I’ve noticed in recent days a growing number of attacks on the “strong female character” trope, most of them focusing specifically on the “action girl,” and a common complaint seems to unite them all: the “action girls” aren’t feminine enough. They succeed by displaying traits society deems masculine, such as aggression, ambition, and the drive to win. They are reportedly “men with boobs” who dress in trousers and chainmail, carry swords and know how to use them, and shun such girly things as dresses and jewelry and gossip and romance (though they often end up falling in love). The proliferation of these sorts of characters, critics argue, undervalues femininity and contributes to masculine privilege. One particular example comes from a YouTube commentator called “The Authentic Observer,” which I link here.
I’m of two minds about such criticisms.
On the one hand, I disagree vehemently with the notion that fighting skills automatically make a female character “masculine,” as if all the girls and women who take karate classes were selling off their femininity one lesson at a time. (Kameron Hurley has some wise words on the subject.) On the other hand, I can see where the idea of the badass female warrior character as an attack on femininity comes from. Many action-girl heroes, in YA especially, are written as “not like other girls,” contemptuous of softer, more traditionally feminine characters. In some works, such as Ann Aguirre’s Enclave, the action girl’s disdain for softer girls/women is shown in time to be misguided. In others, such as V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy, the narrative implicitly endorses her prejudice by depicting the more overtly feminine characters as shallow morons deserving of the action girl’s scorn. This tendency to tag the dress-wearing, non-fighting ladies as “lesser” can indeed come across as dismissive of femininity in general. It’s a big part of the reason why I love to see solid friendships between action girls and girlier counterparts, such as Starhawk and Fawn in Barbara Hambly’s The Ladies of Mandrigyn, Cat and Bee Barahal in Kate Elliott’s The Spiritwalker Trilogy, and Senneth and Kirra from Sharon Shinn’s Twelve Houses series. In these stories, both the fighter and the “girly girl” are drawn as competent characters, and the reader sees in them that there’s no one right way to be a woman, no single unchanging blueprint for femininity.
In the final Twelve Houses novel, Fortune and Fate, Shinn presents the most warlike of her action-girl heroes, the Rider Willawendis, Wen for short. In Wen’s story Shinn addresses, point for point, all the problems I have with too many writers’ characterizations of warrior women. First, Wen isn’t depicted as an anomaly, the only woman who can fight. Other female Riders exist, and there are women among the bodyguard trainees Wen whips into shape in the course of the book. Second, Wen, like Senneth before her, forges a bond with a more ladylike character, in this case the young noblewoman Karryn, and at the climax, in a delightful twist, the two women rescue each other. Finally, the fully fleshed out and three-dimensional characterization of Wen herself thwarts any attempt to dismiss her short-sightedly as a “man with boobs.” What we have here is not an attack on femininity, but a celebration of the many ways of being a woman.
Books like Fortune and Fate show us there is room for many kinds of female heroes, with a variety of strengths. Yet in its critique of the female fighter as a “masculine woman,” the Authentic Observer’s video also brings up the question of whether violence and aggression are “masculine” traits that the girls and women who consume SFF should covet for themselves. Do we female SFF fans really daydream about riding into battle and killing people? The popularity of characters like Wonder Woman would suggest that yes, we kind of do (although Wonder Woman’s foremost impulse, at least in the 2017 film, is to protect people). But what “masculine” traits, or characteristics most often assigned to men, do I personally covet? If I had the power to craft a new understanding of femininity — and to some extent I do, as a writer — what would I change?
- Men travel and explore, while women stay home. This idea of the man who wanders and the woman who functions as a stabilizing force within the home is everywhere; in a recent example, it’s the driving force behind the plot of Pixar’s Coco. (Disney’s Moana, Best Animated Feature Oscar winner the previous year, happily subverts this idea.)
- Men define themselves by their work and achievements, while women define themselves by their relationships. Just how many “The Male Professional’s Female Relative” titles are out there? Here’s a Goodreads list with just a few: https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/3705.The_Female_Relative_Phenomenon#18619684
- Men fight to save the world, while women fight to save their families. As Susan Isaacs’ Brave Dames and Wimpettes: What Women Are Really Doing on Page and Screen (a book that could really use an update) notes, “For many wimpettes, the world stops at the white pickets of their fences; they lack the curiosity to look past the spaces between the pickets at the world beyond. . . Larger causes — racial equality, justice — are left to the guys” (7). Today’s writers scramble to create the female Indiana Jones or the female James Bond, yet where is our female Atticus Finch?
I’ll start with these three things, and see what happens later.
My ambition is, over the course of my writing career, to create female characters who want to see the world, maybe even the universe, and aren’t talked out of it. I want to write about women who explore, who discover. Maybe they have a home and a family to which they return from time to time, and a spouse who helps keep things stable. But maybe they don’t.
I want to write about women who love their work as much as I do, and take pride in their accomplishments. I want to write about women who perceive the wrongs and injustices in the worlds they inhabit and decide to do something about them, even though it might be dangerous.
I’m just getting started, and thankfully, I’m not doing it alone. Writers like Shinn, Hambly, Elliott, Tomi Adeyemi, Sarah Beth Durst, Kate Forsyth, Curtis Craddock, Cass Morris, Django Wexker, Max Gladstone, and many more are working on it too, offering us new and greater possibilities of what female characters should be and do.
(Isaacs, Susan. Brave Dames and Wimpettes: What Women Are Really Doing on Page and Screen. NY: The Library of Contemporary Thought, 1999.)