When I first heard the term “Strong Female Character,” my first response was to shrug. When I was a child, I had grown up with reruns of Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman, Diana Rigg as Emma Peel, and one of my favorite characters of ThunderCatswas Cheetara. When I hit my teens, I really enjoyed Ivanova and Delenn of Babylon 5, with Lyta Alexander thrown in, if only because she was a redhead.
To hear the SFC label as an insult threw me for a loop. The first time I heard it was about a leftist complaining about women fighting evil.
Though recently, the Superversive blog has not only highlighted problems with the idiocy in Strong Female Characters, this horse has been beaten to death using the carcass of another horse as the cudgel. Between Dawn’s post, my post, and multiple others, it’s been covered fairly thoroughly.
Can we talk about when it works? I know it sounds strange, but bear with me a moment. I can’t imagine that anyone involved in the Pulp Revolution crowd will be happy if you dismiss Red Sonja as an SFC (or, looking at the history of her character development, perhaps they would). Let’s face it, there are times where it can at least be entertaining. As I mentioned the other day, Xena was entertaining at one point …. before it went really flipping strange; I, at the least, can enjoy most of Buffy the Vampire Slayer without accepting the agit-prop that Joss Whedon thought he was putting in.
Now, in these cases, it works in part because overly strong female heroes aren’t usually a problem when it’s someone superpowered. No one objects to the concept of Wonder Woman, Supergirl, or X-men’s Rogue. We have usually just complained about the execution thereof.
To see where things can go right, let’s see where they’ve gone wrong, shall we?
Agent Carter, brought to you by the spin-off department at Marvel, featured Peggy Carter from Captain America, and dear lord, what were these people smoking? Yes, I know, enough lefty agit-prop to kill a small herd of elephants. This was depressing. Hating men by the truckload — but it was okay, because our heroine did the hating [eye roll]. I’m not sure what was worse, Carter’s sudden hatred for all men (which wasn’t in the film she debuted in) or some of the flashbacks in season two that tried to explain it (yes. the show had a season 2). But no, Agent Carter was perfect, no flaws at all, and if you disagreed with her, you were wrong.
Yikes. At least in the case of 24, when Jack Bauer was “always right,” it was largely because he was surrounded by bureaucrats, and even then, he sometimes lost big. Sure, if everyone listened to Jack Bauer, the series would be called 12, but despite that, he’s lost his wife, daughter, his family, and nearly all of his friends. On her tv show, Carter is “always right” because the plot says so, all of her office mates were men, and therefore evil, and she loses nothing. It’s sad, because in The First Avenger, the character worked because she was empathetic with our hero, risked a lot on an untried Steve Rogers, because she saw in him the same qualities and virtues that he embodied as Captain America. AND she was nifty with a machine gun. The Agent Carter of the tv show? What is this thing called empathy?
Then there’s Supergirl, the current TV show. I’m not sure what’s the worst element about this show: the message fiction (feminista, LGBT signalling, strange anti-Trump digs, et al), the writing, characterization or the plots. It is mind-boggling how much is wrong with this show, from the angsty men to how Supergirl herself is portrayed as, mostly, a ditzy blonde — and it’s not even an act. Depending on who’s writing the DC comic book, Kryptonians on Earth are naturally smarter, stronger, and faster than anyone else. Superman has often been described as overpowered. Technically, Supergirl herself could be a flipping Mary Sue, and it would at least be consistent with the premise that SHE’S AN ALIEN. Having recently seen the first two Christopher Reeves Superman films recently, the contrast is stark — Clark Kent is a front, a mask where Superman is clumsy and awkward and presents as a total idiot. In this Supergirl TV show, Supergirl herself comes off as awkward, uncertain, and even childish. It’s not a mask, it’s who she is. She’s not perfect in every way, and fewer and fewer people are willing to correct her about it.
And I think the real, major problem with the general concept and execution of the Strong Female Character: these women are portrayed as being totally problem free and perfect when they’re clearly not. To my recollection, no one called out Agent Carter on her BS, unless it was Tommy Lee Jones in Captain America: The First Avenger, and he was a honey badger — he didn’t care for crap from anybody. On Supergirl, the lead lacks empathy more often than not, and insists on putting down anyone who wants to stand up and be counted because they’re not as invulnerable as she is; and no one calls her on it anymore.
The less said about Blindspot‘s Jaimie Alexander being able to square off against and pummel men three times her weight with her bare hands, the better.
We, as an audience, are being force-fed women who are deeply flawed, and in some cases unlikable, and being told that they’re perfect. These aren’t the Strong Women Characters I grew up with. This doesn’t work.
So … where does it work?
In some cases, the SFC trope can work because they are pure popcorn action pieces. Xena worked, at first, because it was pure popcorn, and actress Lucy Lawless was just fun to watch. It failed when it went strange (Greek myths ran into the Old Testament, then Christian mythos? Huh? Please stop hurting my brain). And even then, her perky blonde sidekick would occasionally take her to task for her BS, which is a cute trick since it looked like Xena had about six inches on her.
Red Sonja has never had any pretensions, and if you think it has, I can’t take any project too seriously when the film stars Ernie Reyes Jr as a super badass 12-year old.
Why did Buffy work? Because if you were just looking for entertainment, it was, again, mostly pure popcorn, with some metaphorical overtones for teenage life. I think the least subtle aspect of that was a conversation after Angel went evil, where Buffy’s mother asked, “You slept with him and it was like he became a completely different person, wasn’t it?” Talk about your understatement. The character also had plenty of faults. Most, if not all, of the season finales came after an episode or two where, yes, she’s vulnerable– duh, she’s a teenage girl. She lost at least one boyfriend because she treated him like dirt, and it was Xander, the one labeled “loser” at every turn, who had to explain why she was being an idiot.
Black Widow, for me, works quite well, mostly because a lot of her characterization has been very straightforward femme fatale (see: The Winter Soldier). Or she would rather have a normal life than be a Russian super assassin (Age of Ultron). Heck, even “Mister Feminist” himself, Joss Whedon, directed a film in which she was not only a damsel in distress for five minutes, she even mourned that she had been sterilized as part of her training (also Age of Ultron)– wait, I thought good SFC Feministas were supposed to welcome being freed from the burden of children? Isn’t that in the Gloria Stienem handbook? No wonder feminstas pilloried Joss offline (he claims he just needed a break from Twitter … yeah, sure, Joss).
Emma Peel is fun to watch if only because, well, Diana Rigg. She was obviously having fun. She was obviously still a woman — and obviously the source of inspiration for Black Widow’s outfit. And, while the character knew practically everything, and naturally gifted in almost every form of spycraft and fighting, she still didn’t manage full on Mary Sue status. How did she manage that? In part, because she was captured in literally every single episode of the television show. She almost always had to be rescued … okay, she typically wasn’t held captive for very long, and she was usually, she was unleashed to beat up her captors, Sadly, I believed her fights in the 1960s Avengers than any of the fights on Blindspot.
For more recent examples of SFCs who work, I will direct you over to Baen books. John Ringo has two very nice female protagonists, who are perhaps more badass than anyone else on this list thus far.
In the first place, there is Faith Smith, of his Black Tide Rising series. Faith is a teenager, barely 14 years old. Because of genetic quirks, she’s tall and looks older than her age. She’s highly athletic, and fairly strong. When the zombie apocalypse hits, she is in her element, and becomes an awesome, neigh-unstoppable melee fighter who even makes Gurkas take a step back and watch in appreciation.
Surely, Faith is part of the problem, isn’t she?
For one thing, Faith is still a teenager. When clearing seafaring vessels for survivors, she can’t handle seeing those who died because help hadn’t arrived in time. She becomes depressed, and starts claiming that Trixie, her Teddy bear, “Doesn’t like to see this.” She has literally put her trauma onto her Teddy bear. It’s touching, and a little creepy at times. By book four of the series, after months of working with Marines, they liberate Paris Island, where “real” marines threaten her, browbeat her, and drive her into a nervous breakdown. Because she’s handling a zombie apocalypse before she’s even old enough to drive, and she’s had a bad day. Strong? Yup. Perfect? Nope. Does anyone pretend she is? Nope. Her marines tend to her general care and feeding around things she’s bad at — like jumping from heights, or paperwork, et al.
Barbara Everette is Ringo’s other major female lead, of his Special Circumstancesseries. She is a tall athletic soccer mom with a rigorous prayer life that enables her to be the bad ass ninja warrior for God. And no, I’m not snickering as I write that sentence. No, she’s not perfect. She actually spends a lot of her time calling herself out on her own flaws, particularly her temper.
I’ve got at least two characters who stand out from my own writing: Mandy Rohaz and Amanda Colt. In my Love at First Bite series Amanda Colt …. has social anxieties, to put it nicely. In my Last Survivors series, Mandy is a mercenary, by profession and by nature. She’s impulsive, but changes her mind as fast as new data comes in. She’s basically an armed tomboy who likes money, and will do the right thing, sometimes whether she likes it or not. There’s good under there, but you have to dig for it, and she’s been called to the mat for that a few times.
I think I’m making my point. At the end of the day, I don’t think there’s an actual problem with “Strong Female Characters.” I grew up on Emma Peel, Buffy, Xena, Red Sonya and Princess Leia. At the very least, we should probably stop labeling the offending phenomenon SFCs, and relabel it PPFC — Pretend they’re Perfect Female Characters. Because that’s really the problem here, isn’t it? It isn’t necessarily that the characters are strong, but that’s all that they are; they’re overly strong, to the exclusion of most other characteristics. And what else is there to them? Many of the examples used on the site lately are really shallow creatures. The most common description I hear about Katniss Everdeen is “Moron.” Bella Swan is a blank slate, at best — assuming you don’t view her as a fickle, manipulative Creature from the Black Lagoon.
But I think it’s time to bring back actual strength to these Strong Female Characters, and rid ourselves of the pretenders.