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Strength in Depth

Over the years I’ve read a number of articles critiquing the concept of ‘the strong female’ character. As a feminist, and indeed human being, I want to read about strong females, but the term is deceptively slippery: what do we mean by strength and does the term refer to the character or the writing of her?

When people complain about strong female characters, they are critiquing what ‘The Take’[i] calls ‘the hot heroine’ most commonly found in blockbusters from Ripley in ‘Alien’, the widow in ‘Kill Bill’ and all the superheroes of the Marvel and DC universes.

They are often one dimensional and their appeal lies in the way they play against the usual gendered narrative: these girls and women beat men at what is seen as their own game. They compensate for the legions of beaten women and though they endure violence they dish it out. Some might say they embrace the worst elements of power based, empathy free toxic hypermasculinity but hey, they are girls!

As Brit Marling writes in the New York Times [ii]‘what we really mean when we say we want strong female leads is: “Give me a man but in the body of a woman I still want to see naked.’

This is problematic in all kinds of ways. As Sophie McDougall writes in the New Statesman [iii]Part of the patronising promise of the ‘Strong Female Character’ is that she’s anomalous. “Don’t worry!” that puff piece or interview is saying when it boasts the hero’s love interest is an SFC. “Of course, normal women are weak and boring and can’t do anything worthwhile. But this one is different. She is strong! See, she roundhouses people in the face.” Worse than that, physical strength is all she has. She is a one trick pony, a modern reworking of Dr Johnson’s misogynistic jibe "Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all." Substitute ‘fighting’ for ‘talking’ and it is clear we have not moved on very far.

I have to hold my hands up. In my first novel ‘Warriors of Alavna’ my time travelling heroine, Ursula, develops into a kick-ass Celtic warrior. I was influenced by such novels as Tamara Pierce’s ‘the Song of the Lioness,’ Katherine Kit Kerr’s ‘Deverry’ series and innumerable Fantasy novels in which the existence of magic evens out the score and allows girls the status that physical power tends to confer only on men. I think memories of ‘Xena Warrior Princess’ and ‘Buffy’ can't be discounted. No doubt there is wish fulfilment too, who wouldn’t want to be a six-foot Amazonian warrior woman? (Please tell me it isn’t just me!) My Ursula pretends to be a man, and even turns into one when her magical impersonation gets out of hand. Within the story she does this because she is a bullied, awkward, outsider who longs for respect and to belong, but, to the untrained eye, she could be seen as the apotheosis of the ‘strong female character.’ The strong woman is a stalwart of a subsection of YA genre fiction: Leigh Bardugo’s Inej, spy and assassin comes to mind, Sarah in Matt Killeen’s ‘Orphan, Monster, Spy’ or Katniss in Suzanne Collins‘The Hunger Games,’ but, and it is an important ‘but, ’in these novels we see beneath the smooth, toned skin of our heroines into their worries and their weaknesses: they are all more than mere ‘feisty’ girls.

What do we mean by strength? It is blindingly obvious to me that a ‘strong’ female character does not have to be a weightlifter; they have to be complex, well drawn and convincing. Yet it is easy to be confused. We want to show readers that girls can be traditional sword wielding heroes not just princesses, that girls can exhibit traditional ‘masculine’ strengths that they need not be defined by gender.

In their examination of contemporary film tropes ‘the Take’ explore three other common strong woman types that are in danger of undermining the more complex portrayal of female characters; t'he brains of the outfit,' the ‘only one in the room, ‘the queen with the iron fist’ and the ‘emotionally resilient heroine.’ The danger of each of these is that they too simplify the complexity of a character to focus on a single element. As Sophie McDougall puts it, Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong.’

To some degree this is a new phenomenon: my childhood literary heroines rarely challenged the patriarchy and showed a lamentable lack of kiss-ass sword work, but were distinctive, complex people. Anne of Green Gables, orphan, and optimist, survived and succeeded in her own world through the power of her imagination, the same could be said of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s ‘Little Princess,’ and even the ill-tempered Mary Lennox of ‘A Secret Garden.’ Although ‘Little Women’ appears to promote the saintly virtues of Marmee and Beth, it is the ink-stained creative Jo, who inspires and the vain and self-centred Amy who gets Laurie. In the closed female world of the school story, ‘strength’ was assumed and, in narratives largely lacking in male figures, girls had all the agency. I owe my career to these ‘strong’ female characters.

Is it possible that in striving to allow our female characters a full range of emotions and skills including violent aggression and emotional disengagement we have devalued other types of strength? Perhaps it has become harder to write about girls who are not bold, brave, and quick with the killer one liner? I am a little bored of eye rolling, head tossing, boss girls with a good grasp of sarcasm. Maybe we are more worried about writing about weak girls? Yet without weakness we have no stories: characters need problems, personal flaws they must overcome. Every superman (or superwoman) needs kryptonite or is there is no story.

We live in a world where even the terms ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are up for debate so it is even more important that when we write ‘strong’ characters we write flawed credible people as well as we can. My most recent heroine, Ollu in ‘Badwater,’ is undersized and has no discernible superpower beyond obstinacy. Contemporary YA novels are full of great female characters because as Carina Chicano writes in the New York Times[iv]You know what’s better than a prostitute with a machine gun for a leg or a propulsion engineer with a sideline in avionics whose maternal instincts and belief in herself allow her to take apart an airborne plane and discover a terrorist plot despite being gaslighted by the flight crew? A girl who reminds you of you’.

[i]* [ii] Marling, B,’I don’t want to be the strong female lead,’ New York Times, 7th Feb 2020 [iii] Mcdougall, S, ‘I hate strong female characters,’ New Statesman,15thAugust 2013 [iv] Chicano, C,’ ‘Tough, Cold, Terse, Taciturn and Prone to Not Saying Goodbye When They Hang Up the Phone’ New York Times Magazine, 1st July 2011


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