As a male writer, I’ve striven to compensate and write honest, well developed, three dimensional female characters. It works better some times more than others, but in general I’ve been complimented a lot on the results (it helped that I had seven sisters and most of my closest friends in high school were girls). But there is a balance that is difficult to achieve between strength and vulnerability, which Sophia McDougall nails on the head in her article “I Hate Strong Female Characters.” Clue: It takes a lot more than just a token butt kicker. Check out her excellent article!
13 thoughts on “Sophia McDougall: “I Hate Strong Female Characters””
I really liked this article–and the whole question of feminism and art is something I care about a lot. I also really hate the unspoken rule that a commenter must always disagree with a post in order to sound smart, but in this case I was bothered by something that was missing: context.
I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to talk about getting to a 1:1 ratio of women to men without asking more about why the ratio is out of wack to begin with. And I don’t think “sexism” is a full answer, not that I’m saying it’s not relevant. For example: when the topic is “strength” then obviously the most prominent genre is going to be action, right? But the problem is that action’s emphasis on physicality is not a gender-neutral context.
What I’m saying is that I think gender equality might look substantially different in action vs. romantic comedies vs. dramas, and any discussion of gender without that consideration is incomplete. That’s also what bothered me about swapping back and forth between mostly action movies (especially with superheroes) and King Richard. Really?
I’m just wondering if some of the emphasis on men may also come from American obsession with physical violence, which is dominated by men for biological reasons. Maybe asking for more women doesn’t mean improbably physical strong women. Maybe it means less of an obsession with physical violence?
That’s a real question, not a statement with a question mark. I just don’ think the conversation even really takes off until you start getting more specific about context (usually: genre) and that was missing in this article.
This is why Katara from Avatar has been my #1 favorite female character for a long time. She’s got scenes like her revenge on Yon Rha where she’s totally badass:
(skip to 2 min 50s if the time stamp doesn’t work)
But then she had scenes like the one with her father where she told him how much it hurt that he was gone almost their entire childhood and how she had to grow up early to fill in the void:
In short, she was an actual human being who had a strong personality as well as deep-seated pain (often the source of strength) instead of ‘beep boop I am an emotionless robot that can tear people in half, and that makes me a good female character.’
I see what you’re saying, Nathaniel, but I don’t think superhero movies (this may not work for action movies, in general) are all about the violence. Certain super powers actually seem to decrease the violence. I’ll go to my the X-Men for examples, since they are my favorite AND they have lots of female characters (there is one of the comic titles that have an all female X-squad, for example, and it’s pretty great. PLUS the majority of them are definitely well developed, at least in the comics). Jean Grey and Psylocke can resolve conflicts with their minds (although Psylocke is also a Ninja, so there’s violent conflict there). Rogue just has to touch someone and they’re unconscious. Shadowcat can walk harmlessly through things. Superpowers can be so much more than the manifestation of brute strength and violence. As a symbol, there’s really a vast spectrum of what they can represent and the kind of conflicts they can resolve. There’s no reason that women as well as men can’t see manifestations of their inner selves with superheroes, especially since there are a continually rising number of “fangirls” who are just into their superheroes as the men are.
Doctor Who is another “fandom” that has seen an increasing number of women, as touched upon in this article:
Doctor Who, by the way, is famous for being a less physically violent superhero, who is more prone to his brain than his brawn to solve conflicts. There’s also been a number of strong, well developed women characters in that show in recent years .
Avatar is a show I keep meaning to watch.
Do it! The first season is a little more childish because the show was originally aimed at kids, but when the creators figured out who was actually watching the show they shifted towards more mature and meaningful content.
Your defense of superhero movies is mostly about the canon from which they are drawn, but I don’t think that works. I don’t know comics as well as you do, but the more we grant your argument that they have great roles for women the stronger my argument about the action movie genre becomes. Because if there are tons of great female superheroes out there, there are zero movies about them (as stars). Perhaps original material is great, but it’s getting distorted when its packaged for action movie format.
Yup, you should definitely, definitely, definitely watch Avatar. Start with the original. You can watch it for free on Amazon streaming if you have Prime membership. Just to let you know, however, the first few episodes are a little confused about their target audience. I think it was designed for like, 6-8 year olds initially and it took them a little while to adjust to the older audience that they got. But they did! Plenty of episodes in season 1 are great, but the show gets even better in seasons 2 and 3.
As for the new Avatar series, I didn’t like the first season as much because I felt the pacing was seriously wrong (nothing happens for 2/3rds of the season, and then they cram like a full season’s worth into the last few episodes, which are great) and the characters were also slightly wrong. But I’m still excited for the next season.
I think this gets it right. The (awesome!) characters Mahonn mentions are still operating in a cinematic universe that’s largely defined by Thor, Hulk, Captain America, and the like.
If the origin story is done well, could be the perfect vehicle for a female lead. But maybe more importantly a female lead who, prior to getting her superpowers and becoming “stong”, is a smart, capable and hardworking intelligence officer who’s still very much human and very much vulnerable: “She was a top-student in the Air Force academy and then a pilot, she was skilled at combat and intelligence and joined the CIA and eventually became the security director for NASA at Cape Canaveral… all before she got her powers. When she got her powers in her debut comic as Ms. Marvel in 1977, she was intended from the very beginning to be a superheroine as powerful as any of Marvel’s male heroes.”
Genre is a very astute observation. Of course there will be individual exceptions, but the whole point of classifications such as genre is to categorise general trends.
Yeah, I was talking more about the possibility than the reality, when it came to film. With film, you’re spot on there. The fact that there hasn’t been a Wonder Woman movie yet, for example, is a crying shame (Joss Whedon sure tried!).
I REALLY want them to make a Captain Marvel movie. She’s a character I really like (I still need to pick up her new series… I hear nothing but good about Kelly Sue DeConnick’s writing on the series. I’m also excited that they are at least adding one more female to the Avengers roster for the sequel (big fan of Scarlet Witch). With the Avengers aside (and at least Black Widow was a decent character, although she fits that SFC box), Joss Whedon has a good track record for bringing women to the table in his work. So I’m excited to see what happens with Avengers: Age of Ultron, since he says he’s a big fan of Scarlet Witch, too, and has also stated that Black Widow will be a big part of the story.
It’s terrific to see this kind of, for want of a gentler term, backhanded sexism called out. In an Epic Hero class at university 15 years ago, a substitute teacher said that the epic hero is the one who does the manly thing in the manly way. Sexist? Yes, and in our culture, unfortunately very true. The Strong Female Character is just the female incarnation of that male-oriented paradigm. I would absolutely love to see the expansion and mainstream inclusion of a female-oriented heroic paradigm: the hero who is the hero because she (or he) does the womanly thing in the womanly way. Of course, the “womanly thing” gets tricky, though the clearest archetype for that that is bringing forth life (i.e. childbirth). In that sense, Ammon’s story in the Book of Mormon is a female-pattern hero quest. It can be interesting and engaging to a broad audience even though, at its heart, it’s the womanly thing. We won’t achieve equality until these fundamental female archetypes (maiden, mother, grandmother/goddess) are laudable and embraced, too.
That sounds like a great essay, Hillary! Get on it and I’ll feature you as a guest writer on one of my sites (at least on My Soul Hungered).
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