mysticalchild_isis: (xena rawr)
[personal profile] mysticalchild_isis
At my book club last night, we got off topic a bit (as we so often do), and one of the librarians who works in a high school was mentioning that she's been reading The Odyssey with a class. She was rather disturbed to find that all the girls disliked Penelope, and thought that she was useless, weak, and did nothing.

This led to a discussion about how it's unfortunate that a lot of girls only see Strong Female CharactersTM as having their own agency, and how very problematic that is.

Don't get me wrong; I love BAMFy women who kick ass (Buffy and Xena being two of my favorites), especially if the actress playing them is even halfway decent at martial arts. I savor a well-executed roundhouse kick like a glass of fine wine. However, too often, Xenafication stands in for actual character development... and makes it so that people like the girls mentioned above think that the only defining characteristic of a strong woman is her ability to kick ass. With a corollary of the fact that many people then think that if a woman is bad-ass, she must be strong, and don't see the problems (and sexism) that so often pop up in these types of characters.

I'm reminded of the version of Irene Adler that popped up in this season of Sherlock. I found her extremely problematic for a number of reasons. But because she was smart, beautiful, and had a certain amount of power (largely sexual) and control, the underlying issues were slightly masked. I'm not trying to dictate which characters one should or should not like, or identify with. We like who we like, and we see characters in different ways. But when there is a widespread epidemic of characters who on the surface seem strong, but underneath are teeming with poisonous ideas (you know, like "oh look, this woman's backstory is rape and torture porn, but since she is a BAMF, it is totally fine that her only character development is rape-as-backstory"), I feel like it is an issue that needs to be addressed and discussed.

Especially because characters who might not be able to swing a sword or shoot a gun are no longer seen as "strong", no matter how well-rounded they are or how much agency they have.

Date: 2012-03-15 04:27 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
... I actually had to Google Penelope to make sure it was the same character I was thinking about. And The Odyssey was my favourite thing when I was eight so the risk of me forgetting it is pretty damn low, which should say something about how puzzled I was.

Even if you ignore the cultural context of a Greek epic (ancient Greece wasn't exactly fertile ground for Strong Female Characters for obvious reasons) how can you dislike a character for 1. being stuck in an unfortunate situation because the narrative demands it and 2. doing the best they can despite the obvious disadvantages in that situation (palace full of arrogant young men constantly feasting and emptying the wine cellar? I'll be damned if the threat of rape wasn't at least implied in the actual epic, but it was some time ago I read it myself)? What was she supposed to do?

But yeah, all of this. The idea that for a woman to be strong she has to act like a man is at least as problematic as the alternative. Also I really enjoyed your entry about Irene Adler, though I didn't comment because I had a guest over that week; you know you have some problems when the character in the original 19th century novel is more progressive than a modern portrayal.

Then again, that's not really a new thing with Moffat... (I do so wish I could look forward to the next season of Doctor Who. And then I think of everything Moffat could do wrong. Argh.)

Date: 2012-03-15 06:52 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
You sort of see it a lot in fandom and it's always really unfortunate. "Character XYZ can't be strong because they're girly/weak/emotional!" while ignoring the great things they do. I mean, it's a difficult assessment to make when the tv shows/books themselves are often making that very same value judgement that strong women = MASCULINE, BUT SEXY.

Totally agree on Irene Adler.

Date: 2012-03-16 11:53 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I wish there was a "like" option on LJ comments, because I so want to "like" this and I know my ability to make a compelling comment/add to your thoughtful discourse is pretty low (brain on vacay). Girls the generation after us grew up in the post-Ripley world, where folks like Whedon said strong women where physically strong. So if I was your teacher friend I would have jumped all over that shit like the biggest learning experience in the world, pointing out classic examples of strong women in literature and media.

Date: 2012-03-17 10:21 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
You know it's funny I usually DON'T like the kickass females as much, not because they're not "strong female characters" but because I really prefer characters that are intelligent and well developed as PEOPLE and I don't relate to the tank characters of either gender. My favorite female character from Sherlock wasn't Irene, it was Molly, and I've seen people argue that she's weak for liking Sherlock when he treats her awfully, etc. but she's more real to me than Irene was. In any case, Moffat is hardly the example to draw from if you're looking for well written female characters.

My biggest problem with most complaints of "not a strong female character" is that people think it means that female characters can't be flawed, instead of it being OKAY for them to be imperfect, like it's okay for the male characters to be. Being flawed and complex and interesting makes male characters attractive but female characters just... flawed.

I saw a post on Tumblr with a ton of reblogged complaints about how everyone should boycott Disney's Brave because even though the character was smart and resourceful she was still a princess and it went on and on. I actually got so pissed off I had to unfollow the blog to stop myself from answering it. I hate that there's this idea that in order for female characters to be better/stronger/whatever, they have to become more like men. You know who watches Disney movies like that? Little girls. You know what little girls like? Princesses. I know mine does, and it certainly hasn't been because of any conditioning on my part, she doesn't even own a Barbie. I hate that there's this polarization between "only girls can like frilly things" and "boys should be able to like frilly things but girls shouldn't because it's a harmful gender stereotype." AND I DON'T EVEN LIKE FRILLY THINGS.

Anyway, in short, yes. I agree with this post. A lot. And will stop talking now, for which you're welcome.

Date: 2012-06-05 01:31 am (UTC)
rassaku: (Default)
From: [personal profile] rassaku
Yessssss, a thousand times this. I've been trying to pinpoint recently why "strong female character" is something that I require in the stories I read, but at the same time a phrase that I'm starting to develop an aversion to. It's because of this -- how "strong" has become a shorthand for "sexy like a lady, kick butt like a man." To the point where "sexy BAMF" has been allowed to replace any other sort of character development. (Mountain of shitty urban fantasy fiction, I am LOOKING AT YOU.)

Not to mention that for so many of the Action Grrrls in movies and TV, I just don't buy it. Lady, your pants are so tight you can barely walk, much less do a roundhouse without splitting the seam down your crotch, and your long and silky hair needs to get TIED THE FUCK OUT OF YOUR FACE if you intend to fight. If we ever, ever got a female BAMF who wasn't engineered for the male gaze, people would be utterly bewildered. They'd be like, Durr, why does she seem different from all the other action ladies, I don't understand.

Guy Gavriel Kay [is pretty much the author I will bring up in these discussions EVERY TIME] writes historical fantasy, and his female characters knock the socks off every other male writer I've ever read. Not because his Byzantine ladies hitch their stolas up to do some kung fu punchin', but because they have enormous amounts of agency no matter how circumscribed their lives seem to be. It's like, they know the ropes -- they don't spend their time trying to be men, or trying to access male channels to power, or whining about how oppressed they are; they take for granted what society's allowed them, and they fucking run with it.

There's been a wave of recent authors that I've taken to calling Writers That Straight White Guys Think Are Awesome -- that's my only explanation, because they get universally rave reviews even though their handling of anything other than Straight White Guy things is a fucking embarrassment. (Jim Butcher, Brent Weeks, Joe Abercrombie, who else, I must be blocking them out.) And female agency is one thing that they simply do not get. Women can be femme fatales who use their sexybits to manipulate men, they can be BAMFs, or they can be damsels in distress. No other options.

And all I can think is, Christ, and you're married? Does your wife realize that you have absolutely no idea who she is, because you're incapable of seeing women as anything other than stereotypes?

The end.


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