Strong Female Characters

Well, I hope you all had a good Easter. I was replete with delicious homemade hot cross buns, and much chocolate. I had a wonderful time. Marred only by the fact that noisy miners (an Australian bird) are breeding and flocking at the moment, and those fuckers are absolutely incessant. Just to give you an idea, the first bird in this video is a noisy miner. Except I don’t have like the ten on the video near my house, I have fucking billions of them. 3am, middle of the night, black as pitch? Well let’s just have a mass cheeping session that goes on for at least ten minutes. To be repeated every fucking half hour from now on. They love eucalypts and empty land, and guess who lives near some? Yeah. Although it’s a hundred times better than when they used to live on the adjacent empty lot from us, wherein you would feel yourself descending into madness by Day Three of the Great-Noisy-Miner-Won’t-Stop-Breeding-There’s-Fucking-Billions-Of-Them-I-Can’t-Even-Hear-The-TV-Or-Hear-Myself-Think-athon the little fuckers entered into.

Of course, the kids have been home on holidays, so I’ve been less around than I would like. I do not want to tell you the nightmarish amount of macaroni and cheese I had to make last weekend to satisfy four teenage boys for dinner – or rather I do. Suffice it to say, “vat” is more fucking appropriate. And this was after they had pizza and McDonald’s from down the road. So I have been busy, busy, busy.

Which is a shame really, because we’ve got less than a month to go. I don’t have enough time for my fingers to talk about everything. So sad. Luckily, of course, for me, this time of year in the fandom is known as “How can we lynch CH for a paragraph, line, or adjective we’ve read in spoilers that does not jibe with our own awesome writing powers and thoughts?” so it’s nice to retreat back to somewhere where I can talk about how I like the books, and leave the “You’ve ruined everything, ruiner” bunch to go at it with their Sherri and Terri masks on. Yaya – I’ve listened to the audio snippet, and read the complaints about it. That’s not the subject of this post though, so away, complainy entitled peeps!

I feel like I need to make this post, so that I can refer back to it in future. I’m intending to make a few posts about women in the fandom, and in the books, and I want to have a ready-made reference so that I can just link to it, rather than have to include the content in various posts. I’ve also been looking around at some stuff, so it’s been plaguing my brain. Delving into feminist blogs and such. And I come from academia, so my ideas are different from say the layman view. These will all have a new tag too – sexism is over hahahaha so you can locate each one of the series easily.

So, if you don’t know it already, I’m a feminist. To admit that openly is almost like a dirty word in some places on the net. It’s like the worst thing you could be. There are different strands of theory, of course, from radical feminist etc.  I happen to be a post-modern feminist, and I subscribe to the idea that gender is socially constructed. On top of that, I believe that social constructions are limited by language – we only have finite ways to talk about things, and that shapes the way we think about things.

Most feminists hold to the one basic idea – that feminism is about women being equal to men. However, I don’t think that that should be the end of it. The world was formulated by men, and once women actually get the desired parity, and start having equal and equally important roles within that male world, work out how it all works, then they should get to make some of the rules. It’s not just about getting enough equality to play a role in the status quo, but rather then to change the status quo to not only reflect what men think is important, but what women think is important. And no, before you ask. I don’t think women have achieved equality status yet. Not by a long shot.

One of the things that I think it’s important to say – and one of the core tenets of my feminist ideals is that feminism does not mean that women are perfect. Women having a right to be equal means that they have the right to be jerks just as much as men do. And I don’t see any benefit in making out like women are all sweetness and light, while men are evil and fallable. Equality means that men and women can be full people, without having to be stereotypical. They should both get called on their shit, and they both have the ability to be what they are, and no more.

Being a woman – or a feminist – doesn’t make me untouchable – and I’m not just going to make allowances for women because I want to pigeonhole them into various victim/saint roles. There’s actually a bit of a discrepancy with some other feminists there – some of whom do believe that as an oppressed class, women are unable to be critiqued, or do anything wrong. I don’t actually think that is a good value to have – we get nowhere if we just turn oppression around and stick by the same strict rules, just opposite.

To make it clear, it doesn’t actually help anything to make women into paragons of perfection who are always wonderful to all and are a homogeneous mass of ‘woman’. That’s not less strict than the idea of the woman who submitted to her husband and whose sole role is caring for others. To say a woman must now be forced to go out and have a career is just inverting the whole stupid system. Whether a woman chooses to stay at home, homeschooling her children or if she chooses to go out and get a high flying corporate career and stay childfree – both are valid choices for women, just like they’re valid choices for men. As long as you don’t just mindlessly follow along with what you’re “supposed” to do, and actually do things because you want to do them makes them both things a feminist would do, as far as I’m concerned.

This is what’s known as agency. A woman should have agency to make her own choices, and men should have that same agency. For example, Mr. Minty was a stay-at-home Dad for our sons’ childhood – and that’s just as valid as me doing it when they were babies. We certainly didn’t do it that way because we thought it was what Mr. Minty and I should do – we both got bashed about a bit as a result. Me for not being a “real” mother, and him for being seen as only “playing” at parenting. Frankly, the idea of what we should do based on our genitals sucks quite a bit.

So I don’t hold with the idea that women have to be perfect, that we can’t actually acknowledge that they’re anything less than perfect, and sometimes they’re mean, nasty or venial. That’s just a different pigeonhole – wherein women aren’t submissive wives and mothers, they’re instead saintly creatures who can do no wrong. But nor do I agree with what is often the overt, overblown attacks on women – which is a symptom of the same issue. For example, I don’t believe that we should call women ‘sluts’. I’ve made that clear before. However, what you’re not going to find me doing is lambasting the hell out of Sookie for using that word, and declaring her an enemy of women. That is setting the bar way too fucking high for all women. We certainly don’t go to war against every single man who does it – he’s not chucked summarily out.

Even though at times Sookie thinks some things I don’t agree with, and does some things I don’t agree with, I’m not going to demand that she fit into another little ‘feminist box’ I’ve designed for her. I certainly don’t hit the status here on line for politically correct (I’ve been known to use words like bitch, tarded and butthurt – all bad words), so I don’t expect absolute perfection, and towing the party line for Sookie. Requiring her to be perfect is yet another impossible standard, much like the beauty standard and so many other things we impose on women. I’ll forgive her for not being saintly because even though she doesn’t think exactly perfectly, that’s okay, because she’s human.  I actually think that we do female protagonists a disservice when we expect too much out of them – that elusive perfect character – because we don’t actually have so many that we can just pick every single one to bits.

Now where this often comes acropper is when considering the “Strong Female Character” – which is usually just another stereotype, and not at all what is meant by the term. It’s not actually a good female character if it’s just one of a range of women who literally just kick arse, or who is a Mary Sue, who is always right. There’s this belief that a “Strong Female Character” actually has to be perfect, think right, do right, everything goes her way. Because apparently, we can all just relate to that (WTF?!) and so we should have that in popular media. That should be how all women are portrayed when they’re on the screen – another version of an inhuman, super perfect person.

I’m going to point out two weak female characters from popular culture. They’re just examples I think are popular enough to translate well to examples though – you can play along at home with your own movie/book. I mean, think about say, The Princess Bride – a movie I know lots of people in this fandom have seen.

But within that movie, there’s a plethora of male characters – from Prince Humperdinck to Vizzini, to Fezzik, to Westley. It would be rather a crap movie – even if it did give the best of lines – where every single male is a variation on Inigo Montoya (You killed my father, prepare to die), right? The movie works well, has strong male characters because there’s a plethora of roles about aspects of men. Men in that movie are not a monolith – they have aspects. Inigo is driven by revenge for his father – he has a backstory and everything – we all know his story. Vizzini believes himself to be the brains and the master plan of the whole kidnap the princess venture. We know plenty about the male characters – enough to tell their character, and know them.

That is what we need for female characters. Sorry to say, but much as I like that movie, Buttercup – you know anything about her beyond the concerns of her love life? Yeah, no. You don’t. You don’t really have any motivation for her except who she will be and who she will fall in love with. Her parents, like Inigo? A complete blank. Her skills – why Westley fell in love with her? Yeah, nada. The only thing we know about her is that she goes for a daily ride – and that was a plot device to facilitate the kidnapping. Buttercup is little more than an object that Westley must quest for. Apart from her concerns for her love life, and what we are told about her (that she is beautiful and faithful – both from Westley), we know little to nothing about her. Apart from the crone (who is in Buttercup’s nightmares calling her the Queen of Slime etc.), the Queen and Valerie, the wife of Miracle Max, there aren’t actually any other women in the movie. Everyone apart from Buttercup doesn’t speak about their character, or their lives.

In contrast, what do we know about Westley? We know that he went away from Buttercup in order to make his fortune, plead for his life, served as a valet for three years to the previous Dread Pirate Roberts, learning all he could, and then became the Dread Pirate Roberts. We know incidentals like the fact that he’s spent a few years building up an immunity to Iocaine powder, that he’s met plenty of Spaniards, that he’s a quick healer, and that he has his own system of honour that’s a bit twisted. Well, you might say – that’s unfair to Buttercup, because princesses and girls raised on farms really don’t do that much – there’s nothing ‘story-worthy’ to tell. Except we don’t even know how she came to be in Humperdinck’s sights. One minute it’s alone in a room, not eating or sleeping, next it’s being fiancée to the Prince. We don’t know when she left the room, or why, how Humperdinck chose her. Yet, we hear all about how it went from seeking your fortune to Dread Pirate Roberts.

Buttercup’s story is really not her story. It’s the story of how Westley conquered the odds and got the girl. Buttercup is a more inventive trophy cup, but nothing much more of substance is put into her character. To repeat myself – I like the movie – but I know it for what it is. I certainly don’t aspire to be Buttercup, or yearn for her life. In fact, if anyone thinks “Hey, being a political pawn or a trophy at the end of the quest sounds fucking excellent” there’s something wrong with them. Even the common basic wish for many women at the end is “I wish I had a Westley.” They don’t actually want to reduce themselves to the level of Buttercup – they just want the perks – and that’s the guy, not the girl’s life without the guy. Personally, it’s much more appealing for me to daydream about being Inigo. 😀

Now let’s look at another female character that might physically do a lot of action, but still isn’t per say “Strong” – she’s just as shallow as ever before. But now, instead of being the wife and mother who goes along with her husband’s schemes, she is instead some über warrior who can kick everyone’s arse in no-time, and has no real discernible personality of her own – or desires merely to do good things. I’m going to use an example from another movie I like – The Fifth Elementand I hope most of you have seen it.

In that movie, Leeloo can kick arse like nobody’s business. Other than the fact that the character falls in love with the first guy she meets, and that she’s this superbeing to save the Earth, what about how Leeloo feels about anything but war and love? Yeah, nothing. Kicking arse didn’t actually make her a full and realised character. She’s the reason all of this is happening, and I have no clue what she actually wants to do, what she thinks of being born in a tube, or anything other than her mission, and her love for Corbin. Everything else she contributes is an infodump, rather than anything of substance to her. I know more about Zorg and his little machines, and his twisted reasons for doing things the way he did than I do about Leeloo.

This is what is a pitfall for many female characters. Not to be the paragon of virtue, or the object quested for, but rather someone who has a backstory – someone who is more than just a pretty face, but also someone who is more than merely an arse kicking machine. Someone who has a story as compelling as the subplot for Inigo, or as interesting as Corbin Dallas’. That female character doesn’t have to be good or perfect, she just has to be a part that couldn’t reliably be played with a cardboard cut out or that actual machine thingie for kicking arses. You can read a clever comic of the strong female character as typified in modern movies – it’s good. If you miss the point, and can’t recognise those stereotypical ‘strong female characters’, you’re not paying enough attention, and should bow out of this series now.

One of the other things I think is most essential to works with strong female characters is not only should they have personalities, needs, dreams and desires of their own, but they should face the same sorts of trials that regular women do. It’s not actually serving to enlighten if Sookie never gets mistreated, never has to deal with clingy ex-boyfriends, never has to deal with patriarchal bullshit. These are the experiences of being a woman – my comments are full of different accounts from women who had all those same things happening to them. It does little good to make out like if you’re just a strong female character, a fully realised personality and a real woman, that nothing bad will ever happen to you. That no one will ignore your rape, or be fine with you getting your arse beaten. And that even if that does happen, you’ll deal with it in a couple of minutes based on your thousand hours of Oprah viewing and be an expert on everything. That’s not what happens to real women in the real world.

While CH’s books have vampires, weres, fairies and telepaths – none of whom are real – that doesn’t mean that the only problems in her world are merely the supernatural things. Sookie says it best:

What a nicer world it was when you didn’t
know about the supernatural side of life.
Sure. Then you just had to worry about famine, war, serial
killers, AIDS, tsunamis, old age and the Ebola virus.

Definitely Dead, p. 142

Sookie deals with supernatural creatures – some of whom carry very old standards around with them. Bill disapproving of Kennedy defending herself from a man who beat her by killing him is one of the latest. You can still find that sort of attitude around now – and the places I’ve been on the web, that I’ll show you will prove that. Not some fuddy duddy who wants women to be genteel ladies he grew up with over a hundred years ago – cavemen that exist now who would readily lynch Kennedy for her actions. It just makes it altogether more believable if say the guy asking why her brother doesn’t care for her and take her into his household is over a thousand years old. Unless you run in some strange circles, you usually only meet one guy like that, not a couple, all of whom also want to date you.

Part of what is needed when wanting ‘strong female characters’ is that they are not winners at everything, always doing everything perfect, everything works well. See, that’s yet another impossible demand made on women. That if you’re just wonderful, always thinking about something other than boys, then you can just cruise through life and everyone will love your arse, and you’ll kick anyone’s arse who doesn’t.

Nor should a female character come to be the perfect female character either. This is another high standard imposed on female characters that is almost never imposed on male characters. In the scheme of things, Sookie’s life over the course of the books has encompassed – by the time they’re finished – at most two and a half to three years. In that time, the demands made on her character are endless. She’s supposed to get an education in something, take a beating and learn how to fight, deal decisively with all the men who don’t listen to her, and become the most amazing woman ever. On top of that, she has to have all issues squared away with the man she’s going to spend her life with. That if a character has to be perfect – even within Sookie’s time frame – come to realise her faults, whoa boy do the women in this fandom have some fast catching up to do. You all have had fucking years over the course of reading this and are you perfect yet? Yeah. Well, that’s what a strong female character should be like – like you – like real people.

Real women improve, but we don’t all become saints. Sometimes we suffer setbacks, and we’re not the perfect person, always moving towards perfection. And that should be okay for strong female characters too. They shouldn’t be hauled over the coals because despite the world they live in, unlike everyone else, they are not perfect. Think about how much pressure there is on Eric or Bill to be not only King of Louisiana, but also then to handle all political problems, do a course, make a couple million dollars and unite humans and vampires, make peace with weres and generally be the most open and wonderful man who ever existed. And that’s why the same standards for Sookie are just so damn odious.

The ‘strong’ female character never gets to be weak – and let’s face it, that’s what a lot of women’s issues are. It also conveniently opens the door for victim blaming – practically a pastime in this fandom – as well. So when a female character is raped or beaten, that’s because women all over the world suffer – through no fault of their own – because stronger people want to hurt them, and they get no justice. That doesn’t make them a weak character, unless they’re thinking not about themselves, but rather about how it would upset men if they found out.

In fact, that is the raison d’être for much of the “You can’t leave the house or you’ll get hurt and that will break my heart” of so much fanfic. Sookie is told to stay in the house not because maybe she doesn’t want to take a beating from a vampire enemy of Eric’s, but rather that if she leaves the house, Eric will worry, and that’s too much strain for the poor dear. Sookie and what she thinks is taken out of the equation. I mean, it’s just her body and terror – which pales in comparison to when a man might feel about it.

So in order to have a strong female character, she has to think about her own needs first. That’s what real women do, right? As you’re sitting here reading this, you’re not concerned that a man somewhere might need you, right? Or that reading this blog post will help a man in future, thereby validating your reading it, right?  It’s not as if a strong female character doesn’t care about others, but like male characters, she would rather not get stabbed because she doesn’t like being stabbed. NOT because it might upset someone else. I’m well aware of course, that there are indeed women who don’t give a shit about themselves, but that is kinda what I want to talk about with upcoming posts – about the construction of female characters and the construction of female gender identity generally.

There’s another interesting test to female characters as well. One of the easier ways to actually have a female character in writing who is fleshed out a little bit, is to use a device called the “Bechdel Test”. The Bechdel Test basically:

1. You have two named female characters.
2. They have a conversation with each other.
3. Not about a man.

It’s not a foolproof test of course, but it’s a good test for seeing if she’s just one of many female extras, and could be replaced by a cardboard cutout. Here’s the original comic this test came from – by Alison Bechdel. As an interesting aside, the reason Alien passed the Bechdel Test? Because Ripley was originally scripted as a man, and that’s why she actually got a full character. Which is sad, really – and why I recommended ages ago that if you wanted to write a sympathetic Sookie, you should call her Ericina or something. To get over your own internalised misogyny and be fair to a female character as if she has the same sort of needs as a man might have – as if she’s a real person and not a priceless heirloom Eric borrowed from Niall until fairy breeding comes up.

The Sookie books for example, pass the Bechdel Test. True Blood often (if not always) fails. Female characters talk to each other, sure, but the conversation revolves solely around their boyfriends – Sookie chats to Jessica only about Bill or Jason for the most part. Pam talks to Sookie only about Eric and what Eric is doing. Whereas Book Sookie regularly talks to female patrons of Merlotte’s, Tara, Amelia and other women about something other than men. There’s the infamous chat about Pam wanting to learn how to fire a shotgun for example.

A surprising amount of fic fails the Bechdel Test hard. You’d be lucky to find anything but Pam, telling Sookie how to please Eric best. In the worst of fic, Sookie never even speaks to another woman. She’s there, under Eric, orgasming and thinking about how to please him best. I love it when Sookie talks to other characters not about men – even if it’s not always other women. It’s relatively rare, really. It’s a simple test, and a simple test to see if you could in fact replace that character with a cardboard cut out with fleshlight attached. Fanfic seems to rarely care much about the characters (hence me, here and my sparing little recommendations) and goes for a lot of smooshing together and caring what men think. That’s why so many myths sprung up about Sookie – no one gave two shits about her character or if it was a real one when there’s smooshing to be had. For those of you who want to write your own books, well that’s a good place to start assessing the female characters you’ve written.

So these are the primary things I think are important on what it means to have ‘strong female characters’. Not just some salve of giving an empty character a princess uniform or an assassin’s uniform, but rather making them something that reflects real life women. Men have had this for years – with the ability to choose from a wide range of characters – they can identify with a plethora of men – be the Fezzik or the Zorg, be the Humperdinck or the Ruby Rod. None of them are homogeneous lumps of easily exchanged ‘man’ and have characters of their own. A strong female character only needs to have the same.