Strong female characters and undead sexist cliches

I’ve been wondering for a while what it was that I disagreed with in this post by fantast writer NK Jemisin and I think I’ve finally figured it out.
Jemisin’s view is that strong female characters (in the sense, I think, of strong action-protagonist female characters) are a stereotype and that’s just as bad as any other “women ought to be…” stereotype in fiction. And that it’s confining, undervalues other types of strength and because it’s a stereotype, we don’t see the many other types of strength. Worse, because it also seeps into the real world, giving us the idea that abused women are weak (because they don’t leave) or that strong women can’t get raped. And that again, it tell us other types of strength are worth less.
I disagree. I think the strength of the “strong female character” is the kind that has been long devalued and despite the appearance of all the urban fantasy demon-slayers, it still is.
Fictional women have always been allowed the kind of strength Jemisin talks about: To endure, to support, to keep a family together, to struggle through hard times. Even in the 19th century, (as Susan Faludi discusses in Terror Dreams), “captivity narratives” about women taken by Indians (a staple of popular fiction) showed the women being strong and brave enough to fight rape or refuse seduction by their Indian captors and endure their suffering until the men showed up and saved them. In real life, some women fought off their attackers while the men ran and hid; one third of captives chose to stay with their captors.
That kind of strength got airbrushed out of the stories: Even in based-on-truth accounts of captives, the women who fought back become women who wait bravely for white male rescue. This continues into the 20th century: The Searchers is based on the case of Mary Ann Parker, a captive who chose to stay with the Comanches (I discuss that in my Quicklet on Empire of the Summer Moon) but in the movie she’s been waiting patiently for rescue.
Faludi’s point is that a similar pattern took place after 9/11, as the media rushed to embrace an stereotype of Heroic Men rescuing Helpless Women (regardless of the fact most victims were men and some rescuers women) and gloried in our return to being a “masculine” nation.
So no, while a “strong female character” becoming the defining image for women would be bad, I don’t think it’s likely (or the worst option). Jemisin’s examples are unconvincing, like a Fox newscaster who says women in the military will inevitably be raped. Nothing about that has anything to do with strength, it has to do with the old assumption that women who get out of line deserve to be raped. And the idea that a tough (or armed) woman wouldn’t get raped or that a strong women wouldn’t be abused go back way before the current crop of strong female characters.
You can find more debate about strong female characters at Mighty God King, Overthinking It and i09. I can’t help thinking that as with female sexual roles in fiction, a lot of the debate is bound up with perceptions of women, women’s sexuality and femininity. And that fictional female characters are often seen as making a statement about women, in general, in a way that’s not true for men. Having Jeff Goldblum take down aliens in Independence Day is dumb but says nothing about male characters in general; having a female hacker in Transformers out-think the entire Pentagon says something about how female characters are written (according to Overthinking It, above).
I suspect it will be a long time before that changes.

10 Comments

Filed under Movies, Reading, TV, Undead sexist cliches

10 responses to “Strong female characters and undead sexist cliches

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