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.