Tuesday, July 2, 2013

TTYU Retro: What's in a "strong female character"?

I'm a very strong advocate for writing strong female characters. Recently, I see a lot more female characters who are physically powerful and unafraid of a fight, and I have little problem with that (though those who know me know that I have trouble with over-sexualized images of women, even physically powerful ones). I'm one of the first people to cheer when I see an image like this one racing around Facebook:
I quibble, however. When I saw this girl wearing her awesome armor I hesitated to share it, because it falls into one of the many traps of gender image. To lead into which trap I'm referring to, I offer you this next photo, of one of the strongest females I know:

It's my daughter, Rhiannon. She was a Barbie Musketeer a couple of years ago at Halloween. I guess my first point here is the old saying that one cannot tell a book by its cover. Clothes are a very complex form of social signalling, and practicality often takes a back seat to that. The whole idea of a Barbie Musketeer made me cringe (and still does) but I honestly don't see why it's problematic to have one's long-lavender-dress moments and one's armor moments as well. Of course, I'd advise anyone (including kilt-wearers) to keep skirts under control while in combat, for practical reasons.
Let's focus, though. This isn't a post about beauty or body image or femininity standards of appearance (much as I'm often tempted). It's about elements of character.

I appreciate the idea that women should be able to take on male roles, and be "tough" and even violent when need be, but this is really only one side of the total issue. It still gives first dibs to the value of the traditionally masculine constellation of qualities (including toughness, goal-orientation, competitiveness, etc.). There is a great deal of value to be found also in the feminine constellation of qualities - and these should not be disregarded, either when we're designing female characters, or when we're designing males.
It's hard sometimes to get past the "feminine"-labeled things that drive us crazy. A heightened concern with appearance is one of those things. I have been known to tear at my hair in response to the idea that "how to get the best Christmas gift for each of your friends" is a worthy topic for an hour-long movie. There's also the question of whether "how to get your friends to work together to host a birthday party" is worth a movie, or more hair-tearing. Somewhat more meaty is the topic of "if you miscommunicate and hurt a friend's feelings, how do you get out of it?" A trend I've noticed in all of these - one that frustrates me like crazy - is the way that commercialism gets unquestioningly mixed in with all of these, as when so many girls' stories feature salon scenes, or shopping (grrr).

So I thought I'd list three critical qualities that I consider to come out of the traditional view of femininity and feminine roles, but which are extremely valuable for both female and male characters. These qualities do tend to come out in movies and shows for girls, but my problem with these shows and movies is that these admirable qualities are so circumscribed in their application - by which I mean that we see them applied to birthday parties and Christmas rather than to grander pursuits (or again, when girls are saving the world, these qualities distract from rather than contribute to the girls' success). Obviously this list isn't exhaustive, but I hope it inspires further thought and questioning of those qualities we often dismiss.

1. Patience, long-term tolerance of ambiguity, and moderation in response
I never realized how patient I could be until I became a mother. When you're holding together a household twenty-four/seven, you are faced with a complex, constantly evolving social situation that you can't just walk away from. Especially when you understand the full basis of child behavior, you tend to be a bit more tolerant of its extremes. The other thing that this constant commitment does is that it makes ultimatums very difficult to carry out - what I call being careful with "or else." Any kind of threat you don't intend to carry out ultimately weakens your authority... and since you'll be the one dealing with any chaos you create in the environment - over the long term - it tends to encourage more moderation. [For those of you who are wondering, yes, I do lose it and flip out sometimes. I'm just talking about ideal feminine qualities!]

2. Consideration for others
Girls and women are always being asked to consider things from another point of view - often in the name of understanding why the boys must have what they want, but also in service of larger group dynamics among females. This can be construed as a form of weakness, but it's actually an enormous advantage in any social situation where no one person is in charge. Where a large group is trying to get something done (traveling, staying alive, etc.) a traditionally masculine goal-orientation may cause some members to fall off the group motivation and be lost or diverted; a simultaneous application of consideration for the larger social dynamic can help keep the group together. I'm put in mind of the movie Chimpanzee, which we watched recently, where the group which prevailed in keeping its territory was smaller in numbers, but had a male leader who spent more time grooming the members of his troop. (Take that, salons!)

3. Persistence in the face of setbacks/lack of recognition; constantly taking small steps
This is where patience meets goals. I'm reminded of the story I saw going around Facebook the other day of the man who came home to find his house a complete and utter wreck and his wife in bed with a book saying to him, "You know how you asked me what I do around the house all day? Well, today I didn't do it." Managing a household is like that (particularly where diapers and tiny bundles of chaos are involved). For all my talk of letting the house get messy, I can hardly walk into a room without doing some small thing to contribute to its improvement or ongoing state of usability. The laundry piles up and I keep doing it. When the kids were in diapers, I kept changing them (my motto: that's what diapers are for!) There's a little room in the system for grand gestures (Look, honey, I dusted the whole house today! or Look, honey, I mopped the floor!) but one has to realize those don't last long, and not get discouraged when a spilled juice wrecks your work of the last hour. There's also the fact that many women must continue to achieve success in this way without any recognition that they are in fact doing so (thus the Facebook story).

I'll end this post with some questions:

What other qualities of traditional femininity do you consider valuable? 
How do they contribute strength to a social system? 
How might they change the way a character would go about saving the world? 
Can you recommend some strong female characters who are strong in feminine as well as masculine ways?

#SFWApro

36 comments:

  1. Well I certainly make every effort to write my female characters this way. I certainly recognize the qualities you mention. But I also think that women have a better handle on their emotions or at least how to express and deal with emotional issues than men often do. We tend to carry it around as something we're not supposed to talk about or allow to manifest except as anger or strength and that can actually make us frustrated and weaker. Women are societally allowed to just get it out and they know how to talk about it, or at least often get the opportunity to talk about it and deal with it more readily. That is part of their strength in my mind. I also think it can, at times, help them keep their heads in situations where men just need to explode or at least tend to.

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    1. Bryan, great point. Emotional self-awareness and willingness to express emotion are great qualities for precisely the reasons you mention. Thanks for the comment!

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    2. I agree as well--it's one of the things I cherish most about my girlfriend. I've surprised myself at how stereotypical I am when it comes to expressing my own feelings: I basically don't. Ha. But she encourages me to get after what I want more; both in our relationship and in the world. It's helped me function more happily, and it's also revealed to me some of the hidden reasons people may have for doing what they do. My girlfriend also demonstrates this through her, shall we say 'commanding' driving style....

      To the article: Those are great qualities to recognize and celebrate in women. I myself possess a lot of #2 (to detrimental effect, perhaps, see previous paragraph). As a result, it's often hard to wipe it out of characters that need to be more domineering, single-minded. Early stories of mine definitely suffered from everyone being too reasonable.

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  2. One character that comes to mind is Cordelia Naismith, mother of Miles Vorkosigan. She is a kick-ass ship Captain, and she becomes a strong model and role figure as a mother to Miles and a wife to Aral.

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    1. Paul, thanks so much for the recommendation and the comment!

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  3. This is a key issue, especially in screenwriting. I have a friend who's a script editor and writer (Lucy V Hay of Bag2Write) who has devoted hours of time and pages of text to this very issue: How to write (and get filmed) strong female characters that aren't simply male action heroes with boobs?
    I always held up Buffy as a great example, but a lot of her strength is her ability to kick butt, which makes her strong, but not neccessarily a strong woman. She also frequently mooned about because she didn't have a "proper" boyfriend...
    I think one of the problems is that you won't get a watershed of better female characters until you have more top-flight female writers, and they won't get a crack at the business until Hollywood lets go of the insane idea that women are not a target demographic for big movies. That's come about because women tend to be less fans of the big blockbusters, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy : women don't like blockbusters, so they don't go to the cinema, so women don't have as much influence on what makes a movie successfull.

    There are some terrible generalisations in what I've written, but as the father of three daughters, I'm right with you.

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    1. Damian, thanks for sharing your perspective. I can't help hoping that it won't be quite as uphill a battle as you say. I appreciate the comment!

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  4. I'm so gla you mentioned this. When we present female characters as these tough broad types who enjoy violence and battle, we are STILL makin the point that masculine traits are better. So, to answer your question, another female characteristic that serves our society is...care, compassion, and empathy. No, not inherently female, but those are considered feminine traits. Where would our world be if we all responded with a punch in the nose? The fact that we care and feel and are willing to cry keeps us ...human.

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    1. Nicole, those are great traits. Thanks so much for your comment!

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  5. The first character to come to mind was Kivrin Engle from Connie Willis' DOOMSDAY BOOK. Talk about a strong female character! She had to endure the extreme gender biases of the dark ages (she originally went back in time to study the Black Plague) and then had to survive in those tough times after she became stranded there. She had to protect herself from men in the village; had to care for the sick and dying; had to deal with cultural differences; and had to try to figure out a way of getting home without losing hope. And she had to fit into the time in such a way as to not stand out.

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    1. She sounds awesome indeed, Jamie. Thanks for making the recommendation! Actually, that brings to mind the book "Playing Beatie Bow" by Ruth Park, another really interesting go-back-in-time-and-blend-in story with a strong young female lead. Thanks for commenting!

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  6. That's what diapers are for. I am going to adopt that motto once I end up changing the ones belonging to my future hypothetical child. :)

    And as for a strong female character, my go-to model is Jane Eyre. True, she's not an action warrior, but she did demonstrate that you must always do what is right no matter how tempting it is to go wayward.

    -Barb the French Bean

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    1. The Beans, thanks for your comment! Good luck if/when that child comes along... :) I've never read Jane Eyre, but I might have to go find myself a copy.

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  7. Female characters being too masculine is a concern of more than one person I know, and one reason why they hate the book Graceling. I attribute all the "unfeminine" traits to other reasons, but the protagonist of that book seems to want to avoid everything female, without actually being a man.

    Personally, the inverse is also important. There's the entire "strong female character" concept, but there isn't really a "strong male character" archetype. They're sort of neglected in the whole thesis-antithesis structure, and it will take a few more years before the gender composition of YA swings and then the synthesis part of gender roles will rear their head.

    It's this whole synthesis thing, that any character of any gender are allowed to be both feminine and masculine at the same time.

    Yes, that character can be as hyper as a perky girl and act like a total parakeet and save the world at the same time. Oh, and he's allowed to be a brony.

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    1. Chihuahua0, I entirely agree that we need to see more well-rounded male characters. As well as cis-male characters who have feminine traits. Hyper and perky doesn't entail stupid. Thanks so much for your comment.

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    2. Interestingly, the companion to Graceling (Fire) is very much the inverse -- a female character who wants to be traditionally feminine, and who particularly wants to be a mother, but due to her circumstances she finds that she can't and she spends the story coming to terms with it. I didn't enjoy it as much as the first book, but it definitely plays with the idea of a female character who is very tough, but avoids rejecting the feminine.

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  8. When that pic of the warrior girl got passed around my friends, one of them piped up with, "Oh my gosh! Put blond hair on her and she's my daughter _____!" So the pic didn't strike me quite the same as it did to you. I think both pics you posted are awesome. Neither of them exclude the other in my mind.

    I hated stories where the girls are too girly and obsessed with boys and clothes and other valley girl stuff. (Hence I avoided sitcoms, and still do--though it doesn't explain my enjoyment of Legally Blond. That still baffles me.) Girls who were too far on the other end of the spectrum didn't make any sense to me either. But those who could be both feminine and strong in one way or another were amazing.

    Harry Crewe from The Blue Sword is one of my all time favorite heroines. She's a bit of a tomboy and tall for a young woman but is also a bookworm. She knows she doesn't fit in to polite society, doesn't know how or particularly care except that it bothers her brother that she doesn't, and when she's kidnapped by the Hill King, she finds her place both as warrior and a woman. I still get choked up in the end when she doesn't know how the king will respond to what she's done against his orders but she goes back anyway. Heck, just remembering the scene makes me choke up, and it's partly because despite being the Damalur-sol (Lady Hero) to his people, she's woman enough to care what he personally will think of her. She fears his emotional distance while being at his side as a hero more than being exiled completely.

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    1. I hated the girly-girl stories too, but I'd like to see if we can dig a little deeper on those and see why it is that so many girls behave that way...I would think it's because they're 1. encouraged by advertisers and 2. socially rewarded for doing so. (Grrr)

      I love Harry Crewe from The Blue Sword, too. I may have to go back and take another look at it from my current point of view.

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  9. Tiffany Aching (from the Wee Free Men & some other books by Terry Pratchett) immediately jumped to mind. A lot of what she does are simply the dirty, thankless jobs that no one else wants to do. Like helping old people clip their toenails. I hadn't thought about it before, but she's a great example of a strong female character who isn't taking up what in her society is considered male roles.

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  10. Quite a thoughtful post. I spent a good deal of it in nodding mode because I've long been quietly enraged by the idea of a strong female characters having to be women who merely kick ass and swagger as if they were caricatures of a male action figure. How can being physically combative against enemies be the ONLY way to be strong? It just didn't (and still doesn't) makes sense to me.

    One addition to your list might be multitasking/ balancing acts/ orchestrating. Females are often asked (explicitly or implicitly) to do a variety of tasks and to do them well at the same time. Think of all the sitcom and romcom portraits of female characters having to do X amount of things at the same time and fizzling out with comedy ensuing! The reality seems to be that when the tasks are completed well, few people will give the girl her, ahem, "ataboy".

    In regards to a strong female character that I've recently come across was the protagonist in the YA fantasy Girl of Fire and Thorns. She has an intriguing and nontraditional mix of traits: overweight, pious, unapologetic in her bookishness, utterly competent in her knowledge of military campaigns. She had mad poise when under physical attack, when becoming the leader of revellion, when being forced to wed a duplicitous man and when having to foster a spoiled stepson. And she was a teenager!

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  11. Mary Elizabeth, thanks so much for your comment. I particularly like your use of the word "orchestrating." Even just getting more than one dish ready for dinner at the same time requires careful multitasking (orchestrating), so I think that's a really important quality to include. Thanks also for your recommendation. Girl of Fire and Thorns sounds like a cool book to look for!

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  12. What great food for thought. This made me recall the "non-troversy" over Zooey Deschenal's character Jess in New Girl. Of all the things to get up-in-arms over, I didn't think a girly-girl would be one of them. She appropriately told off another character with this great lamentation:

    "I brake for birds. I rock a lot of polka dots. I have touched glitter in the last 24 hours. I spend my entire day talking to children. And I find it fundamentally strange that you’re not a dessert person. It freaks me out. I’m sorry that I don’t talk like Murphy Brown. And I hate your pants suit. I wish it had ribbons on it or something just to make it slightly cuter but that doesn’t mean I’m not smart and tough and strong."

    People are quick to categorize and label one another - often times without being properly informed. Just because one person physically beats up another doesn't make them strong in every way. And a person quick to cry isn't a weakling.

    My ultimate heroine is Mara of the Acoma in Raymond Feist and Janny Wurts' Empire Series trilogy. She is a strong, complex woman who is able to see beyond the trappings of her station in life. She initiates ground-breaking social changes and is willing to give her life in order for it to take hold. I read these novels once a year and become completely immersed every time.

    Another amazing, strong female character is Nicole in the Rama series by Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee. To embark on a journey fraught with such unknowns takes strength of epic proportions. This is great series with an obvious scathing view of humanity and gratuitous amounts of travesty befall her. But she holds on to her moral center and faces her end bravely.

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    1. Your mention of the issues surrounding the Jess character actually makes me think of a great character in children's literature, Fancy Nancy. A quote from her: "Frilly socks *do* help me play soccer better." She's all about the convergence of fancy, intelligent, and strong. Thanks for your recommendations!

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  13. Definitely second the Cordelia listing, Cordelia's Honor is one of my absolute favorites, another Bujold character jumped to my mind too (and now that I've started thinking on it I can see 4 more of hers I'd also like to list...) Lady Ista of Paladin of Souls. She is a person who starts out bitter and worn out by the events of her life but simple refuses to give up, she endures and presses onward seeking something better for herself. She has many of the characteristics listed above (well most of the time, nobody's perfect!) but isn't a brawny hero, doesn't seek out fights or glory and solves problems mostly due to her willingness to seek answers and ask for directions, not because she stubbornly forces things to conform to her will.

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  14. Thanks for this! I try to keep this very question in the back of my head when constructing women, men, or trans/other characters. They don't' have to be like traditional men to be strong, only lose those "traditional" traits which make them weak.

    One of my favorite all-time female characters is Charlotte from The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. She goes from being a prim and proper girl passenger on a voyage, to the other extreme of being a filthy sailor engaged in mutiny against a captain, and then back again. She is constantly re-evaluating who she really is, and which qualities are really hers. And the improbable ending always makes me smile.

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    1. You're entirely welcome, Avery. Thanks for your comment, and for the recommendation!

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  15. Eh? Patience and tolerating long periods of ambiguity? Those don't really seem to go well with the kinds of decisive action that tend to get rolled together under the umbrella term "saving the world." I must admit, as character traits in greater than a very modest measure, the qualities actually just seem completely at odds with the mentality and thrust of heroics and hero stories.

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    1. One of the difficulties with a topic like this is that it can sometimes be tricky to tell if responders are being sarcastic or not. Assuming, though, that you meant this seriously, I must admit I disagree. Patience and tolerance of ambiguity are not the opposite of decisiveness. The ability to keep your head and your direction in the midst of chaos is very useful for world-saving. I think that things like decisive action get a lot of attention, while the underlying traits that can form a successful foundation for those decisive actions - in both males and females - often get missed.

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  16. What other qualities of traditional femininity do you consider valuable?

    Compassion and Mercy are pretty nice, though I'm not sure if those are considered traditionally feminine or not given the pictures of "traditional" mothers that I've seen foisted around by regressive elements of society. Empathy and helping people in more ways than just altering their physical circumstances but nurturing a new mindset could be interesting to see as well.

    How do they contribute strength to a social system? Unfortunately the only thing that I really know of that "traditional" femininity does to contribute strength to social systems is that it keeps women in a place lesser than men in order to stroke the egos of men, especially men in power.

    How might they change the way a character would go about saving the world?

    Depending upon how "traditional" we're being here, as long as they were not the only character traits the character had, it'd probably just mean that the character was more of a team player and less of a lone hero or even that highly elevated above her compatriots.

    Can you recommend some strong female characters who are strong in feminine as well as masculine ways?

    Not particularly, no. Mostly because the question of what actually constitutes "feminine" and what constitutes "backwards social rules designed to restrict women to an inferior position in society," is kinda blurred.

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    1. I'm a big fan of compassion and mercy, myself. You do bring up an interesting problem, though - that of the difference between what I'm describing as traditional femininity, and what has recently been described as traditional by some groups in the US population. I think that there are a number of groups who are trying very hard to shrink the number of positive qualities allowed to women. The strength that women contribute to social systems (like keeping the household running) is very valuable, and definitely applicable to arenas outside the home as well. A lot of what you describe as "keeping women in a place lesser than men" is nothing more than taking the position of women and defining it as lesser - i.e. minimizing the importance of their contributions. The point of this post was to say that women don't need to conform to masculine ideas of strength in order to be strong. Similarly, I am trying to encourage men to realize which aspects of their own strength come from character traits that are often thought of as feminine. Nurturing a new mindset is something that a lot of women are engaged in right now. A lot of stories have shown us that saving the world can be accomplished by applying just the right amount of effort in the right place at the right time. That's something that can be accomplished by all kinds of people.

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  17. It looks like you and I were tuning in to the same collective-brain-satellite. I wrote on this very topic last week: http://www.christinetyler.net/2012/06/10-traits-other-than-guns-and-gogo.html

    I love your take on it as well :D

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    1. Thanks for your comment! I like how you approached it, too. :)

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  18. Looks like I missed this one the first time round, but I'm with you wholeheartedly. I was always a tomboy growing up, falling more on the masculine scale of behaviors...though I did most of it in long dresses with the billions of little mirrors embroidered on the front. That said, my goal with all my characters is to have them be people, whether saving the world or just the peanut butter sandwich.

    Reading is supposed to open our minds to possibility. How can it do that if everyone follows the exact same model of heroic behavior, gendered or not. And yes, I could see your daughter taking over, or saving, the world in her long purple dress. It's determination more than strength that succeeds, often by inches.

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    1. Margaret, I was a tomboy too! :) I've been exploring the nuances of characters - especially "strong females" a lot lately. Determination takes people a long way. Thanks for the comment.

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