“I hate strong female characters.” Yes, and let’s stop creating them.
I just read last week’s article in the New Statesmen by Sophia McDougall entitled I hate Strong Female Characters. By now you’ve probably read it too, but in case you haven’t, McDougall essentially presents two arguments that dovetail into each other: firstly, a “strong” female character shouldn’t be synonymous with “will roundhouse your teeth out and call you a little b—” and secondly, the reason the Strong Female Character happens is that female characters in general are so underrepresented that when one does make it on the page or screen she is working from a net loss and has to be drawn clownishly just to keep up. The solution to this problem is to incorporate more female characters, both major and minor, into stories. That way the main female character doesn’t have to represent all of womanity and has room to be a truly multi-dimensional character.
While I’ve been aware of the issue in general, particularly that first argument that you don’t have to be physically aggressive to be strong, I have to confess I never thought about WHY the SFC happens, and I think it’s is a damn good lesson for any writer who wants to create realistic characters. And isn’t that what we all want to do as writers, regardless of politics?
To use an illustrative example, I think that’s why Serenity/Firefly has always worked for me personally, despite it being frequently pointed out as “doing feminism wrong.” There are 9 crew members: 5 men and 4 women. Those numbers work. They allow room for Zoe, Inara, Kaylee, and River to all be individual people.
River’s character is often problematic in a feminist sense but there are several other women to provide balance, and certainly all of her male counterparts have their own flaws. So you can pick on River but you have to pick her out of a lineup to do it. As a writer I completely see the appeal of writing a story like hers, and I think if you’re going to do it, Whedon’s approach is probably the best way to go. (While trolling for pics I found this post to be an excellent analysis of River’s character.)
For a writer like me, one who believes character is king and who also cares deeply about women’s rights, it’s almost nauseating to go back and look at the novel I’m working on, and see all the places where I could have used a woman and just…didn’t. No reason. Just didn’t.
My major characters skew about 2:3, which I suppose is better than 1:3 stat called out by McDougall, but I really fall down with the minor characters. Everything is heavily gendered — all my policemen are men, all my gunsmiths are men. All my sailors are men. And on the flip side, all my prostitutes are women. All my charity workers are women. That’s messed up. That’s not the kind of story I want to write, that I intended to write, but I still wrote it that way.
I’m glad I have a chance to do some course corrections while I’m still in the revision process, and that going forward I’ll always be able to look at what I’m doing and ask if I’m not turning my female character into Smurfette because she’s the only girl in town and therefore has to be every girl in town.