Thursday, July 5, 2012

Finding the balance in female characterization

I saw this very interesting post about women characters in fantasy over at Fantasy Faction and was immediately struck by how much this needs to be what we talk about, and not so much whether or not Katniss is a better role model for girls than Bella.

The argument hinges, I think, on the following statement:
[T]here still seems to be a certain hesitation to give women a fair amount of traditionally feminine traits. It’s as if by admitting that women cry, like nice furniture, or prefer to do the cooking, we’re saying that women are weak, when really, those things can be part of any well-rounded character, male or female, straight or gay, old or young.
The main point in the post is to offer alternatives. Amy Rose Davis rightly points out that there's nothing wrong with the "strong" female warrior trope, but that we need to recognize it as such - a trope. Her list of potential character traits for girls in fantasy (or sci-fi, or even contemporary fiction), which includes such traits as motherhood, disability, non-beautiful body build, seems like such a no-brainer that it's somewhat disconcerting to remember that most female characters (particularly in fantasy novels) have a few very simplistic, very familiar models in which they're allowed to reside. While there are certainly exceptions, I'd like less to delve a little deeper into what's missing, but rather the familiar cast-molds that many writers seem all-too comfortable with.

Let's use the wildly popular The Hunger Games as a case study. In a conversation about I had about the books a few months back, I mentioned that one of the reasons I had enjoyed that book, contrary to many others of its ilk, was because Katniss felt to me like a believable character in a lot of regards. Her emotionally guarded style, while enabling a stiffer personality, also contained a spark of inherent motherly protection: Katniss, as an older sister and surrogate mother, has a maternal instinct to protect the young around her. It's a small character blip, but that little bit of believable feminine behavior (as opposed to the at-times awkward romantic context the books are placed in) makes Katniss that much more believable... and that much more naturally feminine.

What The Hunger Games shows, as one of those exceptions, is that it's possible to merge a familiar character type with believable character traits. Katniss' maternal instinct is distinctly feminine, yet it can hardly be called a negative trait, nor is it exclusively a tool for her emotional turmoil (though to be fair, it is mostly used as a tool to make her life suck). But setting aside that motherly approach, Katniss is another case of the "female warrior" - she is brilliant at archery and has a particularly knack for survival. Luckily, this is also justified within story (thus making sure that it isn't simply a matter of Katniss being perfect at everything, though it can occasionally feel like that), but there is no denying that Katniss fits a familiar mold.

The problem isn't the "female warrior" trope. The problem is that pesky matter of the "strong female character", and what that has become. In an attempt to even the scoreboard between male and female characters in a lot of these genres, writers overcompensate and often make the women exaggeratedly masculine. Like Amy Rose Davis points out: you'll be hard-pressed to find a woman crying, or expressing an interest in anything outwardly feminine (except her male love interest, of course), or engaging in an active role that isn't fighting or learning with the guys or... you get the picture.

Writers aren't wrong, necessarily, to try to do this. It shows good effort. But now the time is past to have stock characters like these. Women in fantasy fiction (or, again, sci-fi, historical fiction, or contemporary fiction!) can be influential and interesting without having a sword in their hands. They can have feelings. They can be physically weak. They can, the gist of it is, be real women.

The problem is that the opposite end of the spectrum is both unappealing and subtly sexist: the passive female character. While there are certainly real-life cases of passive women, their presence in fiction is paved with sexism. Nobody really wants a character who doesn't push the story along, because that's what fiction is all about. In plot-driven tales, having a character around whom the story simply revolves without any effort on the character's part is... dull. What authors often do to counterbalance this is to have someone else be active. If it's the male lead, the female can quickly fall into the time-worn "passive princess" mold, and again: nobody really wants that.

There has got to be a balance. Readers will be able to come up with many of their own examples that go against these stereotypes, I know, but the problem is that the exceptions are just that: they are not the standard, and as exceptions they often only merge familiar molds and realistic traits. It's not wrong for women characters to fall in love and want to let their partner lead them, it's not wrong for women characters to be drawn into a more violent existence and prefer swordfighting to knitting. The problem is that there's no balance. There's no in-between. Many writers are simply too comfortable sticking to what's familiar, and that's what needs to change.


  1. Love this post. And it's true that it seems that making the female characters "masculine" is like a short cut to making "strong female characters". Of course you just end up with "not very well-developed weak characters" instead. It's nice to see people trying to get away from the damsel in distress trope but there is some middle ground here. And of course sometimes the female warrior or the damsel have their place in the story.

    There was an article in the NYTimes about this awhile back, if you want to check it out

  2. Thank you so much for the mention! I'm glad you enjoyed the articles. I agree with you completely--it's not always that the passive princess or warrior chick are wrong. It's just that the genre (and I mean speculative fiction in general, but fantasy specifically) feels very out-of-balance and heavy with warrior women. There should be some kind of middle ground. I know a lot of very strong women who work in a wide range of fields and have very feminine characteristics, and only a few of them are women I'd say have "warrior" characteristics or skills. Women are . . . well, people. And as people, they are also wonderfully varied. :)


  3. It's a fine line isn't it? We demand women who are heroes and get women who are men because it is so much harder to imagine what a true woman hero could be like. There are certainly exceptions but I agree that for the most part female heroes tend to be rather one-sided.

  4. What I would like to see is a fantasy in which the main relationship is not a romance but a strong friendship between two women. While there are several books like this with male protagonists (The Lies of Locke Lamora, Among Thieves, The Crown Conspiracy) there aren't any with women, and I can't imagine why that is.


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