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.

Advertisements

Jupiter Ascending did NOT fail because…

Jupiter Ascending Movie Cover

…of bad casting. Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, and Sean Bean did a pretty great job considering some of the lines they had to say.

…of poor world building. The different worlds and species were not that bad. The idea of harvesting humans so that a select few could live forever was pretty interesting, if not entirely original. Most of the technology allowed you to suspend your disbelief.

…of the setting. The worlds were visually stunning. The spaceships were unique and interesting.

…it starred a female character. This is so important. Fantasy and Sci-fi shows featuring female leads CAN and WILL be successful, just as soon as the producers can get all the REAL issues taken care of.

And what were the real issues of the movie? Poor storytelling and characterization (I won’t even get into the HORRIBLE romance).

One of the biggest issues with the storytelling and characterization (and one that I see frequently when reading manuscripts) is a lack of proactivity from the main character. Main characters are supposed to DO things, not have things done to them. It’s okay to have an inciting incident that gets the character in the position she needs to be to start being proactive, but for this type of story, the main character needs to be proactive during the majority of the story.

Allow me to give an example of this. Let’s look at Katniss, a female lead who stars in an excellent book and excellent movie. Katniss has a very simple life. She lives under horrible circumstances in district 12, but does she sit around crying “Poor me”? No, she breaks the rules by going through the fence and hunting to provide food for her family. That, my friends, is proactivity. When it’s time for the reaping and Katniss’s sister is chosen to participate in the hunger games, does Katniss cry and bid her sister farewell? No, she freaking volunteers to take her place. Proactivity. In the games, does she just sit around and wait to die? No, she takes care of Peeta and thinks of a way to beat the system. Would you consider Katniss a victim of her circumstances? No, she’s a fighter and a survivor. She is a wonderful proactive character, and that is why she and her story are so fascinating.

So I’ll say it again, characters cannot sit around and simply have things done to them. They have to fight back. They have go out and do things. This makes them interesting.

Now, Jupiter Jones is not proactive. She has things done to her. She’s kidnapped…how many times during the movie? Four? She does what people tell her to do. Caine says stay. Caine says follow me. She has to go with the bad guys. She agrees to marry one of the bad guys, even though she’s sort of his reincarnated mother. Eew. Weird. Who thought that was a good plot element? Was anyone else reminded of the movie Thumbelina? Sure, I’ll marry the toad. Sure, I’ll marry the mole. What the heck?

The only times I can think of when Jupiter actually did something were when she agreed to go with the bad guys to save her family and then when she refused to sign over the rights to the earth to save her family. But that’s it. Two decisions. That’s what Jupiter’s character comes down to.

And THAT’S why Jupiter Ascending failed.

The Bigger Bad Guy

You guys have already heard me talk about how much I love the TV show The Vampire Diaries. Aside from having wonderful and consistent romantic tension, splendid characters, and fantastic plots—all things that are very essential to the makings of a good show—I’ve been able to pinpoint more specifically what makes this show so good.

I’m calling this idea “the bigger bad guy.”

It’s a fantastic device that works well to create well rounded characters, show excellent character development, and help the story get better and better as it continues. (How many times have we been disappointed by a second or third season of a show—or a sequel to a book series—because it wasn’t as good as the first one?) The Vampire Diaries only gets better with each succeeding season—something I can’t really say for any other show.

I’m now going to talk about “the bigger bad guy” and how TVD uses it. *Spoilers may be below up to the third season.

First, take a look at this guy.

Damon

goodwp

This is Damon Salvatore, our antagonist for season one of TVD—well part of season one. His brother, Stefan Salvatore, has just moved to Mystic Falls, your average small town. Except, of course, for the fact that there are vampires and other mystical creatures—a very creative town name on the creators’ part, I know. Damon has promised his brother an eternity of misery, so he follows Stefan around to try and make his life hell. At the moment, that mostly includes ruining Stefan’s budding relationship with Elena Gilbert. Oh, and Damon also has a secret agenda to reunite with his one true love, Katherine (Elena’s doppelganger), whom he believes has been stuck in a tomb for 100 years, give or take.

Now check out this chick.

Katherine

wikia

This is Katherine. Turns out, she wasn’t stuck in a tomb. She’s actually been just fine out and about living her life. Damon’s crushed at first, but once he falls in love with Elena (whoops), he moves on. This is when Katherine makes her appearance and starts making it her agenda to make both brothers’ lives miserable. So now Damon is a good guy (most of the time.) He helps Stefan and Elena out as they try to get rid of Katherine.

Now at this point, things are a little harder to follow, so I’ll summarize even more.

Elena gets kidnapped by Rose.

Rose

wikia

Rose assumes that Elena is Katherine (another whoops), which is why she kidnapped her in the first place. Katherine sort of helps to get her back. But before that happens, Rose takes her to this guy.

Elijah

fanpop

Elijah needs Katherine as a bargaining chip. You see, his brother Klaus has been holding his brothers and sister as undead hostages in coffins. Rose eventually tries to help the rest of the gang fend off Elijah and provides information on these scary brothers. Turns out that Klaus is even scarier than Elijah.

Klaus

movie pilot

And eventually Elijah joins the team to try and stop Klaus, who is basically unkillable. Our ultimate bad guy.

Note that there are many other bad guys throughout the TV series. I’m just trying to give you guys a taste of what I’m talking about.

But now on to the main points I’m trying to make. There’s always a bigger bad guy. This enables each episode to be better than the last. Because the stakes are higher (vampire pun intended), and the conflicts are more intense as the bad guys get badder and more powerful.

It’s also fascinating to see characters undergo such change. The bad guys become good guys as their goals align with the good guys’. They don’t always become perfectly good—they still have their fun flaws, but they do change in remarkable ways that are exciting to see.

Now, TVD isn’t the only show out there that’s doing this. Look at Loki’s character in the second Thor movie. Look how he aligns with Thor to face a bigger bad guy. Look at Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. These changeable bad guys are everywhere. And look at how much we love them! These are the characters that have the most fan girls—just saying.

Sometimes looking at where characters are going can help you solidify who they need to be at the beginning of your story. This can help with rounding out characters and their development. And it also makes for some interesting plot turns.

Weight-Loss Narratives and Why They Can Go Die in a Fire

I don’t really see much about fat* characters included in diversity discussions–and that’s understandable and totally cool with me when you consider that there are much larger (no pun intended) gaps in diverse representations in publishing such as race, sexual orientation, and disability. Excellent discussions for diversity in books can be found here, here, and here.

However, fat representation is something I can speak to from experience because I’m a fat woman and was a fat teenager and a fat child.

The topic is broad, and so it’s likely I’ll return to it again. For today, I’ll focus on weight loss narratives.

I HATE THEM.

Phew. Had to get that off my chest.

THEY CAN ALL BURN IN HELL.

Apparently I feel strongly about it.

It’s definitely a personal thing. Is there anything inherently wrong with a weight loss narrative? No. Is there something wrong with the fact that I could list dozens of books with fat heroines who have lost/are losing weight and can only think of a handful of stories with an is-fat-and-stays-fat main character? Yes. That’s where the problem lies.

It’s the prevalence of the weight loss narrative in fiction. It’s the fact that fat protagonists are seen as protagonists (rather than some kind of lazy anti-hero Homer Simpson) only if they’re virtuously trying to not be fat anymore. I call bullshit. Ideally, a human being should be no more defined by their fatness anymore than they are by their hair color.**

Image via Goodreads

Image via Goodreads

One of my all time favorite books is The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson. I adore this book. Princess Elisa, the main character, is a compulsive overeater with some major hang-ups about her role as the Chosen One. I will keep spoilers to a minimum, but over the course of the novel circumstances are such that Elisa, by no choice of her own, loses much of her excess weight. It’s realistic given what she goes through. The larger problem of her self-esteem and inadequacy issues are addressed realistically too, and as a result, in the next two books in the trilogy she has “overcome” her emotional eating and never gains back the weight.

Although I love this trilogy like a “drowning man loves air” there is a stubborn part of me that wonders how much more awesome it would have been had Elisa not lost all that weight–if she’d overcome obstacles and been a bad-ass queen and also a proud fat woman. I hate to say it, but to me that would have been even better. (Not to mention that as more research is conducted, weight loss is shown to be rarely long term, especially weight loss sustained by hard living, starvation conditions like those Elisa faces in the first book).

I’ll give another example, focusing more on romance. I planned to “hate-read” Breaking His Rules by Alison Packard the other week but to be honest I rather ended up liking it. The characters were introduced previously in the series, and I knew that the heroine, Melissa, had lost fifty pounds before her story starts.  Melissa’s weight loss is a main focus of the book, and the hero, Jake, is her personal trainer and helps facilitate all the weight loss. It feels a bit stupid to criticize a book that uses weight loss to bring the heroine and hero together and still enjoy it, but that is who I am, friends.

Just like I said about GoFaT (I just noticed that GoFaT says “Go Fat” and isn’t that so, so perfect), I’m not sure why Melissa needed to lose fifty pounds. Did you know that there are people who exercise and are fit and are also fat? You can go to the gym and eat reasonably healthy and still be fat.*** The story makes it clear that Jake was interested in Melissa even before she lost the weight–which is nice, but feels a bit like lip service. If he liked her anyway…why does she have to lose fifty pounds in order to get her Happily Ever After? I would have prefered the bolder choice: a fat woman who works out on the regular with her hottie gym-owning boyfriend and doesn’t care that her size is a double digit number. As is, the book makes it clear that Melissa is deserving of love, fat or not, but of course…she doesn’t get it until she’s lost the weight.

I could list more books with weight-loss narratives, but this post is already going to be too long.

Here’s a character I would love to see much more of:

A fat woman who isn’t hung up on her weight. Who treats her weight as a feature of her body, not a defining feature of her self and character. A fat woman who dates, is happy with herself, exercises and eats right or doesn’t, but doesn’t view weight loss as the measure of whether or not she’s succeeding in life. Realistically, few fat women who grow up with today’s media do so without developing a few complexes about their bodies (realistically, very few women fat or not who grow up with today’s media do so without developing a few complexes about their bodies). But this is why fiction is great. As authors we can write about characters who are different than ourselves! We can write about worlds and people we’d like to see. As much as I love reading about characters who are struggling with the things I struggle with (like the best TV show ever)  it’s just as much fun to read about a character who should have some of the same hang-ups I do but doesn’t.

As a fat woman, I’m sick of seeing fat person representation inextricably tied to the question of weight loss (having lost weight or wanting to).  As if that is my number one goal in life. It’s not. The fact is that there are scores of fat people satisfied with their lives, who achieve their goals, find happiness and love and success all while being fat. To me it’s a moot point whether or not they’re also trying to lose weight. That’s a side pursuit that actually has little bearing on their value as human beings or their success in other areas. So why don’t we see that in fiction?

Why not a character who represents these successful, funny, personable ladies?

Melissa-McCarthy3

Image via Plus Model Magazine

Item0_rendition_slideshowVertical_rebel-wilson

Image via pitch-perfect-wikia.com

Adele-Laughing-adele-31520116-600-598

Image via fanpop

I’d read the hell out of a romance about a Melissa McCarthy-like celebrity.

Or how about stories where we see young professional women succeeding all while being fat? Or because they’re fat?

Gabi Gregg of GabiFresh

Gabi Gregg of GabiFresh

Maybe a story about a waitress who does competitive weight lifting in her spare time:

Holly Mangold (image via the NYT)

Holly Mangold (image via the NYT)

And what if a story mentioned the protagonist’s size only in the way you’d also establish that the main character has blonde hair or is one of five children? Why does being fat have to take over the story?

Examples of stories that do this really well.

Image via Goodreads

Image via Goodreads

Eleanor’s weight is definitely mentioned. I’m sure Eleanor at one point thinks about losing weight, but I can’t remember because Eleanor has other things in her life that are much more worth worrying about than her size, like finding a way to get a toothbrush, or where the family’s next meal might come from, or how to get away from her awful stepfather. Being fat isn’t even remotely the most pressing worry she has. Bonus points for Park being head over heels for her.

Image via Wikipedia

Image via Wikipedia

Tracy Turnblad’s weight is the subject of torment by mean girl Amber and her mother Velma Von Tussle–but Tracy doesn’t care. She just wants to dance! And girl is good at it, too. Bonus points galore for having several fat characters (Tracy, Edna, Motormouth Maybelle), featuring a fat character excelling at a physical talent, and for giving the fat girl a love interest.

Notes:

*I am deliberately reclaiming “fat” as a descriptor, not a pejorative term. Thoughts on the “f” word are varied in the body acceptance community, but personally I’m fine with it as a descriptor.

**I choose to reference my fatness much more than my blondeness though, and that’s because my society tells me one is bad and the other is neutral good. Fat activism/fat acceptance/body diversity movements are necessary and good and I love them.

***This is a point made by the fat acceptance movement. I don’t feel the need to expound upon it here since it’s easily Googled.

 

 

Nice Boys Don’t Have to Finish Last

So a two weeks ago, Tricia talked about morally ambiguous characters and I thought I’d follow her trend and talk about a different character trope—The Nice Boy. I’ve kind of been obsessed with The Nice Boy in fiction for the last few years because I got sick of the edgy, brooding, bad boy with his tortured past and tight leather trousers and his guyliner. Because while those bad boys are certainly nice to read about or to watch on screen, I don’t think anyone ever wants to actually end up with a bad boy in real life (I mean, come on, talk about exhausting relationships) and I became obsessed with finding boys in my media who I think would be suitable boyfriends for my baby sisters.

Unfortunately, most people botch The Nice Boy. The Nice Boy tends to be boring. He tends to be a counter-point to the bad boy. He can offer his potential romantic partner a stable, fulfilling relationship, but he’s usually the foil in these love triangles. He’s the boy the heroine (or hero) isn’t supposed to end up with. He’s set dressing. He doesn’t have anything interesting going on. He’s static. He’s stiff. We’re not supposed to like him even though he’s usually pretty likeable.

But sometimes The Nice Boy can be done well, and in an effort for giving young people models of emotionally healthy relationships, let’s talk about a couple of Nice Boys who have been done right and what we can do to make them more than cardboard cut outs.

Nice Boy Number One: Steve Rogers

Art by lul-lulla.deviantart.com

As far as Nice Boys go, Steve Rogers is practically our poster child. Upstanding citizen, strong internal moral compass, respectful, loyal, honest. Captain America is the sort of guy who’s going to help old ladies across the street and save kittens from tall trees. But let’s be real here—who doesn’t love Steve Rogers? He’s amazing. He’s complex. Tony Stark might think he’s a bit of stick in the mud, but at the end of the day, Tony will still follow his lead.

I think what makes Steve work so well are the internal conflicts he’s presented with. Let’s look at The Winter Soldier, which is essentially a movie about torn loyalty. That movie pits Steve—a soldier, used to trusting his superiors and following orders—against the very organization he’s supposed to be taking orders from. He’s supposed to trust SHIELD. They’re supposed to be the good guys, but SHIELD has also been compromised by an evil that Steve was willing to die to eradicate. And that conflict of loyalty is layered with his loyalty to Bucky. On the one hand, Bucky has been brainwashed and is now a huge threat to Steve and the people he cares about. Steve thinks that the Winter Solider is responsible for Nick Fury’s “death.” But on the other hand, Bucky is still his best friend, and he’ll be with him till the end of the line.

Steve’s job isn’t black-and-white the way it once was. It’s no longer Captain America against Hydra and the Nazis. It’s Captain America versus the people who have been giving him orders. It’s Captain America versus his best friend. The writers for that movie did an incredible job of taking an action movie and layering it with complex emotional conflicts. How does someone who believes in honesty handle discovering that the people he’s working for are keeping secrets from him and lying to him? How is someone who honors loyalty supposed to fight a friend who might as well be family? (And let’s not forget, Steve already lost Bucky once. He thought Bucky died back in the 1940s. He saw him fall off that train, for crying out loud! He failed Bucky once. Could he really let him die again?) Instead of making Captain America this perfect, invulnerable man who can take out evil with his awesome boomerang shield, The Winter Soldier strikes Steve Rogers where it’ll do the most damage—right in the heart of his loyalties.

Nice Boy Number Two: Remus Lupin

Art by hitofanart.deviantart.com/

For those of you new to The Plotless, I am a shameless Harry Potter fangirl and I’ve been in love with Remus Lupin since I read Prisoner of Azkaban when I was 9. (Yeah, okay, that might be creepy, but I don’t care.) Lupin is the kind, compassionate teacher that we all wish we had. J.K.Rowling has even said that if Snape is supposed to represent the ilk of educators, than Lupin is supposed to be an example of the best education has to offer. He cares about his students. He’s patient with them. He doesn’t get irritated or snippy with Snape when Snape acts like a douche-canoe. In Goblet of Fire, when the fake Mad Eye Moody pulls Neville aside after the Unforgivable Curses lesson, Harry describes the action as the sort of thing Lupin would do. Lupin is a voice of reason. A mild-mannered man who bears adversity with dignity and courage.

Where Steve’s character depth comes from his torn loyalties, Lupin’s comes from his angst ridden past—which is something he shares in common with a lot of the bad boys we see. As a small child, he was infected with a curse that ostracized him from mainstream wizarding society. It’s only because of Dumbledore’s compassion that he was even able to obtain an education. As an adult, he struggled to find work and be accepted among his peers for the charming man that he is because of a condition that he could safely manage with something as simple as a potion. And all of that is on top of the traumatic loss of his entire support network when he was only twenty-one years old. In the space of about forty-eight hours, Lupin lost Lily, James, and (presumably) Peter to death and he lost Sirius to Azkaban (and, you know, that whole thing of thinking his best friend was a murderer). He had every excuse to become as hardened and bitter as Snape was.

But he didn’t—and that’s what makes him interesting. To me, at least. Lupin is the sort of person that crap has just happened to. All of his troubled past was entirely out of his control, but for the most part, he doesn’t let that define him. He doesn’t dwell on the factors of his life that he can’t control. Of course, we see times when his circumstances take their toll on him which is a natural and reasonable reaction, he doesn’t let those things define him the way Snape and Sirius let their pasts and their crummy circumstances define them. He chooses to rise above it. And even when he makes the wrong choice at first (need I remind you of his little meltdown at the beginning of book seven after he found out Tonks was pregnant?), he always gets his act together and does the right thing in the end.

Nice Boy Number Three: Peeta Mellark

Art by hooraylorraine.deviantart.com

In the beginning, Peeta comes across as the stereotypical nice-boy-foil to the bad boy love interest. Even though The Hunger Games aren’t really a story about love triangles (despite what every media outlet ever will try to tell you), Peeta still fills that nice-boy-foil role. He’s the boy next door. Kind, friendly, but mostly overlooked.

But Peeta is also powerful—and not just in a physical I-can-toss-around-hundred-pound-sacks-of-flour sort of way. Peeta’s strongest assets are his charm and his charisma, and I think part of Peeta’s appeal is that we too often see that sort of charm and charisma in sleeze-ball characters who are trying to manipulate us and not in good, neighborly sorts of characters. Peeta’s sort silver-tongued charm is something we usually associate with villains and lawyers (see Billy Flynn from Chicago). But over and over again, Peeta’s way with words is seen as something that he uses to benefit other people instead of himself. Katniss describes Peeta as being invaluable to the revolution because “he will be able to turn his pain into words that will transform people” (Catching Fire, p 17). He uses his way with words to try to protect Katniss instead of himself. (Let’s be honest here. Katniss kind of sucks with interpersonal interactions and she would have gotten approximately zero sponsors if Peeta didn’t relentlessly use his charm to benefit her.) And Peeta is selfless. As a sixteen-year-old boy, he’s willing to die to save a girl he has a crush on. And he’s willing to do it again the next year. As a young boy, he was willing to face his parents’ wrath to give burnt bread to a starving little girl. He doesn’t put himself first. Ever.

Peeta takes traits we typically associate with self-serving Slytherins (yes,yes, I know not all Slytherins are bad guys, but we should at least agree that they’re generally a self-serving lot) and applies that to the hard-working Hufflepuff. He’s cunning (siding with the Careers at the beginning of the 74th Hunger Games) and he’s silver-tongued (which usually means manipulative), but he is, at his core, a Nice Boy.

So there we have it, folks. Three ways to make your fictional Nice Boys into engaging and interesting characters. Don’t settle for cardboard cutouts anymore. We don’t need brooding bad boys and guyliner to make a compelling character