Recently, I had a friend post to Facebook asking for tips on how to write a strong female character without pissing people off. And my tip for him and my tip for any other writers/creators out there is this:
Write a fully-rounded and actualized character who just happens to be a woman.
This doesn’t seem so difficult, right? And yet it seems like both men and women struggle to write strong female characters, especially for teenagers. Because they get hung up on either the word “strong” or the word “female,” and sadly our world still puts these two ideas at odds.
So, to a certain extent I agreed with Jennifer de Guzman’s comments about Lisbeth Salander as a heroine. Yes, she’s emblematic of one of the biggest problems you see with writing strong women: she’s stripped of anything considered traditionally “feminine” because “feminine” according to the world still equals weak.
I can’t agree that the “better” alternative is Bella Swan of Twilight fame’s embracing of the traditionally feminine. I can agree that, yes, she’s awkward, gawky and that a lot of teenage girls can relate to that. Awkward is good! Gawky is good! Except that at no point is Bella written with actual flaws. Oh, she’s a flawed character, absolutely, but they are all taken as endearing, adorable quirks. She’s awkward (every boy in the school loves her)! She’s clumsy (all the better to save you from drowning in your own soup, my dear)! She’s not attractive (she’s totally attractive)! Her biggest actual “It puts her in danger and could hurt her” flaw is her lack of self-preservation…and even THAT in the second book becomes a ridiculous romantic gesture.
I also can’t agree with pretty much anything in the Hairpin article linked from Guzman’s site. The defense of the passive, helpless heroine resulted in a gut reaction I won’t repeat here (this isn’t a rant at Frank Miller, in this case I will try and hold my temper in check). There is so much that upset me about this article, and yet this seems to stand out:
The Twilight series challenges what I would call the “Buffy Summers Maxim”: that teen heroines be physically empowered, oftentimes at the expense of emotional clarity. Bella Swan diverges from many of our more recent teenaged female heroines. The ones who appear in films — the feisty Olive from Easy A, the quirky ironist Juno MacGuff — often seem to be written by thirtysomethings seemingly desperate to revisit high school to work some alchemical magic: turning the abjection of it all into a badge of indie cred. But even the more complicated female heroines of recent young adult fiction — Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games or Katsa of Graceling — embody a suspiciously pleasing, “empowered” form of female adolescence. These girls go through a narrative arc, but for the most part, they are already-formed subjects with the “right” values (freedom, self-determination, physical strength) that simply have to navigate some growing pains.
Full discloser: obviously, I am a fan of Joss Whedon’s Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. So I find this “Buffy maxim” upsetting on a number of levels. And honestly, what sort of “emotional clarity” does Buffy lack that Bella has? I will not claim that Buffy is that mythical “perfect” character, I know many people who take issue with her as well, but the thing is she is one of the better examples of a character who doesn’t trade “femininity” for strength. And perhaps a better example from the Whedon canon would be Zoe Washburne of Firefly: the former(?) soldier who is physically empowered…yet is in a loving, emotionally strong marriage, talks about wanting to wear a slinky dress and confesses her desire to have a child. And these two things never seem at odds with one another.
I also find some of the examples here to be hypocritical. Such as “written by thirtysomethings seemingly desperate to revisit high school to work some alchemical magic.” Is this suggesting that somehow this isn’t what Stephenie Meyer is doing in Twilight? Because it is exactly what Stephenie Meyer is doing in Twilight.
She also, however, manages to write a heroine who is not just passive, but has little to no sense of self preservation. Who is supposedly not interested in the traditional “girly” things such as make-up or clothing, but allows herself to be painted and trussed like a doll for the amusement of her boyfriend and her boyfriend’s sister. And moreover, a character who is the inverse of Claudia, the vampire child from Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire: while Claudia becomes a woman who is trapped eternally in a child’s body, Bella Swan seems to be an eternal child who will forever be frozen just as she became a woman.
But that’s not entirely the point. The point here is that, yes, we do still separate our heroines into extremes. As I said before, we have not yet reconciled that “strong” and “female” are NOT opposites. But that doesn’t mean that they are directly equivalent, either, that Bella’s submissive damsel-in-distress persona should be mistaken for empowerment.
The point is that we need to recognize that the complete shunning of all things feminine is no better in a character than being Bella Swan. Our readers, especially our young girls, deserve better. They deserve to know that clothes shopping on Friday and paintball on Saturday aren’t at odds with each other, that it doesn’t make them a freak or wrong or confusing. It makes them THEMSELVES. And that’s the type of empowerment they need.