“One of the things about equality is not just that you be treated equally to a man, but that you treat yourself equally to the way you treat a man.”
– Marlo Thomas
Quick question! What is your definition of a strong male character?
Second question: would you ever describe him as feisty?
It is amazing how blatant sexism has to be before it raises eyebrows. The same theoretically positive words often applied to female characters – feisty, spirited, strong-willed – are barely ever applied to male counterparts. It often seems to me that much of the language used to describe female protagonists is trying to set them up as an exception; ‘not like other girls’ being the phrase that springs first to mind. You hear that a lot, either stated explicitly or woven through the subtext. According to this way of thinking, the best compliment a female character can receive is to be unlike other girls. It’s basically an extrapolation of the ‘as good as a boy’ philosophy. That’s where centuries of patriarchal culture tends to get you.
For millennia – actual thousands of years worth of storytelling, from myths and legends to medieval ballads to more recent literature – people of all genders have been pushed into very small boxes, and women in particular have had a hard time kicking their way out. I used to consider the term ‘strong female character’ as praise, a simpler way of saying ‘she’s not a one dimensional stereotype propped on the hero’s arm’. I’m not sure when it became the be all, end all, an arbitrary standard that can be raised infinitely high so that no one will actually meet it. Women have to defend their place in a narrative. They have to hit harder, think faster, prove themselves.
That’s not to say there are not unhealthy expectations laid on male characters too, but that’s at least partially wrapped up in the distorted view of women. Let’s go back to the box metaphor. By the current social standard, women can use things from the male box (and wow did it take some effort to get to that point), but men tend to be shamed (especially by other men) for daring to use anything from the female box. Traditionally female clothing, for instance, nail polish, cosmetics, the colour pink. And from a certain perspective, that’s logical. This box has been graffitied over the centuries with words like ‘weak’, ‘frivolous’, ‘hysterical’, ad nauseum. Femininity has always come with consequences, many of them painful.
I don’t know about you, but I am sick to death of these boxes. Today is International Women’s Day and I have some unpacking to do.
I can remember the first time I read my gender being described as ‘the weaker sex’, in an otherwise wonderful E. Nesbit novel. By then I had absorbed enough positive female stories to build up a degree of immunity – thank goodness for Princess Leia and Liz Shaw – and knew better than to internalise the message, but how many little girls did? How many boys do the same thing, and treat the women in their lives accordingly? These are messages papering the walls of our lives, constantly reinforced from the earliest possible age. Why else has LEGO produced a spinoff brand specifically for girls instead of just making more female minifigs? Why are boys given heavily armed action figures while the best weapon their sisters are likely to get is the sharp end of Barbie’s high heel? Does no one expect these children to play with each other?
I’ve said before that I believe fairy tales are only sexist when they are badly told. There are, however, some that even I don’t know how to salvage. I think of these as cockroach stories – that is, however strong your defences, they always come scuttling back. These are the ones no one bothers to update because it’s just so damn hard, but they’re never quite lost. ‘King Thrushbeard’, for instance, which is essentially a Grimm brothers version of The Taming of the Shrew, or ‘The Red Shoes’ by Hans Christian Andersen, in which angels torture a little girl to death. And let’s not forget the glorification of domestic abuse in ‘Patient Griselda’, from the collection of Charles Perrault.
Actually, let’s forget that, let’s bury it under a volcano for the lava snakes to eat.
All this misogyny is conveniently obvious, because in the days these stories were first told there was no reason to hide it. It’s easy to point out and ridicule. But the thing about stories like these is that they don’t go away. We build ourselves out of stories, our sense of normality and natural order, and with misogynistic narratives layered into our cultural strata, there is an inherent conflict about what normal ought to be. Sometimes the cockroach stories take new shapes – think the mythical Fake Geek Girl, or the deliberate misappropriation of the term Mary Sue to denigrate all female protagonists. Other times they scuttle and rustle quietly in the background, pinpricks of unease that are difficult to identify. Something is wrong, you just don’t know how to articulate what it is.
Which brings me back to the strong female character.
I read a lot of books written by women, many of them about women, and I read a lot of articles about women writing about women, which is not nearly as meta an activity as it sounds. And somewhere in the midst of all this reading, a word surfaced and I finally had a way to describe a recurring pattern I’d been seeing and hating for a long time. Shaming.
Slut-shaming is blaming girls for not hiding their sexuality; fat-shaming is a way of punishing people – again, usually girls – for not being a socially accepted shape. These prejudices show up in stories of all mediums with depressing regularity, but they are not what I want to talk about today. What I’m thinking of is strength shaming: girls lauded for their ability to take care of themselves, but punished when they actually do.
Most of the examples I’m about to list make sense within the context of their individual plots, and this is categorically not a disparagement of the writers involved. It’s a rare piece of media, be that a book, film or TV show, that is completely devoid of problematic aspects, and what I’m referring to might easily be dismissed individually. When looked at together, however, there is a distinct pattern.
Yelena, protagonist of Maria V. Snyder’s Poison Study, is haunted by guilt for killing the man who raped her. Kady Cross’s heroine Finley Jane from The Girl in the Clockwork Corset is forced to defend herself against a distrustful ally (a man who feels she hasn’t ‘proven’ herself), but is horrified when she wins the fight. The titular protagonist of Kristin Cashore’s Fire has the ability to manipulate people’s minds and is also a dab hand with a bow, yet throughout the book goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid protecting herself. These are women being punished within the narrative when they defend themselves, as if that is an unnatural thing for a woman to do. I’m quite sure this is not the message any of the authors wish their readers to take away; that unintentionality makes the trend all the more disturbing.
Feminine martyrdom is another aspect of the shaming narrative. You’re probably familiar with the idea; the villain of the work takes a sadistic interest in the female protagonist and offers her a chance at saving her loved ones if she’ll give herself willingly to him. From the moment the device crops up, you know it will be followed through. Bella from Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, Tessa from Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Princess, Emma from Kylie Chan’s Blue Dragon, Ember from Pamela Freeman’s Ember and Ash…Kate Elliott’s Cat, from her Spiritwalker trilogy, bucks the trend by actually having a plan to get away, but given that she is subjected to the demands of multiple antagonists that’s really for the best.
It’s actually very interesting how interactions between significant male and female characters are framed. Many books from all genres have some element of romance, and there is naturally a wide spectrum of relationship types, as there should be. It makes me uncomfortable, though, how many present domineering behaviours as attractive. Rude or aggressive male leads are nothing new – Mr Darcy from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Mr Rochester from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre are eternally popular examples – but there’s an important difference here that I should point out. The heroines of both these novels never lose their ability to call out their love interests for bad behaviour. When Elizabeth refuses Darcy’s proposal, he is forced to examine his attitude and is mortified by the unintended impact it had on those around him. Rochester loses Jane because of his lies, and she only returns on her own terms. These are relationships founded on mutual respect.
The modern love interests I’m talking about don’t tend to change. Matthew, from Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches, exhibits a pattern of controlling behaviour that noticeably changes the personality of the female protagonist to be more compliant. Calla, from Andrea Cremer’s Nightshade, is routinely dominated by pretty much all the men she knows. The titular character from Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series is experiences something similar, constantly self-monitoring so as not to rile the volatile men in her life. Even smaller gestures of control, like the way Cat from the Spiritwalker trilogy is constantly framed as being fiery for simply saying what she thinks, or the way Mary from Y.S. Lee’s A Spy in the House loses her professionalism when her love interest enters the scene, are concerning.
Of course, it is the legitimate choice of a writer to portray a fictional relationship in any way she or he chooses. Widely varied depictions of all character types are vital to literary diversity. It’s also important, however, to remember that the stories we tell do not come from a vacuum, nor do they go into one.
As I said earlier, the individual stories listed here are not the issue. I may not like a particular plot thread, but that doesn’t mean the book is automatically bad or the writer is being deliberately sexist. My problem is with the prevalent use of shame as a narrative device. Stories that reinforce the idea of male dominance and female subordination have a real world impact; women are shamed for so many reasons, held to an impossible double standard in so many mediums, that anything adding to the pressure requires very careful scrutiny. Is it really necessary to tell the story that way? Is this an intentional and considered choice on the part of the author, or an internalised and unexamined bias? A female character should not have to prove herself worthythrough humiliation and martyrdom. Giving a girl a weapon is not the same as allowing her to use it; describing her as strong is useless if you are afraid of unleashing that strength.
At the beginning of this article, I asked what definition would be given to a strong male character, and this is my answer: he has or develops the self confidence to be who he really is. That’s it. That’s all. And that’s how I define my strong female character too.
If either needs to shame or control the other, something is broken.