Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Question of Strong Female Characters

The other day, Alana pointed out an article from The New York Times entitled, A Plague of Strong Female Characters.  Writer Carnia Chocano expresses her disgust and frustration that what makes a female character strong "is female characters who are tough, cold, terse, taciturn and prone to scowling and not saying goodbye when they hang up the phone."  I understand why Chocano might feel this way.  I do think there are lots of representations, especially in movies, that for the female character to be taken seriously she has to have the opposite of what is traditionally considered female characteristics.  That is, she can't be sweet, kind, motherly, nurturing, etc.  She has to be tough as nails.  She needs to take care of business.  She needs to know martial arts and how to shoot a gun, whereas to show that a woman needs caring for, she's quite and sweet and gentle.  So I understand Chocan's annoyance and frustration.  Google "strong female character" and then look at the images.  Most of them are holding guns.

When I think of a "strong female character," however, I think of a character who is secure and comfortable in herself, whatever her personality might be. Be that a stay-at-home mother or a ninja assassin.  She doesn't have to be physically strong.  She doesn't have to have a high-powered job.  She doesn't need to be able to beat other people up.  She might be able to do all those things, but she doesn't have to for me to think of her as a strong character.  In fact, she could have all those qualities and not be a strong character.  The strength comes not from what her abilities might be, whatever they might be, but rather from how she presents herself.  We can have a quiet, sweet, nurturing character who is way tougher then any Laura Croft character.  She might get upset sometimes.  She might even cry.  Those things don't take away from her strength.

Let me throw some characters at you that I think are strong, but never pick up a gun.  Princess Eilonwy from Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Prydain series.  Ginny Weasley from Harry Potter.  Fern from Charlotte's Web.  Sunny and Violet from A Series of Unfortunate Events.  These are all vastly different characters, but I would argue incredibly strong ones.

Chocano writes about an experience where she was taken shooting while in Florida, and ended up bursting into tears and hiding in the car and reading Jane Austen.  She wonders, "If this story were a scene in a movie, and the movie were being told from the point of view of a young woman, would you describe that protagonist as a “strong female character”? I would say no. A strong female character would have said, "I have absolutely no interest in going to a shooting range. It makes me uncomfortable. I'm going to read. I'll meet up with you later." And she would be strong because she was able to verbalize what it was she wanted and needed to do.  That's the part that makes her strong. 

1 comment:

  1. Well said!

    Alternately, a strong female character would have decided to suck it up for the sake of relationship harmony, and put a reasonably happy non-martyred face on an afternoon she didn't really want to have. There's strength in being able to recognize what *others* need and provide it, as well.


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