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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.

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