Friday, 16 May 2014

The strong female character- fallacy or reality?

This is a post I've been wanting to write for a while, and AFE Smith's recent blog post on the same topic got me thinking again.

In recent years there's been a surge in most media of the trope of the 'strong female'. More commonly known as the 'Action Girl', these women are the polar opposite of the Damsel in Distress. They don't sit around waiting for a knight to rescue them; they rescue themselves, toast the bad guys, and get the boy  (or indeed girl) for their heroic deeds.

However, while it seems a great step forward towards a more balanced representation of women in media, there's more to this than meets the eye. A lot of the time, a so-called 'Action Girl' falls victim to the same faults of the Damsel. This isn't confined just to male authors/ writers, either.

It tends to happen for several reasons:

1. The creator writes the character as a female character, and not as an independent character who isn't defined by their gender. This automatically locks the Action Girl into a stereotype, and she will never grow beyond it.

2. The creator feels that making a female character too skilled will weaken the other male characters, especially if the protagonist is a male. Typically the 'strong female' is given a reputation of being formidable, only to be walked all over by an antagonist that the hero is then destined to defeat.

3. The creator fears that by stripping a female character of their gender roles, she loses her femininity and this needs to be compensated for. This can happen in the form of said character losing or having her skills weakened so the hero can step in and take over (where she becomes little more than romantic subplot), or by pushing the sex-appeal of the character to keep the male gaze interested (more often the case in visual media).

At its best, our Action Girl can have all the decent personality traits for a strong character, however they have to be physically objectified to make them more appealing. Not that it's not possible to be strong AND sexy, it just seems you can't be strong WITHOUT being sexy.

At its worst, all it is is giving a Damsel in Distress an 'action' attribute (like martial arts, or weapons training) that is completely useless and never used, or that the Damsel is too incompetent to use, making it pointless.

So, let's take a closer look at some of the supposed 'strong' females, and see if they stand up, or if they fall into the above categories. I'm sticking to video games and books, as I'm most informed about them. Remember, this is just my opinion, and they're plenty of other examples I'll miss, but these are the ones that stick out to me most.

Warning: Spoilers may abound.

VIDEO GAMES

BAYONETTA (Bayonetta, SEGA)

This is a slightly unfair example as I knew the developers deliberately pushed the sex appeal to ridiculous levels on purpose, but it's a good one to start. Bayonetta is a Witch who can't recall her memories before she was sealed into sleep for 500 years. As well as wielding her four guns, 'Scarborough Fair', she's acrobatic, physically strong, and can command the forces of darkness in the form of demonic summons.

As is obvious, Bayonetta falls into category 3- her badass skills (apparently) take away from her femininity, so she's sexed up to compensate. In fact it's really taken up to silly levels (like some of the Torture moves), and as I said, the developers were well aware of this. The game doesn't take itself that seriously, though, so you can still enjoy Bayonetta for her camp, sexified-gloriousness.

LIGHTNING FARRON (Final Fantasy XIII, SQUARE ENIX)

The (initial) main character of the 13th Final Fantasy. After her sister gets involved with a Fal'Cie, the legendary beings that brand their chosen warriors to a fate of living as a crystal (if they succeed their 'Focus') or turning into a dreaded Cie'th (if they fail), Lightning decides to take on the Fal'Cie herself. She's a soldier, skilled with a gunblade, and is a formidable opponent, as she uncovers a plot that would destroy her home world.

Lightning's in FF XIII is actually pretty well done (I'm ignoring the sequels). While the focus of the story does shift away from her as the game progresses, she doesn't fall into many of the common pitfalls. She's NOT paired up with a love interest, her skills are NOT weakened to compensate for a lack of femininity, and her in-story motives are NOT driven by her gender. In fact, she acts much more like a 'protective big brother'. There remains of course the sex-appeal element (JRPGS always have a thing for legs, for some reason), but it's not as heavily emphasised (and definitely not to the degree done in Bayonetta).

AVELINE De GRANDPRE (Assassin's Creed Liberation, UBISOFT)

Since most of the Assassin's Creed games rely on historical settings, all of the games, bar this one, have had male protagonists (given women's restricted roles in society in the past), although that's not to say those games lack strong female roles entirely.

Liberation, however, stepped up the game by giving us our first female lead character. And Aveline is just as skilled and courageous as her male counterparts. Yes, she does have a degree of sex-appeal (via her costumes) to help with her interrogations, but her main outfit is pretty damn practical (especially by female standards), and again she isn't forced into a romantic subplot. Although a lot of fans like to pair her with Connor (who coincidentally also isn't forced into a romantic subplot in his own game).

There's even a nice nod at the end as to one of the most important figures in the Human vs. Ones Who Came Before rebellion (I won't spoil)...

ALEXANDRA ROIVAS (Eternal Darkness, SILICON KNIGHTS)

An underrated classic, Eternal Darkness for the GameCube is an homage to H.P. Lovecraft and his dark ethereal horror. Again, like Assassin's Creed, as many of the game plot points take place in distant history, there's only two main female characters. Thankfully one of these is the protagonist, Alexandra. Called in the middle of the night to attend the murder scene of her grandfather, she's swept into the family legacy, and must stop the return of an ancient evil, or drown in insanity.

Alex is a pretty gender-neutral character. There's no love interest to speak of (but then given the nature of the game that's not surprising), and her talents are fairly balanced. She's got decent amounts of physical health, magic and sanity, and these aren't defined by her gender, as some of the male characters have lower health than she does. She's a pretty competent melee fighter, too. And her physical attributes are hardly emphasised. Probably the closest we've got so far to a strong female who isn't that sexy (or at least doesn't have this aspect played up as much).

LITERATURE

HERMIONE GRANGER (Harry Potter)

I've always found Hermione's role very mixed in the series. At first she filled up almost all the snobby female character traits that were a staple of authors like Enid Blyton. In the early books she's bossy and a know-it-all, a stickler for rules, and she has a strong aversion to danger or risk.

Fortunately, she does develop through the series. She gains insight into what's really important, she learns to face her fears, becomes an excellent strategist, and by Deathly Hallows she's able to fight as well as Harry. She isn't entirely relegated to a romantic subplot, either; she remains a key character in her own right. She actually manages to avoid category 2- her abilities are shown to complement Harry and Ron's, rather than be something that needs to be weakened so she doesn't outshine them.

So, while initially Hermoine is very much defined by her gender, her development allows her to cast this off, and her skills are not diminished, nor is she left waiting to be 'claimed' by the hero at the end. Not quite gender-neutral, but certainly no Damsel.

MAERAD (Pellinor Series)

Given author Alison Croggon's background, you'd hope that poor Maerad didn't fall into any of the above categories. And she doesn't. Living as a slave after she and her mother fled their burning home, Maerad doesn't know she's a Bard, and the Chosen One. When fellow Bard Cadvan of Lirigon stumbles onto her and senses her power, he helps her escape, and she embarks on an epic fantasy quest (with Dark Lords and the like) to fulfill her destiny.

The Pellinor series isn't simply a gender-flipped Lord of the Rings, though. While some of the details reflect Maerad's gender in the story (like when her 'time of the month' comes), the main thrust of the plot does not. It isn't being female that makes her helpless at the start, it's her lack of knowledge, and she rapidly grows into her powers once they kick in. And in an ironic twist, it's the main male side character who gets relegated to romantic love interest in the end (not that he doesn't contribute to the overall plot, though). More emphasis is placed on the brother-sister relationship, too, which also helps avert the gender pitfalls.

SABRIEL (Sabriel)

One of the first fantasy books I ever read, and it remains my favourite of all time. A desperate message from her father sends Sabriel into the dangers of the Old Kingdom, where she must search for him and realise her powers and role as the Abhorsen, a guardian of the Dead.

Again, like Maerad, it's Sabriel's inexperience that hinders her more than her gender, such as when she escapes the Mordicant chasing her. There is something of a romantic subplot, but fortunately this doesn't detract Sabriel from her tasks, nor make her powers weaken. If only the same could be said for modern fantasy fiction :P

KATNISS EVERDEEN (Hunger Games)

An obvious choice, maybe? Let's see. Living in the divided Districts of Panem, Katniss volunteers in place of her sister to be a contender in the Hunger Games- where tributes (children) fight to the death in a live reality-esque game show. But things don't go as smoothly as previous games, and Katniss opens a whole can of worms that threatens the very structure and stability of the world she lives in.

I found Katniss to be a lot like Lightning; she's logical, focused (for the most part), has strong survival instincts and is protective of her younger sister. She can be reckless, though, letting her emotions take over occasionally. The plot does demand she stick to her gender roles, such as with her on and off-screen relationship with Peeta, and the forced love triangle with Gale. Ii found this actually does weaken her, particularly in the third book where she does a lot less in terms of driving the story. So, my conclusion is that Katniss falls under category 1- she's still defined too much by her gender, and while she does have action skills like mastery with the bow and hunting, she's written first and foremost as a female, so she's not as truly independent as she seems.

Of course I've missed tonnes of other examples (Game of Thrones is often touted but I haven't read the series), but do you disagree? Do you think we should define 'strong females' by other criteria, or drop the definition entirely and just try and opt for a gender-neutral approach? Feel free to share.

2 comments:

  1. Unfortunately, I think the 'strong female' is a definition we will be stuck with for some time to come. I'm not familiar with many of the examples you gave, but I understand your points in more general terms and agree completely. What I would like to add is my bugbear - why does the definition of 'strong female character' seem to be so heavily dependent on physical abilities and skill sets? (Much like the damsel is dependent on certain physical attributes, sex appeal etc). For me, true strength comes from the psychological core of a character, their ability to cope, to learn and adapt, to grow.

    I also feel that a good character will never be 'strong' at all times - either physically through their skills or psychologically. Whether a woman - or a man - no one is always one thing. I'm far more interested in a character who shows the full range - even a strong woman has her damsel moments, can have a romantic interest and yet still be strong. Strength is something we gain through experience, and so should characters in a novel.

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  2. Rightly so- characters with real flaws are much more relatable and have more to offer the reader in terms of development and growth, as they have things to overcome/ resolve. I found this the case with Hermione, as while she did exhibit gender stereotypes initially she grew out of them. She also doesn't fit into the common trope of being physically strong- in fact being the typical girlish bookworm, before she comes into her own in the later books.

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