I’m quite interested in how gender is portrayed and defined in literature and in films and television. However, being somewhat of a pansy, I have refrained from writing about it before now, through a fear of ‘getting it wrong’. The last thing I want to happen is to be misinterpreted and labelled a massive sexist (or even a small sexist – quality over quantity, right?).
Then I realised that actually, that fear of getting it wrong is one of the problems we have today when it comes to gender. Which is where the title comes in. You might be thinking, ‘Well Rewan, you little/large/supersize sexist, what’s what with strong female characters, eh?’ To which my reply is, absolutely nothing, I love them. Hopefully written one myself. My problem is not with the idea that the phrase describes, but more what it’s attributed to.
This is getting confusing, right?
Put simply, I don’t believe that what is often described as a ‘strong female character’, actually is one. The problem is the word ‘strong’. People take it too literally. We have this interesting problem now that male authors/scriptwriters/directors are aware that it’s definitely not ok to have only one woman in the cast, whose role is to cry uncontrollably and get saved by one of the men, whom she then repays in sex (I mean, come on, he saved her life right? We all know prostitution is wrong, and that you can’t put a price on a woman’s body, but he saved her life. Surely that’s enough, yeah?) They know that their female characters have to have depth and purpose.
The second half of the problem comes from the misunderstanding that, whilst it is true that women can do everything men can do, the fact is they probably wouldn’t. Because men and women are different. Feminists often like to suggest that the world would be a better place if run by women. It wouldn’t, it’d just be screwed up in a completely different way. What’s wrong with the world today isn’t men, it’s people. Back to the point, male writers (I expect) often feel as though they cannot create boundaries for their female characters in the same way they would with their male ones. They worry that, as there are all these people out there talking about how women are equal to men, they’d better make their female characters do exactly what their male counterparts would have done, otherwise they’re a sexist.
Man with tits
Which is why you get this horrible class of female heroines who never feel any emotion whatsoever, who can calmly watch their parents dissolve in acid without even the inclination to even think about the possibility of crying, who strut around and have a left hook that could knock a bison over, who carries a gun twice as big as any of the male characters, and spends most of the book/film topless, because they’re a woman and they’re comfortable with their bodies and their sexuality, no matter what society might try and say.
These characters are so awful to read. Mostly because they’re prats. Female or male, I can’t stand this type of stunted, emotionally crippled, trigger happy idiot, because they have no depth. That’s what any character needs, depth. And, to be honest, what is this kind of character anyway, apart from your typical male action hero with breasts?
Let women be women
That’s the problem. Writers have become too worried about being called sexist that they feel their female characters have to measure up to their male characters. A lot of problems in society come from this idea of having to compare women to men. What would a woman have done in that situation? Bet he only did that because he was a man. Writers spend too much time judging their female characters from the perspective of their male characters. Which means that if a male character is physically strong, and a female character isn’t – you’re a sexist. Which is rubbish. But I think a lot of writers operate like this, thinking the way to empower women in their novels or films is to take them one step further than their male counterparts. Leading man got a pistol? Better give the leading woman a machine gun. Leading man got a sword? Claymore it is then.
It’s this kind of comparison that really hampers the creation of strong female characters. Surely the whole point of feminism is that women are their own people? If we continue to define our female characters by looking at what our male characters are doing, that’s just another form of marginalisation. You don’t create a strong character by making the others around them weak. If your character is not strong on their own, then they are not a strong character.
It seems obvious, but…
These terrible heroines come from several assumptions, that run like this:
1.If women have been forced by society into the role of care-giver, so their whole lives revolve around looking after other people, then making my female character not care about anything or anybody but herself is inspired. Liberation, baby!
2.Women used to be referred to as ‘the fair sex’, and were always thought of as weak. My heroine always carries a warhammer, which she can lift with one hand. This character is shaping up to be amazing! Perhaps I should get posters made of her, seeing as so many women are obviously going to look up to her as a role model, they’ll probably want her on their bedroom walls…
3.Crying is supposedly a sign of weakness, and another stereotype of women is that they are too emotional, so my character won’t have feelings at all. My god, I’m a literary genius and the most epic feminist there’s ever been!
It’s all bollocks. A character like that is just a hideous anti-stereotype, and the problem with creating characters that directly oppose a stereotype is that you are still shaping your characters by using stereotypes. Your characters are still defined by gender stereotypes, even if you use them as things to avoid.
At the end of the day, the key is just to find the right balance between gender and character. To say ‘forget about the gender of your character’ would be wrong, as it will affect what they do. Men and women are different, and that’s an important thing to remember. Neither is inferior to the other, but we will react differently to situations based upon our gender. Are your female friends indistinguishable from your male friends? Of course not, and although personality is most of that reason, personality is built upon a foundation of gender. It’s inescapable, but that doesn’t mean it has to govern everything.
Political points don’t make it right
When writing my female characters, I tend to keep in mind one question, and that is ‘Is she doing this because she’s a woman, or because it’s what her character would do in that situation?’ Saying ‘she’s a woman, so she would do this’ is making things a lot more political than they need to be. At the end of the day, it’s not about what your female characters do, but whythat can make them strong, weak, empowering, or sexist.
It’s the difference between crying because the scary monster has attacked, and crying because the scary monster just ate the man/woman you love. It’s ok to have a woman cleaning the house, if the story demands it. What wouldn’t be right, is if in The Hunger Games, Katniss entered the arena, looked around, and thought ‘bloody hell, this could do with a sweep’.
Male is not a blueprint
The bad kinds of ‘strong female characters’ come from people pausing when writing and asking themselves, ‘what would a man do in this situation?’ Be loyal to the character, because that is the key. The character and the situation defines what should happen, not gender. It is ok to have a character cry at the big scary monster, if that’s what the story demands.
Having a crying woman, or a woman who cleans, or looks after a family, or gets overly emotional, or whatever, doesn’t make you a sexist, if the story demands it. But if your story is a science fiction piece, in which robots do everything for humans, does the wife really have to walk around with a tray of drinks for the husband’s male guests?
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