Tuesday, October 15, 2013

In Defense of Strong Female Characters- And Their Fans

“I want [female characters] to be allowed to be weak and strong and happy and sad – human, basically. The fallacy in Hollywood is that if you’re making a ‘feminist’ story, the woman kicks ass and wins. That’s not feminist, that’s macho. A movie about a weak, vulnerable woman can be feminist if it shows a real person that we can empathize with.” Natalie Portman

I hate Strong Female Characters.
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. - Sophia McDougall

Don't let my title confuse you, I wholeheartedly agree with both statements. If you haven't read McDougall's article, check it out now from the hyperlink. Teen media especially is suffering from an overabundance of "Strong" but simple and dull female protagonists. Even authors I like have put out books where it seems like they are far too concerned with having a strong female lead, rather than a believable, sympathetic, or realistic one. I'm all for girls kicking ass and copping 'tude, but a gun and some snark do not add up to a personality. (For an instance where this does work because the author has added other layers, check out Paranormalcy's Evie, who rocks her job as a paranormal investigator while toting a sparkly pink taser and worrying about missing her favorite teen dramas). In the name of Joss, yes, bring on the complex women, strength be damned.

HOWEVER. I heard something really interesting at the Kill or Be Killed: Crafting a Powerful Female Protagonist panel at NYCC this weekend. A fan asked the authors how they go about crafting a strong female character. This resulted in a discussion about strength, and how it doesn't have to be physical, it can be moral, emotional, etc. The moderator, Thea James, referenced McDougall's article, and some time was spent discussing the variety of women we have on TV these days (one author professed her love for Breaking Bad's Lydia). Finally, Lauren Oliver, author of the Delirium series, spoke up to defend the idea of strong women. Put simply, it is still extremely empowering for girls and women to see characters like Ripley from Alien or Sarah Connor from Terminator 2 kicking ass and taking names. 

Ideally we'd live in a world where we didn't need to be conscious of specific female empowerment- everyone would already be equal. Until we get there though, we shouldn't be writing off these characters, just mindful that variety and complexity are also needed.

Happily there are works with great balances of gender roles, and with racial diversity as well (Sleepy Hollow and Lieutenant Abbie Mills for the win). I haven't watched Person of Interest, but after seeing their panel I will definitely be checking it out. They opened with a video sequence in which one of their police officer characters, who happens to be both female and black, took down a crooked cop to thunderous applause from the audience. I don't know about the entire cast, but just on the panel were two other prominent female actors, including Amy Acker who plays an offbeat computer scientist. Check out my video of Taraji P. Henson answering a fan question about the diverse roles for women on the show:

  Please pardon the low quality

While we're on the subject, I attended panels from both Marvel and DC comics, and at both panelists were asked about the roles of women in their franchises. At the Marvel panel, a fan asked (pleasantly, but seriously) where our female-led movie was already. The panelists smiled coyly, and asked if she planned to see The Winter Soldier. While that is a Captain America movie, it also stars Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow. The fan quite rightly pointed out that this wasn't a lead role, and the panel advised her to wait and see. The whole tone seemed to point to a high likelihood of a female-led movie, maybe spun off of The Winter Soldier- or perhaps the end credits will tell us more? Either way they seemed comfortable with the question and had encouraging things to say about it.

DC..... was another matter. Many of the same fans attended this panel, and the questions were tougher. Where are the strong women in the movies? What happened with Batwoman? Where did Wonder Woman's pants go? (there was a Wonder Woman redesign a few years back that gave the Amazon a jacket and trousers, but this has been undone). Unlike Marvel, several panelists and especially the moderator looked uncomfortable or downright annoyed by these questions. An artist who works on the Wonder Woman comic said that from a purely artistic standpoint, that costume was harder to draw action for, and it was hard to differentiate Wonder Woman's black pants from her black boots. Excuse me? Then why aren't the men in short shorts and go-go boots?
To the panelists credit, they were being put on the spot, but tough. These are fair questions that need to be asked, and judging from the applause and cheers following each question, these fans were not alone in their opinions. The one woman on the panel did say that she has never had an issue as a woman in the comic book world, which was good to hear, but if absolutely nothing else plenty of people perceive there to be gender bias in that realm and discussions clearly need to happen. And ok, grumpy moderator, it is a fair point that female fans should buy titles that contain themes and characterization they're looking for, but perhaps your company needs to make more of an effort to be inclusive in the first place. One fan asked if DC has considered reviewing their hiring practices to include more women and minorities. The response? The artists aren't there. It's mostly men anyway, so, feh. I seriously, seriously doubt that. Just look at the world of fan art. Squillions of those artists are female, and before anyone rolls their eyes, the creative team behind Avatar: The Legend of Korra also attended NYCC, and stated that they have already hired three artists based on fan art. 

There was a great deal of talk at the con about the role of women in geekdom as a whole, most of it positive and enlightening. So it was doubly jarring to attend a panel where I felt that these important questions were met with annoyance and dismissal from a moderator. Still. Keep asking questions, fans, support the things you like, and make even more noise about the things you don't. Also, keep up the gender-swapped cosplay because I can't tell you how delighted I was by all the female Sherlocks, Castiels, and Malcolm Reynolds(es) I saw, in addition to some truly tremendous Kaylees, Korras, and Katnisses.

EDIT: One of my very favorite blogs has posted an article about the Marvel and DC panels here. Go check it out!


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