Everyone’s talking about the Strong Female Character(TM).
The actual pushback isn’t a mystery, you know? Lots of women said the same thing long before it was even A Thing – that maybe, just maybe, the way anyone with a uterus tended to be written as a sex-dispensing object/convenient plot device was problematic. And there were articles a-plenty on How To Write Strong Female Characters who were maybe something more than that.
Now people are wondering if we’ve traded one rotten stereotype for another. In asking for Strong Female Characters, the Powers that Be have decided to be literal about their response, and we’ve been given the equivalent of Bruce Willis, Action Hero with a vagina, boobs, and a sexy body. We have the Strong Female Character(TM) or SFC, who isn’t so much a character as a different type of sex-dispensing object/convenient plot device.
She is physically adept at fighting and killing, whether using a sword or a gun. Her first reaction or solution to a problem is escalation or violence. She is physically very attractive due to her athleticism. She is stand-offish, snarky, dismissive of the main hero, who is uniformly a man. What, did you think she’d be headlining this film? Don’t be silly, she doesn’t have enough of a personality for that. She is not sexual, in any way that we would understand it – she doesn’t flirt, she doesn’t make any moves, she doesn’t hit on the hero, in spite of her very obviously more sexy attire – or she uses sexual attraction in callous, manipulative ways to get what she wants instead of for her own pleasure. She certainly doesn’t display any inherent sexuality of her own. She will initially react with disgust to the first overture of that kind from the hero, in fact, and only later will she come around to actually liking him. There is only one of her among a legion of dudes.
These traits are not universal to all SFCs, but a lot of them get this treatment. I do get completely exasperated by all of it.
I totally understand that wanting female characters that are not completely flat is a good thing, and so the Strong Female Character(TM) is going to be criticized to hell and back because she doesn’t measure up to Ripley in Aliens, for example. Really, I am so, so tired of seeing one SFC among a team of guys, to the point where such a movie doesn’t even raise an atom of my interest. Superhero movies, I’m looking at you. I should LOVE the big Marvel and DC franchises, because at least there I have a shot at seeing some well-rounded female superheroes. But NOPE, no can do. SFCs all around. Gamora, Black Widow, Peggy Carter, Catwoman… And so on and so forth. The really bothersome thing about this is that occasionally the SFCs get a little time to shine, just to show that they may have possibly had a chance at becoming real characters, but it never goes anywhere. They never get a narrative arc of their own.
Take Gamora, for example. She has her moments, but overall she has no character development in Guardians of the Galaxy, and her whole purpose in the movie is to be a convenient ass-kicking robot. Now… let’s compare the other members of the GOTG team.
- Peter. The main character of the movie. Nuff said.
- Rocket. The raccoon who gets a scene where he has a mental breakdown due to his inferiority complex.
- Drax. Fights against Ronan, loses badly, must face his failure and grow beyond it.
- Groot. A walking, talking tree that knows three words. Technically has no character at all.
What irritated me most about GOTG is that Gamora is an afterthought. They managed to add character development for the talking raccoon – who, by the way, might be pegged to get his own movie – but not the token woman. She’s only there to support Peter’s narrative. Sigh. Otherwise Guardians was a fun way to spend a few hours, and ultimately forgettable for me.
But consider this much – it’s a step. A tiny, stupid, astonishingly lacking step, flawed in more ways than I can count, but it’s still a step. I can be tired of it, and honestly wish for better, but it’s a step forward that I didn’t have a few years ago. It’s a sign of progress. The mere presence of SFCs highlights and encourages more female characters, more cultural analysis, and a higher chance of stories that place women doing amazing things front and center in action movies.
So it bothers me, just a little, when articles are written that basically shit all over Strong Female Characters(TM) because they’re not as good as they could be.
I mean… what makes you think things have gotten better everywhere? The ‘woman as eye candy’ trope is still alive and well in movies. Hollywood sexism hasn’t even evolved to the point where SFCs are routinely allowed to not be sexy, for gods’ sake. Things change slowly. I can wish and hope for more, and roll my eyes at the treatment of women as sexy, ass-kicking, but still indifferent and mostly uninteresting characters, and still, still, be grateful for that small step forward. If it wasn’t for that step, we wouldn’t have Maleficent, or Lucy, or The Hunger Games.
SFCs gave me Pacific Rim, a giant, silly action movie about robots fighting monsters that still manages to be completely charming, heart-warming, and defined by the character arc of a young Japanese woman, Mako Mori. Yes, it’s still got issues, not the least of which being that she’s practically the only woman of note among many, many male characters, but it’s something I can be hopeful about. It’s something for me to love because it took a risk that lots of Hollywood movies are not allowed to take, when it centered a woman’s story in the plot and made the guy her emotional support.
Point is, female characters are still a problem, no matter what writers in general want to think. Women are still written horrifically badly, when they’re included at all. You can say that the gender of characters in books and movies don’t matter to you – and this is a common response, still – but in reality it DOES matter. There are lots of writers who still can’t bloody well create a female character without resorting to stupid, tired stereotypes, and the writers who have a clue have an obligation to show them the way if needed. We have an obligation to do better in our own writing.
We can do all of this and more, and still be grateful that things are getting a little better than they were.
If you want to write like a girl, then go ahead and do it, as well as you can. You might still get it wrong, and I’m sorry you’re not going to get any pats on the head for that, but goddamnit, at least you’re trying. You’ll be criticized from every angle if you really screw it up, but at least you’re trying. At least you want to try. There are still giant swathes of the world that don’t even think there’s a problem at all.
And please, please stop treating Strong Female Characters like they’re just as bad as the Sexy Cardboard Cutouts we still have to put up with in so many stories.