With feminism storming my social media feeds I felt like having a dabble in the waters with my thoughts on what seems to be another contentious topic: the strong female character. I’ll preface this by saying the prospect of even attempting to write something addressing a feminist argument terrified me. I’ve been reading some amazing feminist writing recently and I don’t feel quite schooled up enough to be participating. Despite this, I still have feels about things and this one is one that bugs me. (Edit: While writing this I discovered that this topic opens a huge vat of ideas that are far too spasmodic to fit coherently into this discussion. Rats).
A little while ago, out of the furore that was Peter Capaldi’s casting as the twelfth doctor I came across this article by Sophie McDougall titled, ‘I hate strong female characters.’ The intent is nice enough but I found that it did not sit entirely comfortably. McDougall argues that strong female characters does not mean well written but rather aggressively masculine female characters. Female characters who like to fight and do things like Kung Fu (aka Princess Fiona in Shrek) rather than be interesting, charming, witty, clever, daft etc. Male characters get to be those things because it’s already assumed that they can be strong.
‘Strong female characters’ are therefore a negative phenomena as they undermine the female character’s position from the outset. They present a character who is constantly having to prove herself (does that not mirror everyday life, I may be wrong…) and are rarely front and centre.
Writing on the same topic Shana Mlawski posits that the occurrence of ‘strong female characters’ of the type that McDougall describes has come about from a misunderstanding between the men in film and women crying out for representation in cinema. Men took women’s calls for strong meaning well written characters a bit too literally and ta da! We have characters like Rachel Taylor in Transformers. (Personally I don’t get what’s strong about her at all other than that Megan Fox and Michael Bay seem to think so…) Mlawski argues that instead of asking for ‘strong’ characters, we should have asked for weak ones, meaning flawed and ergo interesting.
The problem that I have with hating ‘strong female characters’ is that it paints a reductive picture of female characters as a whole. McDougall’s argument only really touches on action and super hero films, which in my opinion aren’t a good example of female OR male characters. It assumes that there are no females in the world who are actually like those characters and undermines the existence of female characters who are both strong and interesting. In attacking a trait of some female characters on the basis of the lack of female characters in film in general, McDougall cuts off our noses to spite our faces.
Further using examples of stories which were first written sixty (James Bond), seventy (Captain America, Batman) one hundred and ten (Sherlock Holmes) or even five hundred (Hamlet) years ago are never going to be indicative of fair gender stories. At the end of the day, the reboots we’re seeing today should be read to a certain extent as period pieces and period dramas aint perfect.
McDougall argues against ‘strong female characters’ because she thinks that we need a new approach towards female characters. But undermining ‘strong female characters’ won’t necessarily get us there.
We need to stop looking at historically male stories and wanting to see them suddenly renovated to suit females in the 21st Century. Instead we need our own stories to be told and told for a discerning audience. It’s a matter of recognizing that as a group females have grown and changed over the last hundred years, even if men still want to see themselves as they did a hundred years ago (plus video games). It’s a matter of recognizing that females are no longer limited to specific places and spaces and that largely we’re interchangeable with men. That we can be written with an assumption that we’re strong if only you trust your audience to be smart enough to watch a character with depth.
Personally I’m getting bored of reboot after reboot after reboot of the same old stories. Where are the new ones? (Let’s be part of them).