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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

On "Strong Female Characters"

I stumbled onto this post while compiling for WFA and it got me thinking. Be warned, as is generally true when I actually think, this post is remarkably incoherent and rambling and more of a rant than anything else.

See, when I hear creators or advertisers go on about how THIS CHARCTER is awesome because she's a "strong female character", I have to admit, I usually wince.

Part of it's because I've seen far too many tv shows, movies, comics where someone decides "strong female character" is apparently best portrayed by nagging idiotic bitch.

Here's a piece of advice. If your way of demonstrating the strength and feistiness of your female character is to have her start bitching at the main male character the moment she walks into the room, usually over something that isn't his fault anyway, you're not doing a good job at making a good "strong female character", you are however doing a good job of establishing her as a crazy bitch.

Oh, and as a addendum, if you're writing a character that is anything of the following: brilliant scientist, doctor, lawyer, teacher, or hell, is over the age of fucking 15, please do not be having her respond to a provocative statement from a male character by slapping him. Adult professional women are not really that likely to resort to fisticuffs unless it's a sporting event or in self defense.

Another part of it has to do with what I used to call "the Lara Croft" defense. If the character is designed primarily for T&A, please do not be justifying it by equating her strong female personality to her willingness to jump around in skimpy clothing.

Sexual freedom is liberating, yes. But the fact is, most of these characters are still designed by men or, in the case that they're designed by women, are still subject to approval by corporate executive men.

I'm not saying it's a bad thing to have a scantily clad female character, I personally enjoy scantily clad male characters, and in the case of attractive actors I'm all for equal opportunity for all. But please don't frame it as some sort of ultra-feminist choice that your heroine wanders about in leather fetish gear. Fictional characters do not design themselves.

Please note, I am not saying that a scantily clad and/or female character CAN'T have a strong personality. But please don't use the strong personality as an EXCUSE for designing the character's appearance to titilate the straight male audience.

Part of it has to do with when a creator goes out of his or her way to establish the female character as awesome and kickass in some manner or another...up until she needs to be saved by the hero. I'm not saying the heroine can't ever get saved by the hero, but how about a little tit-for-tat. Even if she's not a fighter, I'm sure you can think of a way for her to save his bacon if you really try.

Oh and when she needs to be saved, can you PLEASE have it be because of some area she's got a genuine weakness to? I don't want to see yet another "best swordswoman in the world" suddenly fumble her grip like an amateur opening herself up to the villain's strike. Maybe she was wounded earlier. Maybe he's tricked her. Maybe there's a hostage. Maybe she's never fought a wizard before. Just give the character some REASON beyond suddenly not being as good as she was throughout the whole story.

As a aside, I would like not to see the prickly ice-queen character suddenly swoon with poetic love into the hero's arms. A romance with that kind of character can be fun, but it's not something you can just say "And now they're in love." It takes some build-up damnit, and there's a way to do it naturally without wiping out all of the character's pre-existing personality!

Ultimately though, my biggest problem with when creators use the phrase "strong female character" when describing their own creations is that I think it's essentially become some advertising buzzword. This isn't to say that some creators, when going on and on about the awesome strength of their female characters aren't actually right. But when they do, they start becoming hard to distinguish from the idiots who seem to think repeating that phrase often enough will brainwash the audience into thinking it's true. But the thing is, when it's true, you don't need to say anything.

Xena, Ripley, Sarah Conner, Storm (non-movie version), Ms. Marvel, Oracle, Power Girl, Wonder Woman and so on and so forth don't NEED to be described as strong female characters. Because we already know.

Give me a trailer or advertisement of a female character kicking ass and taking names, I'll give the damn thing a try and if I like the character, then I'll be telling all my friends, enemies, colleagues, strangers on the street, about how awesome and strong and kickass she is.

If the character is really a strong female character, then shut up and let your REVIEWERS tell people that. It'll mean more coming from someone with no financial or creative stake in the product.

Think about it this way. There's a four year old who plays piano and his mother says he's very good at it. Of course she's going to say that. She's his MOM! Now if some random guy, say, old Bill down the street, says the kid's actually pretty good. THEN you might be more interested in listening.

(ETA: I clarified a bit more about what I mean by "Lara Croft Syndrome" in a reply on furikku's livejournal post. I'm linking it here because I'm too lazy to repost it and also because furikku's entry is pretty neat itself.)


  • At August 27, 2008 10:13 AM, Blogger SallyP said…

    It is true that there is nothing wrong with the hero saving the heroine once in a while. There is also nothing at all wrong with her returning the favor. Or, as you say, losing, but losing for a REAL reason.

    And for the love of God, please don't make her do her heroics in high heels. Or make the guys do it in heels too. We have to level the playing field somehow.

  • At August 27, 2008 10:25 AM, Blogger Matthew E said…

    I was thinking recently about who my favourite female characters were, the ones who really are formidable on their own and whoever created them doesn't have to apologize for it:

    Princess Leia
    Flora Poste
    Granny Weatherwax
    Saturn Girl (other Legionnaires too, but clearly Saturn Girl most of all)

  • At August 27, 2008 3:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I would also submit Mallory Grace from the Spiderwick Chronicles as a strong female character.

    She's constantly saving her little brothers with her championship-level fencing skills, and in the books, when she has to be saved (just once,i think!) it's because the fairies took advantage of her, not because she had a stupid moment with her sword.

  • At August 27, 2008 11:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Totally off-topic but:

    Kalinara, do you get Previews magazine? Because the November solicitations feature a DC Direct action figure that's going to make you, as a Sand fan, very happy!

  • At August 28, 2008 2:26 AM, Blogger Ami Angelwings said…

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • At August 28, 2008 2:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Just a quick thing, Lara croft was designed as a strong char FIRST, the fact that she georgous and apeals to straight men and gay / bi women was a secondary thing.

    Other than that, Im in some agreement with alot of your points.

  • At August 28, 2008 2:33 AM, Blogger Ami Angelwings said…

    Fictional characters do not design themselves.

    Yus! Ty! :D

    And you're ttlly right about the whole "strong women" thing being an advertising buzzword. And it's also rly annoying when creators get mad that ppl dun see their "strong woman" character as particularly appealing as a character or particularly strong, and then they're like "BUT SHE'S A STRONG WOMAN! LIKE HERRRR!!!" and yus, as you said, ppl will notice the strong characters, male or female, pointing at chars you wrote and shouting "strong! strong!" doesn't make them strong. xD

  • At August 28, 2008 2:45 AM, Blogger Ami Angelwings said…

    Also rly tired of "token resistance" being thrown in so it can be claimed that the char wasn't being used as a "damsel in distress" but a "STRONG FEMALE CHAR!!!11112" when ultimately she is being written and used as a damsel in distress char but she kicked a guy with her magical dissapearing kung-fu powers in one moment and then they vanish and she's captured, but hay she kicked a guy! SEE STRONG STRAWNNGGG!!!!

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