Twitter led me to a terrific post today by Sophia McDougall on the meme of “strong female characters” in fiction. It has the provocative title “I hate Strong Female Characters” but read on — there is an explanation for this, and Ms. McDougall has a lot of wise things to say. For example:
Part of the patronising promise of the Strong Female Character is that she’s anomalous. “Don’t worry!” that puff piece or interview is saying when it boasts the hero’s love interest is an SFC. “Of course, normal women are weak and boring and can’t do anything worthwhile. But this one is different. She is strong! See, she roundhouses people in the face.”
She also reverses the meme, asking “Are our best-loved male heroes Strong Male Characters?”
Is Sherlock Holmes strong? It’s not just that the answer is “of course”, it’s that it’s the wrong question.
What happens when one tries to fit other iconic male heroes into an imaginary “Strong Male Character” box? A few fit reasonably well, but many look cramped and bewildered in there. They’re not used to this kind of confinement, poor things. They’re used to being interesting across more than one axis and in more than two dimensions.
The idea that “strength” translates to ass-kicking ability has always annoyed me. I’m not really interested in superheroes. I’m interested in people who don’t always have the answers, who face moral quandaries, who do the best they can, and who — even among my antiheroes — have a moral core. Physical prowess is fine — I’m an athletic person, I love physical strength and endurance — and violence can serve a plot. I certainly engage in violence-in-plot, especially in my most recent books, but to me, “strength” is interesting when it’s strength-of-character.
So when the talk turns to “strong women characters” I like to point to Jubilee in Memory — along with her mother Tola, and Udondi, and Elek — because we’re allowed to have more than one. Or Clemantine, Deneb, and Hailey in Vast, or Katie, Roxanne, Ilene, and Nikki in Tech-Heaven, or Ketty, Takis, and Tayval in The Dread Hammer.
“Strong” comes in so many forms, because it takes all kinds of people — men and women both — to make a world.
Over a year ago I wrote my own post on “strong female characters” but never quite finished it. Maybe it’s time to finalize that one.