Monday, 19 August 2013

Do YOU Hate 'Strong' Female Characters? - Lucy Coats

Last week's New Statesman article by Sophia McDougall, entitled 'I Hate Strong Female Characters' went viral on Twitter and created a storm in the comments box.  Of course, McDougall was courting controversy with that particular post title, since she is a self-avowed feminist, who sticks up for women on the internet.  But does she have a point?

Many female characters in YA (especially paranormal YA) nowadays are labelled 'feisty', or 'kick-ass' in their book blurb. They are meant to embody all the modern virtues of strong, independent, girl-women who go out and take what they want in life without being constrained by the default 'but I'm a girl so I can't do that' box of the not-so-distant writing past.

As a feminist myself, I say 'Hooray' to all that.  I've much enjoyed meeting Sarwat Chadda's determined monster-stomping Billi SanGreal and (more recently) Sarah J Mass's defiant knife-wielding assassin, Celaena Sardothien, and would much rather promote them as female role models than the wimpish, vapid Bella Swann from Twilight. (Not that I'm advising teenage girls to go out and stab people, but you take my meaning.)  I do wonder, though, in more general terms does all this overt feisty, kick-ass stuff come at the expense of a certain nuance of emotion? Does making the girls we write about 'strong' before anything else come at the expense of depth and breadth of character?  In the frantic quest to make sure our girl heroes do anything that boy heroes can (of which they are, of course, entirely capable) are we losing sight of the fact that it shouldn't matter and we shouldn't even be thinking about it because it ought to be a given?

As McDougall herself says, "No one ever asks if a male character is “strong”. Nor if he’s “feisty,” or “kick-ass” come to that." Well, we don't do we? We're more likely to ask what his character is like. Let's take Standish Treadwell, from Sally Gardner's Maggot Moon. An unlikely hero at best. Is he kick-ass?  Is he feisty? Does it matter? No, of course it doesn't. He is simply himself, a scared, heroic, solitary, nervy, matter-of-fact, dyslexic boy who breaks your heart.

We need to get over and move on past the 'Wow! This princess does kung-fu!" moment in children's and YA books.  Strongly-written female characters are great and entirely necessary, but it should not be what she can do that defines a princess - it should be who she is as a person. Am I alone in thinking this? Do tell!

Lucy is teaching Guardian Masterclasses on How To Write for Children on 7 Sept and 19 Oct 2013
Lucy's new picture book, Bear's Best Friend, is published by Bloomsbury "A charming story about the magic of friendship which may bring a tear to your eye" Parents in Touch "The language is a joy…thoughtful and enjoyable" Armadillo Magazine. "Coats's ebullient, sympathetic story is perfectly matched by Sarah Dyer's warm and witty illustrations." The Times   
Her latest series for 7-9s, Greek Beasts and Heroes is out now from Orion Children's Books. 
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Sue Purkiss said...

Well said, Lucy! Do you think it's partly to do with how difficult it is to define what makes a 'good' book'? That's what everyone wants to find, but it's difficult, so these labels come along to make it easier - 'Find me a book with a strong heroine/vampires/ fairies with attitude - whatever it might be. Easier to market too, I suppose.

Lucy Coats said...

Yes, labels are an easy shorthand, I agree. But, as I said above, I wish we could get past that 'strong heroine' tag. Would you ask for a 'strong hero'? It's a tautology, and shouldn't be relevant. I'd much rather readers asked for a book with an 'interesting' character - male or female, with all the flaws which make us human.

Lucy Coats said...

PS: I'm all for fairies with attitude!

Penny Dolan said...

Nice post, Lucy.

I have just read Sophie's article, and it's well worth tracking down and reading too.

Richard said...

Nice article, Lucy

Here's another link you might like (caution: Language)

Of course, it isn't as simple as taking a male character and changing all the pronouns, or taking a stereotypical female character and giving her a sword or a chainsaw. The female character has to be strong and still female. Male and female characters are different at a very deep level, and female strength has to arise from that. Male concepts of honour, ego, duty and so forth, will not graft onto a female character with any degree of verisimilitude. Which is not to say there are not similar female concepts, but they are not the same things, are not experienced the same and, a lot of the time, they have different manifestations.

JO said...

Maybe one day there will come a time when we realise that everyone is assessed on what they can do, what their frailties are, and not gender. But maybe we have to go through this process to escape from the constructs behind Heidi, Katy etc - As a feminist, I'd rather have feisty than a wimp - but do look forward to being people first.

Jackie Marchant said...

Absolutely agree - characters are characters, whether they are boys, girls or aliens.

Stroppy Author said...

"As a feminist, I'd rather have feisty than a wimp - but do look forward to being people first." Actually, I'd rather have the wimp, because the challenge will be greater and more interesting. If the hero just says, 'great, trouble - bring it on!' one source of conflict (internal) has already gone.

I did largely agree with Sophie's article but found the comments pretty tiresome :-)

C.J.Busby said...

Do you think it's necessarily the characters that are one-dimensional or the comments/reviews/blurb version of them? So a relatively interesting, nuanced female character becomes 'kick-ass/feisty' in the blurb because she actually has a brain and some funny lines and a bit of action to herself and it's lazy marketing?

Paula Harrison said...

Re the comment above- I agree. There is probably some pigeon-holing going on in the marketing in some cases. I'm glad the subject was raised though. I hope the Strong Female Character doesn't become the new stereotype. Why shouldn't we value all kinds of masculine and feminine traits in both male and female characters? If we swallow the "feminine traits are weaker" argument then we're right back where we started.

Richard said...

Linked from Sophie's article is a very nice critique of the worst possible SFC.

Paula, exactly. Her strength has to come from her own complex, but usually mostly feminine, character. The worst way to create a SFC is to layer her with a male stereotype.

catdownunder said...

Interesting! I never think of my characters in those terms. I just think of them as being themselves. They happen the way they happen and I sometimes feel as if I don't have much choice about what sort of people they are. (of course that might be why, unlike the rest of you, I have yet to reach the giddy heights of publication!)

Paula Harrison said...

Richard - that's not quite what I meant! I don't agree that female characters should be "mostly feminine".

Richard said...

I think we may have different definitions of "feminine". I certainly don't mean that she should usually like pretty dresses.