I’ve made no secret that I am an out-and-proud feminist, and that I am always on the lookout for great female characters in the books I read. However, sometimes it seems that people think this means I only like Strong Female Characters™, a particular breed of character running rampant in many YA and adult fantasy novels whom I dislike.
According to these books I’ve read, Strong Female Characters™ can be or have one or more of these things:
- Warriors, fighters, and/or otherwise physically tough, but moreover EQUAL TO OR BETTER THAN THE MENZ in terms of skill.
- Emotionally stoic, often to coincide with said physical toughness, but sometimes it arises as a defense mechanism against soft, mushy FEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEELINGS, which the heroine sees as a weakness.
- Not only are they physically strong, they also Need No One, because their bodily strength also apparently bestows imperviousness. Needing people is for the weak! Being friends with people is for the weak! LOVE IS FOR THE WEAK.
- Horrific trauma of some sort has turned them from the soft, vulnerable girls they were before into Hardened Wimmin.
- Femininity is a dirty word.
Now, on their own, none of these traits are necessarily “bad”; I, myself, am a sucker for emotionally stoic heroines. However, while the above list can certainly apply to many female characters, these traits don’t necessarily mean the character is “strong”, or at least, not as I define it.
For me, strength in a character arises from action, but not necessarily in the swordfighting sense. By “action”, what I really mean is “making choices, often difficult.” “Strength of character” is a term we use to apply to humans we admire, humans who do or choose to do the “right” thing when it would have been so much easier to lay down and let someone else make decisions for him or her. Those who take responsibility, those who follow their moral codes, these are people whom I find “strong”.
I say “people” because I don’t believe strength of character is limited to one gender. Indeed, why are females always the one saddled with burden of being a “Strong Character” when males are simply allowed to be? We, as readers–as a society, do not critique males or hold them to the same standards of criticism as women. In order for a female to be strong in fiction or in media, she must often prove (or really, be told) that she can hold her own or be the best on a masculine playing field. I’m not talking only about physical prowess; I’m talking about “traditionally masculine” traits that include, yes, emotional stoicism. Women are “traditionally” considered physically weaker, more emotional, more into relationships (both platonic and romantic), and of course, more concerned about their appearance than their male counterparts. All these traits seem to run counter to the commonly-held idea of a “Strong Female Character”.
Of course, people are far more complex than the stereotypical gender traits I’ve arbitrarily listed, but revisiting that list of Strong Female Character™ traits, it seems that when you pare it down to its barest essentials, anything “traditionally feminine” is not “strong”, and is therefore “weak”. Institutionalized and internalized misogyny at its most insidious. I don’t subscribe to the notion that “femininity is weak” at all; I believe a woman who chooses to stay at home and be a housewife can be a strong character as much as a female warrior can be. After all, one of my favourite characters of all time is Phèdre nò Delaunay from Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series: a courtesan whose strength lies in her beauty and femininity as well as her intelligence. But what makes her strong is not her traditionally feminine trappings; what makes her strong is the fact that she chooses again and again–against impossible odds, against her own heart even–to do the right thing and save the realm.
And she doesn’t even have to wield a sword to do it.
What do y’all think? Do you share my thoughts about Strong Female Characters? Let us know!