Strong female protagonists

Where are they?

I recently got drawn into a discussion about whether Katniss Everdeen is a strong female protagonist (SFP). I haven’t read the books so I’m basing my arguments on secondary sources and what I know of the film and plot synopses of the novels. This may lead to a flawed understanding of the character (and please point out those flaws when you see them), but I’m not sure she’s what I would be looking for in an SFP.

The discussion broadened, as it so often does, and I realised I was struggling to find examples of what I would call SFPs. Hence this musing.

One problem I think comes from what we see as strong. Often an author will attempt to create an SFP by simply making a male character and assigning female pronouns and a female name. This creates a character that most people see as strong, but at the expense of any femininity the character possesses. This, aside from being lazy characterisation, kind of defeats the purpose of the SFP. Surely the protagonist is there to show that female’s can be strong, but I don’t think the message here should be that strength is only achieved at the expense of femininity.

Part of the problem here is sociological. Carina Chocano wrote this last year in the New York Times Magazine:

‘ “Strong female character” is one of those shorthand memes that has leached into the cultural groundwater and spawned all kinds of cinematic clichés: alpha professionals whose laserlike focus on career advancement has turned them into grim, celibate automatons; robotic, lone-wolf, ascetic action heroines whose monomaniacal devotion to their crime-fighting makes them lean and cranky and very impatient; murderous 20-something comic-book salesgirls who dream of one day sidekicking for a superhero; avenging brides; poker-faced assassins; and gloomy ninjas with commitment issues. It has resulted in characters like Natalie Portman’s in “No Strings Attached,” who does everything in her power to avoid commitment, even with a guy she’s actually in love with; or Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy… ‘

In part Katniss is one of these SFPs’ (if Salander is a protagonist, I suppose not exactly). She fights, hunts, avenges, assassinates, with the best of them. Better than the best of them. Twice. Occasionally she feels kind of bad about it, or contrives ways to kill in which she’s less morally culpable, or scatters petals on a corpse in a moment of ‘femininity’, and it has been argued that she is feminine in that she is motivated as a family matriarch and that she does all she does to protect her family. But is this a feminine trait? Would we really be surprised if a male character was motivated to protect his sister?

One of the other issues I have with this whole discussion is that we have to specify ‘strong female character’ as an archetype. This is not necessary with male characters. The label ‘Strong male character’ is seen as being unnecessary, even tautology. Often the default means to give male characters ‘depth’ is to load them with weaknesses, uncertainties or neuroses. Is this some sense of ‘feminising’ them? And if so what does this say of our default view of the feminine?

The example I gave was Jane Eyre, of whom China Miéville wrote, “Charlotte Brontë’s heroine towers over those around her, morally, intellectually and aesthetically; she’s completely admirable and compelling. Never camp, despite her Gothic surrounds, she takes a scalpel to the skin of the every day.”

I think too that there are several examples further back in literary history. Shakespeare’s women are often strong female characters. Lady Macbeth belittles her husband for his perceived weakness. Juliet is prepared to take all manner of risks for the sake of her love and is arguably stronger than her melancholy Romeo. King Lear’s daughters, Cleopatra, Rosalind, Viola, Katherine…

But perhaps the problem was one of differing definitions. The ‘kick-ass chick’, Buffy imitators, are common enough, but when I speak of a strong female protagonist I mean a character which is at once feminine and strong, not a character in which one aspect is sacrificed to the other. Too frequently a character is de-feminised in an effort to make them ‘strong’. This is not helpful. I can’t accept as examples those characters who seem to be strong only to be dis-empowered by their femininity or by the consequences of their feminine aspects.

Consider Éowyn. In many ways she is the warrior-woman archetype, but she is more than this. When Háma is asked to select a leader to defend Edoras he suggests Éowyn, and when the men return home she has ruled successfully in their absence. Her femininity is precisely her strength in defeating the Witch King of Angmar on Pelennor Fields.  But then what happens to her… she meets Faramir and her love for him reduces her to a wife. She discards what has, until this point, been the driving motivation of her character and settles into the life of wife and mother. She is, in a sense, tamed. This is of course in keeping with Tolkein’s Christian conservatism, but still a disappointing end for his strongest female character.

Consider too what Disney did to Hua Mulan. In the original Chinese ballad she is presented doing stereotypical women’s work, but takes her father’s place when he is called to war. By her own skill she rises to general and commands troops for over a decade. In Disney’s version she survives largely through luck and the interventions of men or magical creatures.

There are some success stories of course:

Hermione Granger is arguably the strongest of the three central characters in JK Rowlings books. She is intelligent and resourceful, the best magician of the three, and though she (spoiler alert) loves Ron her love for him doesn’t disempower or reduce her as Éowyn’s love for Faramir did. Perhaps this is the influence of the female authorship?

Molly Millions is a warrior-woman, and more. Her history and personal conflicts (such as her time as a meat-puppet) are uniquely female. She defines her relationship with Case, being at times unattainable to him and at other times tender. She has sexual agency and power which she uses not as a relative experience for men but for her own purposes. Despite her relationship with Case she remains independent and self-sufficient, never defining herself through this relationship.

Buffy has had more column inches of analysis for her role as a feminist character than I will be able to allude to here, but Whedon, and his fellow writers, never shied from her femininity. Given the initial concept of the character it is a remarkable achievement. She is stronger than she looks, figuratively and literally. She struggles with her sexuality and relationships, recognising her attraction to the wrong men. She becomes a leader, a nurturer, and we see her struggle with the responsibilities of her maturation. It helps too that she is surrounded by other strong females. Willow grows to power and her relationship with Tara is particularly genuine and mutually empowering, Cordelia (largely in her time with Angel) learns of the greater role of women than simply vapid beauty, Faith deals with her power differently to Buffy and demonstrates the dangers Buffy avoids, in series 5 Glory is given the role of the ‘big bad’, a rare role for a female character.

Action hero women like Ripley and Sarah Connor (in T2) are great examples because they are not just butt-kickers, nor are they defined by their beauty. Ripley was the security officer in Alien, so she already had some cred. Having a female security officer on a mostly male crew would still be noteworthy in film; Ridley Scott did it in 1979. Sarah Connor in Terminator 1 is a pretty standard damsel-in-distress, except that her protector male fails and she defeats the implacable terminator herself. Her strength is then so much the greater in T2, not because she is better at combat (she is) but because she has devoted her life to the goals she has set for herself. She’s motivated not by her relationship to a man (except her son), but by her own goals.

The greatest success story though is Game of Thrones. I can’t even pick one. Catelyn Stark’s absolute commitment to her children neither diminishes nor limits her strength. Cersei’s pursuit of power is unapologetic and though she uses her femininity as a tool she never does so in the service of a man but only ever in the service to her own power (or the power of her children). Arya’s refusal to submit to social expectation is in direct contrast to her sister Sansa. Daenerys’ ability to meet all the myriad challenges thrown at her. Asha is the preferred heir to Pyke and is judged for her strength. Even relatively minor characters like Olenna Redwyne can be strong, shown to be sharply intelligent and unafraid despite her frailty and age.

As a reader I want to read about these characters. As a writer I want to write them.

Jane Espenson speaks of the joy to be had in writing strong female characters, and though it has never been a strength of mine it’s something I’m working to improve.

I believe Aisha is a strong female character. I believe my novel Exile has strong female characters, in Jacqueline, Mallorie, Monique, and probably most significantly in Marianne. I also have been working on some short stories with female protagonists, either in my Fantasy setting, or in the modern day.

5 responses to “Strong female protagonists

  • narrativespace

    Great post. I must remember some of these comments when developing my strong female characters. I think the trick is to try and keep a female true to herself, no matter what the story throws at her. 🙂

  • jikajika

    hello mate, very interesting topic you have brought up, I had a think about it and took the opportunity to ask a few knowledgeable people on the weekend. The first point for me in this was of course ‘a strong female protagonist – what even is it?’ it seems to me that often (esp in fantasy and sci fi) a strong MALE protagonist is one who uses (physical) combat and combativeness to confront and (very important) defeat an adversary, and that this trait didn’t necessarily have to reside in a strong female protagonist. Hence what I shall refer to here as ‘men with vaginas’, ie. female protagonists whose strength resides in their overpowering ability to ‘win’ by belting the crap out of an enemy. eg. buffy and sarah connor as you mention above, and also ripley, although her arsekickingosity is feminised by the maternal instinct in her violence. (Don’t get me started on hermione, why the hell Rowling didn’t delete that non-entity Potter and simply make it Hermione Granger and the Goblet of Fire etc beats me.) I don’t have an answer to what a strong female protagonist IS although a number of women have put to me two things that a SFP ISN’T (and which hint at what an SFP might be): an SFP is not a victim, and also not (primarily) somebody’s wife/mother/sister/daughter.

    The other point i wanted to make is that aside from Hermione/Rowling and Katniss Everdeen (wtf sort of name is that? inviting ridicule), yr list above is women drawn by men, and as a generalisation i don’t think men draw women very well in literature. i’m comfortable with that generalisation, cos it is an extrapolation of a generalisation i nicked from Ursula Le Guin – that male authors by far prefer to write with one strong voice whereas female authors much more frequently write with multiple differing voices, which gives them the ability (after some practice) to write different convincing characters, whereas lots of male authors write women as caricatures (Richard Morgan anybody?).

    Hey I’ve thought of another point, which is that i think that SFPs have been less prominent in scifi because so much scifi is Cold War-era propaganda masquerading (or critiquing) military science technology guff with lots of war and heroes, and so much fantasy is essentially Christian medievalism where the women can slay the orcs so long as there’s no men around, but by crikey when the blokes show up the bitches better cook Aragorn a cracking fucking stew cos a king-in-waiting can’t save everyone on an empty stomach.

    To return to male authors writing SFPs, here are some i thought of which are not of the ‘men with vaginas’ oeuvre: Iain Banks regularly (always?) writes with multiple voices, and regularly has women as his protagonists. This is logical given his ‘Culture’ setting purports to eliminate gender differences by making sex change a regular lifestyle choice. But i think he does it relatively well for the most part. Also Terry Pratchett, who, i put it to you, has in Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg created two of the most powerful women in specfic literature. i should also acknowledge Gibson as you have done, in addition to Molly, Cayce Pollard from Pattern Recognition was volunteered to me on the weekend with the rider that she is a victim more than once in the book. The novel I am reading at the moment which I mentioned to you in an email – Sean McMullen’s Souls in the Great Machine – seems to have a lot of female characters (probably more women than men so far), I will be interested to see how he plays it out. On the YA front, Lyra from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books is a lovely SFP, have not read the full trilogy though. John Marsden has also always been popular with teenage girls for his Tomorrow When the World Began series, and even Mieville’s Un Lun Dun has two main female protagonists (you’ll be unsurprised to hear I didn’t think the story was much chop though).

    as for female authors, i immediately thought of Ursula Le Guin, although I’m not sure i can justify it. Left Hand of Darkness is a must-read on gender crisscross, but no identifiably female protagonist. The Word for World is Forest also lacks a strong female protagonist but explores extreme sexual violence. I also thought of Octavia Butler, of whom i have not read a great deal, but she handles both male and female protagonists convincingly. I know Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn series is much-loved but have not read it myself, I think it is YA. I was also reminded on the weekend of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders books, particularly her SFP Lessa. I’ve only read one of McCaffrey’s books and thought the characters male and female were much more emotional than in other writers’ works. Joanna Russ is probably the doyenne of feminist sci fi esp. The Female Man, but have not read any myself. Also Marian Zimmer Bradley, again have not read myself and given to understand the books weaken considerably as they progress. I know virtually nothing about Doris Lessing except that she writes scifi and has been claimed as a feminist writer but she later denied it – whether she is or not, I figure she must have some SFPs to start the controversy in the first place.

    I was given a stack more suggestions on the weekend, particularly of contemporary Australian female authors of specfic, but cannot remember them now. As became obvious over lunch (and as I’m sure you agree), knowledge of SFPs or lack thereof has a lot to do with one’s selection of reading.

    anyway, that better do it for me, an epic comment. I even went and played a game of basketball in between! (we lost)

  • J Michael Melican

    Thanks Jika.
    I thought of adding Leesa from Pullman’s work but I don’t know it well enough and I wasn’t sure she added anything as an example that the others which I did use hadn’t already explored.
    Your point on female authorship is a good one. I didn’t enjoy the very little I read of the Pern books at all.
    Ursula LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness is deliberately non-gendered, but I think we project our social understandings of gender onto the characters at different times (which is perhaps Le Guin’s point). Interestingly in The Wizard of Earthsea women are almost absent.
    I’ve read Cecilia Dart-Thornton’s novels, the central character of which is initially of an unknown gender (SPOILER ALERT) it is written so that we fall into the assumption that the character is male before the big ‘reveal’ that she is in fact a she. I found it cheap.
    I probably should have mentioned Mara of the Acoma from the Empire seried co-authored by Raymond E Feist and Janny Wurts. Not sure how I forgot to include her actually, but your point about female authors reminded me of her. Wurts’ influence on Feist in this series elevates him to his highest level outside of ‘Magician’, and from the perspective of this discussion still further.
    In Feist’s other books women are defined by their relationships with men; damsels to be rescued or temptresses or mothers. The most powerful female figure he develops is Miranda: daughter of Macros and wife of Pug. Pug’s first crush, the Lady Carline, is irrelevant once she is not his love interest, and his first wife Katala is given no respect. Even the powerful Gamina is disempowered by her love of Jimmy (though they get a beautiful shared death.
    In the Empire series Mara is set up to be the victim, but refuses the role repeatedly. As an abused wife she defeats her husband not through a contest of strength but through political cunning. Her intelligence draws men to serve her and they remain loyal to her not because she offers them sex or out of some surrogate respect for a male family member but because they respect her. Even as a wife and a mother the story remains hers, with her husband and children support cast.

    Thanks for the recommendations though. More grist for my reading mill.

    • jikajika

      My pleasure – can’t honestly say I’ll end up reading all the authors I listed myself. I tried a re-read of the Magician books a little while back but in a fit of pique couldn’t get over every damned chapter beginning with the sentence “The wind/river/trees/sun blew/rushed/rustled/shone on/in the plains/mountains/forest/fields”. Still, your mention of Feist and Wurts reminded me of Hicks and Weiss on the Dragonlance books, which I think strove for a level of character development as well as a multitude of different convincing voices beyond many of its contemporaries. Or so it seemed when I read them as a 14 year old. This morning I also tripped over one of my many ratty copies of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, which made me think of Fuschia and Countess Gertrude, both strong characters in different ways.

      Boy, we could play this game forever, perhaps best to draw a line somewhere. I think between us we’ve assembled a list good enough to give a cursory answer to your initial question. Meant to use my real name too, bit over nyms, but wordpress autofilled it when I logged in. Salut

  • jikajika

    Done it again. Clearly I need to fix something in my account settings.

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