All the princesses know kung-fu now
August 15, 2013 6:51 AM   Subscribe

Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong. - I hate Strong Female Characters.
posted by Artw (115 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite

 
I guess I never thought about the the way a strong female character is defined a lot by the fact she can fight like or as well as a man, which apparently makes them equal to male characters. Very interesting.
posted by Kitteh at 6:59 AM on August 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


Yeah, I'm not saying she's wrong, but it never *occurred* to me to think that "strong female character" meant "fighty."

She resonates much better with me with the use of "kick-ass," which, yes, I am sick of hearing as the be-all end-all.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 7:01 AM on August 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


I once had a bit of an argument with someone because I had disparaged another person who looked up to Trinity from the Matrix; the dispute revolved around the person taking as a given that Trinity was a well-rounded, interesting character so they assumed my problem must have been one of misogyny.

Which no, it wasn't; I didn't (and don't) like the character's role in the film because her entire job in the plot is to be Neo's girlfriend, and she pretty much doesn't have a purpose outside of that. The fact that she got to kick and shoot people doesn't change that. I sometimes think of her as the prototype for the terrible Strong Female Character.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 7:04 AM on August 15, 2013 [11 favorites]


Fortunately, as ever, there is Dana Scully - smarter, more diplomatic, more rational, and a better shot than her partner, but still occasionally vulnerable, stubborn, and fussy, and can't sing.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:05 AM on August 15, 2013 [60 favorites]


Kate Beaton's got your back.
posted by Naberius at 7:08 AM on August 15, 2013 [37 favorites]


Holmes is also physically frail, a heavy smoker, a cocaine addict. And a bit of a weirdo. Outside the mother-like relationship he had with his housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson, he had few interactions with women at all and did not trust them. Holmes was a friggin' mess.

What the author is missing are "strong" female characters equally as flawed and awesome and it seems to me that this is a good point. Just being able to throw a punch doesn't come close to being Sherlock Holmes - who always relied on Dr. Watson to pack heat.
posted by three blind mice at 7:12 AM on August 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


What about Claire Danes in Homeland, Glenn Close in Damages, Lea Michele in Glee, or Anna Torv in Fringe? There are plenty of flawed and complex female characters out there.
posted by shivohum at 7:18 AM on August 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


Rather than TV and movies, this got me thinking about whether or not some of the literary heroines, especially in the female-authored or girl-oriented YA fantasy I read growing up, fell into this trap. And then I wondered if I'd really be able to tell, being a male (and a boy at the time).

For instance, how does Tamora Pierce's Alanna fare under this lens? Alanna finds a way to become a squire by hiding in male drag. I thought she was awesome at the time, and I think Pierce was trying to write against cliche, but I wonder if it really succeeds. (The third Alanna book is called The Woman Who Rides Like a Man.)

Or, for that matter, Ayra Stark (who often sort of reminds me of Alanna).

It seems to me the surest way to escape this cliche is to avoid claiming any normatively male quality of "strong" as in "fighty," which is probably ceding too much ground. But still, there are girls as main characters in widely beloved YA fiction whose "strength" comes through clearly despite a lack of swords, guns, etc. Like A Wrinkle In Time. Although I do recall the protagonist's love interest being somewhat cliched as an athletic dark horse type, and his interest in her being overplayed in her character development.
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:28 AM on August 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


shivohum, Sophia McDougall starts out by listing female characters she likes, then points out there's a lazy "Strong Female Character" mold that also exists:
And of course, I love all sorts of female characters who exhibit great resilience and courage. I love it when Angel asks Buffy what’s left when he takes away her weapons and her friends and she grabs his sword between her palms and says “Me.” In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I love Zhang Ziyi’s Jen sneering “He is my defeated foe” when asked if she’s related to Chow Yun-Fat's Li Mu Bai. I love Jane Eyre declaring “I care for myself” despite the world’s protracted assault on her self-esteem. My despair that the film industry believes the world is more ready for a film featuring a superhero who is a raccoon than it is for a film led by a superhero who is a woman is long and loud.

But the phrase “Strong Female Character” has always set my teeth on edge, and so have many of characters who have so plainly been written to fit the bill.
It's a good piece, and points out the shortcuts that many writers and/or directors take with female characters. They still relate to men in the plot, whereas the men can stand alone and be complex.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:28 AM on August 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


This bit was brilliant. (bold added)

That a female character is allowed to get away with behaviour that, in a male character, would rightly be seen as abusive (or outright murderous) may seem - if you’re MRA minded, anyway – an unfair imbalance in her favour. But really these scenes reveals the underlying deficit of respect the character starts with, which she’s then required to overcome by whatever desperate, over-the-top, cartoonish means to hand. She’s in a hole, and acts that would be hair-raising in a male character just barely bring her up to their level. The script acknowledges and deplores the sexism the character faces in her very first scene – but it won’t challenge the sexist soldier’s belief that women don’t belong in this story by writing any more women into it. Not women with names and speaking parts, anyway.

I’m sure someone will claim here that this would have been simply impossible, because everyone knows there weren’t any women in World War Two, so, firstly – oh, PLEASE. Secondly, German women had done pretty well in the sciences before the rise of Hitler. Why couldn’t Erskine, the sad German scientist whose serum transforms Steve Rogers, have been gender-switched for the movie? Howard Stark, father of Tony/Iron Man, gets a cameo – couldn’t his future wife Maria appear too, grinding edges on that shield or something? What about the tower keeper who was guarding the supernaturally powered Cosmic Cube – did he have to be a man? Couldn’t the Red Skull have recruited a few evil women for Hydra, too? As it is, with when one recognises that sole responsibility for representing her gender and tackling sexism rests on Peggy-the-character’s shoulders, that her actions are outlandishly large to compensate for all those other women who simply aren’t there, some of the strain and hyperbole in her characterisation becomes more explicable.


I had never thought about how having only one woman in a cast would saddle that character with this burden. It works the same for characters of color, too, gay characters, disabled characters, what have you.

Or, in shorter form, tokenism prevents effective characterization. If you have to represent EVERY woman, you can't really be a particular woman. You are constantly proving your worthiness to be included in the story, because otherwise why is there only one of you?

LoTR was hideous in this respect. The movie only slightly better than the book. Tolkein set out to make a whole world, but clearly regarded half the population as below his notice, except for a few exceptional trophies/plot twist enablers. And we really haven't come much farther since.
posted by emjaybee at 7:32 AM on August 15, 2013 [47 favorites]


The chief plot role of the SFC recently seems to be conveniently shooting the bad guy from off screen moments before he would have killed the protagonist.
posted by empath at 7:33 AM on August 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


from the piece:
She’s George from The Famous Five all grown up and still bleating with the same desperate lack of conviction that she’s “Every Bit As Good as a Boy”.
BWAH-HAHAHAHAHAHA!

Yes! Women characters need to be able to be as complex and abrasive and dark as male characters.


Also, see this piece: I need terrible female engineers
posted by jfwlucy at 7:33 AM on August 15, 2013 [10 favorites]


Laura Dern's character in Enlightened was a unique bright spot for characterizations of modern women on TV, and she was surrounded by both male and female characters with complex motivations. Of course, the show was untimely cancelled, and I can't help but think that the fact that the main character's flaws and strengths were often tied to traits we see as feminine contributed to the fact that it did so poorly. "Strong Female Characters" simply seem to do better in the ratings than human ones.

Holmes is also physically frail

The Sherlock stories spanned a few decades, but I don't think early Holmes was frail. Like many gentlemen of the time he boxed and held his own in a scrap or two. He had great mastery of his body both visually and athletically.
posted by muddgirl at 7:34 AM on August 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


There are plenty of flawed and complex female characters out there.

This doesn't in any way negate her point, even if true.
posted by empath at 7:35 AM on August 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


Oops. Should have added this above --
here's an short article from a fan at bitch magazine about Tamora Pierce and "strong female" heroines:

Iconography: Tamora Pierce and All the Feminist Fantasy Heroines You Could Want
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:43 AM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Damn! I was coming here to mention Enlightened. Best show of 2012, hands-down.

...and on preview, I was also coming here to mention Tamora Pierce. Shit, MetaFilter, get out of my head.
posted by Rory Marinich at 7:45 AM on August 15, 2013


Veronica Mars, baby. Smart, vengeful, doesn't give a shit what you think.
posted by George_Spiggott at 7:45 AM on August 15, 2013 [11 favorites]


Also, Alice from Luther would make Sherlock Holmes wet the bed.
posted by George_Spiggott at 7:48 AM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yes! Women characters need to be able to be as complex and abrasive and dark as male characters.

Mags Bennett from Justified.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:49 AM on August 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


For Rory, and others interested, this blog post offers a takedown of Pierce/Alanna that sort of crystalized my vague sense of unease in reflecting on the Lioness books. Although it seems a bit slapdash and hyperbolic (which may not be out of place on LJ, to be fair). (Found via the unusually good comments under the bitch article linked above.)

And here's Tamora Pierce on her own LJ, responding to a different set of criticism of the somewhat stalkerish dynamic of some of Alanna's relationships with male characters.
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:51 AM on August 15, 2013


I think an underemphasized point in all these discussions about representation of women in pop culture is that a lot of pop culture writing is just bad in general. That goes for male characters too.

I saw Elysium last night, and yeah, the two female characters are really cliched, but so are the males. There's a relapsing bad boy who saves the world by driving vehicles and fighting, a crazy latino thug lord, a soulless psychopath CEO, etc.

Then I think, what if I am also a cliche? What if this yearned-for complex subjectivity is something we haven't even attained in reality?

Then I realize I was more or less brought up with fictional characters as my role models, parents, and friends, and these characters are supposed to "represent" us, but who the hell am I?

Then I don't want to think anymore.
posted by mbrock at 7:51 AM on August 15, 2013 [21 favorites]


This doesn't in any way negate her point, even if true.

It kind of does. Her point is that female characters only get to be one-dimensionally strong, not complex like male characters. Which is just not the case.

Sorry, but the piece is really whiny.
posted by shivohum at 7:52 AM on August 15, 2013


This is why The Good Wife is great, incidentally.
posted by Sokka shot first at 7:59 AM on August 15, 2013 [9 favorites]


Hello! Lots of people are popping here to point out exceptions to the rule like Veronica Mars, Mags Bennet, etc.

That is just the point, though -- THEY ARE EXCEPTIONS.

It's like saying the character Ripley in Aliens proves that there was total parity for women action hero characters in the 1980s. Yeah, stack her up against all the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of male action heroes, and it's not exactly a balance, is it?
posted by jfwlucy at 7:59 AM on August 15, 2013 [22 favorites]


See, and this is why I am so, so happy that Orange Is The New Black is getting so much play. It's about female characters, primarily female characters, and the one who's supposedly the protagonist (neurotic, pretty, privileged, white girl from NYC) is the least interesting one of the lot. Instead we have women of color, transgender, gay, bi, old, fat, not generically pretty -- basically, a whole bunch of richly developed characters whose stories aren't traditionally told in most media, and whose existence isn't predicated on their femaleness.

And best of all, it's not trending as a "chick series," at least not from what I've seen. This gives me so much hope.
posted by shiu mai baby at 8:00 AM on August 15, 2013 [16 favorites]


Kate Beaton's got your back.

If I had the figure for it, and my costume buddies would agree, we would totally be rocking the SFC's for Halloween.

Most purportedly "strong" female characters in current movies and TV give me the uncontrollable urge to pout, stick one finger in my mouth, and say, "I'm a gweat big BADASS" in a whispery baby voice. I think that's the intended effect, but not the intended effect the creators are willing to admit to in public.

If I had any grain of talent in that department, I'd create a superhero named "Bechdel Woman."
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:00 AM on August 15, 2013


Or, for that matter, Ayra Stark

Arya is more of a subversion of the trope. Sure, she's a little badass who fights above her weight class, but she's clearly psychopathic underneath it all.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 8:08 AM on August 15, 2013


Game of Thrones is particularly good at this - all women are strong women*, so why bother highlighting it? The series instead concentrates on what these women do and why they do it - they're brilliant and flawed, they're allowed to make lethal mistakes and have glorious triumphs, and they're varied in having wise and foolish motivations in equal measure, often in the same character. Even the characters who want to prove themselves to be "just as good as a man" - Cersei and Brienne - do so without sacrificing a woman's perspective, even though they believe they have. Their goal is presented as important to them but ultimately irrelevant to the world - they must prove themselves to be good enough to persevere, that is all. Measuring against an imaginary masculine mark is pointless when men are being outmaneuvered and killed all around them.

(* Save for Sansa, who's mostly there for the reader to feel good about themselves - they wouldn't be so weak, ineffectual, naive, etc. )
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:09 AM on August 15, 2013 [6 favorites]


See, and this is why I am so, so happy that Orange Is The New Black is getting so much play. It's about female characters, primarily female characters, and the one who's supposedly the protagonist (neurotic, pretty, privileged, white girl from NYC) is the least interesting one of the lot. Instead we have women of color, transgender, gay, bi, old, fat, not generically pretty -- basically, a whole bunch of richly developed characters whose stories aren't traditionally told in most media, and whose existence isn't predicated on their femaleness.

I love it for much the same reason. At first I found the main character annoying in the sense that she is someone that would drive me nuts in real life. Over the course of the series, as her character developed on screen I grew to like her more because I felt like I was getting to actually know her. It was the same with many of the other characters.

It was so refreshing to watch a show where I got to 'know' so many different female characters and where even the ones that might seem like a stereotype or trope at first aren't.
posted by Jalliah at 8:11 AM on August 15, 2013


See, and this is why I am so, so happy that Orange Is The New Black is getting so much play. It's about female characters, primarily female characters, and the one who's supposedly the protagonist (neurotic, pretty, privileged, white girl from NYC) is the least interesting one of the lot. Instead we have women of color, transgender, gay, bi, old, fat, not generically pretty -- basically, a whole bunch of richly developed characters whose stories aren't traditionally told in most media, and whose existence isn't predicated on their femaleness.

I dunno, I like this show but I feel like it indulges in cliche left and right, in fact it's almost nothing but, once you get past that surface layer. Look at the fiancee's family: standard issue caricature of hovering Jewish mom and dryly critical and disapproving Jewish lawyer dad. Standard issue caricature of Russian immigrants, their culture, and their underworld. Standard issue characters in the Latina mother/daughter pair and a cliched presentation of their "street life" (abusive macho coke dealer boyfriend, naked bagging of cocaine, etc.).

Extremely standard issue and (it seems to me) partially male-oriented lesbian prison sex fan titillation.

For that matter, extremely standard issue cliches of prison life mixed with completely unrealistic elements for plot development. And as usual, tamed for television. All the people who seem dangerous and sociopathic etc. are all in fact just eccentric, or else have good reasons to be that way, or both.

I like the show, but I wouldn't hold it out as a model of self-aware social realism. Far from it.
posted by snuffleupagus at 8:13 AM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Her point is that female characters only get to be one-dimensionally strong, not complex like male characters. Which is just not the case.

Sorry, but the piece is really whiny.


Yeah, and we've got a black president, so racism is over!
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:16 AM on August 15, 2013 [18 favorites]


See, and this is why I am so, so happy that Orange Is The New Black is getting so much play.

Yes.
posted by ob at 8:17 AM on August 15, 2013


Oh, hell, I'll mention Tamora Pierce anyway. She taught me something fascinating about pulp fantasy and the way it functions as entertainment.

See, Tamora Pierce's first series, Song of the Lioness, was kind of... cheesy. I just reread it last month (I've been going through all her Tortall series), and the characterization's somewhat awful, the writing's poor, the plotting is utterly predictable. But the best parts in the series happen when Alanna, the series' hero, decides she's somewhat sick of the being an awesome knight thing and decides she wants to wear dresses and flirt with boys and things. It turns her from a flat wanna-be warrior into a person, for whom being a knight is just one of many desires that coexist simultaneously. And in the third book of the series, The Woman Who Rides Like A Man, she becomes a shaman-tutor instead, and the writing becomes way more focused on character interactions with occasional interludes of awesome fighting.

The neat thing, and this isn't something unique to Pierce but she's where I saw it first, at age 8 or so, is that you can have badass fantasy adventures and omit nearly everything that makes badass fantasy so dull and monotonous. As long as you have that one awesome sequence where the hero chops people's arms off or whatever, the rest of your story can be about almost anything else, and it doesn't matter. In fact, if you don't go through all the rote fantasy tropes, your story becomes immensely better.

This is true of more than just fantasy; in fact, I could've posted half this comment in the Breaking Bad thread and it would still be true. But what's really cool about Tamora Pierce is that as she evolved, she learned to play to her strengths, and her strengths are more about understanding how people relate to societies around them than they're about badass swords. Which is why her other fantasy world, from the Circle of Magic/Circle Opens series, pretty much has every book take place in a different country/town/environment, and the fun part of the books is partly having these characters slowly learn about the norms and rules and outlooks that people in this new place have.

Her best series, though, in my completely-right opinion, is Protector of the Small, which takes place in Alanna's world, and features Alanna somewhat prominently as a character. Whereas Alanna disguises herself as a boy to become a knight, Protector of the Small follows the first girl who openly wants to receive her knighthood. It's a slower series – Pierce spends about five times as long with Kel's 8 years as a page/squire than she did with Alanna – and much of its tension comes specifically from the opposition Kel faces, on a variety of fronts, from people who don't think girls are able to be knights.

Whereas Alanna is kind of one-dimensional, especially at first, Kel is a pretty well-built character. She has a history, she has mannerisms peculiar to her, she has obsessions and weaknesses and all that jazz. So do all the male characters in the series: there's a fairly rich and wonderful cast. But whereas it's acceptable for guys to have personalities and quirks, it quickly becomes obvious that every little thing Kel ever does is going to be criticized and belittled, or dismissed if it seems vaguely impressive. Kel's inevitable rise to greatness feels less arbitrary and more necessary: she becomes excellent because if she was any less than perfect, people would jump at her throat.

The arc of the series moves from exceptionalism to normalcy, in a sense: by the fourth book, Kel's being a woman barely matters to the plot, because she's so proven herself that people accept her as a knight. And there's a scene in the third where Kel meets three young girls who want to become knights themselves, and there's a sense of: these girls won't face quite as much shit as Kel did when she did this first. They'll still face a whole ton of shit, but now somebody's done this and proved that it can happen. Maybe in two hundred years, girls becoming knights will even be the norm. And there's no reason that it shouldn't be.

It struck me as incredible, when I first read the series, that so much story could be wrung out of a simple gender-swap. There's no epic gods-talking-to-me like there is with Alanna. There's some exotic magic here and there, but by and large the emphasis is on routine training, the process of pagehood and squirehood, the growth of all these people from kids into adults. And a whole lot of drama is wrung out of sexism, both casual and inflamed.

Which is why the Strong Female Characters thing is frustrating to me, as a guy who is willing to tolerate all sorts of ugly bias but who can't handle shitty plotting. If you have an awesome woman in your story, it's all kinds of stupid to write her by throwing her an Arbitrary Badass scene and then treating her like a man. Gender dynamics are fascinating, in part because they're all-pervasive. There is no character, no society, no whatever, that you can't add some depth to by asking themselves: "What does this person think about men-versus-women?" And so many plots try to ignore the question entirely that it drives me up the wall. Again, less because I hate sexism than because I simply like good stories. And stories that ignore gender tension end up being less interesting stories.

Ignoring gender doesn't fix the problem. 95% of the time, it simply establishes "male" as the default, and goes about falling into all sorts of traps that happen when you start assuming that men are the only kind of people that you are. And acting like the job of a powerful woman is just to be like a man misses the real problem, which is: many women would like to be treated like they're normal, ordinary people, and some of them are even crazy enough to assume that they are. But we as a society have a very hard time acknowledging or accepting that.

(Ever since reading Pierce, I've wanted to write YA fantasy of my own, and thanks to her writing YA fantasy is inextricably tied to writing compelling women characters. I've never tried writing anything like that, because I am super terrified of accidentally exposing my own ignorance or bias, but it's something that, once I'm a bit less of a young jackass, I would love to do. Again, it's less out of a feeling of social justice or anything than it's my desire to tell good stories. What Tamora Pierce taught me is that you can have a simple plot and have it take place in a rich, nuanced world, and avoid the sort of arbitrarily complex plotting that, rather than being intriguing or gripping, simply kills pages. It's ruined my ability to read like ninety percent of the adult fiction I come across, but I think that's because a lot of adult fiction is simply horribly-composed. Even lots of the good stuff.)
posted by Rory Marinich at 8:20 AM on August 15, 2013 [12 favorites]


It kind of does. Her point is that female characters only get to be one-dimensionally strong, not complex like male characters. Which is just not the case.

No, her point is that there's a trend of films making women one-dimensionally strong, then usually having their "weak" traits being reduced to female stereotypes, and on top of that being the only "strong" women in the film. Is Peggy Carter/Black Widow/etc a badass just like the other men? Sure, but what other women is she interacting with? Are they strong as well, or are they just there to play on her supposedly feminine insecurities?

Sorry, but the piece is really whiny.

Well, sure, if you only think about it one-dimensionally.
posted by zombieflanders at 8:23 AM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


(* Save for Sansa, who's mostly there for the reader to feel good about themselves - they wouldn't be so weak, ineffectual, naive, etc. )

Sansa Stark is not weak. Her strength is in diplomacy and adaptability, and it serves her well.
posted by KathrynT at 8:27 AM on August 15, 2013 [28 favorites]


snuffleupagus: Yeah, the thing with George is pretty creepy. It's weird because Jonathan, the would-be king and other romantic interest, is chauvinistic to a fault, and Pierce/Alanna clearly know it. Throughout the various series, Jonathan has been made out to be a decent man who has some serious issues. George, on the other hand, is given an almost complete pass for his behavior, I think because he doesn't know Alanna's a woman for the most part so we assume he's just... flirting with a 10-year-old boy. Which is okay I guess. Hmmph.

Pierce has said she has a thing for older men, and that may have colored her telling of that particular story somewhat. Her follow-up series, The Immortals, also features an older man hitting on a young girl; from what I recall, she deliberately wrote a younger romantic interest for Protector of the Small because people were not the happiest with that trend of hers.

And yes, the thing where the Bazhir decide a woman shaman and a male knight ought to become the rulers of their people is sketchy as balls. The Bazhir were treated far more decently in everything else Pierce wrote, so I retcon her first series and decide that the Bazhir and the Tortallians just always got along, no sparkling white king responsible for that one, nope nope nope.
posted by Rory Marinich at 8:27 AM on August 15, 2013


A terrible case of this is Despicable Me 2 (spoilers to follow) where the main female lead can do crazy fung-fu!, has a lipstick taser!, can fight better than the male lead! But ends up tied to a rocket needing to be saved after the villain captures her by... holding tightly onto her arm?

I mean Despicable Me 2 is a mess storywise in any case, and you could justify that ending as the writers continuing their 'throwing shit to the wall and seeing what sticks, repeat till you're done' approach to plotting (I loved the minions but there is no way that movie had a beginning middle end planned out from the get go), but overall Lucy Wilde is a great example of why just being 'Strong' is actually a way of both deflecting sexism and containing a female character.

Lucy is strong: when a plate of cupcakes get thrown into the air she leaps into action, using her amazing reflexes she destroys every cupcake before they even hit the ground and then some. And needs to be told by Gru to stop. She can be strong, but she needs to be directed: strong here means technically capable, not capable of agency. You end up with women that can beat up men (!) but that can't make the right decisions/take care of themselves.

(also, hated hated how that movie ended with them being a 'normal' family with the little girl missing having a mom after the whole point of the first movie was that having two parents doesn't mean a family, having people that love each other makes a family.)
posted by litleozy at 8:32 AM on August 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


Great comments, Rory. I agree with you about the inspirational quality of the books too. Interestingly the YA titles that most directly made me think I could maybe try to write some fantasy one day were by women: Pierce, Ursula LeGuin and Susan Cooper.

Later on I read Jennifer Roberson's Tiger and Del books, which are all about gender dynamics in fantasy tropes, and I'm still not sure what to make of those. They may have been rather "of the moment." I probably need to give them a re-read (or at least a re-try-and-see).

I never read the Auel Clan of the Cave-Bear stuff or McCaffery's Pern books, but there's probably grist for the mill there too.
posted by snuffleupagus at 8:34 AM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


By the way, I would love to see somebody make a movie in which all the problematic gender things are still there, but the genders are totally swapped. Because I bet if you saw a man acting the way that women are written in films, pulling guns on women out of misplaced jealousy, beating up people who asked them if they were fit to be soldiers, etc etc, then it wouldn't be entirely funny in the male pin-up sense, it would be really fucking disturbing.

The message given by these movies is not just "women are attractive and incapable of doing real work". It's often "women's brains work so differently from our man brains that they do totally psychotic things just for the sake of it."
posted by Rory Marinich at 8:36 AM on August 15, 2013 [20 favorites]


Sansa Stark is not weak. Her strength is in diplomacy and adaptability, and it serves her well.

It's wrong to say flatly that she's "weak" but I do think that her arc involves her going from "naive, privileged and so easily manipulated" to "disillusioned and canny" in a way that brings her diplomacy and adaptability to the fore. Also, the books made her seem a bit more vacuous early-on than the show, as I recall.
posted by snuffleupagus at 8:38 AM on August 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


I would argue that Robb is nearly -- if not utterly -- as naive, privileged, and easily manipulated as Sansa. If he'd had a bit more of her strength, things might have turned out better for him.
posted by KathrynT at 8:43 AM on August 15, 2013 [10 favorites]


[The message is] often "women's brains work so differently from our man brains that they do totally psychotic things just for the sake of it."

Oh God yes this. Hate it so much.

One of the things I enjoyed about the X-Files he-said/she-said episode ("Bad Blood") is that they both ended up looking equally annoying to each other and it wasn't all "bitches be crazy, yeah?"
posted by rmd1023 at 8:46 AM on August 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


That is just the point, though -- THEY ARE EXCEPTIONS.

It's interesting that all the EXCEPTIONS we've identified have been on television. I don't watch a lot of movies anymore, and every time I do catch a blockbuster the characters of either gender are shallow and one-dimensional. I don't think television has met perfect 1:1 gender parity, but shows certainly seem more willing both to embrace human characters and to not rely on tokenism.

One of my favorite comedies these past few years, Veep, sometimes openly mocks the idea of the Strong Female Character, like the episode where VP Selena Kyle demonstrates her hawkish foreign policy chops by going to a gun range at a military base.
posted by muddgirl at 8:47 AM on August 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


I would argue that Robb is nearly -- if not utterly -- as naive, privileged, and easily manipulated as Sansa. If he'd had a bit more of her strength, things might have turned out better for him.

Well, yeah, that's kind of the point of the last episode of Season 3.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:48 AM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


I would argue that Robb is nearly -- if not utterly -- as naive, privileged, and easily manipulated as Sansa. If he'd had a bit more of her strength, things might have turned out better for him.

Yes, to the first bit, and quite possibly, to the second. Although it depends on which Sansa (where in her arc). She really is intended to come off as clueless off the bat, especially in the books. Still, Sansa probably wouldn't have snubbed the Freys, had she made that deal at all.
posted by snuffleupagus at 8:49 AM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


She really is intended to come off as clueless off the bat

Also, like, 11 years old. IMO the show makes her seem more unreasonably naive (and Cersei and Littlefinger less outright predatory) by casting an older actress.
posted by muddgirl at 8:52 AM on August 15, 2013 [8 favorites]


That's a very good point.
posted by snuffleupagus at 8:53 AM on August 15, 2013


I never read the Auel Clan of the Cave-Bear stuff or McCaffery's Pern books, but there's probably grist for the mill there too.

From what I remember of those books, they tend to fall into the "exceptional woman who's As Good as a Man, Amazing!" trope, although maybe not the Clan of the Cave Bear series. That was more pure Mary-Sue-ism. The protagonist invents, that I remember, horse domestication, using flints for fire (!) various types of medicine, etc. etc. She scores a really hot mate who is supremely well-endowed and also a professional lovemaker and ritualistic virgin-deflowerer (one of the lesser-known prehistoric career options).

On the other hand,there are plenty of male characters of that type, so maybe having a female character who is just So Amazing OMG and secretly invented all the key human discoveries while having amazing sex is not such a bad thing.

McCaffery was definitely an writer of the old school; she wrote great exceptional women, but tended to buy into male superiority overall. She did grapple with sexism, but more as just another hazard her characters had to face.
posted by emjaybee at 9:00 AM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Urgh, yeah, this trope is everywhere now and it's just as gross as women characters being "weak" or sappy or whatever, because instead of making interesting, varied characters that show that Women Are People, it's just "but she's not just a girl, she's a Tough Girl!" Yay... two representations!!

This is why I loved Battlestar Galactica - they didn't go out of their way to present Roslin, or Starbuck, or any woman as "a woman, but Strong!" They were just... people, and they weren't notable for being Lady Pilots, or Lady Presidents.
posted by nakedmolerats at 9:01 AM on August 15, 2013 [12 favorites]


And yeah, I think the hate-on for Sansa in GOT really demonstrates how used to this strong-weak dichotomy we are. If a lady-character isn't a badass assassin like Arya, then she must be a passive princess. Even though we've definitely seen Sansa get a lot more hardened as she gets older. But we don't really notice anything between "Strong Girl" and just "Girl".
posted by nakedmolerats at 9:05 AM on August 15, 2013 [8 favorites]


I like the show, but I wouldn't hold it out as a model of self-aware social realism. Far from it.

An article on Salon recently posited that Orange is the New Black is just an edgier version of The Help. I never saw the movie The Help so I can't speak to comparisons of their narratives but I think there are definite similarities in the way both productions were marketed. IMO, the only thing that "saves" OITNB from the kind of disparagement The Help got is that it doesn't appear to be wielding any well-known Black actresses as shields from potential criticism.

What about Claire Danes in Homeland, Glenn Close in Damages, Lea Michele in Glee, or Anna Torv in Fringe?

I would add the character Keri Russell plays on The Americans to that list.
posted by fuse theorem at 9:08 AM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


If you're at all interested in this topic, watch Gillian Anderson in The Fall (It's on Netflix). I'm not going to spoil anything. I'll just say it doesn't have this problem and leave it at that.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:09 AM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think if you made an accurate filmic representation of any random person's normal week, it'd be pretty disturbing too. Imagine your most recent work day lunch as a scene in a movie. Isn't that at least slightly horrifying? I feel like the function of movie representation is an entry point into a discussion about life that could easily lead into a DFW-style social meltdown. (Sorry for the obscure reference, I am entirely serious when I say that this is an extremely interesting idea that I've only ever seen discussed in a footnote in one of David Foster Wallace's short stories, I think it's in Oblivion. Basically it's a social situation where some kind of self-referential honesty devolves into an experience that leaves every participant scarred for life.)
posted by mbrock at 9:11 AM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


By the way, one weird effect of being raised with a lot of (bad) TV and movies, outside of America but watching American stuff, is that I now more or less believe that America is a place where people are not really self-conscious, do not really have complex interior lives, aren't really aware as fleshy sweaty human beings in the same way that I and my friends are. Like the bicameral people in Julian Jaynes's On the Origin of Consciousness... When I actually meet real-life Americans, I don't feel like this is immediately proven wrong, although of course it's more complicated.

Overall there's a kind of effect that sets up beautiful unconscious simple Americans (with the holiday in their eyes, to quote DFW quoting Emerson) as some kind of Platonic ideal of human personality. But then there's also a weird inversion when you realize the falsity of all this. Because then you start to wonder, huh, if I take the actual people I meet as real people and not just pale copies of television characters, what are they like? And then the most obvious characteristic is that we all seem to be complicated, confused, full of conflicting strands and desires and ideas, infinite.

And one of the strands of desire is the desire to be an American low-quality movie-type person, simple and unconscious. Which makes it all very recursive and confusing.
posted by mbrock at 9:22 AM on August 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


Hello! Lots of people are popping here to point out exceptions to the rule like Veronica Mars, Mags Bennet, etc.

That is just the point, though -- THEY ARE EXCEPTIONS.


Or every character on The Good Wife, as mentioned. Or any of the female characters on Dexter, which I think has interesting things to say about the concept of "strong women". How about Mad Men? (I mean, no, nobody on Mad Men is "kickass" in the violent sense but isn't that we wanted to get away from anyhow? Joan and Peggy certainly kick ass, though.) Also you should all be watching Shameless. Heck, I'll even cite the female characters on Grimm, at least most of the time. I'm tempted to cite American Horror Story but I'm still not totally sure how I feel about Season 2. I haven't seen Orphan Black yet but I've heard good things. How many exceptions is "enough"? Because I'm pretty sure I just cited more TV than is probably healthy for me to be watching (and I left out a bunch of stuff already mentioned, clearly I watch too much TV lately.) If you're setting the bar at 100% interesting, 3-dimensional female characters, you're going to be disappointed. If you're setting the bar at "as many interesting, 3-dimensional female characters as male characters", while I'd agree that we aren't quite there yet, I also think you need to watch out for confirmation bias - I mean, yeah, Trinity is a textbook example of a "strong female" whose only jobs are to be strong, and female, and sleep with the hero, but Morpheus is basically a magical negro, and Neo's so not a developed character that he's not even one-dimensional, he's zero-dimensional, the conspicuous void where a character should be. Likewise the article briefly mentions Pepper Potts (who, I'd argue, manages to be strong, female, and yet not a "strong female", despite being the only woman in the first movie) but then ignores her to go talk about the female character in Captain America, who is "strong" and about as well-developed a character as, y'know, Red Skull the Super Nazi, whose motivations are...well, he's Evil you see, because he's a Super Nazi. Like, duh.

Personally, I think mbrock is right that there are plenty of shitty characters of all genders on TV. Good shows tend to have good characters of both genders; bad shows frequently have one-dimensional characters of both genders. And aside from "strong women" there are plenty of other problematic types of one-dimensional female characters that pop up endlessly on TV; you got your manic-pixie dream girls, you got your emotionless analytic android ladies (I think this was pioneered by 7-of-9, but other shows [lookin' at you, Bones] have kept it alive with less cause since), you got sassy black woman - and all of these are all over the place, once you start looking for them. Hell, they pop up on "reality" (ugh) TV painfully often.

Stop watching bad TV. Not only will give yourself less agita, but you can reward good writers who write 3-dimensional characters with higher ratings and punish shitty writers with shitty ratings, and the problem(s) of one-dimensional female characters will continue to improve as it certainly has over recent years. There is definitely still media that has well-developed, complex male characters and underdeveloped, one-dimensional female characters (The Avengers, certainly, but Joss Whedon has always had a...shall we say, complicated, relationship with the "strong woman" trope going all the way back to Buffy) and that sucks, but there's also a lot of really good stuff being produced. So stop watching bad TV. (And bad movies. But let's be honest; everything good is on TV right now. There's a reason big-name actors are leaving movies to do TV, and that's where all the good roles are is a pretty big part of it, I'm guessing. Shorter, more humane shooting schedules too, but y'know that's a subject for another post.)
posted by mstokes650 at 9:24 AM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Re Various comments about Game of Thrones characters, in particular Arya being a little psychopath under it all:

This points up something I think makes perfect sense in Martin's world, and I honestly think is worth considering in terms of our own earlier centuries.

Despite all the violence and brutality in the present day, we actually live in an amazingly peaceful world. Consider what the Stark kids have been through. If that happened to any of us, we'd expect that person to be suffering from massive, serious PTSD and to be completely mentally and emotionally unstable.

So of course the Starks are psychopaths dealing with enemies who are psychopaths. EVERYONE in that world is mentally damaged by the ongoing cruelty, brutality and instability they live in.

Looking at medieval history, I find it makes a lot more sense if you postulate that almost everyone was literally mentally ill by modern standards.
posted by Naberius at 9:26 AM on August 15, 2013 [21 favorites]


Dear shivohum,

I see that you have decided that you have unlocked The Flaw in an essay that's somewhere between 1,500-3,000 words long, at a guess. The key that you think you've located took you maybe 2-3 seconds of effort to locate. You seem to think that you've invalidated an entire essay by coming up with examples that are almost irrelevant to the essay as a whole. You then actually feel justified in calling the essay "whiny."

Tell me, shivohum, did you click on the 3:1 link at the end? Did you even read that far?

Did you see the posters at the end? Did you actually reflect on any of the arguments she made? Or did you seriously - actually - just say to yourself "but I can think of 2 or 3 characters that seem like counterexamples to me and therefore she's wrong and I'm right and everything's fine and she's just whining and there's not actually a problem, la la la la la I can't hear you."

You make a mockery of yourself.

If you want anyone to respect you or your opinions, you will have to put in at least some tiny modicum of work on them.

Sincerely,
me

Naberius - how much study of medieval history have you actually done? And you're aware that appeals to "historical accuracy" in fantasy literature have been used for decades to justify regressive writing that actually has little to nothing to do with historical accuracy, not least in that it places a certain mostly-imagined period of European history on a pedestal above all others, right?
posted by kavasa at 9:33 AM on August 15, 2013 [6 favorites]


btw, the reason I'm being so nasty here is because this is a fascinating essay that looks at things from an angle I haven't looked at before and I was really hoping for a comment thread of great discussion (which actually there's a lot of!) so seeing the same tired, lazy dismissive crap is insanely frustrating.

Like seriously I was reading the essay and thinking about the fact that I am so often entirely appeased by a woman that just punches dudes in their dude faces, so having her point out that maybe that isn't the best way to go is awesome. It's making me reevaluate how I view and react to the media I consume.
posted by kavasa at 9:38 AM on August 15, 2013 [11 favorites]


For me the character of Ree (played by a pre-idol Jennifer Lawrence) in the movie Winter's Bone is a great example of a strong character, period.

Well-written and well-acted, not a pipe-hittin' harpy but someone who works with what she has and though she has no resources and a fair amount of self-doubt, finds what she needs to make sacrifices to accomplish what she must.

Most of the cast of The Descent is also in that boat, though less so because as a group each of them get pushed a little into archetypes (the TV Tropes Five-Man Band effect).
posted by lon_star at 9:42 AM on August 15, 2013


I want to see Winter's Bone - I heard JL's Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook was 'really' for Winter's Bone, which is a bit of a relief in my mind because I didn't think she was very good in Silver Linings. Although the Oscars only sorta mean anything.

I have heard great things about her in Winter's Bone, though.
posted by sweetkid at 9:46 AM on August 15, 2013


If it makes the author feel any better, I'm having trouble enjoying the Sherlock Holmes reboot starring Benedict Cumberbatch because I spend every episode wishing I could punch Holmes in the face.
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:47 AM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Like seriously I was reading the essay and thinking about the fact that I am so often entirely appeased by a woman that just punches dudes in their dude faces, so having her point out that maybe that isn't the best way to go is awesome. It's making me reevaluate how I view and react to the media I consume.

My problem with this essay is I don't see this in the media I consume. I hear about the Strong Female Character all the time, but she's not on TV, and there's no recognition in that article, beyond Buffy the Vampire Slayer, that television even exists. That's why so many people are pointing out exemplary ("exceptional") television characters that break the mold - it's seems as important to point out (and consume, and support) media that does what we like as it is to point out media that does what we don't like.

In movies, there is a dearth of characters who think before they punch. It's interesting that the author mentions Sherlock Holmes, because doesn't the modern movie adaptation of Sherlock turn him into a Strong Male Character similar to her complains about the character of Peggy in Captain America?
posted by muddgirl at 9:52 AM on August 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


I also want to give a mention to Aeryn Sun, even though Farscape hasn't been on for years, because A.) I love Farscape and B.) she basically starts out the show as "strong woman stereotype" and like all the characters in the show she grows and evolves from her starting point into something more complicated than that; in her case it's a gradual arc from "strong woman" into "strong woman who can also be smart, caring, emotional, vulnerable and nurturing without being any less strong".
posted by mstokes650 at 9:53 AM on August 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


And yeah, I think the hate-on for Sansa in GOT really demonstrates how used to this strong-weak dichotomy we are. If a lady-character isn't a badass assassin like Arya, then she must be a passive princess.


What? No! Did you miss all of the other female characters in GOT? There is a whole hell of a lot in the middle you're missing.

Even though we've definitely seen Sansa get a lot more hardened as she gets older.

No, we've seen her struggle to keep up and adapt. She's Rob's mirror image - the Good Lady, utterly unequipped for the unromantic realities of a feudalist society - and the only thing keeping her from a very grim fate is that she's a useful pawn. I know people sympathize with her, but she's neither adaptable nor clever, and her lack of agency is a central point of the character. It's not a "girl being a girl" - and to characterize it as that does a disservice to the character while rolling around in dumb gender stereotypes. Margaery Tyrell is also a girl just being a girl - she's not a sword wielding badass - yet no-one can accuse her of being naive or passive. Brienne is a sword wielding badass, and she's naive and passive.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:54 AM on August 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


If you're setting the bar at 100% interesting, 3-dimensional female characters, you're going to be disappointed. If you're setting the bar at "as many interesting, 3-dimensional female characters as male characters", while I'd agree that we aren't quite there yet
If by that you mean we aren't even at ten percent, I'd agree with you.
posted by jfwlucy at 10:00 AM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


If you're at all interested in this topic, watch Gillian Anderson in The Fall (It's on Netflix).

I wanted to like The Fall, but is so fascinated with the killer's actions and so uninterested in its cops that it winds up like Prime Suspect as re-imagined by Hugo Schwyzer.
posted by bleep-blop at 10:04 AM on August 15, 2013


You are guilty of Adjectifying Women.
posted by capnmarrrrk at 10:18 AM on August 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


Veronica Mars, baby. Smart, vengeful, doesn't give a shit what you think.

And needs to be rescued by a man at the climax of every season.
posted by straight at 10:20 AM on August 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


Winters Bone is a pretty good movie, but JLs character suffers, in the end, from what is actually a very typical male main character trope: she merely persists, never making anything happen or doing anything clever, but succeeding nonetheless.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:26 AM on August 15, 2013


Also, I love Veronica Mars, but she got a little tiresomely "I'm tough and gonna kick your ass" (although not with actual fighting but crime stoppery and wittiness) for me at times.

It's not about vengeful and not giving a shit, it's about having women characters who are complex people. I'm not saying Veronica Mars wasn't a good example of that, but it wasn't really the "smart, vengeful, doesn't give a shit" part of her.
posted by sweetkid at 10:26 AM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Winters Bone is a pretty good movie, but JLs character suffers, in the end, from what is actually a very typical male main character trope: she merely persists, never making anything happen or doing anything clever, but succeeding nonetheless.

Yup. She's a noir punchbag.
posted by Artw at 10:36 AM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


She goes to the house of the rival family, doesn't she? It's a drama about mercy, not an adventure story. She doesn't have to be Yojimbo.
posted by bleep-blop at 10:40 AM on August 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


sweetkid, I was sort of overly abbreviating. One of the unusual things about Mars, for television, is the way she's constantly subjected to slut-shaming, especially in the first season (the only really good one) and she refuses to be a victim of it or let it influence her behavior -- beyond suddenly and unexpectedly humiliating one of her would-be tormenters every now and then -- thinking nothing of getting a lift on the the back of Weevil's motorcycle or something simply because it's convenient.

And needs to be rescued by a man at the climax of every season.

Perhaps, but it's usually from someone she's utterly defeated in every other respect. And she's usually rescuing a man in pretty much every other episode.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:43 AM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


And needs to be rescued by a man at the climax of every season.

So did Luke Skywalker. Veronica fared much better the rest of the time.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 10:49 AM on August 15, 2013 [6 favorites]


If it makes the author feel any better, I'm having trouble enjoying the Sherlock Holmes reboot starring Benedict Cumberbatch because I spend every episode wishing I could punch Holmes in the face.

Well, you certainly can't accuse the writers of not lampshading that fact:

Sherlock Holmes: Punch me in the face.
John Watson: Punch you?
Sherlock Holmes: Yes, punch me, in the face. Didn't you hear me?
John Watson: I always hear "punch me in the face" when you're speaking, but it's usually subtext.
-- Sherlock, series 2, "Scandal in Belgravia"

posted by Strange Interlude at 10:59 AM on August 15, 2013 [18 favorites]


three blind mice: Holmes is also physically frail, a heavy smoker, a cocaine addict. And a bit of a weirdo. Outside the mother-like relationship he had with his housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson, he had few interactions with women at all and did not trust them. Holmes was a friggin' mess.

What the author is missing are "strong" female characters equally as flawed and awesome and it seems to me that this is a good point. Just being able to throw a punch doesn't come close to being Sherlock Holmes - who always relied on Dr. Watson to pack heat.
I think the recent portrayal by Robert Downey Jr. is going to overshadow that image in the upcoming generation. Pity, because an action hero that truly doesn't rely on brawn at all is rare - for any gender.

(Swordfish would have been even better if Hugh Jackman could realistically play a hacker, instead of a Hollywood hunk "hacker".)
posted by IAmBroom at 11:01 AM on August 15, 2013


....I just had an interesting thought: I wonder if this entire state has happened because of a multitude of meanings for the phrase "strong female character".

"Strong" can indeed be meant the way we're all taking it, yeah. But I've realized that many of the actors/directors/theater folk in general I know use "strong female character" to mean "a female character that is significant and nuanced and has more than five lines". A character that an actress can really sink her teeth into, rather than just being pretty simpering window-dressing.

So, so many plays out there have only, like, one female character and eight male characters, and the lone female character is like one of the guy's girlfriends and has only three scenes or something. And as you may imagine, this is incredibly frustrating to actresses, and theater companies. So "strong" in that case may mean more something like "prominent." Hell, I've heard a play I wrote get spoken of has having "eight strong female characters," and all they meant was that the whole play's cast consists of an ensemble of eight women - but it's an adaptation of an Edith Wharton short story, so the only action consists of some catty conversation at a book club. (...Although, on reflection, I've suddenly realized that both the plays I've written would pass the Bechdel test. Neat!)

So I wonder if we've all taken that particular call for "strong female characters" and have parsed it to mean "physically strong female characters".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:10 AM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Arya is more of a subversion of the trope. Sure, she's a little badass who fights above her weight class, but she's clearly psychopathic underneath it all

I actually relate Arya to a well-known male character -- she reminds me of Walter White. You're 100% with her when she starts, and the further down the track she goes, getting more and more competent, less and less of a victim and more of an agent, you can't help wondering if maybe you should have gotten off the train a couple of stops back. That, to me, says she's no stock "SFC".


As for Winter's Bone, a wonderful, wonderful, if (to me) a terribly depressing film, no she doesn't punch her way to victory. She gets there by standing up and demanding what should be hers by right from her own family. It's about courage and taking responsibility, with no promise of winning. And I think the story lets her prevail because it's bleak enough even with that scrap tossed to us. It'd be unbearable otherwise.
posted by tyllwin at 11:21 AM on August 15, 2013 [7 favorites]


Mad Men has stupendous female characters. They almost never do what you think they're going to do, and then you go "Oh. Yes, I understand why she would do that." The only problem is that they're only reacting to Don, but then, the whole show is about people, male and female, reacting to Don. Joanie's pretty immune, and a few others (e.g. Trudy) never really get played off of him so you don't know... but at some point it'd be nice to see someone who's kinda got his number and is not real impressed. Preferably female.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:27 AM on August 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


(On reflection -- Anna's niece was kinda like that, in an amused and indulgent way.)
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:28 AM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


The problem with a discussion of exceptions is, as has been pointed out, they're just that. This should not be something we have to discuss; we rarely talk about the men on screen in terms like this, we talk about their specific qualities as people, however deep or shallow they might be.

Being "strong" or "exceptional" shouldn't be remarkable. Having one good series on TV doesn't mean the problem is solved, it underlines how much of a problem it actually is.
posted by maxwelton at 11:28 AM on August 15, 2013


Sansa Stark is not weak. Her strength is in diplomacy and adaptability, and it serves her well.

Sansa lived in close proximity to Joffrey and had his full attention during that time. She is still breathing.

"As for being half-witted: well, what can I say, except that I have survived to middle age with half my wits while thousands have died with all of theirs intact."

Tiberias, I Claudius, after the death of the tyrant Caligula
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:30 AM on August 15, 2013 [16 favorites]


There were a lot of problems with the movie version of John Carter, but there is one change that they made that I can't seem to let go of.

Minor spoiler: In the book, a daughter knows that one of the powerful warriors of the movie is her father, but he doesn't know the truth. In the movie, they turned this around--the father knows the girl is his daugter, but she doesn't know.

This isn't really a plot point that is integral to the overall plot of the movie. By making this change, all they really achieved in doing was to strip all of the agency from the daughter and give it to the father. It's the kind of change you see all of the time.

What really bugs me is the realization: Edgar Rice Burroughs is too liberal for Hollywood.
posted by Quonab at 11:43 AM on August 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


My problem with this essay is I don't see this in the media I consume.
This is a good point. I think her complaint is maybe more applicable to the movie and videogame industries? Maybe TV actually is doing a better job with a lot of this stuff? And I think it's important to recognize that, if so, but it also doesn't really cancel out what's going on in theaters.

And the big thing for me is the realization that I am so often appeased by a woman that can punch real hard or whatever. Even if she's not really relevant to the plot and doesn't have any sort of characterization or motivations that make her resemble an actual human person, you know? And this is all so often applicable to things like race and sexuality too! Like Pacific Rim was probably the most inclusive action movie in YEARS and it had one (1) black guy, one (1) asian woman, and one (1) white woman who got like... 120 seconds of screen time in a long movie. Oh, plus the Chinese triplets (men) who didn't say anything. Everyone else: pretty white dudes. Like, Ron Perlman is great or whatever, but... really?
posted by kavasa at 11:49 AM on August 15, 2013


Like Pacific Rim was probably the most inclusive action movie in YEARS and it had one (1) black guy, one (1) asian woman...

In fairness, those were 2/3 of the starring roles.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:59 AM on August 15, 2013 [6 favorites]


Merida in Brave is perhaps a viable movie exception? Strong but flawed. Like her mother.
posted by 0 at 11:59 AM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Stop watching bad TV.

Exactly. This author whines about bad writing and calls it sexism, neglecting all the shitty male characters out there and all the great female ones. Typical confirmation bias. Surprise: the mass media is full of bad writing and shallow characters.
posted by shivohum at 12:02 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Are you being willfully ignorant of the fact that she's bemoaning the trend in TV and film just to be contrarian? If you're all "watch better TV MORANS," then you're missing yet another observation, i.e. she's looking for this to be the rule rather than the exception.
posted by zombieflanders at 12:09 PM on August 15, 2013


If you're all "watch better TV MORANS," then you're missing yet another observation, i.e. she's looking for this to be the rule rather than the exception.

The way to get that to be the rule is to "watch better TV".
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 12:23 PM on August 15, 2013


Sansa is now taking lessons from Littlefinger and I suspect that Martin is leading us to a point where she sits up on that crooked throne in the Eyrie and she decides that Lord Baelish should learn to fly.
posted by Ber at 12:42 PM on August 15, 2013 [8 favorites]


“Yet some of the most beautiful poetry in the language, the most intricate meditations on monarchy, are placed in this weakling’s mouth.”

Cordelia (King Lear), Lady Macbeth, Portia (The Merchant of Venice) all get some heavy words (“The quality of mercy is not strained”). Lady Macbeth is practically a study on the subject of whether “strong” = violent and masculine vs feminine traits and their social dictates. Viola (Twelfth Night) is sexually ambiguous and one of the most compelling of his characters. Much of his work is commentary on the Elisabethan social order.

Cordelia is contrasted with Goneril and Regan not some man. Miranda (The Tempest) is the only woman in that play, but by design, and she counterweighs all other characters in the play. She doesn’t have the spotlight? Lady Macbeth doesn’t hold the spotlight because, what, she’s not the ‘main’ character? You could do Macbeth with a cast of idiots as long as you have a decent Lady Macbeth. Cleopatra (Antony and Cleopatra) isn’t complex because she shares top billing?
I think it would reinforce her point better if she chose a good female Shakespearean character and used that to point out how shallow many other female characters are.

The thesis is certainly correct, women are underrepresented and poorly represented when they are, in a number of ways in media, particularly film.

But to say female characters aren’t as full of meaning as male characters in Shakespeare, and then pull Richard II out and compare it to Captain America (the film) is rather odd indeed.
Sexism in fiction is not the same across all media for all time such that it’s subject to one position that can disregard any exception.

That kind of example is cherry picking to avoid noting the full rich female characters that do exist and blame all artists throughout all media and all time for failing to create one. Well, there are many. But it’s true, those are exceptions. And it’s true that there isn’t a 1:1 male to female ratio in a lot of work. And it’s certainly true that the vast amount of media produced writes lousy female characters.

It’s debatable whether that’s a function of Sturgeon's Law or a function of the marketing machine to which a great deal of creative work seems to be subject or self-fulfilling sexism (people don’t want female characters because look how many films do well that don’t have them).

But it’s not true that it can’t, or hasn’t been done. More’s the pity really.

“My problem with this essay is I don't see this in the media I consume”

To me much of the essay rang with “why can’t junk food be nutritious?” Captain America was crap. Oh, I liked the film. I was entertained by it. But I won’t remember it 10 years from now. 5 even.
But 5 years from now if someone says “I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper” I’ll catch the reference.

Most film, most media really, isn’t that memorable. It just passes the time mostly. On the one hand that’s Sturgeon’s Law.

On the other, that’s a good argument for why – if one isn’t making a statement or commenting on sexism, or the role doesn’t specifically call for it – why shouldn’t any given person be female instead of male?
Just flip a coin. If it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter.

If it does, then that’s a conscious choice and you have to question it. And maybe the work will be that much better for that attention to detail.
(“Yeah, that random Hydra guard? The backstory is that he’s a gay Nazi and he’s been hiding his homosexuality - trying to stay as far away from the Red Skull as possible – but also trying to hide his beliefs from his parents who are ok with him being gay, but would be appalled that he’s a Nazi and so he left town which left them puzzled, and he was out of money and heard about this recruiting camp and wound up with other lost souls where he began questioning his values and after Cap bounces the shield off his skull and breaks his jaw he’s going to be left for the authorities and meet an inmate orderly who’s going to help him turn his life around and learn a trade and he’s going to get his tattoos removed, return to his parents and get an apartment in Maspeth, Queens).

Although not everything needs to be onscreen of course.

But yeah, if it's crap, why not equal crap? One can't defend choosing a male as an artistic choice if there's no artistry involved.
I suspect the person (editor?) who asked her to change one of the characters to a male is part of the marketing machine that perpetuates the status quo.
Given the number of "exceptions" I don't think people consciously object to complex female characters. But rather, as seems unstated but implied here, it's self-perpetuating because of the lack of attention.
posted by Smedleyman at 12:43 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


So... what? Nobody should write media criticism? Instead of discussing negative trends in modern art and literature, it's more productive somehow if writers all just "stop whining?"
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:46 PM on August 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


From Why Strong Female Characters Are Bad for Women:

I think the major problem here is that women were clamoring for “strong female characters,” and male writers misunderstood. They thought the feminists meant [Strong Female] Characters. The feminists meant [Strong Characters], Female.
posted by martinrebas at 1:04 PM on August 15, 2013 [14 favorites]


IAmBroom: "Pity, because an action hero that truly doesn't rely on brawn at all is rare - for any gender."

So... is this the same Holmes that is a famous amateur boxer in The Sign of Four, is supposedly good at fencing (A Study in Scarlet), an expert with the singlestick, and chucks Moriarty down a waterfall with Japanese martial arts? Because he had enough brawn in the original books.
posted by sukeban at 1:05 PM on August 15, 2013 [8 favorites]


The ones that fit in most neatly – are usually the most boring. He-Man, Superman (sorry). The Lone Ranger. Jack Ryan, perhaps. Forgotten square-jawed heroes of forgotten pulp novels and the Boy’s Own Paper.

Boy, were they ever. I've read quite a bit of men's literature from the mid-20th century, which tended to star stupid-smart male characters with big jaws and fists who were perfectly able to handle themselves in a fight, and, to the man, they are dullards and the books they are in are awful.

It doesn't get interesting until authors like Charles Willeford and Jim Thompson started to tackle those same characters and realized they were indistinguishable from psychopaths. And I think that's one of the strongest messages of this essay: By creating female characters whose only strength is that they beat people up, we've created a female version of the 1040s male psychopath. McDougall is absolutely right that screenwriters have these women engage in behavior that would seem absolutely lunatic if male character did them.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 1:37 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


My personal entry in "good examples to learn from" here is Inglourious Basterds, just because it is largely an action movie, with two major female characters in it, both of whom could accurately be described as "strong," but who are more interesting than the cliche. And while we unfortunately don't get to see Shosanna and Bridget interact, we see enough to let us draw distinctions between them.

Basically, instead of proving how badass they are by showing them being able to be like one of the guys (which to me is at the heart of why this trope is so insulting and lazy) it is just assumed that they are badass - Shosanna is a French Resistance fighter who fled from her family's extermination; von Hammersmark is a German movie star spying for the Allies and hiding in plain sight - and then we get to enjoy them as characters instead of concepts.
posted by Navelgazer at 2:08 PM on August 15, 2013


IAmBroom: "
three blind mice: Holmes is also physically frail, a heavy smoker, a cocaine addict. And a bit of a weirdo. Outside the mother-like relationship he had with his housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson, he had few interactions with women at all and did not trust them. Holmes was a friggin' mess.

What the author is missing are "strong" female characters equally as flawed and awesome and it seems to me that this is a good point. Just being able to throw a punch doesn't come close to being Sherlock Holmes - who always relied on Dr. Watson to pack heat.
I think the recent portrayal by Robert Downey Jr. is going to overshadow that image in the upcoming generation. Pity, because an action hero that truly doesn't rely on brawn at all is rare - for any gender.

(Swordfish would have been even better if Hugh Jackman could realistically play a hacker, instead of a Hollywood hunk "hacker".)
"

That is, however, predicated upon the falsity that Hugh Jackman COULD play ANY sort of hacker convincingly.
posted by Samizdata at 2:26 PM on August 15, 2013


So... what? Nobody should write media criticism? Instead of discussing negative trends in modern art and literature, it's more productive somehow if writers all just "stop whining?"

Not at all. But cherry-picking examples to support your thesis while studiously ignoring anything that doesn't support it makes for an unconvincing argument. And in this case it also does a disservice to all the writers, directors, and actors who have created and portrayed compelling, complex female characters. If we want to see more, then those people and the characters they have created should be celebrated, not ignored.
posted by mstokes650 at 2:39 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


So... is this the same Holmes that is a famous amateur boxer in The Sign of Four, is supposedly good at fencing (A Study in Scarlet), an expert with the singlestick, and chucks Moriarty down a waterfall with Japanese martial arts? Because he had enough brawn in the original books.

Holmes gets visited by a ... Russian? strongman in one of the stories, who bends his fireplace poker into a circle to make a point. Holmes bends it back.

I thought the RDJ Holmes movies were way more faithful (in the context of C21st wham bam action films, at least) than they are generally given credit for.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:40 PM on August 15, 2013 [6 favorites]


Well, I just finished Alden Bell's The Reapers Are The Angels and despite it being an extremely ham-fisted Cormac McCarthy rip-off it was actually very compelling and Temple is a great female character who is more than just Strong (though she is certainly that). Anyway, I enjoyed it. Y'all should check it out.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:35 PM on August 15, 2013


It's like nobody has ever read "A Scandal in Bohemia" or heard of Irene Adler.
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:11 PM on August 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


Personally, I do think there's still cause for this essay - there is a lot of truth to it. I only brought up Scully as a sort of "thank god there are bright spots" example.

But at the same time I don't think trying to not have strong women is the way to go, if anyone's thinking along those lines. Yeah, it'd be great if we could just have way more nuanced characters, but there's still a long way for the world to go before that's going to happen.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:49 PM on August 15, 2013


I've reached the end of this thread and the white box is daring me to post something. It's one of those (rare) nights I get to find out how drunk I need to get to walk five miles back across town.*

The thing is, how much would you like to see a female Walter White, or Michael Corleone? Personally I recognise both of them, I see both of them as representations of the challenges that come with being male (perhaps melodramatic, but that's the entertainment industry). I'm finding Breaking Bad incredibly difficult to watch, because it's actually depressing (that is to say, after watching a few episodes, I slip into a genuine depression - I completely understand how Walter makes every step he does). But complex characters are, quite often, evil characters, or those who are capable of evil and have to make the choice. And in order to work dramatically, it is necessary that the reason they make choice should be understandable.

Has there been a female character whose progress we could follow every step of the way, and could empathise with, but who has been essentially evil?**

Heroes are just the clean-up squad. Villains are where the story happens.

* Pretty drunk, actually. Sorry.

** Personally I liked Ma-Ma from Dredd.
posted by Grangousier at 6:22 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


I've been harping all over Metalfilter that all the good female characters currently reside on TV. I think there's enough of them in different genres that they don't exist as just exceptions anymore.

Although i must admit, I recently told a friend I refused to watch "Breaking Bad" because I didn't have any more patience for TV shows about the sad lives of violent white men.

As for movies? Well, there's a reason I haven't seen a movie in the theater for the past four years.

And "Captain America" is a shitty movie in so many ways. Why try to make it an example of anything other than tissue-thin screenplays?

I also want to give a mention to Aeryn Sun, even though Farscape hasn't been on for years

Thanks for mentioning her - I think Aeryn Sun is my favorite fictional character of all time. And she really does start out as what the article challenges - a fierce warrior. But by the end of the series her vulnerability, compassion, love, and force of character have broken your heart 100 times.

Winters Bone is a pretty good movie, but JLs character suffers, in the end, from what is actually a very typical male main character trope: she merely persists, never making anything happen or doing anything clever, but succeeding nonetheless.

Succeeding? Jesus. It's not like she got accepted into Harvard or something. I loved the quiet persistence of that character. She was dogged, which was an interesting character type for a woman.
posted by Squeak Attack at 6:45 PM on August 15, 2013


The thing is, how much would you like to see a female Walter White, or Michael Corleone?

Lena Headey as Mama.
posted by Artw at 6:57 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


TV definitely has lots of great female characters, and part of that is because even though a lot of them are secondary television has enough time to flesh out lots of characters. I still don't think it negates her point about characters who are not only well written, but aren't just the token in their respective pieces.

Some shows are finally getting better, but it's hardly common enough that I would think her essay is way off base. Even if they manage a nuanced female character, often she's still alone or with a single other woman in a cast full of men. It's even rarer for her to be a lead, or even the lead. If she is a lead, she is inevitably going to end up (or start off as) the love interest of the male lead.

Also, I really, really hate seeing the comments dismissing her criticism as "whining". It's a pretty gendered way to shit on the essay, even if you disagree with it.
posted by madelf at 7:31 PM on August 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


Shosanna is a French Resistance fighter who fled from her family's extermination; von Hammersmark is a German movie star spying for the Allies and hiding in plain sight - and then we get to enjoy them as characters instead of concepts.

Navelgazer - excellent examples, more so with Bridget von Hammersmark than Shosanna, only because Bridget chose her life and Shosanna was forced into her choices for survival.

Bridget's play in the second half of that movie is exemplary strong lead territory - she knows it's probably going to fail but she's set herself to it and by Gott she will see it through.

Now this has reminded me of some other characters from TV - I don't watch Justified but I have heard that there's a Ma Barker type character in that show that is shades of a female Scarface.

The actress who plays her also plays a very strong female character on the excellent The Americans, as the handler of Keri Russell's very well-played hard-punching, wig-wearing, true-believer KGB sleeper agent.
posted by lon_star at 7:45 PM on August 15, 2013


And "Captain America" is a shitty movie in so many ways. Why try to make it an example of anything other than tissue-thin screenplays?


I guess there are people who love mainstream superhero effects movies enough to want to save them from lazy, sexist writing?

Personally, I don't care enough to be outraged or even irritated by flat, bad-boy main characters and their interchangeable ass-kicking, low-agency love interests. I just stay home.

But by ignoring media I don't like, I lose whatever influence I would have as a ticket-buying audience member, and I can see why this author wouldn't want to do that.
posted by ducky l'orange at 8:13 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]



Anyone else watching 'The White Queen?' It's pretty pulpy but in an enjoyable way. This thread made me realize why I'm liking it beyond it just being a costume drama which I generally just love.

It's really female centered and focuses on three female characters who are all different. None of them are warriors in the physical sense but I'd say they're strong in the political sense. They are all focused on getting their respective men into power because that's where the official power structure of the day lies but it's much broader then just 'men.' It's more about family. Children are important and all three women are mothers in different ways. Love is involved but it's not necessarily a main motivation, it's just one motivation among many. Even though their fates and social stature are directly connected and dependent on the men in their lives I feel that they still have their own agency in the context of the social structure they're living in. They all exert that agency in different ways.

I don't think it's a super deep show in any way but it's nice to watch a story where the men are there moving the female stories along rather then the other way around.
posted by Jalliah at 8:17 PM on August 15, 2013


Anyone else watching 'The White Queen?'

I'm planning to try to catch the whole thing when it comes out on DVD, but the promos look interesting. I've always been interested in that period. Margaret of Anjou and Cecily Neville were truly tough ladies,and I hope the show does them justice.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:56 PM on August 15, 2013



There isn't much about either of them. They in it but aren't main characters. They are portrayed as pretty tough though. The story focuses mainly on Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret Beaumont and Anne Neville. It starts wihen Elizabeth marries Edward and I think goes to when Henry VII takes the throne. There's one episode left to air and that's where I expect it to end.
posted by Jalliah at 10:08 PM on August 15, 2013


Well, the White Queen is based on real history. The story of Margaret Beaufort - the founder of the Tudor dynasty - is remarkable. You can see why Elizabeth I was such an epic queen - she had the blood of both Margaret and Elizabeth Woodville in her veins.
posted by Summer at 8:50 AM on August 16, 2013


The thing is, how much would you like to see a female Walter White, or Michael Corleone?

I would LOVE to see this. Women hardly ever get to be villains at all, let alone criminal masterminds or leaders. If they aren't support characters or dating one of the heroes/villains, they're the lone wolf, not responsible for anything other than showing up and being badass.

I'm half-hoping that Arya turns into a complex evil character (she's well on her way, in the books). My favourite characters are the ones who do evil things but you can totally understand how they got there. There are few enough examples of male characters like this, and pretty much no female examples.
posted by randomnity at 8:50 AM on August 16, 2013 [3 favorites]


My favourite characters are the ones who do evil things but you can totally understand how they got there. There are few enough examples of male characters like this, and pretty much no female examples.

Once Upon A Time is a crappy show, but they do a good job of delving into Regina's past and showing how she became the Evil Queen.
posted by nooneyouknow at 9:04 AM on August 16, 2013


OUAT has a lot of influence from Jane Espenson (as in, she's written a quarter of the episodes and been a producer on almost all of them), so that probably helps.
posted by zombieflanders at 9:37 AM on August 16, 2013


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