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?