Wednesday, 16 March 2016

I Hate Strong Female Characters

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Okay, maybe 'hate' is too strong a word, but hear me out. This might seem a bit strange coming from an author whose work does tend to include characters this label could be applied to. Merrin in Blindsighted Wanderer; Bianka, Hanna and Eva in the Tragic Silence series, plus my other works that are yet to make the publication journey. And for a long time - most of my writing career - it hasn't bothered me. Strong female characters are good! They bring depth and another perspective to the story! Right?

I suddenly doubted this when I re-watched The Hunger Games recently. And though it's a movie I've seen more times than I can count, this one moment really grated on me:
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Let's put this into context. The Hunger Games is set in a dystopian future where teenagers must fight to the death. Every single young person outside the Capitol is aware they could die. There is always one male and one female tribute from each district. Each district's population is skilled in one form or another.

So where does this line fall in? Bear in mind that, in many respects, both the male and female tributes are treated equally - after all, there's an equal chance that any one of them could die brutally at the hands of the others, and all of them are very aware of this fact. So we don't need to be told that Katniss, or indeed any of the other female tributes, is a tough nut. We see it in her mannerisms, the way she carries herself, her ingenuity in the face of obstacles. It occurs naturally to us. But this line almost feels like it's giving us permission to recognize this fact. "She didn't let a man take over! And then it turned out to be a joke anyway! She's a strong female character, see?"

While the joke itself is harmless (and I wouldn't blame these two for trying to get a bit of light-heartedness in the middle of such horror), this just seems so out of place script-wise. It doesn't seem like the kind of joke that would really fly in Panem, where as I mentioned before, everybody knows how to stand up for themselves. While there are still gender differences, it is taken that for the most part, people are just people; tributes are just tributes. There is no emphasis on difference in that respect - because there doesn't need to be.

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I know feminism can be a touchy and often misinterpreted area, but it's getting more and more attention in the film industry lately, with one of the headlining advocates being Katniss herself, Jennifer Lawrence. And I feel it needs to be addressed also in regards to novel writing. How many times have you picked up a book with a female protagonist or even deuterogamist who on the surface seems promising, but turns out to just be an empty mess? They tick all the boxes for what a 'strong female character' should be on paper: they're sassy or stubborn, good with weapons, make their own decisions, don't follow the norm, stand up for themselves, etc. So we know they aren't a damsel in distress. But what are they then? Good writing focuses on what a character is, not what a character isn't. And it's this mismatch that has caused the 'strong female character' phrase to become a category; a label trying to prove something to its readers. Instead of presenting empowering characters, it simplifies them, and defeats its own intention.

Let's imagine, for a moment, that Katniss and Peta's roles were reversed; he was the one who was good with the bow and she was better at decorating cakes. That would make people scream sexism - Katniss spends her time in a bakery while Peta goes out and hunts for food. It takes us right back to archaic times, right? And how about this scene in reverse - if Katniss says to Peta, "I'll take the bow... just kidding." Is she being tough, or showing how she isn't willing to move out of a role she has been placed in, that of a submissive kitchen-bound woman? But my main question is, why should it matter?

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We never get books or films labelled 'strong male character'. Because we accept naturally that male characters will have more depth to them. They can be physically strong, yes, but not always. They can be nerds, a little bit crazy, bohemian, intellectual. They are interesting. They are not expected to force themselves into a tiny pigeonhole defined by three words. So they are believable, rich, real. Just because you give them a weapon or make them a bit stubborn doesn't make them strong. So why should it be any different with similar female characters?

I feel that the world has realized - and known for a while - that female characters can be more than damsels in distress; prizes to be rescued; eye-candy for show alongside the dashing hero. But in light of that, we still don't know how to write them. A key example of this, in my opinion, can be seen in The Hobbit films. Reading the book, it never bothered me that it was a very male-dominated story. Yet in the film version, a female elf named Tauriel appears. She was an original character created to bring about some gender balance, and she also ticks all the boxes for the convenient 'strong' category. And while she gets a few good scenes here and there, her personality is limited to becoming a love interest for both Legolas and the Dwarf Kili in another typical modern fiction trope: the love triangle. For a character who was brought to life for benefit of the female viewers, there wasn't much that she offered which differed from depictions of women fifty years ago. While I was never a fan of bringing her into the films, it was frustrating to feel like my initial suspicions had been proven correct: that she was simply created to tick all those boxes, with not much thought for anything else that might be interesting. Personally I'd rather follow Bilbo stumbling through a riddle game with Gollum.

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Fiction does need embellishment and artistic license to tell its story, but that should not be done at the expense of its characters. And imbuing them with a set of superfluous traits does not change our perceptions of them if there's nothing interesting underneath. Real people aren't like that, so why should fictional ones be?

There is one character who hit this nail on the head sixty years before the suffrage movement even appeared. Jane Eyre was published in 1847, and she remains one of the most celebrated and respected characters in all of literature. Is she skilled in weapons? No. Neither is she an action hero, or a wild child, or sassy. She is everything a 'strong female character', by definition, shouldn't be. But yet I would go so far as calling her the poster-child of what those words should mean. She has respect for herself, she's determined, she learns from mistakes, she faces hardship and doesn't let it break her. She does all of this in a relatable way, and she remains interesting throughout it all. She doesn't need anything epic to show her off. She herself is the epic quality. And this quality that is so lauded even 170 years later, is the same that we see in Katniss. They carry themselves, fundamentally, in the same way. They are both resilient and intelligent. They make the best of terrible situations. Take the bow away from Katniss and those traits would remain. Give it to Jane, and those traits would remain. At the end of the day, the weapon or sassiness isn't what defines them.

They are human. And that is what makes them strong.

This needs to be remembered, for both male and female characters. Writing them is not a battle of the sexes, or trying to force empowerment upon one or the other. Both innately have it, in similar ways, if only it is allowed to be seen that way. Making old stereotypes redundant in favour of potentially creating a new one does not translate to equality. We should like a character for who they are, not what they aren't. Strong female characters do not exist for me anymore. There are only interesting, deep, realistic characters. Whether they are referred to as "he" or "she" makes no difference to me, and I don't see the big deal in why it should be to the rest of the world.

And for the record, I think Jennifer Lawrence would play a killer Jane Eyre - no pun intended!


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