Up Front by Emma Hart


A Real Character

You know how sometimes you read something really stupid on the internet*, it annoys you, and then every time you run across a discussion on the same issue you get reminded of it all over again? That happens to other people, right? It's not just that I need therapy? 

Recently, friend Tallulah pointed me at this, which we'll come back to in a moment. What probably isn't reasonable is that it made me spend about half an hour trying to find this again: Hollywood's Five Saddest Attempts at Feminism, just so it could make me all pissy again.

That's five female characters, all of them from spec-fic. This 'strong female characters' trope gets thrown at sci-fi and fantasy more than real-world based stories, and maybe that's fair. If you're creating a world, after all, you're not constrained by a realistically-misogynist society. Your girls really can do anything, and come from anywhere. But this? If I might summarise with perhaps an unfair degree of paraphrasing: 

-          good things: these women kick arse. Physically. Violently. All of them.

-          bad things: they have weaknesses. They fall in love, have babies, need help.

Srsly? Is this our image of a feminist heroine? To be strong she has to be infallible, and standing up to her ankles in intestines? This whole piece seems to be based on the trope that Real Women Don't Wear Dresses. (We get this a lot with amateur spec-fic writers at Bardic Web. You can tell when someone's writing a Strong Female Character because she always wears trousers, she kills people, and she can't cook. Which isn't sexist at all.)

You don't want to go too far down that line, of course, because then you end up with the opposite problem. Your character doesn't count as a strong female character because they're "not really a woman". 

Finally we have the wo-man, which are male characters with breasts... The wo-man is written exactly as a man with all his interests, attributes, entanglements and characteristics except he/she has sex with male characters. Interesting. Starbuck, in BSG, the gods love her, is a good example. Wo-man to the soul. Is she a strong female character? Not really. The subtext here is, to be strong you have to be a man.

Got it? Kara Thrace isn't a woman, because she has "male interests". Like drinking and smoking and flying and bar-fights. Got it? If you wear a dress, you can't be strong. If you have short hair, wear trousers and smoke cigars, you can't be a woman. Increasingly it seems that the only way to guarantee not being accused of "not being able to write female characters" is to actually not write female characters.

Maybe the problem is that we mean different things when we say "strong". I'm definitely in the "strong writing" rather than "strong biceps" camp, though I'm also not going to take having a gun or wearing a tight shirt as necessarily a sign of weakness. And I think "strong" is utterly the wrong word. 

Sloppy or clichéd writing of female characters has never bothered me as much as it does with LGBT characters. But oddly I've never seen people suggest that a gay man isn't "strong" unless he keeps proving his butchness by mowing down aliens with an Uzi from the back of his Harley. I just want them to be believable and real. A character is "strong" if the writer makes me care what happens to them. Which is not strength at all, but depth. 

I want deep characters, of any gender and sexual orientation. And I honestly don't think Molly from Sherlock is one. She strikes me as an NPC who's been given a bit more depth because the plot demanded it. There's nothing wrong with that: look at the way Ianto blossomed through Torchwood from being a borderline-butler to the most interesting character in the ensemble. Molly could become a deep character, but for me she still has too much blank space.

What exhausts me about these arguments over strong, feminist female characters is that they're all based on this idea that some women are realer than others. Some count more. Molly Hooper isn't "the one who counts". We all bloody count. There isn't a list of traits that make a female character "feminist". Just make her a fucking character. Make me care.




*Yes, I said sometimes.

      Emma Hart is the author of the book 'Not Safe For Work'. (Click here to find out more)

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