Does the phrase “Strong Female Character” MEAN anything anymore?

For Comparison Shopping, Look Here: http://litreactor.com/columns/overcoming-object-love-how-to-write-female-leads-who-are-people

OK: What am I NOT saying: I am not saying women shouldn’t be written as people. Obviously they should be. Since most of my books have a female lead who is often the more powerful of a pair, it’s not even that I’m against ‘strong female characters.’ Though I think this phrase is so trite and overused as to be emptied of all meaning, to the place that ‘strong’ has become ‘interesting.’ 

Even in the article I link, you see the diluting of the word ‘strong.’ So they’re not physical. They may or may not be intellectual. And if you dare to make them temptresses, look out, because the accusation of ‘objectification’ soon follows. In the comments of that article, the author seems more inclined to defend social action in fiction writing than he is telling stories. This incurs my wrath on level one of fiction writing: WRITE TO ENTERTAIN!  If you want to campaign for social action, go write a political blog. They’re not the same form of writing, and nothing is more unsatisfying than message fic with a listless story.

Subverting cultural and genre expectations is always fascinating when done well. But part of doing it well is to do it in the context of the story’s organic narrative. Karrin Murphy in the Dresden Files is probably one of the strongest–and most interesting–characters in fiction. But her determination to succeed as a police officer in a male-dominated environment–and yet deal with the demons that drive her to rely on Harry–create a dynamic and vibrant character who can inspire without appealing to the artifice of feminism imposed from outside.

I’ve said this so many times I should just post it as my blog mantra. But I’ll say it again: If your name isn’t Neal Stephenson, DROP THE MESSAGE FIC! If in the context of the story, your character organically says something political, fine. But if it doesn’t fit the story, it’s just bad polemics. And I get enough of that on TV for free already.

I’ll add this to the fire too: I don’t buy that Cersei is a strong female character in GoT. Her ‘strength’ comes from outmaneuvering a man with all the subtlety of a chess pawn, and her position. She consistently misuses and fails to use the power that provides her. If Tyrion didn’t save her bacon, Barratheon would’ve won. Her brilliant gambit following this? Let’s alienate him, and then let Joff get away with murder (literally and repeatedly) , because no one would notice. Not even people far more subtle than Cersei ever was. She’s a selfish character with impossible motives and an inability to use what she has, saved by competent people around her repeatedly that she disdains continually. And this is a ‘strong’ woman? Eh, not nearly as much as people make her out to be. Believable? Sure. But that cuts again at why I think that phrase has been emptied of all meaning.

And, by and large, emptied of it by the very people promoting the idea of ‘better’ female characters. If you want ‘powerful’ women, that has to be understood in the context of the story and the world they live in. And if that world involves, for instance, women who have little in the way of property or political rights: Like the Late Roman Empire transplant in Codex Alera. What then can give women power? The ability, among other things, to guide, support and protect the men who HOLD those rights. But read that series and say Amara or Kitai are weak characters. And yes, sometimes that means seduction is a weapon in the arsenal. 

If that bothers someone, the answer to that isn’t to annihilate history. It’s to understand that not every story caters to every reader. And not every story is going to be a feminist utopia. And maybe, just maybe, we can get people to accept that there were powerful, fascinating women–meaningful and influential characters even–in those times. It’s the duty of the writer in such a setting to explore ways such a character can exist. It’s the duty of a reader in such a setting to accept that the ‘truths’ we cling are often anything but ‘true’ in another society. Especially when values are involved.

PS: For truth in advertising I’ll note that my current WIP has a female lead who is BOTH an influential politician AND a sacred courtesan. No she doesn’t mix business and pleasure. In fact, she’s forbidden to, though others try to get her to. Oh yeah, she’s also a mage. USUALLY she uses that for healing. But sometimes people who objectify her live to realize they’ve underestimated her.

Sometimes.

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2 thoughts on “Does the phrase “Strong Female Character” MEAN anything anymore?

  1. Cersei, a strong character? Good gods, people actually say that?! Cersei has power, but that doesn’t make her strong. She knows a few tricks, and maybe the philosophy behind politics, but again, that doesn’t make her strong. She wants to be the great woman whom everybody admires and who will be greater than her father and everybody in the kingdom – but she kinda is delusional instead.

    Cersei might have looked strong to start with. She has a certain cunning, and she’s the queen and she plotted a little, but I think all bets were off when we saw how ‘well’ she could control her son, or any of the events around her.

    And I’m not a Sansa-fan, but even Sansa is stronger. She watched her father die, got beaten by boy-king-wonder, she thinks most of her family is dead, but she’s still alive and trying to figure out how to stay that way, and maybe escape. What would Cersei do in the same situation? Throw a tantrum?

    • I agree. And people who talk about Dani being stronger. Well I love Dani, but without her dragons, she pretty much falls into the ‘cliche’ solutions the author was griping about. Which brings us to Brienne and the Ironborn. Well, ok. Brienne is interesting. So he has one.

      Butcher in Dresden Files has Murphy, Molly, Mama Carpenter, Susan–who didn’t start strong, but became that way, Lucci, and then there’s the Fae…and I’m sure I missed a half-dozen. Really. And every one of them is a powerhouse, even the badass normals like Murphy and Mama Carpenter. And every one of them has believable flaws, too.

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