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.

image from bloody-disgusting.com

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.

image from comicvine.com

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.

Sci-fi/Fantasy Movies and TV Shows

I watched a really good sci-fi movie the other day that got me thinking about the sci-fi/fantasy genre. I’m a huge fan of SFF—especially if there’s a good romantic subplot (or main plot) in the mix. Lately there’s been a surge of SFF movies and TV shows. And YA is really starting to bring in some fantastic fantasy (pun intended) and sci-fi. The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Throne of Glass, The Hunger Games, and Grave Mercy are just a few of my favorites.

It’s been my experience, though, that the movie making industry has a harder time creating strong SFF. This is understandable once you consider how many people read and make changes to a screenplay before it reaches production. And then there are the changes that get made while it’s undergoing production—changes by the director, the interpretation by the actors, etc. While these changes are understandable, I don’t think we can excuse all of them. When the storylines are riddled with plot holes and inconsistencies that are so bad that they make you unable to suspend your disbelief halfway through the movie, it’s a problem.

So to remind us that the genre is wonderful and worthy of our attention, I thought I would list some good SFF shows and movies to look into (and some old ones to remember and appreciate).

First is Live. Die. Repeat.: Edge of Tomorrow, the excellent sci-fi movie that I mentioned watching earlier. Basically this movie is Ender’s Game meets Prince of Persia.

And since I just mentioned them, I will add them to the list formally because they are both fantastic SFFs.

Prince of Persia

Ender’s Game

Next up is Pirates of the Caribbean.

Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. Need I say anything else?

Guardians of the Galaxy

Everything in the Marvel universe is already awesome, but I especially enjoyed GotG. Talk about fantastic dialogue and characterization!

Galaxy Quest

Laugh out loud funny.

The Hunger Games

Probably one of the most brilliantly done movie adaptations of a book.

Stardust

And now some timeless classics:

Star Wars

The Lord of the Rings

And a few great shows:

The Vampire Diaries

I know I talk about TVD a lot, but, guys, this show is brilliant. I had never seen a show that gets better with each new season until I saw TVD. The series arc is brilliant, and the plots are oh, so fun!

Every show by Joss Whedon:

Firefly

Dollhouse

I feel like Dollhouse is lesser known, but it is still an excellent show. If you like sci-fi, go watch now.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

(These next two are not by Joss Whedon, but they’re both great.)

Witches of East End

Sorry, couldn’t find an official trailer.

And last but not least, Orphan Black

This actress is phenomenal.

Now go watch something awesome. Watching awesomeness always inspires me to write 🙂