Sympathy Over Strength

An increasingly common problem with female protagonists in all forms of media is that of the creators seeming to value perceived strength over basic amiability.

There are a lot of reasons for this. One is that writers are not actually that bright. I include myself in this–we all wear blinders, but writers tend to be the ones with the arrogance to assume that they aren’t wrong. That’s why one finds so many logical fallacies in books and television.

Simply put, writers are dumb.

Once again, I do include myself in that. My pool of reference is a heck of a lot larger than every writer I have met personally (maybe barring one), but it isn’t infinite or entirely correct.

Anyway, part of writer dumbness is in making stupid assumptions. A prevalent assumption in characterisation, for both male and female characters, regards what traits and actions make a badass. It varies, but like the Fonzie idea of Cool, there are some rigid and detrimental definitions.

Badass men don’t share emotions, are built like refrigerators or otherwise possess a lot of power (such as magic or superpowers), and/or wield weaponry that applies a similar distinction. They spit out one-liners as if they had invented the noir genre, and often have frequent, short sexual encounters. There still exist examples of those who are violently homophobic and misogynistic.

They rarely have hobbies that don’t underline how badass they are (e.g., gun enthusiasm, mountain-climbing), and tend not to place an emphasis on intelligence or book smarts.

Badass women never wear dresses, are “sexually liberated” yet take offence at being seen as sexually available, compete with men (and if the writer is total crap, the men are both belligerent and useless), and although they have dynamite bodies they will complain about the societal insistence upon women looking just like them. They are snarky, judgemental of any women whom they perceive as weak (or, often, just if the women aren’t like them), and commonly hate men.

They act like they are incredibly insecure, but this is reader perception, not an intentional character flaw. All of their opinions are treated as causes, of which they are a righteous and powerful representative.

Note: Do any of these people sound like they know how to have fun? Do they sound like someone with whom you’d want to hang out? Do they even sound nice?

If you said yes, especially to the last one, I call shenanigans. They aren’t nice. That is not a hallmark of the badass. Badasses aren’t nice. It wouldn’t add to their hardened, warrior image. If you can name a badass character who is nice, then I will happily inform you that you have found an exception. And then I’d thank you for telling me about ’em, since they’re pretty dang rare on the ground.

The best advice that anyone can give about character creation is to make a person. Don’t make a strong role model for girls. Don’t make someone for little boys to emulate. Make a person about whom you wish to write.

It’s worst for female characters, I think.

There is not one single way to be strong. Helen Burns is the strongest character in Jane Eyre, and she is both physically powerless and meek. A female heroine can be girly and virginal, or a confident seductress. Strength lies in the ability to overcome challenges, or just to stand against opposition.

Conversely, being a tomboy and eschewing femininity does not automatically equal strength.  In fact, the opposite is easily and often true. Take, for example, a teenager who gets tattoos, piercings, and wears all black in order to rebel. This person’s actions are being dictated by someone else. Hardly what I would call strength of character. Similarly, a “badass” woman who feels the need to constantly prove she is better than men just looks pathetic and insecure.

But, like I say, writers are dumb. They will go on with their false assumptions of what makes women or men strong, and as long as we as readers do not stick it to them, they’re going to keep doing it. So let’s make them stop a little bit of the dumb, hmm? Don’t just accept these caricatures instead of characters.

Stop letting them gives us crap like Katniss Everdeen and Katsa. These are not good role models for girls. They are selfish, angsty, and they judge others unfairly. Princess Irene is a better role model than they are. Try Daine from Wild Magic, or even Jill from The Silver Chair. Those are female characters who are capable and likeable, without looking like they have some kind of stupid agenda.

…And please don’t put up unselfish deeds as proof that flipping Katniss isn’t selfish. Doing a couple of selfless things does not appear to change her overall personality very much. Liars tell the truth sometimes. They’re still liars.


One thought on “Sympathy Over Strength

  1. While I don’t think this undermines your point in the least (since it pertains to villains), I think there’s a category of “nice badasses,” though they’re almost entirely villains.

    “Affably Evil” villains are shockingly polite, courteous, genuinely considerate and caring, and conversational to boot (hallmarks of niceness), and these factors that usually elevate them to being so insanely badass… again, as villains.

    Take The Mayor from season 3 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as an example. Most of the memorable Buffy villains were Affably Evil to some degree (even the First Evil had its moments), but The Mayor stood head and shoulders above them all.

    Really, it makes me wonder if the sorts of traits that are used to make Affably Evil villains such paragons of awesome couldn’t be equally applied to heroes.

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