Friday, February 24, 2012

Tough but Tortured: Why Strong Female Characters Shouldn't Need Dark Pasts to Justify Their Power

A little more than a year ago, I picked up a copy of Whipping Girl, a collection of essays on gender identity and experience written by Julia Serano, a male-to-female transsexual whose unique experience of gender has allowed her a firsthand look at society’s prejudices from the position of a man and a woman. In a series of discussions on everything from the media industry’s sensationalized, inherently prejudiced depictions of transsexual people to the actual experience of life on both sides of the gender divide, Serano argues one overarching point: that it’s not women society devalues, but femininity.

I’d both loved and felt frustrated by the characters that tend to be blanket-labeled “strong female characters” for years, but it wasn’t until I read this book that I was able to really put a finger on why: the very thing that made me love them—the very thing that earned them that oh-so-difficult-for-a-lady-to-achieve status of the hero—also served to devalue my gender. Because all of these characters seemed to prove the point that there was only one way to be strong, and it was by embracing what society considers to be masculine characteristics: physical strength and an aggressive, impulsive personality. A bunch of a really fabulous bloggers have weighed in on this subject—mostly recently, S.E. Sinkhorn, whose post on how strong female characters devalue and even vilify the feminine I absolutely love. Bloggers have decried the unrealistic and objectifying nature of “waif-fu,” called for more fully realized female characters who can be valued and related to for their weaknesses, and pointed out the inherent male gaze in everything from these women’s poses to their costumes.

But aside from the fact that these characters, in their very existence, seem to prove that the only real strength out there is stereotypically masculine strength, and that it’s only acceptable in a woman if she’s also, you know, willing to submit to being a sex object (all of the above bloggers have proven this well) there’s one more thing that frustrates me about these types of characters. And that’s the frequency with which I see “powerful” and “damaged” go hand in hand in lady characters. Battlestar Galactica’s Kara Thrace takes the cylons and her shipmates to task with thrilling efficiency, but what makes her so unstoppable might be her blatant disregard for her own safety, which the show suggests is the result of her mother’s traumatic abuse and her father’s absence. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo's Lisbeth Salander is unapologetically and unstoppably out for herself, but she’s also on an unending rampage against the many men who have used and abused her. Firefly’s River Tam is a finely tuned killing machine, if you catch her on a good day, or at least one in which she’s not rocking in a corner or curled up naked in a womb-like cryo box.

I recognize that Kara’s brokenness humanizes her character and builds the foundation for what I actually find to be an incredibly resonant story of a struggle for faith and a journey towards peace. And while I have many problems with the so-called feminist trappings of the Millennium trilogy, I can understand the appeal for some women of a rape revenge story in which a woman seizes and uses the power that was originally denied to her by her attackers. As for River Tam, I… well, honestly, I’ve got nothing. Sorry. Does it help if I say I like Zoe and Inara a lot?

Don’t get me wrong. I believe that, male or female, most people come into their own strength through suffering. But where are the male characters who follow a pattern that matches those of the women? I can come up with only a handful, the most notable of which might be Batman, whose strength comes from a need to avenge his parents’ death: a tragedy, but arguably not a trauma on the scale of—or with the intense nature of personal attack and violation inherent in—rape or physical abuse.

So why does trauma seem to be a prerequisite that only women need to fulfill in order to be stereotypically strong?

Is it a subconscious need to rationalize what the reader or viewer might see as “bad behavior” for a woman? Is it an apologetic attempt by the writers to “declaw” feminist characters, making them less threatening to male viewers who might feel emasculated by their physical prowess or female viewers who might be uncomfortable with their self-assertiveness? Is it all a projection of male fantasies of a woman who is “one of the guys,” but still needs a man around to protect her or “fix” her? Can we just not understand why a woman might want to embody masculine characteristics if she wasn’t inherently screwed up?

I suspect it’s some combination of all of the above, in varying degrees given the particular film or book. And, needless to say, I’m not impressed. The particular brilliance of this trope as an anti-feminist tool is in the fact that it seems to answer the cries of feminists who ask for more flawed and fully explored characters, but at the same time it sends the message that women who seek power (the same power that men are portrayed as just naturally possessing) are unnatural, that they somehow need an excuse. Gee, where have we heard that before?


  1. Can I recommend two authors who do not (in my opinion) follow these patterns?

    Juliet Marillier - Her characters draw strength from family and inner values and beliefs. They are often domestic women, skilled at cooking, weaving, and other household chores rather than fighting. The more traumatized characters aren't strong because of their trauma. Rather, they have to learn to be strong in spite of it.

    Tamora Pierce - Yes, her characters are a more traditional (masculine) kind of strong, but Pierce makes a point of retaining their inner sense of femininity, and they don't put up with abuse. Also, they hold jobs and roles that are more traditionally male not because their pasts force them to, but because they choose to. And as Alanna is described as short and stocky and passes for a boy until eighteen, I don't think anyone could call her a sex object.

    Just suggestions.

  2. An enthusiastic YES! on Tamora Pierce! I absolutely adore her heroines and consider them some of the best and strongest of any fiction, and particularly of children's fiction. And she's been making butt-kicking female characters look good since long before this most recent trend cropped up. My entire generation and several ones after it should probably owe her a debt of thanks for providing such wonderful role models.

    I'll have to check out Juliet Marillier. I have to say that I have a fondness for action moreso than domesticity (not that I don't see strength in both, just that I really love a good whooping), but I am always a fan of really well-drawn women in books.

  3. "where are the male characters who follow a pattern that matches those of the women?"

    I'm not necessarily disagreeing with your thesis, but these characters certainly do exist. In children's/YA, I immediately think of Harry Potter. In Cassandra Clare's two trilogies, both Jace and Will are products of PTSD, essentially. In Holly Black's Curse Workers, Cassel Sharpe has definitely had a tortured background.

    In adult crime fiction (off the top of my head), there are plenty of tortured male detectives who come out of bad pasts. E.g., Harry Bosch from Michael Connelly's series. I think this is a very standard character type, actually.

    While I absolutely agree that there is sexism involved in a lot of the "strong woman character" stuff (especially when it comes to devaluing femininity -- the mainstream has a particularly hard time grasping the validity of female masculinity), I also think that characters who become heroes after a tortured past are often more interesting to read about and more interesting to write.

  4. For what it's worth here's a short list of guys with dark pasts off the top of my head.

    *Dead Parents*

    Harry Potter. - Dead parents and non ideal home life

    Spiderman. - Dead parents. Non ideal school life. Surrogate parental figure killed early in story.

    Luke Skywalker. - Parents believed to be dead. Surrogate parental figures killed early in story. Dark family legacy to deal with

    Superman - Dead home planet

    *Products of experimentation*

    Wolverine - The healing factor and claws are natural, the indestructible skeleton was a product of invasive government experimentation

    Bean (Orson Scott Card's Ender series) - Genetic experiment. Horrific early years.


    Neo - Imprisoned in the Matrix prior to being freed. Subjugated in mind and body.

    Malcom Reynolds - Lost the war he still believes in

    Lestat - Anyone turned into a vampire against their will is about the closest rape analogy I can think of.

    Dream - The Sandman series is basically one big story about how Dream comes to the decision to commit suicide of a sort. His past is pretty mucked up.


    This is not to say that you don't have a point. The number of strong female characters without dark pasts that I can name probably can be counted on one hand while I would need to take off my shoes and then borrow a few more people's appendages to count the guys with trauma free or "trauma light" pasts. (So Han Solo has a bounty on his head. Shady and not ideal, but not necessarily Dark)

    But I do believe that there are more iconic male heroes packaged with traumatic legacies (or have the trauma inflicted early in their stories) than you seem to suggest. At the very least I'd say they outnumber their trauma free male compatriots.

    Once again, I'm not saying that trauma ratios for women aren't skewed, but I think it isn't quite as lopsided with the men as you imply.

  5. And here I was thinking "traumatic past hero/ine is running from/seeking revenge for" was just a standard opening trope. How many stories begin with the classic "bad guys kill your family, take away your girlfriend, burn your village, wreck everything you knew" opening?

    However, looking over your examples, it may be that female-specific trauma is more personal in nature—whereas the male hero-to-be has everything he knows destroyed and taken away from him, the women you mentioned had horrific things done to them. Which isn't to say having the (government/roving bandits/evil duke) kill your family isn't bad; it's just different from having them rape and torture you.

    Now, as to YA female heroines without troubled pasts, I can think of two off the top of my head: Lyra from the His Dark Materials trilogy, and Kate from T.A. Baron's The Ancient One. Sure, by the end of both stories (especially in Lyra's case), they've both been through a lot, some of which may be traumatic—but the fact is, at the beginning of the story, they're both fairly "unremarkable" girls with pasts that, from their points of view, aren't especially traumatic. I know Pulman has said as much regarding Lyra—she's supposed to be dull and unremarkable at the beginning, unaware that she has skeletons in her closet.

  6. Thanks for the linkage :) You make an excellent point. I feel like this is why the lines start to blur a little... what distinguishes genuine character backstory and development from needing to give a character an excuse for a certain personality trait? I'm not sure where the line is exactly, but some people are definitely on the far or near side of it.

    There definitely needs to be some sort of clarification that women can display traditionally "masculine" traits (which are not really masculine per se, but that's another tangent) without needing a reason. Simply because it's in their nature to be aggressive or physically imposing or charismatic or whatever.

  7. To a degree, I think the problems with the typical "strong female character" (devaluing the feminine and essentially embracing a male POV) stem from world building issues. When we look at male characters from some of these same stories, I think we can see a similar case of reductionism. Take Mikael Blomkvist from Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. He's got a cardboard personality, is irresistible to women, and thus becomes a womanizer. He's intellectually careless, but hey it doesn't matter because he's suave enough, strong enough, and wily enough (all traits usually gendered as male) to win the day.

    When writers create a Manichean world and provide characters with impetus to action that fits along a binaristic line (insjustice vs. revenge, good vs. evil, male vs. female), it's very easy to fall into the counterproductive tropes. "Feminine" men and "masculine" women as characters are just rearranging the chairs for show. As you point out, once the novelty wears off, they are just as reductive as weak girly girls and hyper-macho men.

    Overcoming this is difficult because it requires a writer to delve into all the gray areas of life. Characters, like real people, need to sometimes exhibit paradoxical, inconsistent tendencies. It might be necessary to ditch the whole idea of "male" and "female" traits and group them all into "human" traits.

    An example of one character who may embody this thinking is Snape from the Harry Potter books. While he seems to enjoy power and control (stereotypically categorized as male), the root of his pathos is the unrequited love he isn't able to let go (stereotypically categorized as female). When brought together in a single character, these create a story that is highly interesting and compelling to read about. His heroism and sacrifice are thus felt much deeper by both male and female readers.