I think female characters are like pancakes. You always have to feed one to the dogs.
For many years now the stereotype of the “Strong, Independent Woman,” has been a blight on my entertainment experience. My brother says I hate women. Possible. I certainly do get off on bitching about them enough. But I think I have more of a binary outlook on them. Many of my favorite characters are women, and so are my least favorite. In most cases, I think, I have to have it one way or the other. There are many underdeveloped male characters who I just don’t care about. Yet you stick this flat female version of Clark Kent and I’m running to my blog to have a pissy fit.
The cliché of the Strong, Independent Woman is so engrained that you can often just look at a cover or poster and tell that’s what’s going on. I remember when seeing a certain children’s book for the first time (not an extraordinarily well known one or anything), glimpsing the girl standing in the background with her arms crossed and strong gait and thinking, “Yep. There’s your token strong woman.” Upon reading an interview by the author, he admitted, “I wanted to write a strong female character.”
Yep. Of course you did.
Writers all around brag and pitch their “Strong, Independent Women,” but does anyone really like that anymore? I think there are some older counterparts—women who grew up before the 90’s—whose accumulated experience of not having them still makes find these characters refreshing, but even they will suggest that many of these women are just lip service.
To me, anytime someone says proudly, “I write strong female characters,” I feel like I’m hearing, “I’m pro-integration.”
Well, that’s a good thing, I suppose, and while there is still some work to be done, for the most part I feel like you’re a little behind the times. It’s really not about proving that women can be strong anymore. Sure, we still have issues with women being perceived as weak, but I think now the priority is proving they belong in the world.
No matter how much you make her kick ass and have all the answers, even if she is your deus ex machina, no matter how strong you make her, if she doesn’t have a good dynamic with anyone, if she doesn’t have a niche outside of being the “woman,” if she disobeys all the social rules you set up in your own world, she is still an interloper, which is what many female readers feel when they see so few girls in stories, and why implanting one woman who can kick ass won’t do the trick.
Statistically, men have a 7:3 male to female ratio in fiction novels, while women have closer to a 5:5. Keeping in mind that this is the average (You have three authors, one writes 5:5, one 10:0, one 7:3), it still suggests that many men subconsciously don’t see women in their lives. Their imaginary world is populated by the default (guys). For the women who are there, there’s obviously an importance to them, highlighting the importance that heterosexual men place on women. It’s the discomforting idea that girls don’t belong in daily lives, and when they do enter, the man’s life has to change to orient around her.
Note that this is definitely a generalization, and if you feel like you naturally have a more realistic implementation of male to female characters, you probably do. This isn’t intended to be an attack on male authors, but rather explain why I don’t like or care about most of these characters in current films.
These strong women aren’t confronting the real issue. They’re supposed to be suggesting that women aren’t weak—and in some ways they do so. I can see the difference between the surprise of my mom’s when she sees a “strong woman,” and the natural acceptance I have. There is a huge difference in expectation from my generation to my mother’s, so in that aspect they’ve been successful.
But these women don’t necessarily belong, they aren’t really people I would like to be like, they tend to be singularly defined, their priorities make them look far weaker than what physical limitation would, and they’re often the embodiment of what women fear most.
There are some common problems I see with this stereotype that make characters I don’t relate to, don’t want to be like, and even don’t want around at all.
-She is so concerned with proving how strong she is, she comes off as insecure. (And that’s if she’s well written. In most cases, it just looks like the author is so concerned with proving how strong she is that it comes off as he/she doesn’t even believe it. Look how strong she is! Isn’t that different?!)
-She doesn’t have a niche. You have this ensemble of characters, each of which have their own unique purpose, whether that be their superpower or their personality. There is something that only they can do. And yet, because she is just “a good fighter,” without a unique trait, there’s no reason to send her versus the other guy who is also a good fighter. Not unless she’s going to use her sexuality to manipulate someone, which I consider petty, not admirable.
-She doesn’t have an exterior life. The Bechtel test suggests that a movie should have more than one woman who talk to each other about something other than a man. I’d be happy if she talked to anyone outside of the protagonist. Get some friends and have your actions directly influence the plot for hell’s sake.
-Her goals are either too extreme or mundane. She needs to pull the stick out of her ass. She is often completely focused on “the mission,” unable to stop and smell the roses, crack a joke, or have an objective outside of it. Or, all they want is to “see the lanterns,” or something banal. God forbid we show her with some common ambition or selfishness.
-She has no sense of humor. People have been trying to make female characters funny since Buffy Summers actually succeeded, and yet many fail. I can’t say exactly what this is (Tony Stark and Pepper Potts are both written by the same people, but she couldn’t deliver a joke if she said his lines.) I think a part of it is how important it is for her to be funny—an importance that inherently makes it not funny. In any case, most strong, female characters are way too serious for me to be interested in them.
-She never cannot give a shit. She cares. She cares a lot. About everything. Everything is life or death with her. There’s no point where she doesn’t care what other people think. Even when the writer says she doesn’t, it’s obvious that her actions are still about how she appears to people (look how strong and independent she is!) You may say that this is an accurate representation of women in general—which I see to some extent… asshole—but it’s overdone and makes her a buzzkill.
-She mothers the protagonist. She is the voice of morality, always has the right answers, and always makes sure to keep people on track and clean up after them. It makes sense from a love-interest’s perspective; how do you stop someone who doesn’t care about authority and is fearless from doing something incredibly stupid? You have the hot woman tell him not to. Men, despite everything they say, can respect that. From a woman’s perspective though, why the hell would I want to always be the responsible one?
-She propagates femininity as a bad thing. This is getting less and less true as time goes on, but there is definitely this attitude that if she “acts like a woman,” (behaviors typically attributed to women) she’s being portrayed as weak and sexist. I definitely blame female readers for this one over authors of either gender. I personally enjoy diversity in attitudes. And if we were to limit people’s behaviors to either feminine or masculine, honestly, I rather men become more like girls. (If I had to choose.) I find representing strength as behaving like a guy and weakness as behaving like a girl very insulting, and a big reason why I don’t relate to them. I don’t mind having masculine women, but that should be their character, not a promotion on what strength is.
-She is superwoman. I don’t mean in terms of flight. I mean this in terms of Perfect Mother, Perfect Career Woman, and now, Able-to-Kill-in-Stilettos. Women feel a great deal of pressure these days to be good at everything. In our attempts to demonstrate that women are capable of anything, we must be good at everything. We write these “perfect” women who are still obligated to look hot, be good at their job, always having the right answers, and know how to fire a bazooka.
And I don’t think that having hottie badass men on screen affects men the same way. Yes, I believe that it causes men to feel bad about their body image too—and that’s important—but men in American society fear a lack of identity and the need to attain value in our world, while women fear the failure of not being capable in every aspect of a typical life. Being a bad driver doesn’t mean you’re a bad driver, but that women in general are. Suddenly, our failings aren’t just a matter of character, they’re a matter of proving the oppressive assholes right.
Having a superwoman who is always right, good at everything, and never fails is akin to having the few male characters always be rich and solidifying that that’s all that matters. The “You need to be good at everything,” mindset is a huge detriment to women, as much as, “No one cares about you if you’re not wealthy,” is to men. In the same way portraying all the female characters as rich wouldn’t bother most viewers, portraying a man as a perfect father, worker, and killing machine makes him more boring than it does strike fear of inadequacy into the hearts of its audience.
Secondly, male characters usually fuck up, and in a big way. That’s why we like them. So while many men are portrayed with ridiculous abilities and successes too, that usually is accompanied by a plot carrying ramification.
Strong, independent women exist in real life, but usually they have more to them than that, and honestly, I could do with seeing more flawed and interesting women than those who prove how good a fictional character can be.