Thursday, September 12, 2013


We got the inspiration for this month's roundtable from an article called "I Hate Strong Female Characters" by Sophia McDougall. It's a great read, but if you don't have time, the tagline sums it up: "Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong."

So, we started with the idea that "strong" is a limiting description for a female character, and our discussion ranged from George R. R. Martin to Miley Cyrus to Albus Dumbledore. It's a long one (we had so much to say!), so I divided up the chat into topics, to make perusing it easier. Check it out and weigh in with a comment!

Female characters and weaknesses (or, WHY do female characters need to be so "strong" all the time?)
Alexandra: Does anyone think that authors shy away from giving female characters real weaknesses, in fear that they won't be received well, or that there will be some kind of feminist criticism? (think of all the crap Bella Swan gets.)
Lexie: I think people like to tend towards either extreme. either the female characters are spineless and pathetic and in constant need of saving, or they're ~strong~ and ~tough~ but have no other defining qualities; they're not humans, just blocks of stone.
Gracie: I would say so, given all of the stuff that's been said about "soft", "weak" female characters. They want people to think of their female characters as strong, so they forget to make them people
Lexie: they need to find a happy medium.
Matt: So, as the only dude in here (and a writer who somtimes pens female characters), I'd like to hear more adjectives that apply to what makes a character have value (not just strength). I write nuanced and varied characters, but I only understand them from my own POV.
Lexie: that's a really good point, Matt. men are also often used as something that defines the lives of female characters, something they revolve their life and their identity around. men are the ones who make them ~believe they're beautiful~ or ~have faith in themself~, and without the man, they become a worthless wreck.
Lissa: I am going to drag Courtney Summers into the conversation because she writes female characters that could be considered "weak" and "strong" at the same time. Think Some Girls Are: the flaws in Regina got her into the mess and made her such a difficult character, yet her unfailing honesty and willpower got her through the entire disaster
Alexandra: Yeah, Holden Caulfield comes to mind right now, because he's absolutely not a "strong" character at all. But he's a many-faceted character, and he's got SO much personality. He absolutely deserves to be the narrator of his story, and to have his story told. His strength has nothing to do with the value of reading him.
Alexandra: But nobody ever is like "Holden Caulfield is a disgrace to mankind."
Lexie: agreed, Alexandra. it's just like the example the writer of that article used with Sherlock. male characters are allowed to be weak and deeply flawed, these often unlikable anti-heroes, but female characters exhibiting similar characteristics are scorned.
Gracie: I think we just need to get away from the word strong, because that is not what comes to mind when you mention all of these characters. I think more complex and relatable
Leigh: I just get frustrated b/c I try to write very complex characters, and it's like readers can't handle that in women
Leigh: But then they want to complain about Mary Sues
Matt: Yes! I'd like to hear other qualities besides "strong" that are considered important to female readers.
Katy: That's a good point, Matt. I want to read about characters I can relate to in SOME way -- that goes for male characters and female characters.
Alexandra: I almost feel like the "strong female character" is becoming this cardboard-cut-out type. Maybe it's just me, but in all the urban fantasy, there's a woman who is in law enforcement somehow, is slightly snarky, slightly damaged, and "kicks ass"
Leigh: It's like everyone claims to "Hate" Bella & Ana, but then you write an anti-Bella & Ana, and it's all, "OMG! I hate her!!!"
Lissa: I'd like to see more comments about how intelligent the female characters are. I value intelligence and knowledge, and often find smart characters the most admirable of them all.
Lexie: it's true. I'd love to see a fantasy or paranormal with a good girl who wasn't a useless wreck who needs to be saved by her supernatural friends/boyfriends, but who isn't necessarily the snark, impenetrable kick-ass. there has to be some in-between, one a little more human.
Alexandra: And honestly, I think half the time (or more than half the time) a lot of feminine characteristics automatically are branded as weak.
Leigh: And you know, Alexandra, it's those feminine characteristics that take the most strength of all. I learned what REAL strength was about after I had kids.

Male behavior vs. female behavior (double standards abound!)
Leigh: Readers are FAR more forgiving of "flawed" male characters than flawed female characters
Matt: So true. I HATE that.
Leigh: I learned this through my book The Truth About Letting Go. And I'm not trying to do a shameless plug here. Seriously. I wrote this really "strong" (IMO) female character who's dad dies. She was extremely close to him b/c he stayed at home, and when he died, she went off the rails.
Lissa: I have to agree, Leigh. Flawed male characters are seemed more believable and relatable, whereas when a woman is written to be flawed, everybody seems to find issue with her personality
Leigh: She did a lot of things that I strongly believe would've been perfectly acceptable for a male character to do: vandalism, sexual adventurousness, alcohol use, etc. Readers have been split over the ones who are all "Ashley ruined this story for me" to those who got it
Lissa: Oh no, a sexually adventurous the critics! We've got a slut in the house! *rolls eyes* Here we go again with the double standard - playboys are socially acceptable and bad boys are "hot" but if you dare write or meet a woman with the same qualities.
Alexandra: Do you guys think that when a female character gets crap from reviewers for whatever reason, it sort of takes away from any qualities the male characters might have that deserve to be under equal (or possibly even more forceful) scrutiny?
Leigh: Yes. Back to TTALG, I had two boys (yes a triangle, but not really)--one was Mr. 50 Shades, one wanted to grow up to be a pastor. Ashley's choice yanno, reflected her mental state, but I was also curious as to whether readers would catch what I was doing there. So far only two have. :-P
Lexie: I would say that's probably true, Alexandra. basically, reviewers are just quicker to fault the female characters than the male ones. and if a male character is faulted, it's often because they're "flat," not because the reader actually wants to pick a bone with any of their unlikable or irritating traits that a girl character could never get away with.
Matt: I do think that's the case, Alexandra. And even worse, I think it's sometimes exacerbated when the author is also female. It's such a huge double standard.
Matt: The one thing I hate about female characters in literature, and especially genre fiction, is that their worth is often measured against the matrices that we use to measure male characters. I mean "strong" is only the beginning, amiright?
Alexandra: Yes! This kind of "strong" female character is often measured by MALE versions of what's strong
Matt: POSITIVE traits (often considered masculine) and NEGATIVE traits (often considered feminine) have been tropified in literature so that we judge characters in such a different way than we judge PEOPLE.
Leigh: I'm going to just say it... Male characters can be whatever they want.
Leigh: Christian Grey anyone?
Leigh: How the eff does he become a "hero"???
Lexie: it's true. male characters can break so many taboos and still be loved by the readers. a BDSM-obsessed abuser? awesome! hot! a dominatrix? she'd get laughed at.
Matt: I think we have to focus on art. If we look at commercial success it's a whole crazy mess of an entirely different jar of worms
Lexie: eh, I think it's a good example. not good literature, but it's what people are reading.
Leigh: Yeah, using sex to sell your book is cheating. IMHO
Matt: Well ... I guess you have a point. But we can't talk about gender bias in GOOD books at the same time we talk about gender bias in SUCCESSFUL books. I mean it's two totally different conversations.
Lissa: Well why can't successful books also be the good books? If there weren't these issues in our culture, this misogyny and ridiculous rape culture, then many of the books that are successful today could also be appreciated on a literary level

Love triangles
Gracie: I tend to dislike love triangles - the two boys tend to represent 2 choices the female MC has - why can't the MC come to that decision WItHOUT boys??
Matt: Was this post we're discussing the same one that called all current movies "Which boyfriend do I pick, the movie?"
Lexie: Gracie, exactly! the girl's choice of partner becomes the most important part of her story--not her struggles, her adventures or quests or just daily life, not her own identity; the most crucial thing becomes which hot boy she wants to get with.
Gracie: Yes, even though the story is about so much more than that.
Leigh: I tend to like love triangles, personally. But I like them when they show something about what's happening w/the character. WHY is Boy A or Boy B a choice?
Leigh: what does this tell us about the female character?
Matt: I can't stand love triangles, but then I'm a jaded old man. I like forces outside of relationships to drive plot, and then relationships to be the way the conflict is overcome.
Lexie: Leigh: I think love triangles can be good when done right. for example, in the Infernal Devices trilogy, I thought that was handled very brilliantly--the love triangle existed, but it didn't dominate the plot, or overshadow the main character's personal development.
Gracie: Still there are girls who go through important decisions in life that have nothing to do with choosing boyfriends
Leigh: Love triangles represent what's going on in the MC's head, or they should. Not just "he's cute" or "he's cuter" or "he plays a guitar" or "he's a drummer." I will say having boys be a big part of the story is just *real* in the YA world. Boys are a big part of the teen experience. Sorry. But they are. :-P

Harry Potter
Lexie: The great thing about Hermione is that though she is strong, and she is a female character, she is not "the strong female character." she has sides. she has depth. she is awesome.
Alexandra: Speaking of Harry Potter. My mom and I had this discussion about...a year and a half ago. We were talking about Dumbledore specifically, and my mom said that he just wouldn't have worked as a female character. There was something about him being fatherly or grandfatherly or whatever. And I said, you're just used to reading him as a man. BUT, what do you guys think? If Dumbledore had been female? Would HP have been a miserable failure?
Matt: I think it has to do with the Jungian archetype. The mentor/wizard/wiseman is always a MAN! I think as writers it's our job to subvert that.
Lissa: It makes me sad to say so, but I think it wouldn't have done as well as it did, Alexandra.
Lexie: Alexandra, honestly? idk about miserable failure, but I do think most people would agree it "wouldn't have worked." there are certain grand figures that males are allowed to be and females are just not considered worthy of, so to speak. a "grandmotherly" figure is seen as sweet and bustling and silly. a "grandfatherly" figure can be wise and impressive and brilliant.
Alexandra: See, that's what I think, too. I think the CHARACTER could have been equally as awesome. I think the commercial success might have been a bit different...
Matt: Imagine Dumbedore and McGonnagal gender flipped. I think the books would have been just as awesome.
Lissa: Just as awesome, yes, but not as successful. Young male readers I fear wouldn't "connect" to it. I mean, JK Rowling used only her initials as her printed name because she was afraid that she wouldn't be appeal to boys as a female writer. THIS MAKES ME SO DEPRESSED
Leigh: McGonagall was very strong--even stronger as depicted by Maggie Smith!
Matt: But I do agree, less success probably, but still as awesome. Better even, maybe, becuase such a thing is rarely done.
Katy: I think so too, Matt. I love Dumbledore, but I think McGonagall is equally impressive.
Katy: And "strong."
Leigh: McGonagall was the backbone of Hogwarts!
Matt: Well that's true Leigh, but she did not have the archetypal role Dumbledore did.
Leigh: she was unfailinigly loyal to Dumbledore as well as his vision of truth and fairness that informed the way good magic was depicted in the HP books
Lissa: Leigh, for sure, but nobody creates fan pages on tumblr for McGonagall. It's Dumbledore or nothing
Matt: Also, Dumbledore did some kind of evil, but necessary shit to Harry. Had McGonagall did them? Misogynists would have called her a bitch.
Alexandra: But I mean look at HP: the three most POWERFUL people are male.
Lexie: that's a great point, Alexandra. it's an issue I have with the Gone series by Michael Grant--it's not that there aren't ANY strong female characters, but that the STRONGEST are always, unfailingly, male. To some extent, it really doesn't matter if you have 'strong' female characters when they're still completely overshadowed by a dozen men.

Books with dynamic and multi-faceted female characters (hooray!)
Gracie: Have you read Finnikin of the Rock? Or King of Attolia? The women are pretty cool in those fantasies
Lexie: Finnikin of the Rock (and Froi of the Exiles, for that matter) are fantastic, especially with the portrayal of women. Melina Marchetta is a goddess.
Katy: Gracie, I agree about FINNIKIN. I love that trilogy because of its strong yet diverse female characters.
Lissa: I love the Lumatere Chronicles; I think MM writes the most intelligent, witty, just generally brilliant characters
Alexandra: What makes the female characters in those books stand out? They obviously have characteristics other than the seemingly requisite "strong" trope. What about their personalities and the way the author does it?
Gracie: They aren't just strong; they have depth, emotions, motivation, feelings... they represent what actual people (women in this case) would be like.
Lexie: I love them because they aren't just what one would describe as "kick-ass" or the strong, resilient types. they have their weak moments. there are times they break down, or go batshit crazy (I mean, okay, Quintana kind of IS batshit crazy). but "strong" isn't their definition. it's just one of many words you could use to define them. brilliant, insightful, unbalanced, manipulative, commanding, sensitive, etc.
Katy: Many of MM's women are physically weak, but incredibly strong in other areas of their lives. And some aren't strong at all, and struggle throughout the books. Many different kinds of women are represented, for better or worse.
Lissa: The female characters in Finnikin and such just exude ruthlessness, hope and persistence throughout the toughest of times, and they do it with such a grace that is unbelievable to experience. I know that there are people as complex as these women in real life, but they are rarely written about in such talent by other authors
Gracie: YES. It is important for female characters not to be just STRONG. They should be weak, too. They should be presnted as people, human and erring.

George R. R. Martin
Alexandra: As far as George R. R. Martin is concerned, I've often heard the argument that NONE of the rest of his stuff is historically accurate, so WHY are women shoved into such a second-class, "historically accurate" role?
Lissa: I actually think the GOT TV show does a better job of portraying his female characters' strength than the books, although to be honest, I'm still making my way through the first. Boy is his writing long winded
Lexie: yeah, that's the thing with George R. R. Martin: people say the misogny in the books is to be historically accurate, but if we were being truly historical accurate, the characters would be bathing about once a year, and I see nothing of the sort
Lexie: if you choose to waive historical accuracy for something as boring and gross as lack of public hygiene, why not for something as boring and gross as misogyny?
Matt: But ... I actually think he subverts a lot of gender tropes in his writing.
Alexandra: Matt, in what way does he subvert gender tropes?
Matt: Does he write about whores? Yes. Rape? Yes. But he also has more female heroes who are much more than "strong female characters" than most other male authors in his genre.
Alexandra: (I feel like the biggest one that needs subverting, which is some kind of society in which men aren't inherently more privileged or better than women, has yet to show up in pretty much any fantasy I've read. Actually I think Garth Nix does it, but most people haven't heard of him.)
Lissa: I have to agree with you on that point, Matt, although there are a few scenes in the first book where his portrayal of Dany's feelings towards Drogo make me sick.
Matt: Lissa, I agree. I don't mean to call Martin's work gender equal by any means, only to say that he subverts tropes in comparison to his peers (Brienne, Dany, Arya, etc.)

Miley Cyrus
Matt: Should we say anything about how Mylie Cyrus was slut-shamed on almost every page on the internet, but no one pointed out Robin Thicke's song is about rape?
Leigh: YES YES YES to Matt!!! And who was the misogynist who joined him on stage after Miley left???
Lissa: While I personally wasn't a fan of Miley Cyrus's performance - I don't buy her act at all whatsoever - I do have to say that I was disgusted upon hearing that Robin Thicke is MARRIED WITH A CHILD and still condoned that performance. We've heard nothing of that in the news, though, have we?
Katy: That whole performance made me feel disgusting, especially as the mother of a little girl who thinks Party in the USA is one of the greatest songs ever.
Leigh: Yeah, I try not to get political or religious on Facebook, but I was totally ready to post, "Now it's time to dogpile the MALES who followed Miley."
Katy: And yes, Robin Thicke should be ashamed of himself.
Leigh: I agree, Katy. I was just sort of sad and a little nauseated. But more b/c I think Miley could be a really strong singer/performer and it seemed like she sold out.
Lexie: I think the performance was in poor taste, but I'm far more disgusted by the reactions to Miley than her own actions. the contrast between her reception and Robin Thicke's just serves to highlight a lot of today's double standards.
Matt: Well ... I'm a dad of girls, and while I would be embarrassed to be Miley's dad right now, I have to say that her taking control of her image, and being shocking on purpose, as an adult, is less concerning to me the the propogation of rape culture that is so acceptible in pop music.
Lissa: So I clearly don't know Miley Cyrus, and while I'm not agreeing with anything she's done, I have to say I'm not surprised that this is the route she's chosen to go down. We only hear of female celebrities when they've done something shock-worthy, something that involves a male - look at Taylor Swift, who I'm actually a huge fan of, and how she's constantly berated for her relationships when you hear nothing about all the good she's done for a variety of charities, or about the groundbreaking accomplishments she's made in the music industry

Whew! That was a lot! So, dear readers, what do you think? Is "strong female character" enough descriptor for all the facets a woman can have? Is it a fair classification?


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