Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Strong Female Character

Recently I've seen a surge of media promoting the strong female character. You know, strong females have to be leaders. They have to be determined. They have to be able to fire a gun, or arrows, or some sort of powerful weapon. This shift is a good thing, because it means we're starting to stray from the stereotypes, right? We're showing women with inner and outer strength.

Well, not exactly.

See, people often confuse "strong female character" for "emotionless kicka** character."

There were a lot of complaints when Metroid: Other M came out. Samus Aran, coolest bounty hunter in the galaxy, and hot blonde babe under the mask, was one of the strongest females in video game history. And then they supposedly ruined her. "She's such a girl." "Too soft, 'Lady'." "She's not gonna use her weapons just because some guy tells her he has to authorize it first? I mean, come on!" (Aside from the fact that this was an excuse for the mechanic of unlocking powers without her losing them again...)

So what changed?

She was shown as feminine.

Heaven forbid she has respect for her former commanding officer, someone who acted as a sort of father figure. Heaven forbid she talk about her feelings as she explores the Bottle Ship, and her underlying fear of her nemesis Ridley. Heaven forbid she has any feelings at all. This, in many people's eyes, made her into a weak character. Emotions, in women, are associated with weakness--and that's a major problem.

The fact that Samus is able to conquer her inner demons and most definitely kick alien trash as she uncovers various mysteries and lives through explosions, gravity shifts, Metroid queens eating her, and watching men around her die proves that she is very strong. So why all the complaining? Again, because emotions are seen intrinsically as a weakness. 

What has happened, I believe, is that in creating a standard for the strong female character, we've taken away the feminine part, and created masculine characters that happen to have girl body parts. This is not the way to remove a stereotype, it is a way to perpetuate it. If Samus was instead a man, and said that he'd feared Ridley, that he respected Adam enough to follow his orders, it would be seen as a military understanding, as strength. But because Samus is a girl, and feminine girls=weak girls, the character was "ruined."

However, there is hope. Just as bad as people complain about Samus losing her awesomeness status, the female Commander Shepard from the Mass Effect series is adored and praised. And she shows many times throughout the games just how sentimental she is. How much she's affected by the deaths of those around her. How well she manages a romantic life alongside her duties as a military leader.

And that really is what a strong female character can be.

In my book Tsirash, there are two girls traveling with my strong, yet struggling, POV character Octras: Tsira and Shenra. Both of them have dealt with loss, pain, and fear in serious ways. They're capable of feeling respect, love, empathy, hope, sadness, and longing. There are feelings that drive them, motivate them to push forward even when faced with adversity.

Perhaps people will see Tsira and Shenra as they do Samus in Other M--weak. Every character has weaknesses, you know. But emotion is not inherently bad. If people can see what strength there can be in emotion, perhaps then they'll see the girls as I do.

I strive to create strong female characters with feeling. What about you?

-Tsira

16 comments:

  1. My *STRONG* female character will not be the average strong character. She a girl from head to toe and she is not afraid to show it, either. She's smart and sassy, but not rude or obnoxious. She does have a little pride, but that is rubbed away during the story. She stands for what is right. She's courageous. She independent, but knows her weakness and asks for help when she needs it. She's dependable and trustworthy. She's a leader. And a good one.
    And she wears pink.
    Three cheers for *STRONG* female characters!!!

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    1. Sounds like a good foundation for a story; I would love to check it out when you're finished!

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  2. Hear hear! (Here here?) I totally agree with you, Rachel. Emotions are not weaknesses, and I love Mass Effect for creating a truly strong female character... even if most people still play as that boring meat-bag male Shep. FemShep all the way!

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    1. 'Boring meat-bag' TOTALLY describes his voice. So lifeless! I love playing as FemShep. It makes the game way more awesome.

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  3. I think you summed everything up quite well.

    Emotions instantly fall under "feminine" characteristics, and everyone knows feminine=weak (end sarcasm). Characters need a weakness to stay interesting, and if they're ALWAYS and honestly emotionless, what's the reader supposed to relate to?

    Emotional characters, as far as I've noticed, are usually the easiest to sympathize with--and if they're being driven by negative emotions, there's always a chance to look at the consequences of acting out of anger or revenge.

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    1. Ooh, I think you've just pointed out a key trait of many amazing stories. Heroes and villains alike may be driven by noble or selfish reasons, and how they handle those driving emotions makes what they do so much more interesting.

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  4. This is something that has been bothering me for years, so thanks for the post. In the most recent film adaptation of Robin Hood, Marion has to be shown wearing armor and leading men into war (despite not having a lick of military experience, or the muscle to wear armor and shoot a longbow). Hollywood has to have female characters just as strong as male ones, so the women have to do everything the men do. The problem is, they destroy their own credibility with a period film portraying Marion the way the do.

    This kind of thing can be done better in fantasy, since characters don't have to be based off of actual history. But I think writers/film makers do their stories a disservice when both sexes are equally good at everything. Fact is, women can't do some things, and men can't do others. This doesn't make either sex weak. It makes them unique.

    Female characters can be strong and realistic. (I am in no way saying women can't be warriors and all that. It's all about how you set up characters. If a woman is a warrior and leader of men, show her as a soldier before the climactic scene where she is suddenly at the head of an army. Believability must be fed before it can be swallowed.)

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    1. Thank you so much for this thoughtful response. Much as we say we are the same, the truth is that we are, down to our genes, different. And yet we are equal. As you said, "women can't do some things, and men can't do others."

      Right now it's most obvious with the female audience, since our society is still struggling with equal pay, etc, but the same is true of our treatment of men. I'm starting to see a trend where men CANNOT be stronger than women, when biologically they naturally are. It's reverse sexism coming into play, and it needs to leave.

      Again, thank you. Your words meant a lot to me. :)

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  5. What a fantastic post. I actually thought this was what was missing from Katniss' character in the Hunger Games. Yes, she's totally a kick butt kinda girl. But I just found I wanted MORE from her.

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    1. That's probably why Catching Fire fell flat for me. It worked for me as a 'suppressed emotions' situation in the first one, considering her world, but by the second one it became clear that she was just flat and bland.

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    2. Agreed. My wife reads a lot of YA, and she is getting tired of the "strong girl" character that doesn't actually have any female characteristics she can relate to.

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  6. Yes! I couldn't agree with you more. I hate it how female characters can only be considered strong if they possess masculine traits. Being feminine isn't a weakness--it's its own unique brand of strength! It's one of many reasons why I adore Lynne Ewing's Daughters of the Moon series so much. The girls in those books were as feminine as they were heroic--in fact, them having feelings would actually help, not hinder, them in battle. I wish more books were like that....

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    1. I don't think I'd heard of those books before following you on Twitter. Now I'll definitely have to check them out! Thanks.

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    2. I hope you enjoy the books if/when you check them out! They've been being reprinted in omnibus editions, so hopefully they'll be easier to find....

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  7. Hi Rachel - found you via inkPageant today. :)

    I agree. Women can be kicka@@ and feminine. They can feel deeply, show it, and come out on top. There's no one size fits all. While I love some of the latest trends in "what makes a strong female" lead, I still come back to: but does this make sense?

    Jordan's comment above nailed it. It has to be believable. Sure, characters can "step outside" their norms, but the audience/reader HAS to buy into it.

    Great topic for a post! :D Thanks for starting the discussion!

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    1. (...I love inkPageant!)

      *nods constantly while reading* Yes, it has to make sense, or readers won't buy it.

      Thanks for stopping by! :D

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