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Strong Women Characters

A number of people have linked to the article Why Strong Female Characters are Bad for Women.  I’ve read it several times, and while I agree with a lot of what’s said, that title makes me cranky.

Strong female characters are not bad for women (or for men). Stereotypical, cardboard, badly done female characters, on the other hand? Not a good thing. Writers and filmmakers who have no clue how to create a strong female character? Also a bad thing.

A strong female character has to be a character.  Characters are (usually) people.  They have strengths and flaws both.  They have their own goals — which don’t all revolve around a guy — as well as their own fears. They love and hate and yearn and regret.

I’ve found that as soon as the writer tries to define a particular type of character — “This shall be the black character” or “This will be the smart character” or “This will be the strong female character,” then it fails.  The character becomes one-dimensional, defined by that label and a (usually) shallow and stereotypical understanding of how to portray it.

What about strength?  Strong does not mean invulnerable.  Strong does not mean perfect.  Strong does not necessarily mean physical strength.

Strength is my daughter holding back tears after her little brother accidentally hurts her, because she knows if she cries it will upset him.  Strength is my mother calmly shoving chocolate into my dad’s mouth when his blood sugar drops too low.  Strength is Susan Boyle getting up on stage, ignoring the derision of the audience, and singing the crap out of her song.

Sure, strength can also be Uma Thurman kicking ass in Kill Bill — but that’s just one of many kinds of strength.  When that’s the only kind of strength we see, it betrays a serious lack of creativity on the part of the writers. (And Thurman’s character is far from invulnerable.  As the article notes, she is strong, but also flawed and human.)

Lastly, a strong female character has to be female.  This is a “Duh” moment, but I think there are a lot of writers who have a hard time creating realistic female characters. Sometimes women seem to exist only as sexual fantasy objects. Other times people complain the female characters are just “men with boobs.”

Dangerous territory here. I’m not about to try to lecture everyone on what is and isn’t female. Nor am I going to claim I always get it right. What I do know is that sex and gender can affect our experiences and our identity, but they don’t define who we are, and there’s tremendous variety out there.

We’re not getting enough variety in books and TV and movies.  Often we get a few narrow character types and ignore 99% of the female population. And hey, here’s a hint: if you have only a single (strong, of course) female character in your ensemble, it’s extremely difficult to show variety.

So no, I don’t believe strong female characters are bad for women. I do believe that, as a whole, we’re doing a lousy job of writing them.

Discussion and disagreement are welcome, as always.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.



( 107 comments — Leave a comment )
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Mar. 11th, 2010 02:38 pm (UTC)
Ok, but all of that is pretty much what the article was saying. The title is just a reference to the fact that what *passes* as strong female characters in most of our media are bad.
Mar. 11th, 2010 02:42 pm (UTC)
It is. Like I said, I mostly agree with the article, and feel it deserves discussion and repeating.

The title really makes me cranky, though. I'm used to articles using exaggerated titles to draw interest (The Daily Show did a piece no that a little while ago), but this one felt almost dishonest.
(no subject) - emilytheslayer - Mar. 11th, 2010 02:44 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Mar. 11th, 2010 02:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - emilytheslayer - Mar. 11th, 2010 02:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 11th, 2010 02:39 pm (UTC)
Totally unrelated to your thesis, which I agree with, but I have this weird pet peeve about how the words female and woman have been switched in colloquial English. Female used to be an adjective (Dr. Johnson was the first female doctor at her hospital.) while woman used to be a noun (When Sam went to the hospital, he was surprised to discover Dr. Johnson was a woman.). Now they seem to have switched, and it drives me bonkers!

Dr. Johnson is a woman doctor--What?!

Sam is surprised his doctor is a female--Huh?! A female what?

Here endeth my venting.
Mar. 11th, 2010 02:47 pm (UTC)
I did do that in the title, didn't I. Dang it. I'd edit to fix that, but it would mess up the linking and URL on the main site.

Grumble. This post was a little rushed, and I reviewed the post itself, but didn't give a second thought to the title. -5 points.
(no subject) - nick_kaufmann - Mar. 11th, 2010 03:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Mar. 11th, 2010 02:50 pm (UTC)
...but that’s just one of many kinds of strength.

I've always wondered why some people seemed to think that the Uhura character in the new ST movie wasn't strong...as if wearing a skirt negated any possibility of strength. She pretty much got everything she wanted throughout the movie...
Mar. 11th, 2010 02:54 pm (UTC)
The scene in the turbolift with her and Spock threw me. I hadn't picked up the hints that those two were involved. Upon second viewing, I had no problem with that relationship, but it did skew things for me the first time through.

But yes -- anyone who can march up to Spock and say "I don't know what you're thinking buddy, but I *will* be assigned to the Enterprise," and have Spock back down? Yeah, strong female character with exclamation points!!
(no subject) - tielan - Mar. 11th, 2010 07:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Mar. 11th, 2010 02:51 pm (UTC)
Thank you for articulating why that article bothered the hell out of me, as well. It wasn't what the article said. That I mostly agreed with. The title, however, negated any real point the article attempted to make because in a world full of snapshots, no one's going to read any irony into the title and how it actually reflected the article.

It's this type of title that encourage idiots like the movie producer who claimed strong women can't carry movies, because one of his did poorly that summer. It was also a terrible movie, but that didn't matter. Just that a woman starred in it.
Mar. 11th, 2010 02:56 pm (UTC)
Once again, falling back on xkcd to explain "How it works"...

Edited at 2010-03-11 02:56 pm (UTC)
(no subject) - ladycat777 - Mar. 11th, 2010 03:04 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tsubaki_ny - Mar. 11th, 2010 07:39 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 11th, 2010 02:51 pm (UTC)
I hadn't seen the article before you linked to it, and if it weren't for the outrageous title, I might not have read it. As is, I was curious enough (and the title pissed me off enough)to read the whole thing.

And I liked the article a lot. Once I read it, I understood why that headline made perfect sense.
Mar. 11th, 2010 03:00 pm (UTC)
You know, even if they'd used quotes for something like:

Why "Strong Female Characters" are Bad for Women

I think I'd be okay with that. But as is, it still makes me cranky.

I think partly I feel manipulated. Like they're using a deliberately misleading title to piss me off and lure me in. Nothing new in that practice, but it does annoy me. YMMV, of course :-)
(no subject) - mtlawson - Mar. 11th, 2010 03:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 11th, 2010 02:53 pm (UTC)
I'll read the article this evening when I get home, but I do know I'm very conscious about writing female characters. One of the things I tell my wife to do when she does the first line edits, (she's a fantastic editor, thank goodness), is to ensure I'm not writing a man with a skirt. Do my characters' reactions ring true to her.

Course, I did the same thing when she was doing some HP fanfic. I had to explain a few times that "teenage boys don't think like that." So, we trade off critiquing each others work and I think we're both better writers for it.

But, relating back to your post, avoidance of stereotypes is a "good thing". Even when writing comic heroes and villains, there should always be some shade of gray. Now, are there evil people. Sure and some revel in it, but even then they should have some depth.

Otherwise, it's just bad writing, whether the character's male/female/hero/villain/spearholder/ third choir member from the left/etc.

Edited at 2010-03-11 02:56 pm (UTC)
Mar. 11th, 2010 03:02 pm (UTC)
Yep. I wanted to expand the post to talk about how most of this stuff applies to characters in general. Male or female, hero or villain, gay or straight, black or white, or whatever. But the post was already getting pretty long-winded :-)
Mar. 11th, 2010 02:59 pm (UTC)
You summed up my dilemma about "writing women" perfectly. I can't do the current female cliche, but tapping into "actual feminity" - what does it mean, how does it shape the mind/attitudes/action - remains an almost closed book to me. I wish I could crack it, but it's like wrestling angels.
Mar. 11th, 2010 03:13 pm (UTC)
The only advice I could offer (and again, I'm not claiming to do this stuff perfectly myself) comes down to listening. Listen to people, especially people with different experiences than we have. And by listening, I'm also including reading, whether it's reading blogs or novels or whatever.

Few things that are worthwhile come without a struggle, right?
(no subject) - sixteenbynine - Mar. 11th, 2010 04:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mtlawson - Mar. 11th, 2010 05:44 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Mar. 11th, 2010 03:04 pm (UTC)
Well, I like both articles. Good points all around. The article's title is misleading, until you actually read it, then it makes better since.
Mar. 11th, 2010 03:11 pm (UTC)
I do like the article itself, and agree with most of it. Apparently I'm just a title curmudgeon this morning :-)
Mar. 11th, 2010 03:30 pm (UTC)
I agree, the article title is poorly chosen. Seeing it as it was, if it just appeared as a short recommendation on my Twitter or elsewhere, I would grit my teeth, mutter balefully, and never even read...because I'd assume it was an anti-feminist or "women aren't like that!" screed of some sort, and I wouldn't want to worsen my mood by reading it through.

I wonder if people who agree with that sort of thing would have the opposite reaction - liking it but not bothering to read it.

Some people might see it and just internalize its stated opinion as "part of how the world is" (whether they approved or not) and move on without reading.

In other words - if a skimmer only reads the title, they take away the wrong (and possibly destructive) message. I think that's a very bad title.

I agree with your points, so based on what you said, I might like the article. But I'm not going to read it as I need to run to work. ;)
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 11th, 2010 03:49 pm (UTC)
Love both this post and that article... but what did bug me about that article was the list of suggested flaws. I mean, really? We need more neurotic female characters? That's a flaw female characters actually do often have, and it's used either because 1) they're women, duh, of course they're mentally unstable, or 2) it makes them quirky, or something, and therefore adorable and more desirable. (See also: half the female leads of romantic comedies.)

Of course it can be done well by a good writer, but I had to frown at seeing it suggested. I'd much rather see less neurotic women and more neurotic men. I had similar reactions to some of the other suggestions. (Eg. a lot of arrogant female characters are only arrogant because it makes it more impressive when the male lead finally manages to get into their pants.)
Mar. 11th, 2010 03:55 pm (UTC)
And there's also the part where male characters tend to be incredibly condescending towards female neurotic characters and all of their fretting can be stilled with a kiss.

I could go on, but I'm sure you see where I'm coming fom *g*
(no subject) - jimhines - Mar. 11th, 2010 06:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
Preaching to the choir, pt.2 - corinneduyvis - Mar. 11th, 2010 06:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - corinneduyvis - Mar. 11th, 2010 09:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Mar. 12th, 2010 01:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Mar. 11th, 2010 03:58 pm (UTC)
On my end, a discussion on this vein was spared recently by the anime series "Queens Blade", which features an almost entirely-female cast of warriors. The show features the thinnest veneer of plot to cover up what is essentially a cheesecake conveyor belt: nobody with more than half a brain is going to realize the real point of this show is to parade ludicrously-endowed women past the camera.

I actually plan on using this show (once it's out here) as an example of how this kind of thing can be a two-edged sword. It might be offensive as all get-out; it might just be too dumb to even bother with; or - unlikely, but who knows - it might, MIGHT turn out to be an example of how surfaces can deceive.

Jimmy the Greek's leaning towards the first two, though. Very heavily.
Mar. 11th, 2010 04:01 pm (UTC)
The title of the article (thanks for the link!) only works if you read '[strong female] character' as defined by the article - specifically, the cardboard cutout male-fantasy Mary Sues.

I very much like the reminder that strength of character is not necessarily about kicking butt or the ability to do so. The article talked mostly about female characters in movies, but the issue certainly pertains to books as well. I've been finding it frustrating as a writer in the romance genre. I don't want my female leads to have to have it all together from the start of the story; I like developing the arc wherein she overcomes weakness and grows, becooming stronger in the course of the story.

But agents and editors demand 'strong female character' and I'm just tired of every heroine needing to have the same kick-ass personality. Not only boring but kind of scary. Being gentle can take a kind of strength some people seem unable to imagine.
Mar. 11th, 2010 07:47 pm (UTC)
If you like manga, I recommend "Akagami no Shirayukihime" on that note. THAT is a strong female character whose strength is through gentleness that isn't submissive.
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 11th, 2010 06:38 pm (UTC)
What fun would it be if we got everything right on the first draft? :-)
Mar. 11th, 2010 04:03 pm (UTC)
I enjoyed the article, and your post. One of the problems with the "strong" female characters portrayed in movies these days is that they set the bar impossibly high for us ordinary gals. Women not only have to be 20 years old, model-thin, and gorgeous, they have to be geniuses! And super strong! And excellent marksmen! And preferably have super powers!

Yeah, that's nice and all, but I sure can't identify with it.

One of my favorite heroines is still Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. She wasn't perfect, and she didn't have any superpowers, but she was tough on the inside because she knew what she wanted in life, was willing to take risks and make sacrifices to get it, and wasn't going to let anyone else take over and tell her what to do. She was strong without ever having to do any ass kicking. (Except in with "with Zombies" version, but that's maybe another example of modern culture's thinking that a woman must be able to fight in order to be strong.)

I like female characters with flaws but an inner strength. That is something I can more readily identify with.
Mar. 12th, 2010 01:52 pm (UTC)
Don't even get me started on the physical depictions we get, particularly with women. I had a whole big rant on this stuff last year.

Inner strength is important -- often more so than the physical/butt-kicking kind. I'd love to see more of it, and more recognition of its value.
Mar. 11th, 2010 04:07 pm (UTC)
You have to be careful about posting things like this. Pretty soon I'm going to start asking if you have any single clones lying around.

On another note, yes. Yes to all.

Especially this part: Strength is Susan Boyle getting up on stage, ignoring the derision of the audience, and singing the crap out of her song.

Because damn didn't she though?
Mar. 12th, 2010 12:58 am (UTC)
Thanks :-) No clones though, I'm afraid. Which is a shame, because if we had that kind of technology, I could just grow myself a new pancreas and be done with all of this diabetes crap.
Mar. 11th, 2010 04:08 pm (UTC)
I haven't read this article yet, but I've been thinking for a long while about why many women I know REFUSE to read books with female protagonists in them. Or if they have, they have stopped reading books with female protagonists in absolute disgust.

In large part, it's because the women are invariably written as a stereotype, or as a love object (even if she's the main character) or as fulfilling truly horrible cliches and tropes that don't connect with these female readers. And it's not any better if the writers are *women*, while perhaps not shocking indicates that there are many women writers (and men) who have not examined their assumptions about the way female characters should be, and why they're writing them that way. It's extremely frustrating to see such a low level of self-awareness. I don't know how much of this problem originates with publishers and what they're willing to print, or what they think women are willing to read...but if the supply isn't there, it's not going to get published at all.
Mar. 11th, 2010 06:13 pm (UTC)
I was discussing my current fantasy story (female lead, male accompanist) at BEA, and darn if four authors (all RWA members) said, I needed to have the two main characters as a couple because it would sell better as a paranormal romance.

What? I can't just have a woman and a man team up unless they're in bed together?


Don't get me wrong. I've nothing against a good romance if it moves the story, but to just shoe-horn it in there because "well, if they're partners, then they should be "partners (with a wink)" is rather annoying.
Mar. 11th, 2010 04:26 pm (UTC)
This gives me something to think about as I develop and refine characters. Thanks for posting!
Mar. 11th, 2010 04:39 pm (UTC)
*scratches head*

I can't NOT write strong female lead characters because, well... I iz one.


Jo Tanis in "Blaze of Glory" is a superhero fake.
Reb Dejardin in "What God and Cats Know" is a PI with an attitude.
(why, yes, those ARE blatant plugs for my books - how could you tell?)

I'm not sure how I could write women who weren't strong, independent and able to handle whatever's tossed at them.

thanks, mom!

Mar. 11th, 2010 05:36 pm (UTC)
So my question is: WHAT defines Strength?

I think Jim has it almost right with the Susan Boyle example, but...

Is it the Emergency personnel that save lives everyday? Is it the parent in California with two severely autistic children and is doing the best he/she can with a broken health care system that refuses therapy? Is it Buffy - fighting Vamps and coming home to deal with the aftermath of her mother's death? Is it the abused spouse that eventually snaps and kills the abuser? Is it the grandparent on a pittance of welfare who welcomingly takes in his pregnant granddaughter after her family disowns her? Is it all of fandom coming together to shun a rapist? Is it overcoming serious clinical depression and making a better, if quiet, life for yourself independently or with a partner?

How do we, in modern society, define strength?
Mar. 11th, 2010 06:23 pm (UTC)
totally OT - but the Buffy ep. "The Body" so rocked... I still can't see it without getting all weepy.


Buffy rocks.

'nuff said.
(no subject) - jennielf - Mar. 11th, 2010 06:39 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Mar. 11th, 2010 06:03 pm (UTC)
In Rob Roy, Jessica Lange's performance, and the character as written, combined to be one of the greatest examples of "feminine strength" I've ever seen on film. If you haven't seen the movie, to explain why would be a spoiler that I would not want to reveal.

But it is a terrific example of what you describe--that strength is not just about kicking ass.

Mar. 11th, 2010 06:40 pm (UTC)
I watched the movie once when it first came out, and I haven't been able to watch it again. I just can't watch that scene. Too real, too much. So I think I know what you're referring to here, but my memory on this one is a bit blurred, for the most part.
(no subject) - blitheringpooks - Mar. 11th, 2010 06:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 11th, 2010 07:03 pm (UTC)
Great post and thank you for linking to that article. It was very interesting in and over itself, but like you the title kind of makes me twitch. Before I even start reading it, it gets me up in arms, because it immediately made me think about those news stories that come out from time to time that try to argue that Work/Individuality/Not Being Married/Whatever are in some way proven to be bad for/depressing to the modern women, as though modern women are now reaping the punishment of working toward equality in a "man's world".

But other than the title, I rather enjoyed the article, and agree that depictions of women as real people are better overall.
Mar. 12th, 2010 12:57 am (UTC)
Yep -- I can understand going for the more sensational title, trying to drive web traffic and compete with everything else online. But this felt like too much, at least for me.
Mar. 11th, 2010 07:43 pm (UTC)
I read that article a while back, and yes, I was manipulated into it by the title, though I didn't resent it at the time.

I think it was definitely a reactionary move, but part of a larger/longer conversation about the recent proliferation of "snappy Sues" in books geared towards women, and I've been specifically following that convo here and there around the Netz for quite a while, so it didn't jar me. But I can indeed see how it could be jarring.
Mar. 12th, 2010 01:48 pm (UTC)
I hadn't come across the term "snappy Sues" before. Did you coin that one, or is it a common term when talking about these characters?
(no subject) - tsubaki_ny - Mar. 12th, 2010 02:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 11th, 2010 07:47 pm (UTC)
Tangled Pages originally had a female lead. I was asked to rewrite it as a male lead. What was interesting to me was how horribly sexist I had been. It was a really wonderful exercise that altered how I write characters.

She cried all the time and he didn't. For instance. .... I stopped that right quick. He cried more - he is a young child after all - and thinking on it she would have cried less. Because, well, most of the young women I grew up with normally could've - and a few did - beaten the hell out of me before they dropped a single tear. So yeeeeah, not so realistic to have her as a weeping woman.

(shrug) I highly recommend something similar for people. When shifting sexes - and this has happened in both directions for me - it is incredible to see how the same passage or set of passages are changed according to gender and your (the author's) notions. It's telling, if you're looking for it.

Interesting articles, both.
Mar. 11th, 2010 07:52 pm (UTC)
I did the same thing for "Spell of the Sparrow," first written with a male protag, then rewritten for Sword & Sorceress. Like you, I found it a very useful exercise to highlight those gender-based assumptions and prejudices.
(no subject) - mt_yvr - Mar. 11th, 2010 07:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 11th, 2010 07:59 pm (UTC)
I've never understood why strength is defined as 'warrior like'. I mean, sure, my favourite female characters tend to be perfectly capable of wielding something sharp and pointy (or black and bullet-y) but I love the ones who stand their ground in the face of power or privilege.
Mar. 11th, 2010 09:34 pm (UTC)
Perhaps because "warrior like" has culturally equaled "male" which has culturally equaled "strong"?

Thus you get the stupid notion that only combat skill is representative of strength, and the other stupid notion that females* who exhibit combat skill are "men with boobs."

This limited definition of "strong" hurts everyone, regardless of gender. You see it often in movies where the male hero is not a combat guy, but he becomes one, and only then is he a Real Hero, because he has Kicked Much Ass. (c.f. The Rock, for instance.)

*wink at thelauderdale
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