“Strong” female characters, and why they’re bad for women

For all the writers reading along (and anyone else with an interest in the mechanics of modern storytelling), here’s a post at Overthinking It which cuts into the cardboard portrayals of “strong” women in modern film and television (and, by extension, in books). In a nutshell, a half-hearted accommodation of feminist demands has led to the “hottie with manskills” stereotype – which is a step up from the Damsel In Distress, but still massively unrepresentative of the spectrum of real people in the world.

… the feminists shouldn’t have said “we want more strong female characters.”  They should have said “we want more WEAK female characters.”  Not “weak” meaning “Damsel in Distress.”  “Weak” meaning “flawed.”

Good characters, male or female, have goals, and they have flaws.  Any character without flaws will be a cardboard cutout.  Perhaps a sexy cardboard cutout, but two-dimensional nonetheless.  And no, “Always goes for douchebags instead of the Nice Guy” (the flaw of Megan Fox’s character in Transformers) is not a real flaw.  Men think women have that flaw, but most women avoid “Nice Guys” because they just aren’t that nice.  So that doesn’t count.

So what flaws can female characters have?  Uh, I don’t know.  How about the same flaws a male character would have?

Written with plenty of snark, but that’s why it works. Essential reading for any writer, I’d say, if not for everyone. [via GeekFeminism]

5 thoughts on ““Strong” female characters, and why they’re bad for women”

  1. I think the writer of that is a little disconnected from reality in the middle paragraph you cited. Unless the author went to a really weird world where the nice guys were actually mean, and the mean guys were actually nice, that’s an oversimplification or a clever punning of a social reality. The stereotype itself is an oversimplification, but stereotypes arise from legitimate sources. There’s a reason why we think of women always picking the jerk over the nice guy: because it actually happens.

    So I disagree with the reasoning that the stereotype can’t apply as a flaw (I also disagree that Megan Fox has this flaw, but that’s a different argument).

  2. Let one of your female friend describe an ‘idealized’ female protagonist – an examplar, and you’ll see a result that from a male perspective to be remarkably boring, maybe even annoying. Males project the ‘ideal lay’ idealized woman – the woman with good genes that is regarded with irritation by other woman – because she’s a slut, because she is an insecure attention grabber… however women see their heroin icons as independent, strong, loving, supporting, nourishing. The quiet type. The bitch sometimes.

  3. “Men think women have that flaw, but most women avoid “Nice Guys” because they just aren’t that nice.”

    Must agree with SMD here. It’s somewhat more complicated than that (starting with an agreed-upon definition of ‘nice’)…

    “So that doesn’t count.”

    …But here I disagree with SMD, and will grant you that it doesn’t, simply because it’s virtually a given. The trait is so nearly universal, that we can’t really call it a ‘flaw,’ any more than we could say that of brown hair. (But, like brown hair, where the trait does exist, it will exist in varying individual degrees and may change over time.)

  4. Thanks for bringing this up – the variant I find most annoying is the “spunky historical hottie” who essentially dresses/acts like a man, and suffers no social sanctions beyond the occasional sneer from the villains; because women could have had equal rights centuries ago if they’d just been cute and spunky enough…..

  5. It’ll get a lot easier when you can give a female character a significant flaw, or set of flaws or annoying/dislikeable character traits, without that character then being assumed to represent Your Opinion Of All Women Everywhere.

    It also helps to have more than one female character, and to let those characters interact independent of a male context. Comic artist Alison Bechdel proposed a judgement test that has become known as the Bechdel Test: “In order to be worthwhile, a story has to have at least one scene where two or more women are talking, without any men present, about something other than a man or their relationships with a man.”

    Even today, it’s startling (and depressing, from multiple perspectives) to see how many stories fail that test.

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