Saturday, March 10, 2012

Strong Female Characters

‘Tough, Cold, Terse, Taciturn and Prone to Not Saying Goodbye When They Hang Up the Phone': Carina Chocano on "Strong Female Characters" [Google the title if the link doesn't work]

The Comments on Io9

This article will be more a response to io9's comments on the article rather than the article itself. Chocano's article had pretty much nothing to do with genre fiction at all, while the io9 comments make it all about whether Buffy, Scully, Starbuck, etc. are "men with breasts".

I agree a bit more with Chocano, who seems to be as much against female characters being flawless, as their not being "womanly" enough, though her article still represents the latter. One of the forgotten aspects of progressiveness, likely because it's not all that romantic (in the classical sense of the term), is to show that the minority or persecuted group is just as flawed and can be just as awful as the dominant group.

However, the io9 comments are filled with people who apparently believe the problem with sexism is that the innate traits of women are given less value than the innate traits of men, who desire to re-establish a hierarchy rather than demand greater depth from fiction in total. You're almost waiting for someone to use the term "mannish".

When really, it's a problem all around when heroes are impervious and devoid of flaw or worry. It's a problem if there is only "one kind of strength", but not because it's men's strength being painfully grafted onto women instead of utilizing women's "unique" strengths, but because it is less limiting to define strength based on a small number of factors, whether for female or male characters.

Also, the phrase "men with breasts" might get the point across to the choir, but for many, it's just bewildering. No one can call a female character "a man with breasts", because no one has produced such a timeless, clear, universal understanding of gender differences that we can say for certain a female character with X ratio of masculine traits is so completely impossible for her gender that she is "really" a male character. "Man with breasts" just seems to be another way to state that a character doesn't conform to a critic's personal definition of womanhood and is therefore some kind of freakish fantasy, while the rest of the world may not actually agree.

Take the female Starbuck from nu-BSG. To some, she's a "man with breasts" (and not only because her character was originally male), while others are relieved that she retains "some femininity". If the alleged modern archetype for "man with breasts" can't be agreed upon as insufficiently feminine enough, then the issue is more complex than it appears.

I've often asked myself why it was so important that Starbuck retain "some femininity". Based on this article, I would hope it to be a badly-phrased relief that she is an imperfect character. But the problem is the bad phrasing. They are trying to prove that Starbuck "really is a woman", because a false dichotomy has been created: that if a character is stoic and violent, they are "a man", and if they are emotional and vulnerable, they are "a woman". There is an X level of "masculine" traits a female character must have to become a "man with breasts", which is an awful thing, so Starbuck must be proven not to have reached level X. It's gender policing: albeit for a fictional character, but it still exposes some very ugly attitudes in the real world: despite gender differences supposedly being "natural" and "innate", one can still be policed for not expressing their gender in an approved way.

I would put the issue in different terms. Starbuck being imperfect does not prove that she "reall is a woman", but that perfect characters are boring and so, male or female, they must have some nicks in their armour. Starbuck is particularly good because she does have that, and when her issues are showcased, they do not seem to be a commentary on the fact that she acts rough because of her issues, and if they were not there, she would be a "normal" woman. Instead, she is simply a twisted character, but one for whom it is no special tragedy that she is a female fighter.

The reason this debate exists, of course, is the feeling that society values "male" traits rather than "female" traits, and that women can gain approval by adopting these "male" traits, but the attitude towards "female" traits remains disdainful. By creating more vulnerable and "feminine" action heroines who are still triumphant over evil, the hope is that "female" traits will become more valued.

A noble goal, but that still doesn't explain why love, nurturing, emotional expression, and whatever else is deemed "feminine" is a desirable trait in only female characters, rather than an opportunity to make all characters multi-faceted. True, these traits are traditionally associated with women, but they can't be distanced from society and culture enough to label them as universally female traits and no reason to consider these traits only valuable for female characters to have. If one truly wants to create a peaceful, equitable world through popular culture, it would be to have all traits open to all characters of all genders, rather than establish testing to ensure female characters are sufficiently feminine enough.

That being said, I really can't recall any female characters of any medium or genre who truly lack in any form of vulnerability or in expressions of "female" emotions. All of these staples of nineties genre TV that are under discussion never met that criteria for me. As for the issue of female characters shunning "girly" tasks/hobbies, that's wrapped up in a whole mess, namely that these girly tasks/hobbies are still part of what's considered obligatory for women, instead of becoming personalized interests or something to build a career from.

So it doesn't surprise me that shunning "doing girly things" is used as a quick symbol for independence in younger female characters, being that such girly things are part of the huge package of expectations placed on women, and not presented as a voluntary choice (this is also why Rebellious Princesses still tend to be popular, despite the backlash). That doesn't justify this trope, but I find it hard to get upset about it. Personally, I'd rather have such characters simply lack those interests, without active defiance coming up unless it was a major plot point.

[As an aside, being critical of female characters "falling in love" isn't, to me, part of the hatred of femininity, because it's not about the process itself, but that because female characters are subsequently in danger of, at the hands of bad writers, becoming just "the love interest". That is why fans are wary, not because falling in love makes female characters "weak".]

What I will say is that media does suffer from a very widespread problem with female characters, but it's not that they're too "masculine". Rather, it's that female characters are too "perfect".  They are the hyper-competent moral centres in all genres, rather than being exposed to the same flaws and range of traits as male characters. Being "removed" from feminine emotions could be considered part of this, but again I don't see female characters who are actually distant from their emotions. I'm thinking more about female characters who can be selfish, neurotic, abrasive, weird, without it being characterized as "cute" or with an air of moral condemnation. This is largely the fault of anti-feminism, of putting women on pedestals as a form of "benign" sexism.

[By the way, I don't think Kate Beaton's, Meredith Gran's, and Carly Monardo's strips about a similar subject were really mocking the "men with breasts" characterization so much as the fact that fightin' female characters are often shown to be "secretly" vulnerable at opportune moments, which is a Real Thing that I've seen far more often that the "impervious" female character. The strip where she throws the guy out the window is the only one that it feels like the "female warriors are not allowed to show human emotions" trope is being mocked. And the one with the character eating cookies isn't mocking the fact that girliness is disdained in female heroes, but that most female heroes end up being "secretly" girly, which is why she eats those damn cookies.]

In short, I see some of the issues brought up here, but anyone who uses the term "man with breasts" becomes impossible to take seriously. The issues have not been reversed, and I can't remember a female character who actually is as invulnerable as these people say. Multi-faceted characters are good for any gender, and beneficial human traits don't only belong to one sex.

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