Femininity vs. Femininism: Writing "Strong female characters"

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erttheking:
In the first three books, there are four POV female characters, one of them a Martian Marine that has quite a few moments of weakness, namely her struggles with her PTSD regarding her unit being wiped out by a super soldier, her struggles and lack of understanding when it comes to getting thing done when she's thrown into the world of politics, to even smaller moments when she freaks out when she steps outside on Earth for the first time and can't see the curve of the planet like she's used too on Mars.

So do the books portray her better than the Netflix Series? Because she comes across awfully in that, imo.

Dazzle Novak:
I'd recommend you watch the video I linked in the OP because it provides an interpretation that belies the characterization of "and magically, something happened to put character X undeservedly into a higher slot in the hierarchy of life". If you don't want to click on a dubious link, type "Screenprism Cinderella" into the search bar.

The thing is, if I have to search for abstract interpretations of a kids fairytale on the internet, it has failed in its storytelling. Ultimately with kids stories, you have to look for the moral. The moral to me from Cinderella is do your work, bide your time and magically things will get better. But that doesn't change how the character lacks any proactiveness beyond running away at midnight.

I'm not going to sit and act as if Cinderella perfectly aligns with modern attitudes. I'm not a fan of the "Do your time and hope for the best" moral, either. But I will argue that some of this is due to a shift in attitude toward the notion of "faith" and "diligence" as much as opinions of gender roles and letting this lead you to repainting the intent behind the work and portray plot points as they did not occur is disingenuous at worst and intellectually-lazy at best.

Now, bear in mind that my go-to interpretation of Cinderella is the original Disney one. Grimms might have done it different. But as told, there is nothing in Cinderella's character that demonstrates taking the initiative, and very little requirement to demonstrate any sort of strength. Diligence is great, but is kind of irrelevant to the plot. And as for faith, I'm not even sure what she is supposed to have faith in prior to the appearance out of the blue of the fairy godmother.

We do fundamentally disagree on the idea that a member of "the downtrodden masses" can't be a strong character. For starters, I feel like we're using different definitions of "strong". "Strong character" often means well-written or well-defined rather than literally strong or possessing virtuous traits. But even beyond that I wouldn't portray Cinderella in the Disney film as being content with her lot in life and Solomon of 12 Years A Slave sure as hell isn't content being enslaved.

You misquote me. The downtrodden make the best strong characters. But only if they seek to do something about it, rather than just do their time. And harbour ambitions and aspirations. Again, I have never actually seen 12YAS.

Your definition of "strong" doesn't really work due to the subjectivity. "Well-written" is entirely down to the reader interpretation. And in your OP, you refer to the "media" interpretation of strong. The prevailing interpretation may have its flaws, but it leads to an understandable term as being a character which has the ability or will to change things around it.

This is a problem I have with Django Unchained: Django is a "strong character" elevated from the other slaves ("That one nigger in ten thousand" as the movie itself puts it), but that's obviously only because the system of slavery doesn't apply to him equally. Do you honestly think an ex-slave could walk onto a plantation, kill a white slave driver in front of slaves, then hide behind a bounty sheet because when has the antebellum South ever not acquiesced to the authority of the U.S. Government (totally unrelated aside, the film takes place "Two years before the Civil War")?

Well, to be honest, Django Unchained starts of as a black man's Cinderella. The lightning strike of fortune, and the male German fairy godmother. But beyond that, the character demonstrates willpower and aims and ambitions of his own.

It's not the best tale in the world, and you could question the realism of various scenarios, but you can't deny that he is a reasonably strong character.

Catnip1024:

erttheking:
In the first three books, there are four POV female characters, one of them a Martian Marine that has quite a few moments of weakness, namely her struggles with her PTSD regarding her unit being wiped out by a super soldier, her struggles and lack of understanding when it comes to getting thing done when she's thrown into the world of politics, to even smaller moments when she freaks out when she steps outside on Earth for the first time and can't see the curve of the planet like she's used too on Mars.

So do the books portray her better than the Netflix Series? Because she comes across awfully in that, imo.

I've not gotten far in the series, but from what I read they totally flipped her character on her head. In the series, I THINK she's supposed to be a war hawk who is itching for a scrap with Earth. In the books, one of her main traumas comes from the fact that her suit and radio were damaged when the protomolecule monster was butchering her men and she couldn't radio it in that it wasn't Earth and therefore couldn't stop Earth and Mars from killing each other pointlessly.

Dazzle Novak:

To open the discussion to the class, how should a writer straddle the line between not making a character merely acted upon while not framing passivity as an inherent negative?

Uhh...

Passivity IS a negative trait. A passive character never advances the plot, it just "happens to them". If you have a passive character, they're likely to be boring to you, and your readers/players.

Yes, in certain edge cases you can make it interesting, but in general, passiveness isn't a valued trait. Hell, I think my passiveness in my former relationship was a good chunk of the reason why I got dumped.

That's not to say a woman has to be a barbarian or an emotionless husk to be a "Strong woman". I have plenty of good women characters in the RPGs I make as a hobby, and only one of them is like that (I wasn't sure how else to characterize a brutal and opportunistic assassin on a mission she really doesn't want to be on).

Honestly, when I make my characters, their gender is rarely that important to their personal arc. I mean, yeah, it's a pretty major trait, but it doesn't "define" them.

Ultimately, the problem is that we've associated "Gentle" and "Shy" and "Passive" and "demure" as "woman's traits" while making "Can handle their own shit" and "being a go-getter" as masculine traits. And that's going to take a loooong time and a lot of continued social effort to overturn.

Catnip1024:
snip

While I'm in the camp who believes that if you're trying to argue A, but your audience overwhelmingly insists you're arguing B, your story is functionally arguing B, we're referring to a film that's over 50 years old being viewed through a relatively modern lens.

In half a century, it's possible that the collective imagining of the film is no longer a 1:1 match and has shifted along with shifts in attitude. For example, when discussing Star Wars post-Force Awakens, I noticed that people's memory of what Luke did in A New Hope and what he actually did differed and I feel I was viewing it more freshly because I hadn't even watched the OT until a month prior to the new film's release. They were conflating plot points across the trilogy, for example, to paint Luke as more of a wunderkind than he was actually portrayed. I think something similar happens with Cinderella when one attempts to view 1950 Cinderella through the lens of post-2000s feminism while perhaps not having seen the film since childhood. Simply put, I don't think the text of 1950s Cinderella matches the assumption that's gained traction due to pop cultural osmosis. The same way I suspect "Superman is boring and overpowered, but billionaire, super-ninja-detective, prep-time Batman really struggles, man" isn't entirely a sober, thorough analysis of their texts.

I'm sorry for misquoting you, but I do think Cinderella has ambitions and aspirations: within the timeframe of the film she wants to go to the ball. Whether you think this is a worthy enough aspiration is a matter of taste. But at no point is she portrayed as happy with her current situation. She bears through it.

Let's run through the plot: She finds her mother's gown and attempts to update it, but her Evil Stepmother burdens her with more chores to prevent her from doing so. So the anthropomorphized mice she's been kind to and helped throughout the film pay that kindness back by completing the dress while she's forced to work. Despite having bargained that she could attend the ball if she completed the chores deliberately designed to prevent her from doing so, the Evil Stepmother ensures she can't attend by allowing the stepsisters tear the dress to shreds. I feel the Fairy Godmother appearing here is a matter of emotional truth rather than writing criticism 101: Cinderella has kept faith up to this point and this is a children's flick directed in the '50s, so yes she gets rewarded by magically being able to go to the ball anyway. At the ball, Cinderella doesn't even know the Prince is the Prince. She's more enamored with getting to explore outside the castle she's been trapped in. They fall in love in an hour because sure, but the spell wears off and she must flee. The rest goes as you probably remember, but I want to point out a last key moment of agency and foresight: Cinderella's "I got the other slipper, bitches" moment. Modern views of deus ex machinas aside, I'm judging the work by plot details and character actions occurring within the text within its context.

Cinderella not doing enough is an opinion you're free to have. Cinderella doing nothing is demonstrably false.

All of this ignoring that millions of boys and girls have loved the film for decades, so I don't see why the "Cinderella isn't a role model" interpretation has to be treated as gospel.

I would question why "Django is a reasonably strong character" must be granted. Is it because he's permitted to inflict violence in a way that's as plausible as Superman's heat vision? Or is it because he's a survivor and endures, in which case I'd place him next to Cinderella and Solomon Northup.

aegix drakan:

Dazzle Novak:

To open the discussion to the class, how should a writer straddle the line between not making a character merely acted upon while not framing passivity as an inherent negative?

Uhh...

Passivity IS a negative trait. A passive character never advances the plot, it just "happens to them". If you have a passive character, they're likely to be boring to you, and your readers/players.

Yes, in certain edge cases you can make it interesting, but in general, passiveness isn't a valued trait. Hell, I think my passiveness in my former relationship was a good chunk of the reason why I got dumped.

That's not to say a woman has to be a barbarian or an emotionless husk to be a "Strong woman". I have plenty of good women characters in the RPGs I make as a hobby, and only one of them is like that (I wasn't sure how else to characterize a brutal and opportunistic assassin on a mission she really doesn't want to be on).

Honestly, when I make my characters, their gender is rarely that important to their personal arc. I mean, yeah, it's a pretty major trait, but it doesn't "define" them.

Ultimately, the problem is that we've associated "Gentle" and "Shy" and "Passive" and "demure" as "woman's traits" while making "Can handle their own shit" and "being a go-getter" as masculine traits. And that's going to take a loooong time and a lot of continued social effort to overturn.

As I told someone else, I put "passive" in quotes because I don't buy into many characters labeled as such actually being passive. Cinderella has a goal. Cinderella works toward that goal in the ways that she can.

And I'm not condoning or advocating the continued association of "woman traits"; I'm arguing that the attempt to break free from that dichotomy often leads people to assume those traits are inherently negative and therefore put effort into insisting women or whoever don't actually have them which maligns those who do. At the very least, aren't we neglecting that traits can be neutral or have different values in different circumstances? Or even if negative, these traits can be accompanied by other positive traits.

erttheking:
I've not gotten far in the series, but from what I read they totally flipped her character on her head. In the series, I THINK she's supposed to be a war hawk who is itching for a scrap with Earth. In the books, one of her main traumas comes from the fact that her suit and radio were damaged when the protomolecule monster was butchering her men and she couldn't radio it in that it wasn't Earth and therefore couldn't stop Earth and Mars from killing each other pointlessly.

See, that sounds like an actual relatable character. I might have to give the books a read sometime.

Dazzle Novak:
All of this ignoring that millions of boys and girls have loved the film for decades, so I don't see why the "Cinderella isn't a role model" interpretation has to be treated as gospel.

Who's saying it is gospel? It is my interpretation. People can agree with it or not, that's their decision. Personally, I was always more of a fan of Mulan.

I would question why Django is strong. Is it because he's permitted to inflict violence in a way that's as plausible as Superman's heat vision? Or is it because he's a survivor and endures, in which case I'd place him next to Cinderella and Solomon Northup.

He is strong not only for having proper, clear ambitions for both the short and longer term, but because he has actual personality that comes out through the plot. His peacock fashion sense, for instance. He has far more personality about him than the Disney Cinderella. He has understandable aims that far exceed "I want to go to the ball".

You question the plausibility. He shoots people. That is completely plausible. If you are questioning the lack of consequences arising from this, you have to question how many people would be willing to risk their lives for some guy they knew but possibly didn't even like that much. Consider the human aspects of those you would be expecting to shoot him.

As I said, the "strength" of a character comes down entirely to the beholder. I think Cinderella is a far "weaker" written character than Django.

Catnip1024:

Who's saying it is gospel? It is my interpretation. People can agree with it or not, that's their decision. Personally, I was always more of a fan of Mulan.

It's taken for granted.

He is strong not only for having proper, clear ambitions for both the short and longer term, but because he has actual personality that comes out through the plot. His peacock fashion sense, for instance. He has far more personality about him than the Disney Cinderella. He has understandable aims that far exceed "I want to go to the ball".

"Proper" is opinion, which is why I pointed out worthiness being a matter of taste. Your use of "understandable" is also opinion. I understand Cinderella's motives fine. And while I'd agree Django has more personality and I like the character, I and many others don't view him as being all that far removed from being a bit of a cipher himself. Opinions everywhere!

You question the plausibility. He shoots people. That is completely plausible. If you are questioning the lack of consequences arising from this, you have to question how many people would be willing to risk their lives for some guy they knew but possibly didn't even like that much. Consider the human aspects of those you would be expecting to shoot him.

He shoots people in a society where a "nigger on a horse" is constantly scandalous and we know historically that slaves being able to so much as read was harshly punishable. So yes, there is a stark lack of consequence. I'd be pretty brave and ambitious, too, if laws weren't enforced against me. And based on the fact Big Daddy was able to gather a 30 man posse, I doubt there was a lack of will in killing the black man who killed two white men. Django not being shot on sight is a contrivance.

As I said, the "strength" of a character comes down entirely to the beholder. I think Cinderella is a far "weaker" written character than Django.

Django isn't a universal barometer of character writing, so...

Dazzle Novak:

As I told someone else, I put "passive" in quotes because I don't buy into many characters labeled as such actually being passive. Cinderella has a goal. Cinderella works toward that goal in the ways that she can.

And I'm not condoning or advocating the continued association of "woman traits"; I'm arguing that the attempt to break free from that dichotomy often leads people to assume those traits are inherently negative and therefore put effort into insisting women or whoever don't actually have them which maligns those who do. At the very least, aren't we neglecting that traits can be neutral or have different values in different circumstances? Or even if negative, these traits can be accompanied by other positive traits.

I've seen exactly one version of Cinderella in which this is true (it was some modern teen remake of it), where she does take the actions she's capable of taking to improve the situation. Every other version is basically "I want to go to the ball...Oh no stepmom said no, I'm going to cry and oh look, deus ex grandmachina appears and lets me magically go to the ball...Oh no, I have to flee, my alloted magic time is up! Time to run home and basically wait until the prince finds me and the shoe proves that it's me, time for happily ever after ending!"

If she had made/bought her own dress and sneaked into the ball on her own, and/or tried to direct the rumors of "the girl who fits the shoe" to go to her house, or something, then I'd concede the point for sure. But in most versions of the story she just sorta waits until destiny helps her.

And while, yes, you're right that neglecting neutral or negative traits (hell, ignoring ANY trait) can limit your writing...Certain ones just don't often lead to interesting characters. Like I said, a passive character doesn't really advance the plot in most cases.

...Then again, passiveness can manifest in different ways. I have a character who essentially has "lazy thinking" where he submits to the wisdom of his superiors no matter the cost, and it ends up being interesting because the player will take one look at the situation and go "Dude, you're gonna get betrayed, calling it now" and has to watch as he falls right into the trap that should have been obvious to him.

As mentioned, stories about traditionally "feminine" characters tend to be unrelentingly boring, even to most women, because those characters are so limited in terms of what they can do. There are a few stories which can exploit the powerlessness of a "feminine" character to create a feeling of hopelessness or anxiety, but it's hard to do without having that character come of as a simpering idiot, because that is what traditional femininity means. Being a simpering idiot who has to wait for big strong men to do all the stuff for you.

I have to admit that the phrase "strong female character" makes me heave a little, but essentially it's an ugly, stupid way of talking about the practice of writing agentive female characters. That is to say, writing female characters who can do things and who can drive a story themselves rather than being passively swept along with it.

Since the example in the OP is Arya and Sansa Stark, I'd like to point out Catelyn Stark, Arianne Martell, Cersei Lannister, Melisandre and, for the vast majority of the story at least, Danaerys. These are all POV characters in the books, they all have "agency" in that they take independent actions and push the plot forward, but they are also "feminine" characters by the standards of their respective societies. Their agency comes not from some act of gender rebellion but from being socially skilled, or attractive, or magically powerful, or having powerful families and children. In fact, the only character whose behaviour is genuinely seen and commented on by other characters as out of line is Brienne.

Tomboys have been around for ever in fiction, far, far longer than our current fads about "strong female characters". Hollywood in particular has a long standing relationship with tomboy characters because they provide a socially acceptable way to have female characters who can act in "unfeminine" ways without it being threatening or upsetting to a conservative audience (because being a "tomboy" is generally perceived as a phase which a girl grows out of as she ages and comes to terms with being a woman). I wouldn't lump tomboys in with the "strong female characters" thing because they're a trope people have used for a long time to write agentive female characters without making them too strong or threatening.

Dazzle Novak:

Redryhno:
snip

I'm not going to engage your argument that abuse from mothers is somehow "more well delivered" than abuse from fathers when you start by sweeping the lasting effects of assault, rape, and murder aside. Somehow, being dead isn't long-lasting. You sound silly and you'd need a fistful of receipts for me to take such a broad bit of presumably-anecdotal speculation as in good faith.

Cinderella isn't rewarded by "simply existing." The implication is that The Fairy Godmother appears as a manifestation of all the efforts she had made prior. Again, this portrayal of diligence and faith is outdated, but not malicious. And yes, having kindness you've doled out (to mice in this instance) reciprocated counts as efforts. That's quid pro quo.

I'd disagree with the idea Sarah Connor "largely didn't have many" positive traits because she doesn't appear to fall outside the range of normal teenager in the first movie. Why is the standard for "strong female character" being a pseudo-commando able to stave off the robo-apocalypse when that's not the standard most people hold themselves and others to day-to-day? Why is correcting "ditzy teenage girl" taken as a net-positive despite it rendering her less able to actually function in her society?

It just seems to me people are more willing to lionize Don Draper for slaying pussy and being a boss despite him being a deadbeat father, war deserter, and grifter simply because he appears to be what we've labeled "strong" and more likely to condemn a character like T1 Sarah Connor simply because she appears to be "weak".

Quite the opposite, death is very much permanent, there is no getting better, no treatment, no therapy for death. You're just dead, you don't have even have the opportunity to have the chance of a chance. Rape, assault, disfigurement, maiming, these are all things we have the understanding of how to fix and treat, however little it may be. We do not have anything for death.

As for the anecdotes, you really only have to look at many of the serial killers of the last century, as well as notable writers such as Lovecraft and Howard(though this one admittedly is more speculation). Parents have the ability to scar their kids for life. It's just that Mothers and the things they allow to happen or do themselves have longer lasting effects than Fathers simply because there's a bond between Mother and Child that Fathers just don't have the same connection to. As a general rule of course.

Moving onto Ciderella again, I have no problem with the diligence and faith, it's that most adaptations have from the Godmother on makes it basically stop being about any of her accomplishments and she just sits waiting and hoping. She no longer is the diligent woman, but the love-mourning teenager that is rewarded for ceasing most of her earlier development.

For Connor, are you really seriously arguing that her having no personal management skills is somehow better than post Reese Connor? The standard for strong character is one that can do their own shit without having to rely on others for everything. It has nothing to do with badass commando and all to do with what you would expect of a badass commando: self-reliance and the will to see things through. She's not a strong character because she can't survive in normal society(and this is Terminator-universe we're talking about, her not being able to survive in normal society is a positive in itself simply because there's a set-in-clay expiration date) she's a strong female character because she's able, and more importantly, WILLING to do what she believes is right. And do I really need to spell out why ditzy teenager isn't exactly a net positive?

You're shown she's perfectly able to function in normal society in T2, she just has nightmares about that impending apocalypse and nobody believes her. Dyson is much the same. He's not a badass commando, but he does recognize the danger of his work once it's shown to him and sacrifices himself to destroy it. That in itself is indicative of a strong character. Again, it's the ability and will to act. In T1, Connor had the will at times, sometimes the ability, but T2 she had both. And she only didn't just kill Dyson because she had a mirror put in front of her in the form of "DON'T HURT MY DADDY".

And Don Draper? You mean the guy from the show that is all about being a period piece about less than ideal people? I only watched the first season before I got bored of it, but isn't he a pretty genius and successful ad-man? Think maybe that's what people like about him? That he's this flawed being, but he has a solid career? Very few beloved characters in fiction don't have their own massive things to get hung-up on. Like...Neeman in the Walking Dead is one of the most terrifying characters that appears in the comic, in that he's actually a half-decent guy doing some pretty terrible things and he becomes that half-decent guy again. Aragorn is a man that ran from his home and abandoned his people, but he was also one of the most somber and hopeful characters in LotR as you go through the books. The fact of the matter is that people are drawn to people and characters that are sure of themselves.

Like I said in an earlier post, willful passivity is entropy, and nobody gives a shit about characters that refuse to progress. T1 Sarah Connor was very much stuck in a rut and wasn't going anywhere. You've yet to name a character that you believe is a good one that is passive yourself, and I believe you already know why that is.

Redryhno:
For Connor, are you really seriously arguing that her having no personal management skills is somehow better than post Reese Connor? The standard for strong character is one that can do their own shit without having to rely on others for everything.

The thing about T1, though, is that (particularly in the context of the broader series, which admittedly may not have even been imagined at the time it was made) it's a coming of age story for Sarah.

I mean, let's take an archetypal "coming of age" character, Luke Skywalker. At the start of A New Hope, Luke is pretty useless. He lives on a farm with his aunt and uncle doing boring shit until the call to adventure thrusts him out of his ordinary life and into a larger universe. He learns from a much more powerful mentor figure, who dies at the end, thus symbolically passing the torch to him. In the end, he is the one who destroys the death star, cementing that he's no longer the useless farmboy he once was. The story is about him growing from a child who lives in a small, safe and boring world to an adult who lives in a larger, more dangerous and less boring one.

In T1 Sarah Conner is still, according to the original script, a teenager and she (like most people around her) is pretty useless. She lives a boring mundane life unaware that the world is about to end. Again, there's a call to adventure (in this case, a giant Austrian robot intent on killing her) which thrusts her out of that ordinary life and into a larger universe. She learns from a much more powerful mentor figure (who is also a creepy time stalker, but meh) who dies at the end, thus symbolically passing the torch to her. In the end, she is the one who kills the terminator and delivers the final one liner, cementing that she's no longer the innocent teenager she once was. The story is about her growing from a child who lives in a small, safe and boring world to an adult who lives in a larger, more dangerous and less boring one.

Now, there's a lot of issues we could pick up in terms of how these characters are coded based on their gender. Luke, for example, doesn't have to have sex with Obi Wan Kenobi in order to become an adult. We could also make the point that Luke is never as useless as Sarah, in the end it's the flying skills he learned on his farm which enable him to destroy the death star. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Luke's coming of age is to realize that he's a big damn hero, while Sarah's coming of age is to realize that she's going to give birth to the big damn hero, which is Freudian as fuck. But ultimately, both these characters are following a fairly traditional arc, which is of a weak character becoming stronger.

In T2, Sarah is more capable, but she's also not the centre of the narrative any more, John is. John, as a child, is now the weak character who has to become stronger. Sarah is now the Han Solo of this movie, and the terminator is the Obi Wan. For some reason we love stories about characters coming of age.

Obligatory:

http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=311

But yes, here's a quick tip: women are people. They are as capable of filling a broad range of roles as men. Write them as such and not as an afterthought.

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