Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Girls Rule

In this speech (which you should definitely watch, because it's excellent and also not very long), Joss Whedon talks about his responses when interviewers ask why he writes such strong female characters.* Possibly the most telling of his myriad answers: "Because you're still asking me that question." This is one of the many reasons Joss Whedon is awesome (the others being Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Dr. Horrible, The Avengers...), but it also says something important that people do keep asking. So, dear readers, now I bring the matter before you: why do people still ask that question?

*From now on we're just going to abbreviate that to SFCs. "Strong female characters" takes a long time to type.

Since this is a blog and it would probably be a bad decision to wait for your answers, I'm going to keep talking despite the violation of the rules of etiquette.

I was never very good at etiquette anyway. Do we really need three of each utensil?
Wait, there are only two spoons. I was never very good at counting either.

But wait, girls are supposed to be good at that fancy stuff, right? We're supposed to be polite and demure and modest and I think other things that I can't remember. We're expected to eat but not be pigs, converse but not be bitches, have sex but not be whores. I believe the technical term is "a lady in the street, but a freak in the bed." Yippee. Years of Disney indoctrination tell us that someday our princes will come and we'll live happily ever after. Now don't get me wrong -- I love Disney movies -- but they're no way for a girl to grow up. How many Disney princesses save the world? And is marriage and babies all that happens ever after?

So there's something of a hole when it comes to the most ubiquitous of childhood tales and SFCs. You can absolutely find SFCs in kids' stories if you look, but you have to look. And you shouldn't.

"I...I think I see one! Oh, never mind, just a guy with long hair."

I think another problem we have with strong female characters is a misunderstanding of what the word "strong" means. Most people who write Mary Sues probably think they are writing SFCs. But the word "strong" isn't referring to physical strength or supernatural ability. "Strong" means empowered, determined, confident, resilient. It's not overcoming challenges with brute force or the wave of a hand. Just as courage means nothing without fear, strength is empty without real obstacles, whether physical, mental, or emotional.

Where do we find SFCs? You'd think that, with so many female authors, they'd be all over the urban fantasy scene, but unfortunately, that's not always the case. It's probably safe to assume that nearly everyone reading this blog has read both Twilight and Harry Potter, so that's what I'll use as the main examples. If you haven't read them, fair warning: spoilers, sweetie.

To everyone who just read that in her voice: you're awesome.
First, let's take a look at Bella. She is beautiful but doesn't know it (great, now that stupid song is stuck in my head), and she is in love with a vampire. That is pretty much her entire character. I know that criticizing Twilight is so common as to be beyond cliché at this point, but is this really the role model we want thousands of teenage girls to look up to?

"But," the Twihards wail, "Bella is strong! Look how she defends everyone in the last book! She worked really hard to do that!" Okay, maybe she did. But that's still more like the confusion of strength and power I was talking about before. She had an innate ability, she practiced, she got better. Practice takes discipline, which is certainly one aspect of strength, but still only one.

That wasn't her weakest moment, either. Remember when she spent months and months as a zombie because her boyfriend left her? Remember when it took the help of another male character to bring her back to some semblance of life? Strength doesn't mean you never fall apart, but it does mean you pull yourself together again. It doesn't mean that you don't love and rely on other people, but it does mean that you're not so dependent on them that your whole world collapses when they leave.

Unless that person is Batman.

Now compare Bella to Hermione. Hermione is smart but not pretty or popular. She's an incredibly talented witch, but at Hogwarts that's almost as much a liability as an asset: the other students make fun of her for her frizzy hair, her awkward teeth, her eagerness in class, and even her best friends call her a bossy know-it-all. But look at what she does. She stands up for what's right: despite almost universal opposition, she organizes a civil rights group to effect freedom for house elves. She doesn't let people bully her: she slaps Draco Malfoy, and it's brilliant. She makes really difficult choices: she's worried that Voldemort might harm her parents to get to her, so she erases herself from their memories and sends them to Australia. Holy crap. Hermione is awesome.

Random note: apparently I like semicolons today. Here is
a picture of a husky playing in the snow. You're welcome.

So how do we get people to write characters who are more like Hermione than Bella? My first answer is to say, look for the books that have SFCs and don't read the ones that don't, keep writing those reviews that say, "yes, this book has an amazing female lead -- she can take care of herself, she can overcome difficulties," go out and write those books ourselves if we have to.

But I'm currently listening to some very triumphant film scores, so I'll do you one better: the way to get more SFCs written is to be strong females. Be the kind of women people write stories about. Be confident and assertive and yourself, and make those bimbo characters so absurd that editors laugh them out of the house when the manuscripts appear on their desks. Because girls really do rule.


  1. Kate, YOU are da bomb yo diggity.

    I'm not thrilled that you're down on my girl, Bella, cuz the world takes all kinds, BUT I totally get what your saying and agree with just about all of it.

    The best part, the WAY you say it. I aspire to write posts half as enjoyable as yours are to read.

    I think YOU are living your last paragraph and I'm so proud to call you friend and fellow blogger ;) *snugs*

    1. Awww, thanks for making my day, Ash! :D All the same mushy sentiments to you ^_^

  2. Good post! I love Hermione. Judith

  3. Really great post, Kate. I've commented many times on my blog (and once on this one, too) about my love of SFCs. A book is incapable of rendering a 5-star rating from me without one. I love the marriage of hard and soft - the strength of character and tenacity and independence together with the ability to show emotion when appropriate and love and cherish. It's the kind of woman I aspire to be too.

    And, thanks for that husky - SO CUTE!