The misconception of the strong female character

At the university I attended, a giant, corporation-like state school in Southern California, we were always being warned about sexual predators. They lurked everywhere, on and off-campus. We female students were encouraged to carry pepper spray, never to walk anywhere alone, and haunted by late-night parking structure horror stories. Like many other others, my roommate and I decided to take a self-defense class offered to all undergrad students.

Self Defense 1 was mostly women, and led by a very serious instructor. He was also very experienced. We knew this because for the first three classes, we sat in a row on the floor as he told us about his experience, and demonstrated some moves, which, he said, were much too advanced for this class, so we would not be learning them. He did not permit anyone to use the bathroom or get water during class, because in real world battle scenarios, we would not be afforded these luxuries. That fall, we spent sixteen long, hot afternoons in a windowless classroom, mimicking his basic kick-lunge-jab routines and trying not to think about water. Surely, we thought somewhat desperately, this would make us safer.

By the end of the semester, I was well prepared to engage in a choreographed, slow motion battle in a desert.

womens-self-defense-class

Luckily, I escaped college without falling victim to a serious attack. Others weren’t so lucky. Either way, I doubt Self Defense 1 did anyone much good.

I do remember, though, that on the last day of class, the instructor pronounced us all “strong women,” now that we had completed the course. I also remember my sense of unease as I looked around the room at my fellow students, most of us less than a year out of high school and cut off from the relative safety of our parents’ homes. We were going out into a scary world filled with rapists and murderers, equipped with the lessons of Self Defense 1. Were we really “strong”? Or was the class simply a failed attempt by the progressive education equality movement to empower us as women, which unfortunately utterly ignored the deep disconnect in the class’s teachings vs. The Real World?

You’re probably wondering what this has to do with writing strong female characters. Well, for one thing, it makes me think twice about the term “strong female character.” The term sort of implies that as a rule, women are weak, so let’s all write about STRONG women to balance that out, to create role models, to challenge the weak princess cliché. I think people who throw this term around are the same people who assume that women who take an intro self-defense class will actually learn to defend themselves against real-world attacks.

strong-women

This post is partly inspired by two pieces I read recently, one by Carina Chocano in the New York Times, called “A Plague of Strong Female Characters” and the other by Sophia MacDougall in The NewStatesman, aptly titled “I hate Strong Female Characters.” Both are great, and spot-on. Sophia argues:

No one ever asks if a male character is “strong”. Nor if he’s “feisty,” or “kick-ass” come to that.

The obvious thing to say here is that this is because he’s assumed to be “strong” by default. 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.” Sometimes the phrase “not your typical damsel in distress” will be used, as if the writing of pop culture heroines had not moved on even slightly since Disney’s Snow White and as if a goodly percentage of SFCs did not end up, in fact, needing to be rescued.

And what about when we reverse the whole notion? Carina says:

“Strong women characters” are a canard. They refer to the old-fashioned “strong, silent type,” a type that tolerates very little blubbering, dithering, neuroticism, anxiety, melancholy or any other character flaw or weakness that makes a character unpredictable and human.

The absurdity of the strong-female-character expectation becomes apparent if you reverse it: Not only does calling for “strong male characters” sound ridiculous and kind of reactionary, but who really wants to watch them? They sound boring. In fact, traditional “strong male characters” have been almost entirely abandoned in favor of male characters who are blubbery, dithering, neurotic, anxious, melancholic or otherwise “weak,” because this weakness is precisely what makes characters interesting, relatable and funny.

So very true. For the most part, we love reading about men with flaws, not idealized, inhuman superheroes. Wouldn’t you be much more interested in a book about a lonely, divorced ex-army lieutenant who takes on the job of Self Defense 1 instructor at a state school suffering massive budget cuts, where he can, for a few delusional hours every day, imagine that he has led a life of fighting the country’s enemies and is now preparing young women to ward off potential attackers? I would.

What’s especially disconcerting is this idea that a female character starts out already needing to prove her strength and toughness to the world. As a result, we have a slew of feisty, kick-ass, smart, unemotional, even violent (dare I say manly?) female characters, rejecting notions of family or romance, consumed with corporate success, sporting guns and self-defense moves that would’ve knocked the teeth right out of my “experienced” self-defense instructor. The problem with this unrealistic portrayal of women in fiction is that even with these “strong” characteristics, women are still marginalized! How is this possible?

mulan

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge fan of the Jane Eyres, the Elizabeth Bennets, the Hermione Grangers, the Mulans. It’s just unfortunate that they are seen as the exception. The fact that they are considered “strong female characters” makes me wonder… what are all the other females?

One of my very favorite female protagonists is Bennington Bloom in Jennifer Belle’s Going Down. She’s a dysfunctional, emotionally unstable 19-year-old working her way through NYU as a call girl. She spends a lot of time crying and making irrational decisions. I certainly wouldn’t call her a strong female protagonist. Still, she’s totally charming and lovable. She’s a great character, regardless of her gender and relative strength.

Going-down

Setting out to write a novel with a strong female protagonist is a noble effort, usually rooted in good intentions. However, sometimes it ends up a lot like Self Defense 1: something intended to empower women, but which ends up creating false expectations and perpetuates damaging misconceptions.

So, instead of trying to make your female protagonist strong, make her a real person. Make her relatable. Make her funny. You don’t have to remove her feminine nature or equip her with a weapon and skillful self-defense moves for us to root for her.