I thought I'd write a post today about how, in the midst of all this talk about what isn't really a "strong female character," about what isn't a feminist character, we—myself included, perhaps myself most of all—risk falling into the trap of scrutinizing female characters more closely than men, criticizing them more often, and thus reinforcing messages that can hurt the feminist cause more than they might help it. About how we risk widening a rift when what we need is mutual understanding of all women, of all men, and of all the everything in between, in all our wonderful and utterly dumbfounding complexity. About how, while it's necessary and important to examine tropes, to pick apart their underlying themes and put them back together with a better understanding of the messages we absorb from them, if that picking apart leaves us without a single female character we can feel proud of and sure of, then we are lost. How if we spend all our time figuring out why we shouldn't love female characters, we will do exactly what we accuse others of, and fail to love women.
I was going to write that post.
And then I read Bitterblue. And I was reminded of the wonderful feminist thing that is Kristin Cashore.
Her main characters are all strong women. They all have power. They are also all broken, haunted by these truly terrible pasts. And they are so wholly, completely, complexly human that they defy simplification. They refuse to be tropes. None of them—women or men, primary or secondary—can be ignored. They seem to live and breathe, and they offer windows—some of the only broad, clear windows I've ever encountered in literature—into what it really is to be a woman. They are human.
These are the characters we need. It's not enough to say "strong." It's not enough to say "flawed." They must be whole. They must be human. So that each of us, in reading them, can feel what it is to be a human who is not ourselves.* So we can all understand each other better for it.
*That said, it would be remiss of me to ignore the fact that all of Cashore's main characters, and in fact almost all of her secondary and tertiary characters, are people of considerable privilege and with the power to command nations. They are primarily members of the dominant race in their respective kingdoms, or, in the case of Fire, they have powers that compensate for the prejudices of those around them by providing them with some control over others. It isn't quite enough to give us both women and men who are whole and human—we also need to see whole, human characters of all genders who are underprivileged in other ways, so that their unique perspectives can be forefronted and understood as well. I hope you understand that I don't intend to criticize Kristin—I believe that she has the skill and the humility to do those tales justice, and one day I truly hope to see them from her.