Writing ‘strong’ women
Tris Prior, Xena, Natasha Romanoff, Katniss Everdeen, Lara Croft. Right off the bat we can associate these fictional female characters with the word “strong.” And in recent years, this has been the main kind of portrayal of women circulating in the media, or at least this is what people seem to value the most. But is this really a good thing?
Sophia McDougall, writer for the British magazine NewStatesman, put it this way in one of her articles: “Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong.”
Okay, I do love “The Hunger Games” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” as much as the next person, and I appreciate the ideas behind Katniss and Buffy. But “strong” cannot possibly be the only word defining them, and it is not. So why is that single word the one we use most to describe them? Women are as complex and diverse as male characters like Sherlock Holmes.
Don’t get me wrong. It is completely reasonable for people to seek strong female characters as a result of years and years of them being tossed to the sidelines as mere romantic interests and damsels in distress, but the growing issue is that a “strong” woman is beginning to be the only acceptable portrayal. It’s starting to seem like she has to be a strong, independent woman who refuses to show weakness in order to be deemed a good and inspiring character.
This just doesn’t seem right. Women can be complicated, shy, stoic, independent, afraid, or any other real characteristic, and still be valid and intriguing people. It should be okay for women in these stories, and in real life, to be not stereotypically strong.
It is important that we stop thinking that we will effectively get away from the ideas of sexism by promoting a single personality type. I understand that because of a history of passive women, people want to see stories in which women stand up for themselves, but writing one-dimensional characters will not help us beat sexism in the media and in real life.
Now we can say that there are quite a lot of female heroes in movies, TV shows and books, but a lot of them are still male-centered—or at least in the posters.
When you look at the movie posters of films like “The Fantastic Four,” “The Avengers” and even “The Smurfs,” you will see that the female hero is still one girl in a group of guys. Even with big leaps in gender equality, there is still a higher ratio of boys in most films and novels than girls.
Why can’t we write female characters the way male ones are written? Why can’t there be more female leads, sidekicks, mentors, villains, etc? In my opinion, we don’t need just one great woman in a story for it to be right; we need as many varied primary and secondary character roles for women as we have for men. I hope to see a 1:1 male to female ratio in the media. There needs to be equality.
And for too long, female roles have been there to help define other characters, mostly male. We need to start having fictional women in the media that aren’t mere props but beings with personalities. We don’t need strong characters; we need well-rounded characters.
Take, for example, Pepper Potts in the “Iron Man” films. Is she strong? Well, not in the typical way, but she took Tony Stark’s place as head of Stark Industries, right? She’s smart, hardworking, loyal and resourceful. She serves an important function throughout the films. But she gets some backlash because she ends up as the damsel in distress in the stories, which people want so much to avoid. I know people might argue that in the third film she beat up the villain, but is it because of this that we will start legitimizing her as a proper female character?
And I have some news: Being a damsel in distress is bad only when that’s her sole purpose and if that’s the sole thing that defines her. If a well-rounded character just happens to be in distress at a certain part of the story, then there should be no problem, because it happens to everyone—to all characters and actual human beings.
In the case of Tris Prior in the “Divergent” series, she isn’t just a girl that can kick butt. She has many other things going on in her life, including how she’s being discriminated against because of where she came from and how she’s facing the challenge set before her. She has a soft side for her family. She is even afraid for some time. And this is why so many people are invested in her character. A girl doesn’t need to be strong to be interesting. She needs to be relatable.
JK Rowling, author of the famous “Harry Potter” series, pointed out that physical strength did not mean so much in her books: “I’m a female writer and, what’s interesting about the Wizarding World is, when you take physical strength out of the equation, a woman can fight just the same as a man can fight, a woman can do magic just as powerfully as a man can do magic and I consider that I’ve written a lot of well-rounded female characters in these books.”
It is normal for a girl to cry, to want independence, to need validation, to want a husband, to not need a man at all, and to have her own ideals and fears and strengths that actuality implies. A legitimate female character should be able to reflect experiences that real women have.
I want to see more female characters. I want to be inspired by them. I want to cry because of them. I want to hate them. Just give me something to which I can give a strong reaction. They can be strong, weak, neither, or a mix of the two. And any of those is okay because they are so much more than those labels.
McDougall of NewStatesman ended her article with a paraphrased version she made of the performance poet Guante’s work, “Man Up,” and it perfectly sums up the ideas I want to bring forth: “I want her to be free to express herself. I want her to have meaningful, emotional relationships with other women. I want her to be weak sometimes. I want her to be strong in a way that isn’t about physical dominance or power. I want her to cry if she feels like crying. I want her to ask for help. I want her to be who she is. Write a Strong Female Character? No.”
We can’t let ourselves be backed into a corner with the thought that we need to be strong to be noticed or valued. Authors shouldn’t focus on writing strong female roles; they should focus on writing people, with all the complexity that comes with them.
Written by Courtney Allison P. Tirol, 16, is a former editor in chief of her school publication, a book and film enthusiast, and an incoming freshman at the University of Asia and the Pacific taking up a political economy track to the Juris Doctor program.
(Published in Youngblood, Philippine Daily Inquirer/ 13 May 2014)