Thursday, March 1, 2012

What IS a Feminist Character, Really? (A Bit of a Love Letter to Kristin Cashore)

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.


  1. Kristin Cashore is awesome - loved Graceling and Fire, and Bitterblue is on my list of Books To Acquire This Year.

    Also, re the trap of criticizing female characters more often than male: YES. This is something I'm increasingly concerned with. I'm starting to feel a serious need to blog about harmful male tropes, and the ways we might subvert them, and what messages they send about gender that are really unacceptable. If feminism is truly about equality, then the movement ought to encompass men being equal to women as much as women being equal to men - by which I mean, we need to start lifting the stigma on men behaving in feminine ways.

    Particularly when it comes to heroes and male love interests in SFF, I'm really sick of hyper-masculinity being the default interpretation of sexy. You know? Surely that's just as toxic long-term to the feminist cause as passive, unassertive female protagonists?

  2. Fabulous post. I love Kristin Cashore and can't wait to read BITTERBLUE. When my daughter was nine/ten and begging to read TWILIGHT, I resisted because I didn't like the "download" message it would send. We compromised--I told her she could read the book but first she had to read GRACELING; then we would contrast/compare the male and female characters. By the time she finished GRACELING, she didn't even want to read TWILIGHT.

    I'm not bashing TWILIGHT--it's just that when the phenomenon trickled down to very young girls, I became disturbed by its representations. My daughter did indeed read TWILIGHT eventually, but she still counts GRACELING as one of her absolute faves. We will probably have to arm wrestle to see who gets to read BITTERBLUE first (I take no mercy).

    I appreciate the point too about overscrutinizing female characters. And I agree with the commenter above that hyper-masculinity is just as toxic as the overly-passive/lost-in-love female trope. Love your blog!

  3. Ooo, sounds like I should check out Kristin Cashore's work.

    Interesting points in your post and in the comments - it is strange that its only ever female characters who are scrutinised so closely. Just like in the real world, generally speaking, men can get away with most things and women have to justify themselves.

    Coincidentally, I've just blogged about the sort of female protagonists I create; they tend to be more 'lady-like' in their behaviour but 'strong' in other ways. And I'm pleased to say I've also mentioned my male characters, and that I hope I do them justice as well by showing that they too have weaknesses.