Deep characters wanted, gender irrelevant


August 18, 2013 by Julia

A friend of mine posted a link on Facebook to this article, titled “I hate Strong Female Characters.”  I very much wanted the article to be about how “strong” does not mean “irrationally bitchy,” because that is a major pet peeve of mine.  If the only way you know how to characterize a woman as “strong” is make her a raging bitch for no reason, then you need to learn how to write.  (you probably thought I would be all like, “then you need to meet some real women,” but the people writing women as crazy harpies are women themselves!  It’s clearly a Mary Sue situation from women who want to be “tough.”)

Anyway, I was on board for a bit:

Is Sherlock Holmes strong? It’s not just that the answer is “of course”, it’s that it’s the wrong question.

What happens when one tries to fit other iconic male heroes into an imaginary “Strong Male Character” box?  A few fit reasonably well, but many look cramped and bewildered in there. They’re not used to this kind of confinement, poor things. They’re used to being interesting across more than one axis and in more than two dimensions.

That’s a great point.  The “strong” female character, even when not really bitchy to everyone she meets for no apparent reason, is often shallow.  Yes, by all means, female characters should be just as complex as male characters, because all characters should be complex–just like real people.  Fine.

But!  Of course there’s a but!  About halfway through, the article lost me:

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?

And yeah, at that point, I started screaming at the computer screen (literally–my husband asked me what was going on, so I had to rant to him about how stupid it was).  Yes, women served on behalf of America in WWII–but even the “oh, PLEASE” sarcasm link provides numbers that indicate sticking tons of women into the Captain America movie wouldn’t have made any sort of historical sense.  And then to demand switching characters’ genders?  For what purpose, Ms. McDougall?

What do I want instead of a Strong Female Character? I want a male:female character ratio of 1:1 instead of 3:1 on our screens.

Really?  REALLY?  We have to switch the genders of existing characters to meet quotas?  I have no tolerance for the suggestion that fiction should be a checklist of quotas.  I will sometimes accept changes to existing characters for other reasons, like a specific actor being perfect for a role, but not just to fill a quota.  That is absurd.  The point of fiction is to tell a story, period.  Who the hell cares about the gender (or race, or whatever) of the characters if they are interesting and the story is compelling?  If a particular story just so happens to involve a lopsided ratio of men to women or women to men, why does it matter?  Would Ms. McDougall expect a story about, say, an all-male boarding school to have an equal number of boys and girls?  Or are stories about all-male boarding schools simply verboten?  How frustrating life must be if the only thing you do when reading a book or watching a movie is count the people of each gender and get angry if they aren’t even, instead of simply enjoying the story.

You know what’s sad?  I do agree with part of her conclusion:

I want a wealth of complex female protagonists who can be either strong or weak or both or neither, because they are more than strength or weakness. Badass gunslingers and martial artists sure, but also interesting women who are shy and quiet and do, sometimes, put up with others’ shit because in real life there’s often no practical alternative.

Yes, let’s definitely have deep female (and male) characters!  Who would oppose that?  Unfortunately, there’s so much stereotypical feminist garbage in there that the whole thing just makes me twitch.  Quotas!  In fiction!  What an absurd suggestion.

Finally, if Ms. McDougall actually knew about the franchises she references (her cred, I do not buy it), she would know that Erskine was already gender-switched in the 1990 Captain America movie.  Oh, and yes, there are female members of HYDRA.  But considering they put HYDRA into a movie without mentioning Baron Strucker (and the timeline is also a little wonky, but that is kind of Marvel’s fault in the comics, since they have ret-conned HYDRA multiple times), I suspect that something else besides sexism is at fault here.  It’s the same affliction that gave us Moira MacTaggart, CIA agent.


4 thoughts on “Deep characters wanted, gender irrelevant

  1. Mark says:

    Ahhh you have found one of my buttons. When people like that start spouting their garbage I ask them a very simple question. In the “REAL” world how many women are in the hard sciences/military/you name it are there? What is the percentage ratio?

    I usually get some simplistic BS answer so I challenge them to give properly sourced examples or shut the heck up.

    If you read my stuff you know that I always say, don’t take my word for it, do your own research.

    And yet these primadonnas don’t want to do that. They want their own expectations and prejudices catered to and to hell with the truth.

    Which is probably why I have never been invited back to the Young Democrats for Change luncheons.

    • Julia says:

      Then you get stuff like, “If young girls saw role models in tv shows, books, etc in those jobs, then more of them would want to enter those fields, so we need more FOR THE CHILDREN!” I think it’s kind of goofy and sexist to imply that girls can only have female role models and boys can only have male role models, and that girls are too weak-willed or unimaginative to want to be, say, a scientist or a doctor or a CEO without seeing other women in those roles. No, like any other human being, young girls can and should pursue whatever career they like. If a girl doesn’t like science, it’s ridiculous to expect or push her to be a scientist.

      But then again, I am strongly opposed to characters and plot points that are there to lecture me and not just tell me the story.

  2. Ish says:

    I usually explain it as the audience — especially the geek-centric audience of genre fiction — having a desire for “strong characters (female),” and the creators of genre fiction — especially Hollywood and doubly so for “mainstream” Hollywood projects — giving us instead “(strong female) characters.”

    So, in written genre fiction, like say ‘Monster Hunter International,’ ‘On Basilisk Station,’ or ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,’ you have some very strong, dynamic, and interesting characters whose gender (although not ignored) is not the sole purpose of their character.

    In more visual genre fiction, like say ‘Batgirl’ comics or ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer,’ ‘Battlestar Galactica,’ and ‘Babylon 5’ on tee-vee, you have a range from “strong characters (female)” to “strong (female) characters.” Hell, look at the original ‘Alien’ which was famously written with no genders/sexes assigned to ANY of the characters until after casting had been finalized.

    The problem comes when executives start to tinker with the creative process, to make this have “mass appeal.” and thus the strong characters of geekdom who happen to be female are suddenly given little to do other than BE female. Ugh.

  3. […] things than men is emblematic of the phallocentric phallocracy.  Not every story that has more men than women is oppression.  Not everything featuring women with flaws OR women without flaws is sexism […]

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