A Personal Evolution in Fantasy

(or, What Happened When My Childhood Met the Works of Patricia C. Wrede)

Believe it or not, I spent the better part of my early childhood as an insufferably girly girl.  Everything I owned was pink.  There were unicorns and butterflies and rainbows everywhere.  My number one fantasy was to be a beautiful princess awaiting rescue by a handsome prince.  And when I played make-believe with my little sister, we usually played house.

Then, around maybe fourth or fifth grade, something began to change.  Suddenly, I was reading tales about princesses being rescued from fire-breathing dragons, and I was rooting for the dragons.  I began thinking it was awfully rude of those brash princes to just rush on in and slaughter an innocent dragon without asking the princess if it was really necessary.  What if the princess and the dragon had become friends?

And then I read the Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede, and I felt like a whole new world opened up in front of me.

dragons

For anyone who was not so fortunate as to encounter these books as a child, let me sum them up for you:  The story starts accounting the adventures of a dark-haired princess named Cimorene who, in a world where her pretty blond sistren are traditionally kidnapped by dragons so as to be rescued by princes, chooses to run away from home and become a dragon’s housekeeper.  She befriends a lady dragon named Kazul who eventually becomes the Dragon King (because in dragon society, the King may be male or female) and a witch named Morwen with a plethora of clever talking cats, among others, battles evil wizards with soapy wash water scented with lemon, wields swords and flying carpets, marries for love a man who respects her for her power and spirit, and goes off on a mission to save magic while pregnant with her first child.  The series addresses and delightfully satirizes nearly every fairy tale trope in existence, and in the character of Cimorene, you get a brilliant, willful, resourceful character who is absolutely true to herself.  She is both warrior and housekeeper, adventurer and mother, shrewd problem-solver and compassionate friend.  Kazul, likewise, is an icon of strength and perseverance, and Morwen a wise and steadfast individual who also knows how to be comfortable in her own skin.  These women became role models to me at a young age, and I think I’m a better person for it.

Since then, I’ve encountered numerous works that attempt to do similar things, satirizing and parodying old tropes, painting dragons in a positive light, presenting tomboy princesses who don’t do as they’re told, but for me, these books were the first, and still to this day among the best.  I was a voracious reader as a child, and I can’t remember most of the books I devoured, but these stories have lingered with me fondly.  They resonated with the desire in me to be a part of a world of magic where my role as a female wasn’t to be bandied about as a plot device or used as bait to lure magical creatures to their demise.  These books were the first to teach me that a woman can be a hero, can fight fear with understanding and compassion (or soapy water, as the case may be), can live the life she chooses no matter what popular opinion may say to the contrary.  These books will always hold a special place in my heart, and if I ever have children of my own, you can be sure I’ll read these books to them a hundred times … which probably means I should invest in some nicer copies.  My old paperbacks have certainly seen better days!

As an aspiring writer now, I have a renewed respect for many of my favorite works of fiction, and a devastatingly more critical eye.  It’s all too common to return to an old favorite and find its brilliance dimmed from what you remember.  I will never again be able to read these books with the kind of wide-eyed fascination and unconditional adoration I met them with as a child, but I can still learn from them and see what it was that made me love them in the first place, applying those lessons to my own storycraft.  Maybe one day I too will have written something that will find a nostalgic niche in some girl’s heart.  Until that day, for all that these books did to help me realize my potential, for all the times they made me laugh or read on with bated breath late into the night, and for all they did to open my eyes to what women in fantasy could be, I tip my hat most respectfully to Ms. Wrede.

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Strong Female Character: Round 3!

(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.

Strong Female Character: Round 2!

(or, The Visual Representation of the Warrior Woman)

Despite what I said about strong female characters being too focused on the warrior woman, I am here today to focus on … the warrior women!

Particularly their visual representation, because, you know …

Source: http://womenfighters.tumblr.com/post/43562502843/lady-armor-exposed

It is well known that tough ladies in any genre can suffer from a ridiculous visual representation.  Fantasy warriors get dolled up in metal bikinis, science fiction has a habit of churning out sexy alien lasses, superheroines fight evil in revealing, skintight apparel that would barely stay on while walking down the street, much less brawling with baddies, and even spies and detectives somehow find themselves in stiletto heels at most inconvenient times.  Historically, this is a result of men working in male-dominated industries marketing toward a male-dominated audience, and though the demographics are shifting, old habits die hard.  But there are plenty of places around the internet that go into depth on that score, so I’m not going to ramble on too much here.

One major complaint against some of the more outrageous designs is in terms of practicality.  Any lady cosplayer can tell you that things like heels, patent leather, corsets, and so on may look cool, but they can be a pain to wear and usually end up being very limiting to your mobility.  I can say from experience that even trying to tie your shoes while in a steel-boned corset can be a frustrating and laborious process (that is very fun to watch, apparently), and it’s impossible to run at full speed wearing pencil-thin 4″ heels.  And, needless to say, when it comes to stopping bullets or blades, steel or Kevlar does a much better job than Spandex or bare flesh.

The other complaint is sexualization and objectification, another thing lady cosplayers know well.  Films and comic books are especially guilty of presenting gratuitous cleavage, near-nudity, and other sexualized representations of women, often when male characters are not treated the same way.  Often times, this is pandering to a male demographic, but sometimes it’s just a matter of taking a cool-looking design a step too far.

The problem in finding a solution is that there are so many factors to balance.  When I go to choose an outfit in the morning, I have to think of what the weather is like, where I’ll be going and what is considered appropriate for that environment, what will be most comfortable for the tasks I’m going to engage in, whether I’m in a mood to be pretty, or cute, or professional, or bad-ass – the list goes on.  Different ladies (and men too) have different motivations for the attire they choose each day, but there is always a thought process, even if it’s as simple as, “I’m not leaving the house today, so I’m not going to wear pants.”  The (often but not always male) artists and designers who give visual form to the many warrior women of fiction don’t usually seem to take the approach of thinking from the character’s point of view about what they might wear.  Rather, they take a purely aesthetic approach, designing based on what looks good to them, fits their overall style, and best complements (or exposes) the female form.  The aesthetics do matter, as evidenced when an artist who recently did a series of practical superheroine costume redesigns as an exercise got backlash for the designs being unattractive and frumpy, but they need to be tempered with a little sense.

I think the most important factor about the visual representation of a warrior woman (or any female character) is whether or not she would realistically approve of the attire.  If the character in question is some lusty, sexually-liberated femme fatale, then she’s probably going to want to show a little skin whenever possible, but if she’s a strong-willed peasant woman trying to defend her village from marauders, she’s probably going to want to get as much protection as she can using what’s available to her.  It is possible to have a character look amazing and still dress suitably to face her story’s conflict.  Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor does a great job of gathering images of practical and/or historically accurate armors as designed for or worn by women, and other resources for inspiration are endless.  An artists needs to think of the character’s personality, what kinds of resources she has, what her society considers appropriate and whether or not she would agree, who she fights, how she fights, whether or not she would dress in some kind of standard uniform or style, whether she is more stylish or more practical, and so on.  Readers and viewers of genre fiction are always willing to engage in some suspension of disbelief, so as long as you are faithful to the character, and you are being honest with yourself about being faithful to your character, you’re probably on the right track.

Strong Female Character: Round 1!

(or, How “Strong Female Character” Has Become Toss-Around Jargon)

I’ve noticed that some people tend to use the term “strong female character” as a kind of archetype, a generalizing label.  They use it the same way they would “the anti-hero” or “the charming sociopath,” character tropes we grab at to quickly and conveniently sum up a character.  The problem is, a strong female character isn’t strictly speaking a trope, or at least, she shouldn’t be.  Few people generalize a “strong male character,” focusing instead on what specific qualities of strength they exhibit, but many people seem content to group any females with physical, moral, or emotional strength into one category without taking the time to elaborate.

Now, I admit that when I hear a story or game or film features a “strong female character/lead,” I consider it a point in the story’s favor.  I like to see members of my gender sticking up for themselves and/or kicking serious ass.  However, you don’t really know what you’re getting into when your character is described so ambiguously.  There are many ways any character can exhibit strength.  Using a few random films as an example, you could say that Elizabeth Bennet from Pride & Prejudice, Hushpuppy from Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Beatrice Kiddo from Kill Bill Vol. I & II are all “strong,” albeit in vastly different ways.

In one sense, there’s no harm in specifying the existence of a “strong character” in a work of fiction.  You’re saying that there is someone in the story with enough depth and integrity to make you want to read about, watch, or play her.  Showing appreciation for these characters motivates the storytellers to create and develop these and other characters with complexity.  Yet in other regards, it causes problems.

For example, as it’s used with more regularity, people begin to misunderstand or misapply the term.  When someone mentions a “strong female character” anywhere outside of a romantic or comedic setting, more often than not they are referring to physical strength in the sense of a warrior woman or femme fatale.  Similarly, many storytellers will try to justify that they have strong female characters by simply making them formidable fighters.  Over time, this becomes almost the expectation.  But as I already mentioned, there are many ways for a character to exhibit strength and complexity.  She doesn’t need to be a skilled fighter to be considered strong or an equal to her male peers, but this trait is too often used as a crutch to support an otherwise flat or objectified character.  As this expectation grows, some admirable pacifists get overlooked as weak and domesticated while some archetypal, often sexualized Amazons get mistaken for strong-minded, empowered women.  It’s not always the case, certainly, but it does happen.

In the end, using the term “strong female character” to evaluate a story is like using Wikipedia to research for a paper: it’s a great starting point, but if you don’t go from there to look a little deeper, the end result won’t reflect positively on either party.