Strong Female Characters (TM)

So in the last month, I feel like there’s been a resurgence of uproar about women in media and the mythological Strong Female Character (TM). Between Black Widow’s role in the most recent Avengers film to the horrid debacle that is Game of Thrones and Sansa’s character arc and the newly released Mad Max: Fury Road (which I have not yet seen), there’s been lots and lots of talk about what it means to be a Strong Female Character (TM) and how if a female character isn’t a Strong Female Character (TM), then she is some how weak, less valuable than her fellow characters, and deserves all sorts of awful things that happen to her.

And this is why I kind of think the whole concept of Strong Female Character (TM) is a bunch of bunk.

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When people talk about SFCs, they’re usually only using the word “strong” in the physical sense of the word. SFCs are physically strong and feisty and they’re good to have in a fight. Sometimes, SFCs are ultra-tomboys who eschew everything feminine. Other times, they’re more along the lines of Buffy (aka the Vampire Slayer), who enjoys traditionally feminine things like clothes and romance but who is also good in a fight.

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with characters like this. Absolutely nothing wrong. There are women who don’t like traditionally feminine things. There are women who like to fight. There are women who are a mix of both. And it’s good and right to have representation of women like this in our media.

My problem is when we start acting like physical strength is the only way to make a female character strong and when we act like the presence or absence of physical strength (usually examined in conjunction with the presence or absence of traditionally feminine qualities or interests) is the sole deciding factor in whether a female character is “worthy” of our interest, if she’s “feminist enough,” or whether or not she deserves awful things happening to her.

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Take for example the backlash over Black Widow from Age of Ultron. In the film, she’s up to her usual ass-kicking but she also (1) had a love interest and (2) expressed some guilt/sadness/conflicting feelings over having been forcibly sterilized as a teenager, and large swaths of the internet lost their minds over this. Suddenly Black Widow was a weak woman. Suddenly she was just another woman who’s head was filled with notions of romance. I saw one criticism that accused her of infantalizing the Hulk so she could unleash all her long-buried maternal instincts upon him. While I will admit that the bulk of her screen time was seen in conjunction with the Hulk and the bulk of her character arc for this movie was a romantic one and that perhaps the movie could have struck a better balance in that regard, but at the same time, what on earth is wrong with a woman having romantic feelings for someone? What is wrong with her mourning the fact that the choice to have children or not was taken from her? (And let’s not forget that she had just relived the memory of being sterilized, so of course that’s wound is going to feel fresh all over again.)

I’m not saying that everyone has to love the way Black Widow’s character has developed, but it would be nice to not rake her over the coals because she’s a single character who cannot please everyone. (This is where the real problem is, by the way. If we had a better spread of female characters who embodied a wide range of interests and personalities and strengths and weaknesses, we wouldn’t spend weeks ripping apart a single character for not being everything we wanted. But that’s for another post.)

What I would love for people to start doing is to recognize that being strong doesn’t just mean being physically strong. As we work to make our media more inclusive, we need to remember that physical strength is not the only way to be strong. A few months ago, I stumbled across a post on tumblr that listed forty-two different kinds of strengths. FORTY-TWO! While some of those strengths were physical (endurance or dance/kinesthetics), none of the strengths on the list had anything to do with combat ability. Most of them were things like “having a keen eye” or “being self-aware” or “willing to be unpopular.” You know what else was on the list? Kindness. Sympathy. Elegance. Emotional intelligence. Style. All of those are things traditionally associated with femininity and none of them are things that are traditionally considered strengths—but adding these qualities to your characters will make them strong and interesting and well-rounded.

So let’s stop pretending that the ability to fight is the only way to measure strength and start recognizing the importance of other kinds of strength.

On Hooks and Promises

We hear the term hook thrown around a lot. Your story needs a good hook. No one will read past the first page if you don’t have a good hook. What’s your hook? And so on and so forth. But what exactly do we mean by this?

Hooks are, simply put, the interesting bit in the beginning of your story or your novel or your screenplay that…well, that hooks the reader into the story. I think, however, that we get used to talking about hooks in terms of “what’s the new exciting thing that will engage the reader” and less in terms of “what does this hook say about my story,” and the more I think about it, the more I think we need to be talking about that.

Because while a hook is certainly grabbing and engaging and interesting, it also makes a lot of promises to your reader—promises that they’re going to expect you to uphold and fulfill. So let’s talk about the larger scope of hooks. Not the opening line or even the opening paragraph—but the opening scene (or scenes) that set the tone for your work and tells the reader exactly what they’re getting themselves into.

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The bulk of my formal writing education was taught by people who write different sorts of books than I do. While I write fantasy and have had the privilege to learn at the feet of some of the great fantasy writers of our time, a lot of the writers I’ve looked up to in the recent years write action-packed fantasy, full of rule-based magic systems and grand adventures. I enjoy reading those books, of course, but I tend to write…quieter stories. Fantasy that is focused on clashing cultures and social structures and political strife—and while there’s still plenty of action and adventure that happens in my books, the climaxes of my stories are more likely to happen in a single room than on a grand battle front.

Neither of these types of stories are better than the other and there’s an audience for both, but the sort of hooks that work in big action-packed epic fantasy aren’t going to work as well for the sort of things I write—and it took me longer than it should have to realize that.

First of all, hooks don’t have to be action sequences. I realized that I kept trying to start off my books with explosions and chase scenes when my books weren’t really about explosions and chase scenes, and by trying to set my books up with those as opening scenes, I was making a promise to my readers that I had no intention of fulfilling. When a book opens with a fast-paced fight scene, that’s what the reader is going to expect throughout the rest of the story. Almost every episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer opens with a scene of Buffy taking out some big bad demon and that sets the tone for the rest of the episode. It says, “Hello, viewer, in this show, you are going to get cool fighting choreography and witty banter.” But if you take the opening scene of Buffy and attach it to, say, an episode of Gilmore Girls, the people who tuned in for the cool fighting choreography are going to be disappointed (though the people watching for witty banter will probably be pleased).

A hook needs to set the tone for what you’re writing. That’s its main job. Pride and Prejudice opens with the arrival of Mr. Bingley at Netherfield and Mrs. Bennett’s assertions that he will make a fine husband for one of her daughters. That hook promises romance and some fun commentary of class and social mores of the time. One of the first scenes in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix involves Harry and the Dursleys being swarmed with owls from everyone from Albus Dumbledore to the Ministry of Magic, all carrying conflicting messages, which makes the promise that while Voldemort is certainly a problem in that book, the Ministry of Magic is going to be an even bigger and more immediate problem. Captain America: The Winter Soldier opens with Captain America and Black Widow embarking on a mission for SHIELD. The scene makes the promise that this movie will have lots of cool fight scenes, that it will focus on Captain America and Black Widow and SHIELD, and that Captain America’s ability to trust the people he’s working with will be a major plot point.

Which brings me to the next point: your hook should do more than one thing. It does more than set the tone, it also introduces characters and plot points and setting—and The Avengers: Age of Ultron did a remarkable job of that. (Warnings for mild spoilers of AoU. I know it only came out over the weekend, but the opening did too good of a job to pass up.) The movie starts in media res as the Avengers storm a Hydra Research Facility in Sokovia, a country in Eastern Europe, where they hope to reclaim Loki’s Scepter. The whole gang is there, but the characters who seemed to get more screen time than the rest were Black Widow, the Hulk, and Hawkeye. Later, we’ll find out that each of these characters have personal issues that will become substantial plot points. (Which is especially nice because the other characters get entire movies to themselves to sort out their personal issues.) By focusing on those three characters in the beginning, the movie promises that these three will be big players throughout the rest of the film.

And that’s not all the intro did. It introduced us to Sokovia. Which happens to be where the final battle takes place, and which happens to be where Pietro and Wanda Maximoff are from—and oh yeah, Pietro and Wanda are also going to be big players in this film and they also get screen time in the opening fight scene. In the opening scene, we see Iron Man’s preoccupation with protecting innocent civilians through the use of his Iron Legion program and that particular preoccupation is what launches the whole story forward. The intro also focused on Loki’s Scepter, although at risk of unleashing major spoilers, I’m not going to tell you why this is important to the rest of the film. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

In the opening sequence, they set the tone for the movie (lots of action! Captain America and Iron Man bickering! More fighting!), they showed us which characters were going to be important (Hawkeye, Black Widow, the Hulk, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff), they introduced us to an important location (Sokovia!), and they hinted at important plot points (Loki’s Scepter, Iron Man’s Iron Legion program)—and all of that was done in about fifteen minutes of a movie that runs nearly two and a half hours long.

When you sit down to write or revise the beginning of your story, look at what parts of the story you’re focusing on and think ahead to what sort of promises those are making. If in your first draft, you opened with a light-hearted romance scene and then the book ends up being about a woman dealing with a mental illness…well, then you need to revise your hook. Readers who are hooked by the light-hearted romance might not be looking for a book about mental illness, and the people who do want that book might be turned off by the opening romance. As a writer, it’s your job to make sure the beginning of the book sets the tone and makes the sort of promises that are necessary to tell the story you want to tell.

YA and Adult Epic Fantasy: What’s the difference?

So I recently moved across the country and in the process of getting to know people, I’ve often been asked what sort of books I read or what my favorite books are—you know, the normal questions avid readers get when getting to know new people. I have no problem rattling off recent favorite titles and I’m not ashamed to tell people that I read a lot of YA fantasy these days.

But having this conversation so often in such a short span of time has got me thinking: what exactly is the difference between a YA fantasy novel and an adult fantasy novel? Why have the people I talked to been so accepting of my adult fantasy tastes but always give me odd looks when I tell them about my favorite YA fantasies?

Now, I’ve taken classes on YA literature and as a connoisseur of YA books, I know all sorts answers to these questions. Adults who read YA are immature or suffering from a Peter Pan complex. YA and adult books are perceived as being fundamentally different. The age of the protagonists. The length of the book. The pacing. The themes.

But so much of that is flexible. Plenty of adult fantasy novels feature teenage protagonists. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books come to mind, as Vin is only sixteen in those books. Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle might also fit into that category, because even though the story is framed by adult Kvothe, it’s primarily about young adult Kvothe. Karen Memory, the adult steampunk novel I’m currently reading, is about a teenage girl, but it’s still considered an adult novel.

But, you say, there’s still length and pacing and thematic elements to consider while determining the difference between adult and young adult, and I will grant you all those things. Sanderson and Rothfuss and George R.R. Martin—all staples of the adult fantasy market these days—have long books that sometimes feel like they’re plodding along and Martin’s work certainly has dark enough thematic elements that I’d think twice about handing it to my teenage sister. (Though to be fair, I’d think twice about handing it to any of my sisters, but different strokes for different folks and all that. I just don’t think that those books would appeal to any of my family members.)

Pacing and themes and length, however, also don’t solely determine what’s YA and what’s adult. Since Sanderson broke into the YA scene with The Rithmatist and Steelheart, both released in 2013, I’ve noticed that Mistborn has been rebranded as a YA book. It’s on the shelves as a new YA release at my local Barnes and Noble. I don’t have a problem with this, mind you. I think Mistborn, along with a lot of other adult fantasy novels, hold a lot of appeal for teenagers. In fact, as a teenager, I read far more adult fantasy novels than I do now. I think we should encourage cross-over books like this. We should encourage people to explore young adult and adult books equally.

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I think my problem comes when we sort of brush of YA books as “lesser” or when we don’t treat YA epic fantasies with the same respect we treat adult epic fantasies. This is nothing new, of course. Every couple of months, there’s some think piece about how adults should be ashamed of reading YA and then there’s a barrage of rebuttals extolling the virtues of young adult literature. I’ve even written one of those rebuttals. This is a conversation I’m used to having, but I think it’s one that we need to keep having. Because when I talk to new people and we start talking about books and start recommending titles to each other, I am always braced for the sneering and snubbing of my favorite YA fantasy titles, even when they’re as deep and well-developed and nuanced as adult fantasy novels.

Take, for instance, Robin LaFevers His Fair Assassin books. I read the first book, Grave Mercy, not long after it came out because Tricia and Megan recommended it to me, telling me that it was a book about assassin nuns. How could I resist? And I fell in love with these books. If you’re looking for a medieval fantasy and you haven’t read those books, go now. Stop reading this post and go buy the first book. You’ll thank me. These books are filled with depth and character and political intrigue and clashing religions. The world building in these books is spot on and the research LaFevers has done to make these books accurate to the time period is exhausting. Each book has an afterward in which she talks about the historical context—what she’s changed for her own uses and what she kept the same—and she even talks about historically accurate language. I believe at one point she apologizes using the word saboteur because the word hadn’t been invented in the time period the book takes place. This woman knows her stuff and I am in awe of her.

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And if you think YA fantasy novels can’t be as dark or “edgy” as their adult counterparts, let me introduce you to Dark Triumph, the second book in the series. Dark Triumph is the sort of book I hand to people with a warning. It involves abusive family relationships, incestuous relationships, the violent murder of a newborn in front of the baby’s mother, and the effects growing up in that environment has on mental health and personal identity. This book doesn’t pull its punches. The threat of rape and violence against women—which George R.R. Martin insists that he includes for “historical accuracy”—is very much present in this book, but unlike in Martin’s books, women rise and triumph over this misogyny. Sybella, the protagonist of Dark Triumph, begins a journey of healing and recovery and self-discovery in that book and despite all the dark, horrible things that take place between the cover of that book, it ends on a note of hope.

And perhaps that is the real difference between adult fantasy and young adult fantasy. No matter how dark the journey contained in a young adult book, they almost always tend to end on a note of triumph and hope. Good wins over evil. People—both good and bad—get what they deserve in the end. No matter how close the world came to ending, balance is always restored.

This isn’t to say that adult fantasy novels all end in tragedy, but I think perhaps adult fantasy novels tend to sacrifice some optimism in exchange for “realism” or “accuracy.” And maybe other readers will think that, as an adult, I need to open my eyes and be aware of the “real world” and develop cynicism to wear as a shield, but I think I’ll stick with YA optimism, thank you very much.

The other big difference I keep coming back to between YA fantasy and adult fantasy, though, is the gender of the protagonist (and often the gender of the writer as well). I have made no effort to hide my undying love for Tamora Pierce’s YA fantasy novels, but I have never once found an adult fantasy novel with such well done female characters. I’m sure those books are out there and some of my favorite lady authors write adult fantasy featuring complex lady characters, but I don’t think I’ve ever found an adult fantasy where girls and women are the heroes of the story full stop. (If you, dear reader, have any recommendations for adult fantasy novels were ladies are the focal point, I’d love to hear it!) In most of the adult books I’ve read, the protagonist has been a man, but usually with a kick-ass woman at his side to help him complete his journey. But it’s his journey, not hers.

In YA, we have dozens and dozens of books that are about girls’ journeys. The works of Tamora Pierce and Robin LaFevers and Rae Carson and Sarah J Maas are all about the paths and journeys of girls and women. The focal character is someone like me and I like that. I like it a lot. I like seeing girls framed as heroes. I like seeing girls saving the day and falling in love at the end. I like seeing girls work with other girls to build a better future for themselves. In Rae Carson’s Fire and Thorns series, I literally got shivers when I read about Elisa and Alodia and Cosme meeting together as leaders of their countries because I had never read a story where not one but three positions of world power were held by girls.

I’ve spent a lot of my time reading books about boys and men going off on grand adventures and while I’ve enjoyed those stories, they don’t resonate with me the way stories about girls and women do—and that’s not something I’m ashamed of.

Agent Carter

When I first heard rumblings about the ABC show Agent Carter, I told myself I wasn’t going to watch it. From the limited previews I’d seen, the show seemed too violent for my tastes and I figured that this show would be another case of media over-masculinizing a female character to make her “strong.” But after the first two episodes aired, I started seeing gif sets and screen shots on tumblr that indicated that maybe my assumptions about the show was wrong.

So I gave it a chance.

And it turned out I was soooo wrong. Agent Carter is not the perfect show and it’s not without issues (most notably the complete lack of POC in the show), but in terms of female representation and “strong female characters,” this show is doing a lot of things right.

Female Friendships

Probably my favorite character in the show is Angie Martinelli. She’s a waitress at a diner that Peggy Carter frequents and she’s the character who ties Peggy to the “normal” world—the world without super soldiers and spies. From the moment she opens her mouth, Angie is fun and she’s witty and she’s friendly. She reaches out to Peggy, who (as far as Angie knows) is just another working woman, and they become friends.

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And it’s beautiful.

In so many shows, women are pitted against each other. They have to compete for the much-vaunted male attention. They’re not allowed to be friends, not allowed to be supportive of each other, because…well, I don’t know why. Maybe because it’d hurt the male protagonists feelings to have someone not prioritize him all the time? Who knows. But in Agent Carter, Angie and Peggy are allowed to be friends. When Angie gets harassed by entitled men at the diner, Peggy comes to her defense. When Peggy has had an awful day at work, she’s able to go to Angie for sympathy. They support each other. Their relationship isn’t defined by some man that they have in common—if anything, their relationship is cemented because of men in general and their need to stand together against a sexist society.

Peggy doesn’t bring out the old tropes that we all know—and hate—so well. She doesn’t try to buddy up to the boys because she’s “not like other girls.” She doesn’t eschew traditionally feminine things. She doesn’t dumb herself down or butch herself up to get men’s attention or respect. Instead, she makes friends with Angie and the girls she lives with and genuinely cares about them. She embraces feminine interests because she knows her enemies will underestimate her because of them. When Peggy pushes Angie away to protect her in episode two, Angie gets annoyed but she also forgives Peggy when she apologizes and extends a hand of friendship by the end of the episode. Both of these women are treated as people instead of side-characters for men to flirt with.

Non-romantic Male-Female Relationships

The relationship between Jarvis and Peggy is also a breath of fresh air because Jarvis isn’t romantically interested in Peggy at all. He’s married—and happily prioritizes his relationship with his wife over anything that Howard Stark or Peggy need from him—and fills the role of a plucky sidekick (and reliable friend) quite well. Jarvis is different from the chauvinistic men that Peggy works with and different from Agent Sousa, the one co-worker of Peggy’s who isn’t a sexist pig. With Peggy and Sousa, there’s an element of romantic tension in their relationship, though not one that’s been developed at all, but Jarvis and Peggy don’t have any of that tension.

Their relationship is also fun because it subverts so much of the male-female co-worker relationships we’ve seen in the MCU. With Iron Man, we’ve got Tony and Pepper Pots (who, admittedly, do become romantic interests for each other). Tony was out playing the superhero, and Pepper stayed behind to do the low-key (and highly necessarily) desk work. In The Winter Soldier, Captain America and Black Widow work together as equals for most of the film. At times, Black Widow is even able to step in and save Steve Rogers (eg when they’re being tracked down in the mall) because she’s used to working stealthily and he’s not. In both cases, the women are allowed to shine in their respective ways and I don’t think anyone could argue that they’re not valuable characters in their movies, but they’re not the main characters either. The movie isn’t about them, it’s about Tony or Steve.

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In Agent Carter, though, the show is about Peggy. It’s about her struggles at work, it’s about her trying to clear Howard Stark’s name, it’s about her trying to move on from Steve and WWII and build a life for herself. Her problems are front and center, not a male characters. She’s the title character. She doesn’t play second-fiddle to Jarvis and she proves over and over again that she’s more competent than the men she works with. She’s the hero in this show, and it’s nice to see Marvel developing a show around a woman and allowing her to shine.

It’s Not About Steve

When I told my husband about this show, his first question was, “So is it about her getting over Captain America?” and I was so happy to be able to say, “No.” Because while Peggy’s pain at having lost Steve Rogers is certainly a motivating factor for her actions—particularly when it comes to protecting people she cares about—the show is not about Peggy “getting over” Steve or learning to love again or any number of overdone plots for female characters.

At the end of the day, Steve barely factors into the show. There are references to Captain America here and there—my favorite being the radio show that served as a bookend for episode two—but Peggy is treated as a person who exists outside of Captain America. In the first Captain America movie, where we first meet Peggy Carter, she is largely there to be the romantic interest for Steve Rogers and Haley Atwell does a wonderful job in that role, but in Agent Carter, she gets to be so much more. She’s not someone’s love interest. She’s her own person, with hopes and dreams and strengths and witnesses and delightfully dry British wit. She’s out to prove herself to her boss and she’s out to clear Howard Stark’s name—because he’s a friend, an old war buddy and not because they’re romantic partners.

Now, I don’t mean to sound like I think any female character with a romance plotline isn’t being a “strong female character” because I don’t think that at all. Love and romance is an important part of many people’s lives and we shouldn’t shame women for taking an interest in their own love lives and the loves lives of their friends, but it seems to me that having a female character without any sort of romantic plot or subplot is pretty rare. This is part of having diverse representation. We can have women with romantic plotlines and women without romantic plotline, just like we have plenty of male characters with and without romantic plotlines. Peggy isn’t defined by her relationship to Steve. She defines herself.

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And that’s something we need more of.