Feminism, Pop-Culture | Posted by Vicky C on 03/26/2012

Strong Ladies in Fiction Shouldn’t Be Novelties

awesome: but why is she the exception rather than the rule?

Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and many more) was once asked “Why do you write such strong female characters?”

His reply?

“Because you’re still asking me that question.”

So, why are we still asking that question?

Lately, “strong female characters” in fiction seem to be on the rise. Hermoine Granger. Lisbeth Salander. Katara. River Tam. More recently, Katniss Everdeen and Merida from The Hunger Games and Pixar’s Brave, respectively. My question is, why are these characters such a big deal? Why is it still a surprise to people that women in fiction can be action heroes, no questions asked? And furthermore, when a “weak” female character comes along (first one that comes to mind is Bella Swan from Twilight) why are we so quick to tear into her?

Not that I’m a huge fan of Bella, but here’s the thing: there are strong male characters. There are plenty of weak male characters, too. What’s so bad about having both strong and weak female characters?

It’s called the Smurfette Principle, for you TV Tropes fans out there. Remember those TV shows growing up, where there were four guys and one girl in a group of friends? Or maybe it was two guys and a girl, or, if the writers were feeling generous, three guys and two girls. There’s always a tiny ratio of females to males, which means that the “Smurfette” ends up representing all women, or, if there were two, a dichotomy of stereotypes which represent all women. The tomboy and the girly-girl, for example. You’re either one or the other.

Which brings us the answer to the question. When we see a weak female character, the first reaction we ladies have is “She’s making us look bad!”

Well, I have to agree. But it’s not the character’s fault. It’s the lack of other characters who lack a Y chromosome, and the expectation that we have that every female character out there represents all women. But as the number of female protagonists and ensemble characters rise (and I say “rise” tentatively), we need to trash those expectations.

We need to allow both strong and weak female characters to exist without tearing apart their every move. People in fiction are still people, aren’t they? Detective Kate Beckett from the television show Castle saw a therapist for her PTSD (after getting shot, mind you), and I’m ashamed to admit I asked myself if I still considered her strong. Of course she’s still strong. She’s just human. Which is a depiction we’re honestly not used to.

So stop asking the question, and please stop making a huge deal out of every Katniss Everdeen that comes along. Don’t get me wrong, she and others like her are awesome. But by calling so much attention and awe to these people, we invite the notion that women shouldn’t be depicted as strong, that something about this is weird. And it’s not weird.

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  • SLG @ at 12:36 pm, March 26th, 2012

    As Joss Whedon once said in response to the question, “Why do you write such strong, female characters?”:

    “Because you’re still asking me that question.”

  • Johannah @ at 4:24 pm, March 26th, 2012

    I see your point, but at the same time I think that for now we still do have to make a big deal out of these characters, if only so they know we want them. If people don’t know that there is an audience for this type of character it is easier not to write her at all. So maybe we should keep making a big deal until it isn’t a question at all.

  • Kate McGuinness @ at 6:29 pm, March 26th, 2012

    Good news: in TERMINAL AMBITION fictional protagonist Maggie Mahoney takes on the ultimate old boys’ club as she fights for gender equity at her Wall Street law firm. Her battle jeopardizes the ambition of the firm chairman to become US Attorney General. Only one of them can win.

  • Linda Adams @ at 6:06 am, March 27th, 2012

    I don’t agree with the reasoning that it’s the Smurfette principle. I think writers and movie makers make characters like that because they think that’s the way women are. In business, women are often viewed as weak because they react differently than men. I think it becomes a big deal when we get a character like Katniss because the industry doesn’t expect any better of us.

  • Sam X @ at 12:42 pm, March 27th, 2012

    As you kind of hint at, Vicky, I think people should clamor for simply more female characters in general. If there are 10 characters in a story and they’re split 5-5 or even 6-4, that gives enough representative space for more nuanced female characters. A strong female character can be allowed moments of weakness–as is human–if it’s read with a background of other strong-but-flawed women.

  • Meg H @ at 10:08 pm, March 28th, 2012

    I’d never thought about it this way but the more I think about it, the more I see you’re so right. When one female character bears the burden of representing all women her characterisation in the novel/film/tv show becomes a side issue. It’s probably much more realistic to depict a woman that can be strong and a great role model but can also do things that we hate to see because we see her representing women as weak. Another great example is Christina Yang in Grey’s Anatomy, ambitious, brilliant and continually rejecting motherhood she’s a fairly atypical female character but I couldn’t help screaming at her when she had a breakdown following the hospital shooting. We hold female characters to a higher standard because they are under represented and because we, as women, feel we have something to prove. That we are as strong, and capable, and brave, and daring and generally awesome as men is something that we have been asked to prove over and over again. So when some fictional character “lets the side down” by getting weepy over some sparkly vampire, we’re livid because she is reinforcing every stereotype that’s ever been written. The criticism of female characters is clearly a symptom of misogynistic representations of women. So I completely agree that when there is enough variety out there to show us for what we really are, strong, weak and everything in between, perhaps women would feel less compelled to wish Bella would stop being such a whiny bint and tell Edward to shove it already.

  • Vee @ at 1:06 pm, March 31st, 2012

    I accidentally rated this totally awesome article a 4. I wanted to give it a 5.

    Sorry :/

  • Renee @ at 7:21 am, April 1st, 2012

    Great article but I just gotta say thet Bella and most of the Twilight Characters were badly written. And I’ll rip any badly written book to shreds. And also childrens show seem to fall into Dichotomies Alot like you could probably take any kids show(like Rugrats for example) and see characters that only embody one character trait. Like the bossy one(Angelica), the scaredy cat(Chucky), The brave one(Tommy), The sensible one(Susie((when you even saw her))). Now I’m not saying this is a good thing, and I’m also not saying it’s a bad thing. But like you mentioned it becomes a bad thing when you’ve got these people representing a whole sex or a whole race.

    The reason I love Avatar is probably because it doesn’t run into the problem of flat unevolving Characters just because it was a kids show (i mean even Zuko turned good).

  • Talia bat Pessi @ at 12:18 am, April 2nd, 2012

    I think it’s important to celebrate strong female characters. Heck, I think it’s important to celebrate the female characters, period, even if they are portrayed as weak or a stereotype. A stereotype certainly isn’t anywhere near ideal, but it’s better than nothing.

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