You keep using that word… (On “strong female characters”)

Carina Chocano’s New York Times article “A Plague of Strong Female Characters” gets at most of my issues with this trope:

“Strong female character” is one of those shorthand memes that has leached into the cultural groundwater and spawned all kinds of cinematic clichés: alpha professionals whose laserlike focus on career advancement has turned them into grim, celibate automatons; robotic, lone-wolf, ascetic action heroines whose monomaniacal devotion to their crime-fighting makes them lean and cranky and very impatient; murderous 20-something comic-book salesgirls who dream of one day sidekicking for a superhero; avenging brides; poker-faced assassins; and gloomy ninjas with commitment issues.

Or the YA versions, typically found in fantasy or historical fiction: the girl who dresses up as a boy to fight or do some other “male” activity; the girl who hates the feminine tasks assigned her and runs off to do boy stuff instead; the girl who saves the world with her ass-kicking skills.

Chocano acknowledges that the original goal of “strong female characters” was “strong” as in “interesting or complex or well written,” and that is certainly the goal of these YA characters as well. Too often, though, the thing that makes them interesting or complex is the fact that they don’t want to do what their society expects of them as women. They buck their culture’s expectations while fitting neatly into the reader’s. What girl would want to be stuck with no options but cooking and sewing and getting married? By modern standards, a girl who submits to those restrictions couldn’t possibly be strong.

But that ends up implying that cooking and sewing and raising a family can’t be strong things to do — or more to the point, that they can’t be strong things to want, since to be strong a YA character must go after what she wants. (Though that’s a pretty American attitude — it could also be strong to submit to what one doesn’t want for the good of the many. But that’s a discussion for another time.) I would love to see more YA historical fiction and fantasy with more strong (as in complex, interesting, and possessed of inner strength) female characters who aren’t strong (as in wielding a sword).

Arianna of Wandering Librarians writes more about that inner strength idea.

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12 Responses to You keep using that word… (On “strong female characters”)

  1. Sam says:

    Beth: I haven’t read Jessica George. More to add to my list; thanks!

    “his cooking skill are his main combat ability” — Hee! I would argue that his skills in diplomacy and emotional manipulation are his main combat abilities, but I suppose those might also be traditionally thought of as traditionally feminine skills. :)

  2. Sam says:

    Greg: I hear what you’re saying. But in the promised land, people would also be about what they’re about and not about their gender (or color or whatever). Sadly, we don’t live in that land and aren’t likely to anytime soon. A book that pretends not to reflect the real world we live in — one in which sex and gender have baggage and expectations — is disingenuous.

    That doesn’t mean that should be the focus of every book. That would be boring and irritating. As you say, Un Lun Dun is about a lot of things. Probably the most interesting and important thing it does, in my opinion, has nothing to do with the fact that the protagonist is a girl; it’s that there is a Chosen One and it’s not her, and yet she’s the hero because she decides to be.

    But China Mieville chose to make her a girl, and he had reasons for that and it has implications in the world the readers live in. It would be a different book — subtly, maybe, but different — if she were a boy.

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  4. Beth says:

    Two examples from the top of my head are Jessica George’s Dragon books which feature a seamstress as the protagonist, and her sewing concerns remain a large part of the plot. Also, Peeta in Hunger Games is a baker, and his cooking skill are his main combat ability. Greg should like that as an example of a male character shoring up the value of traditionally female roles.

  5. Greg says:

    Hi Sam,

    That’s a fair point. I suppose what bothers me is the idea that somehow a book should become radically different depending on the gender of its protagonist. I’m currently reading Un Lun Dun, and I’d hate to think that if it had a male protagonist it would somehow be standard while by having a female protagonist it’s suddenly all about feminine empowerment. Don’t get me wrong, I understand there’s still a long way to go on that front, but somehow to me in the promised land a book will be completely about what it’s about and not about making a statement (unless, of course, it’s about making a statement).

    My more specific point (I think) was that there’s plenty of adventure stories that focus on the hero not doing what’s expected so I don’t know that that’s necessarily a gendered issue either (though I agree that a girl dressing up as a boy to do something is pretty open to gender-based criticism).

  6. Ranting Nerd says:

    She’s pretty awesome. The Sharing Knife books are fun to read, but are fairly different from her other series (Vorkosigan, Chalion); they’re significantly more romance-y, so if you try them and don’t like them for that reason, don’t let that keep you from trying her other stuff.

  7. Sam says:

    Interesting! I still haven’t read any Lois McMaster Bujold.

  8. Ranting Nerd says:

    I think Lois McMaster Bujold was working with that in her Sharing Knife books. She describes them as her “most subtle books yet”, and my take was that she was showcasing with the strength of pioneer women to build the world. (And to use their reason to solve problems. :-))

  9. Sam says:

    Paula —
    Ha! I was more thinking of characters like Kristin Cashore’s Fire or Shannon Hale’s Miri (from Princess Academy). But it’s true; “strong” doesn’t have to mean “hero” or “positive role model.”

  10. Sam says:

    Greg, this is why I focused on fantasy and historical fiction — very often in those genres there are strict gender roles (either because that’s historically accurate or because the fantasy world is set up to be vaguely “historical”).

  11. Greg says:

    “Too often, though, the thing that makes them interesting or complex is the fact that they don’t want to do what their society expects of them as women.” And society expects Batman to dress up in a cape and run around capturing refugees from mental asylums? Maybe one of the problems is trying to analyze everything from a gender perspective in the first place.

  12. :paula says:

    Is it time for another YA adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses? That Marquise de Merteuil was a pretty strong female character, and she never touched a sword – maybe in a modern rewrite she could NOT get so thoroughly spanked for being strong!

    Wait what am I talking about – isn’t that what Gossip Girl is? Strong girls getting away with vicious domestic machinations? I should probably read one or two of those… :)

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