To be Strong or not to be Strong?

Journ reading post 4. I can’t quite remember how many I am supposed to do. I should probably check that.

Today I’m going to be looking at quite an old article written by Sarah Chorn. My internet meanderings led me to it and, while many of the points she makes have been expressed elsewhere, I figured it would be a good point of departure for this post.

Chorn makes the argument that the urban fantasy genre is saturated with the same kind of female characters. In her words: “rough past, jaded by men, tough as nails with tons of quips, gorgeous but doesn’t know it, etc”. They are generally featured on the cover of the novel; “scantily clad, tattooed woman brandishing weapons and/or magic”.

Very sexy. Credit Jim Hines

Very sexy. Credit to Jim Hines, the one on the right.

I can see where she’s coming from. Her article is from 2012 and I would like to point out the addition of a similar subgenre of fantasy novels since that year, typically featuring the inspid-teenager-with-mouth-slightly-open-in-dark-ballgown-with-stormy-background cover.

Sorry about the absence of stilettos.

Sorry about the absence of stilettos.

See more parody covers by Jim Hines here. They are fairly amusing. I like the comments.

Chorn dislikes these novels on the basis that the female characters are unrealistic. Having suffered from considerable real personal difficulties, I believe she finds these characters flippant and facetious. They do not represent the kind of inner strength she would like to see in her female characters.

In the article, Chorn is making indirect reference to the “Strong female character” trope. That sounds like a good thing, right? Well, it is and it isn’t.

Basically, the problem with a Strong (capital letter is necessary) female character is that there is never reference to a Strong male character. Men are assumed strong, woman must be marked as Strong. Also, the female in question is defined first, foremost and usually exclusively, by being Strong. She is not afforded the complexity of weakness. It is an easy way to claim the you-go-girl! identity as an author, a kind of cop-out feminism.

But, in my opinion, it isn’t fair to dismiss the Strong female characters entirely. That would be applying a dangerous double standard.

The thing about urban fantasy, or indeed, fantasy in general is that it is just that. Fantasy. That is NOT to say women should all be these stoic, gorgeous, man-destroying machines. Representation in literature will always have an effect on the real world and writers have responsibilities to create characters that do not damage the lives of living people (again, that comes with the useful disclaimer: “in my opinion”). So if the trope of the Strong female character has the potential to be destructive or derogatory, it should be treated with caution.

But why aren’t we talking about the ridiculously unrealistic representations of men? Why is this only about Strong women? In the words of my mom (yes, I am quoting my mom):

“Why shouldn’t female characters be tough and clever and witty in a genre that is  supposed to be escapist? Male characters are allowed? Maybe that’s because that’s exactly how THEY all are in the real world. No-one suffers from depression, erectile dysfunction, flatulence or stupidity.”

(My mom is awesomer than your mom.)

It is very much a double standard to complain that women are unrealistic in these novels, but not point out that the men are equally so. To take a recent example, the 2014 version of Hercules had the male, human, not-a-deity protagonist tip over a hundred metre tall marble statue. He was able to do this because… he was cross?

Yeah, sure.

Yeah, sure.

I liked this article.

Badly written stories with flat, cliché protagonists are just that: badly written. I don’t think it really matters whether the main character is male or female in this kind of literature. It’s cheap escapism, like reality television with magic and swords. The characters can do impossible things because the not-very-bright author says so. Let women have equal access to those impossible things.

I think it would be disempowering to take away the ability for women to be Strong. Sure, there are multiple ways of being strong, but there is nothing wrong with being the demon-fighting-quip-dropping-don’t-mess-with-me female. Unrealistic? Definitely. But it’s not a gendered thing.

What is needed are more nuanced characters of both genders, characters who can enact any identity. Who can be weak while being Strong. Who can be Strong while being imperfect. Who are human before male or female.

But like, that’s just my opinion.


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