. Write complicated women. Write a woman who kicks ass, write a woman who cowers in a corner. Write a woman who’s desperate for a husband. Write a woman who doesn’t need a man. Write women who cry, women who rant, women who are shy, women who don’t take no shit, women who need validation and women who don’t care what anybody thinks. THEY ARE ALL OKAY, and all those things could exist in THE SAME WOMAN. Women shouldn’t be valued because we are strong, or kick-ass, but because we are people. So don’t focus on writing characters who are strong. Write characters who are people. — Lori, on tumblr, answering a writing question in her ask box

Women are people. People are varied. As varied and complex as male characters like Sherlock, who might be considered strong because he Gets Things Done and Solves All The Crimes, but who is a multitude of other things first.

When I think of some of my favorite female characters, many of them do not easily fit within the “strong” box. They might be strong in some regards, but not because they are jacked and buff.

Look at Hermione. Yes, she punches Draco in the face and withstands torture at Bellatrix’s hands, but this isn’t what makes her strong, and these two acts don’t define her. First and foremost, she’s smart. And resourceful. And loyal and clever and confident. Sometimes she cries over boys (when Lavender is dating Won Won). Sometimes she cheats (confunding Cormac so Ron gets on the Quidditch team). Hermione is a million things. Strong is one of them, but it’s not her biggest asset (imho), nor is most of her strength physical.

So is the problem just how we define “strong” in these discussions? My gut reaction is yes, but I’m really not sure. As Sophia points out in her article, redefining the bucket with a more nuanced label isn’t going to solve things. She says:

We need get away from the idea that sexism in fiction can be tackled by reliance on depiction of a single personality type, that you just need to write one female character per story right and you’ve done enough.

Agreed. I don’t want every book I pick up to feature a ____ female character. I just want females. Like Lori said on tumblr, I want girls who are a whole mess of qualities, because that’s what makes them human. Sophia ends up saying almost the same thing in the conclusion of her article:

I want a wealth of complex female protagonists who can be either strong or weak or both or neither, because they are more than strength or weakness…And besides heroines, I want to see women in as many and varied secondary and character roles as men: female sidekicks, mentors, comic relief, rivals, villains.

Where have I seen such a thing?  Harry Potter. (Yet another reason why I think J.K. Rowling is brilliant, and why I’ll never stop praising the series.) Yes, Rowling’s world is huge, and the series is long, both of which gave her plenty of time to cram it full of characters, but even still she gives us such a varied cast of females.

Hermione, McGonagall, Luna, Ginny, Bellatrix, Umbridge…

If you must use the word, they are each strong, but in different ways and for different reasons. Some are bold, daring, quiet, quirky, wise, stubborn, evil, and so on.

Luna is herself and unapologetic for it. Molly is a nagging mother with a heart of gold. Ginny dates widely after a childhood crush on Harry, and later keeps the DA running when he leaves her to hunt horcruxes. Umbridge is a racist and Bellatrix is a sadist.

These women are so unique. And even in a fantasy series, in a world that is not ours, they feel incredibly real.

Coincidentally, Rowling has even commented on how physical strength means little to these characters/in this world.

I’m a female writer and, what’s interesting about the Wizarding World is, when you take physical strength out of the equation, a woman can fight just the same as a man can fight, a woman can do magic just as powerfully as a man can do magic and I consider that I’ve written a lot of well-rounded female characters in these books. — JK Rowling

I feel like Rossi’s Under the Never Sky series also weaves a variety of females into the cast. There’s adaptable Aria, brave Liv, empowered (and sometimes catty) Brooke. Our own Susan Dennard has a wonderful cast of females in her novels: Fiesty Eleanor has complex relationships with several women–her mother, Jie, Allison.

In contemporary-land, I just read an ARC of Fangirl (Rowell), which has some unique female characters, and Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall gives us a tightly-knit group of four girls, non of whom are instantly very likeable.

I’m starting to ramble and lose steam, which means it’s probably time to stop. What I’m trying to say, and what I hope has come through, is that all this discussion on “strong” female characters has left me thinking about female characters in general. How they are portrayed in my own works and in others’. How I’d like more of them in books and on screen. How I want to love them, hate them, admire them, hug them, help them, smack them, anything.

Strong reactions to a character means they are coming to life on the page.

Give me female characters who make me react. Better yet, give me a large cast of them. In my opinion, these are both far more important than a lone female character being merely strong.

Some discussion points: What are your thoughts on strong female characters? Do you think our definition of “strong” is the issue? Can you think of other works of fiction with great female casts? Did Sophia’s article make you look at your own writing (or other works of fiction) in a new light?

This post was originally published by Erin on publishingcrawl.com.
It has been republished here and added to her blog archive.

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