Monday, March 24, 2014

The Problem With the "Strong Female Character"

Right off the bat, I want to disclaim: I am NOT AGAINST strong female characters. After last week's post, you might not believe that. I do like weak characters, particularly when they have to get strong through the story. It seems real to me; I don't buy it when a teenager from our modern world falls into Medieval England and suddenly knows all the social customs as well as how to fight with every weapon. NO. People have to grow, and I prefer to see that. I want to read stories about people, male and female, who seem real.

Which brings me to the problem I have with strong female characters. Stop calling them "strong female characters."

Seriously. Stop it.

We don't call strong male characters "strong male characters." We call them "male characters." And I think that is a heck of a lot more freeing to a writer than feeling the need to write a strong character. It's kind of crippling to sit down and feel like you have to write a STRONG character, because there's so much baggage that comes along with that word, especially when attached to a female character. Especially nowadays, when there's so much political discussion about gender roles in books.

I think that's why all the "strong female characters" in stories now look the same: a headstrong girl caught in some kind of love trouble and somewhat gifted at physical combat. Like this one:

And this one:

 And this one:

And her:

And, hey, how about one more:

Lot of bows, I've just noticed. This is Katniss, Tris, Clary, Merida, and Tauriel, in case you were wondering. Honestly, it didn't take me long to come up with this list. I could have found more. Personally, I think this profile works sometimes (Katniss and Merida), but it also fails (In my opinion, Clary is basically Bella Swan with a stele. I don't buy that she can legitimately fight better than a trained warrior because I've read the first 3 books and I've never seen her do it). When I picture Tris and Clary, I never see them fighting. I see them standing too close to a dangerous, overprotective boy.

The problem, to me, is that there is a profile. And if any character fits that profile, she's automatically considered a strong female character. Because when we say "strong," apparently what we mean is a headstrong warrior princess with men falling over themselves for her.

I dislike this because I think it discounts other kinds of strength and can cripple a character. We don't think a male character is strong if he's stubborn, capable of fighting, and chased by women. There's much more diversity, and I wish that on the female characters.

To me, a strong character, male or female, is one who understands what must be done and does it. He or she might have to sacrifice for it, but it must be done and the hero will do it. Because he/she is the hero. Everything else is characterization to make a character come alive, feel like a real person and not a gingerbread cookie.

I want to see women who are stay-at-home moms. I want to see nuns and traveling saleswomen and chefs and computer programmers who have never touched a butter knife. I want women who can't fight worth a bent arrow but will defend their loved ones to the end through words and persuasion. I want women who put aside immediate wants because they know what needs to be done. I want sensible, clever women who know when not to use their power (I've been reading a lot of Terry Prachett lately). I want men who do these things too. I want varied characters, real characters, who resonate through their humanness.

Which is why I like characters who fail. They are so much stronger for failing, accepting the consequences, and coming back to try again. Calling a character "strong" right away makes it harder to let them fail. Or even make mistakes. I don't want a formula anymore; that all I see when I go to the YA section of Barnes and Noble. Let's do something new and write characters who are strong, but maybe only after you got to know them a little.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Frozen's Flawed Females

Gosh, getting back into a rhythm is harder than I thought. Like the alliterated title for this post? You wouldn't believe how long it took me to come up with it. (Sigh) It's been a long day.

Anyway, this post is kind of a response-but-not-really to an article I read regarding the Disney movie Frozen. You know, this one:

With all the snow and stuff and the song that everyone keeps making covers of. I guess the world can't really let it go. Yes, I do think I'm clever. If I didn't I wouldn't have a blog.

The article I read was titled "The Problem With Fake Feminism (Or Why Frozen Left Me Cold)" by Dani Coleman. I didn't agree with everything she said, though I thought the logic was good and the tone wasn't abrasive, as an article on this topic could have been. May also be my personal feeling, here; she certainly didn't sound detached and objective, but I liked how many examples she used. It was thought out.

But I did agree that Frozen wasn't that feminist a movie, for the reasons Coleman listed. But I didn't care. In fact, what I liked most about the film was that Elsa and Anna aren't examples of feminism. I was excited they were majorly flawed.

I've been thinking about strong female characters a lot (and getting annoyed; stay tuned for another post on why this is) and I was glad that the case can be made that Frozen doesn't have any. Now, I call myself a feminist because I believe men and women deserve equal rights, but I don't go to a movie and look for the feminist messages. Or the Marxist. Or any political message at all. That's fine for other people, especially those who study such things for their life's work. My life's work is writing good, solid stories, so that's what I want. Granted, Frozen's story was not the strongest; the ending was a bit abrupt for me. I thought Wreck-It Ralph and Tangled had more solid plot lines.

But I liked the characters, and I liked their flaws. I like characters who have problems that dig them into holes that hurt, and they have to climb out somehow. In Frozen, Anna's impulsiveness, while not a strong trait, hurts her. It's not an outside force; it's her own dang fault. She hastily gets engaged to a man she just met, she runs off into the snowstorm in the middle of the night, she trusts her sister with dangerous consequences. And Anna suffers the consequences of her foolishness. She lives happily ever after, but there is a cost for her actions. Elsa is the same way, running from her power and living in fear, and accidentally unleashing a storm on her kingdom. Elsa's irresponsible and fearful actions cause her to harm her sister, and she does pay for that.

All the while I'm cheering Disney on. Yes, the characters are doing reactive, stupid things, but they're acting. And they're paying for their mistakes. I liked that. A lot. It's realistic; you do something foolish, you are going to face the consequences. I think Disney could have done it better, yes. I think the plot could have been smoother and this idea of choices and consequences could have been stronger. But I'm glad that Disney has characters who aren't always strong and who do foolish, impulsive things. I'm glad that the consequences come and the characters pay for what they do and yet survive them. Not all stories have to be about strong heroes. Some stories need to be told about the people who begin weak and foolish and learn their lessons, becoming stronger in the end. It makes me wonder what a Frozen 2 would be like, and then I shudder because I wouldn't advocate a sequel unless it's done well.

Also, Frozen  was fun. The animation, the music...spectacular. I'd see the Broadway show.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Did You Miss Me?

Okay, I had to start with this. I've been away from my blog for so long, you probably wondered if I ever was coming back. Well, I'm back. And I've watched Sherlock season 3 and Doctor Who Christmas Special and many other nerdy things. Have you seen The Lego Movie? You should. And I might blog about that later.

I have a lot of ideas for future blog posts. They've been accumulating behind the dam of my procrastination and frazzled panic. Yes, part of this hiatus was purely laziness. I just couldn't get myself moving to blog again. At first it was a lack of subject matter and then it was too much. I didn't know what to talk about.

The other part was a workload known only to graduate students in their last semester, staring down the barrel of the Thesis Defense. I had a novel to complete, drafts to polish, paperwork to fill out, people to track down for signatures, readings to study, and a corner to crawl into and rock, fetal-position, as I realized I could count the hours until my defense on my fingers and toes.

(Kidding - I actually spent that time knitting and denying that anything was about to happen. I'm making a shawl with green yarn. It has leaf patterns. Next up is either Hermione's beaded bag or a 221B Backer Street wallpaper pillow. Yes, I'm a geek. Look above for further proof.)

Long story short, I passed the defense. Yay! I'm a master of fine arts, if not officially, then technically. I can finally stop feeling like an impostor in this program. So what I do to celebrate? I went to a writing conference in Seattle, where I ate oysters and didn't sleep much. Oh yeah, and learned about writing.

A few weeks ago I went to the Life, The Universe, and Everything conference in Provo, where I learned about writing science fiction, fantasy, and horror and how to make a living writing. And then I went to AWP in Seattle, where people stepped around the subject of genre or defended it and talked about how to make a living with a day job while writing your art. I don't know what to believe anymore.

I liked both. I learned a lot from both and made a lot of contacts that will be valuable to me as I continue my writing career. I actually ran into the same publisher at both places, which felt a little fate-y to me. We'll see what happens with that. I don't have the time or the mental capacity to share everything that happened at these conferences, so I'll say this: if you haven't gone to writer's conferences, go. I've learned a lot over the years by attending these conferences, and even when I don't learn anything new, the sessions tend to spark new ideas in me and polish the ideas I already have. Thinking about writing is never a bad thing, and if you can do that while learning more about your craft from smart, accomplished writers (I saw Brandon Sanderson and Orson Scott Card at LTUE, and Ursula K. LeGuin and Sherman Alexie at AWP), it's worth the registration fee. There are other ways to get in without paying a lot, but that's a subject for another day.

Now, I'm back and done with the thesis. I'm conferenced-out and want nothing more than to rest and read the books I want to read. I have lots of story ideas, and now I have the time to work on them. And the names of weird literary journals (I mean weird in the best possible way) to send them to. Of course, I also have time to write on this blog again.

It feels good to be back.