(or, Battling a Culture of Appeasement)
As a woman and a feminist, I enjoy seeing female characters who are complex, empowered, intelligent, strong, and unafraid to reject societal roles and stereotypes to be true to themselves. I admit that, realistically, not every woman embodies these ideals, but I still like a story better when they do. Unfortunately, the desire, even demand, for such characters can create a certain trap that sometimes causes more problems than it addresses. It’s difficult to describe and even more difficult to deal with, but bear with me a moment while I try to put this into words.
I’ve mentioned before how too often, storytellers will try to craft a “strong female character” simply by imbuing her with physical strength or putting a weapon in her hand. There is nothing inherently wrong with the warrior woman archetype itself; the failing comes when the storyteller allows the character’s depth to end there or implies that the only measure of “strength” in a character is that which can be proven on the battlefield. There are many, perhaps less obvious ways to craft a complex and compelling character, but they don’t get employed as often. Why is this?
One potential reason is fairly simple: an author wants an ancillary female character or love interest for his male protagonist, and he doesn’t want to spark feminist uproar by having her be some stereotypical damsel in distress, so he makes her tough, or sassy, or otherwise outwardly and obviously “strong.” Maybe this works within the context of the story, or maybe it sticks out awkwardly like hillbilly at an artisanal soap convention. In those instances, it may be that the author only wrote his character that way because he felt like he had to in order to make his story passable to a modern audience. Not understanding the underlying problem, these writers basically put a band-aid on a bullet wound.
Another reason is more complicated, and that is that some kinds of strong characters get dismissed as being “not progressive enough.” A character who is simply a housewife and mother, for instance, might be expected to draw just as much feminist backlash as a meaningless sex object. Thing is, such a character can exhibit tremendous depth, complexity, and strength even while existing within what is considered a traditional gender role. Though a more rebellious individual might favor breaking with tradition and fighting for change, it does take a certain strength and ingenuity to make do with the situation in which you find yourself and thrive. Some authors seem to fear that to present a woman who is not some kind of societal iconoclast is to invite the wrath of feminist readers. And, in some cases, this proves to be the case.
Feminism is a tricky thing. Defining it is like trying to define love, or memes: maybe there’s a perfect answer out there somewhere, but even if it exists, you can bet not everyone will agree with it. The meaning invariably changes with the individual trying to define it, their personal beliefs and goals, their experiences and perception. At its core, it’s about equality, but the message gets muddied as it travels. The successful corporate crusader who’s dedicated her life to fighting for equal rank and equal pay may look at the stay-at-home mother and call her lazy, submissive, and backward. That mother, who dedicates her life to raising daughters who are intelligent, well-rounded, and self-assured, may turn around to that businesswoman and call her selfish, arrogant, and power-hungry. We look at sexually-liberated woman who revel in the trappings of beauty and pleasure and simultaneously praise them for taking charge of their sexuality and appearance and decry them as whores and slaves to objectification. You find feminist women who describe themselves as equal to men, better than men, or separate from men entirely. They may be straight women or gay women, promiscuous or prudish. Or, they may not be women at all, but rather men who support the equality of their female counterparts. And some storytellers, rather than focusing on crafting a strong story, are trying simply to do what will make them look the least offensive to this diverse and opinionated sector of society.
To appease everyone is impossible, and I don’t think that should be the goal.
In my own work, I have a personal goal to present female protagonists (and antagonists) who are true to themselves, complex, and believable, wherever that may lead. I want my readers to admire, respect, and understand them as humans (or other sentient life forms) first, women second, because gender is just one part of an impossibly complex whole. To me, the ultimate expression of gender equality is to give someone the freedom to do what they will how they will based on their own choices, not their gender. Where biology comes into play, it’s simple enough to make minor adjustments to allow for equal opportunity, particularly when you’re dealing with fiction. Rather than writing a character in to fill that checkmark next to “strong female character,” write a full cast of strong, developed, complex characters, some of whom happen to be female. So long as you’ve put a full and honest effort into creating a deep and believable character, and you are true to the character you’ve built, I believe you’re doing the right thing.
At their core purpose, feminists fight for a noble cause and aim to do good things for humanity. As with any faction of society, there is discord, there are extremists, and there are stereotypes both exemplified and refuted. To lump all feminists together and single them out as a group that is to be appeased and quieted by some literary trope in order to push your sales figures is ridiculous and dismissive, even offensive. But, as always, there is progress, and there is hope. Even the fact that authors would abandon the frail, silent female tropes in favor of combative, feisty ones is a kind of progress. These characters have gained voice and presence. Now we just need to give them depth, agency, and meaning. And after that, we just need to make this something that happens naturally. When your characters are speaking and acting from their own unique and fully-developed voices, living out their lives on paper or on the screen as wholly-realized individuals with their own motivations and beliefs, it may be that fewer people will feel the need to nitpick, lost in the wonderful tale the characters have to tell.