Mar 7, 2010

The Sunday Salon - On Female Characters

The Sunday Salon.com On Female Characters

It has probably not escaped the notice of most attentive readers that female characters are under a lot more scrutiny than male ones will ever be. I see this as a reflection of the world we live in, which is still a world in which women are required to justify their actions much more frequently than men. When it comes to literature, though, and more specifically to trying to read books critically regarding their depiction of gender, there seems to be a lot of confusion going around – including, of course, in my own head. When I try to put my finger on what bothers me about the heroines of certain books, I often worry that I’m simply DOIN IT RONG, and that in the process I’m doing more harm than good.

The fact that many readers keep an eye out for problematic depictions of women is a consequence of the fact that historically, these have abounded; and also of the fact that male protagonists are still perceived as the default. This isn’t a matter of numbers, I don’t think. I don’t have any information about the proportion of books with male versus female protagonists; I’m sure it varies between genres, and while it would be interesting to look at some statistics, I doubt they would make much of a difference for my overall point. And my overall point is that regardless of how common they actually are, female protagonists still stand out. This is especially noticeable when it comes to books aimed at younger readers: how often to you see reading lists of books with female heroines?

This makes complete sense, considering the world we live in, and I understand why it’s important to give girls positive female role models. I also understand why writers and readers alike so often worry about getting it right. At the same time, though, there are things about the way female characters are sometimes critiqued that give me pause. One of them is the issue of “strength” versus “weakness”. I dislike a feeble heroine as much as the next reader, but I think it can be easy to hold female characters (and real women) to unrealistic standards of “strength”, and to mistake any display of vulnerability whatsoever for “weakness”.

This frustrates me so much that I sometimes want to ban the words “strong” and “weak” from my vocabulary altogether when it comes to talking about women. What is a weak woman, or a weak female character? I’m asking this honestly—if you’ve ever disliked a female character because she struck you as weak, could you tell me why?

Another tricky subject is that of female villains. Jodie actually wrote a post about this a while ago that I recommend that you read. But anyway, I think that because women are still perceived as the exception to the rule – especially women in positions of power, which tends to be the cause with villains – it’s very easy to unconsciously take any specific character and read her as a representation of all women. I’ve seen someone say this about the Other Mother in Neil Gaiman’s Coraline recently – this reader disliked the book because they felt that she vilified mothers everywhere (I’m not linking to the post or article because sadly I can’t remember where I found it. But if you’ve seen it too let me know and I’ll gladly include a link). I hope I don’t sound like I’m dismissing this idea because Neil Gaiman happens to be my favourite author (and more than that, I hope that’s not what I’m doing), but I really suspect that the problem here has more to do with how female characters in general are portrayed and perceived than with how this character in particular was written.

Of course, there are some pretty clear cases of authors doing it wrong, especially when a character’s wickedness is specifically tied to her femaleness, or worse yet, to female sexuality. But where do you draw the line? If we try to avoid writing “bad” women altogether because that might be perceived as having a bearing on all women, aren’t we once again limiting the roles that are available to women? Aren’t we implicitly accepting that women are less than fully human, and therefore don’t have the full range of human emotions and motivations at their disposal?

It’s a complicated issue. I suspect that parallels can be made with portrayals of GLBTQ characters or characters of colour, except it must be even trickier in those cases, as they’re much more in the minority and thus stand out even more. What bothers me about certain female characters is mostly lack of complexity and lack of agency—the same things that bother me about any poorly written character, really. It’s feeling that they’re anything less than fully complex human beings. But as for weakness or wickedness, give me a good complex female villain or a vulnerable woman who feels real over a spineless or a bold but superficial female heroine any day.

How do you feel about this issue? Do you find that you tend to be more critical of female characters than of male ones? Do “weak” women in fiction bother you? What are some examples of heroines or female villains that you think were well-written? What about ones that you felt were not?



Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ksawyer/ / CC BY-NC 2.0

51 comments:

  1. Thanks for the thought-provoking post. Weak women ("wimpy heroines") annoy me as much as some people in real life. Obviously, being a girl, I prefer a strong well-balanced heroine, as opposed to the stereotypical needy one.

    For instance, after recently finishing Pride & Prejudice, I found myself quite fond of Lizzy's character. Lydia, on the other hand, deserved a slap! Continuing on the classics front, Jo from Little Women was a favourite.

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  2. The frustrating thing, to me, is that some of the things that are NOT "okay" to be put into a woman's character in a book are the very thing that makes human character beautiful: vulnerability. I don't WANT a world where everyone is invulnerably strong and endlessly cool (if nothing else, I wouldn't be allowed to live in such a world). Vulnerability is part of what makes someone (male, female, black, white, gay, straight, whatever) beautiful. And human. Thanks, your post made my morning :). I always feel like I can't talk about these things - being a middle class American white male, I am always worried that maybe I just don't "get it", or that I'm trapped by my own privilege or something.

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  3. Thanks for this interesting post, Nymeth. I like heroines who possess a strong will and determination like Jane Eyre for example. I liked the ending of the book. Bronte wants to show the reader that Jane was only willing to return to Mr. Rochester after she found out about her fortune, so that she wouldn't have to depend on him. Also, Mr. Rochester was blind and he depended on Jane, and that way she no longer was inferior to him. I really liked that ending and I like such strong heroines who know what they want.

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  4. anothercookiecrumbles: My problem is that I truly, honestly have a hard time defining "wimpy" or "needy". Let's imagine that a needy heroine is one whose whole life resolves around a man, for example. That could very well reinforce the stereotype that women have no lives beyond their partners, but on the other hand, there are *real* women in that position, for a myriad reasons. How can they be portrayed in literature in a way that is not simply stereotypical?

    Jason: I completely agree about vulnerability, and I'd be heartbroken if I ever saw it disappear from literature.

    Andreea: Jane Eyre is an interesting case. I love that book too, and I love that Jane insists on supporting herself. In the cultural context of the novel, that was of course a huge deal because women were always expected to be dependent. I know that in many contexts that's STILL true in today's world, but - let's imagine a story about a woman who depends on a man, financially or emotionally, for whatever reason. Maybe she's ill, or maybe her circumstances require it in some other way. Is there any way to tell this story as the story of two human beings, one of whom relies on the other, and not as a story of a "needy" woman who's a bad role model for girls? I really don't have an answer, but this is something that gives me pause.

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  5. Ana,

    I read predominantly women's literature or books with female leads and that is because I am actively seeking out our voice and role in the larger society.

    I am by nature a critical reader; I am always asking questions like the ones you pose. Am I doing harm? I don't think so. If I am, then at some point because of my circle of peers, I expect I'll be corrected or challenged when I get it wrong. Getting it wrong isn't a bad thing, it's an opportunity to get it right.

    I don't like weak female character, but I am not bothered by flawed characters. If we are going to examine our humanness then I expect the character to have flaws.

    I don't have a problem with a female character having weakness when it is examined against strengths. What I do object to is the idea of a woman women need men to be whole, to function, to be fully woman. That is an entirely different message from a woman who finds love fulfilling or a woman who had not recognized her own strengths and later does.

    I think the literary as historians in general have failed women. However, the recorder documents the world as he sees it and experiences it and by large, the world was seen through men's eyes. I think men can get it right and I think women have responsibility to speak up when men or women get it wrong.

    How you define wrong is subjective, it is fluid and it requires a constructive and open dialogue.

    I read a quote once that said paraphrased, you might not know how to build up your self-esteem but you know how to stop lowering it.

    I think with women characters, you know what is wrong for you. I think we need to be actively engaged in defining what is right.

    If you don't mind, I'm going to continue this conversation for my salon today. Of course, I'll be linking to you.

    Thanks for another thought-provoking conversation.

    Oh, lastly, I agree when you take issue with something, do explain why. It is not enough to say a thing is wrong. Tell the audience why you feel that way.

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  6. Susan, this is an excellent point:

    I don't have a problem with a female character having weakness when it is examined against strengths. What I do object to is the idea of a woman women need men to be whole, to function, to be fully woman. That is an entirely different message from a woman who finds love fulfilling or a woman who had not recognized her own strengths and later does.

    Sometimes I don't quite know how to explain why I think a book is doing a) and the other is doing b), but I do get the vibe of incompleteness and dependences versus a full human being who allows herself to be vulnerable.

    I absolutely don't mind you continuing the conversation over at your Sunday Salon post - quite the opposite! I look forward to it :)

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  7. I commented before reading other responses.

    Jason, I think we many and different perspectives enrich our understanding so I think being the middle class white guy adds to the conversation.

    I also try to remember when I'm reading literature to remember the context: historical, the particular setting or circumstances.

    A woman in one time in history staying in a bad marriage shouldn't be measured against a woman today here but what about in another country? Context matters.

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  8. I focused on classics for so many years, and there aren't very many women being pondered about at all in them. Women are supporting characters. I wonder if the amount of female protagonists in today's literature is less because women are being scrutinized by society (they were THEN too) and more because in the last 50-100 years it's become okay to focus on a segment of our population that we formerly ignored (mostly) in literature.

    I remember something I read. Scott Westerfeld said that he tends to write from a female character's point of view because it's acceptable in society for women to internally evaluate themselves and the people around them. I see the situation more as a problem with discrimination against men, to be honest. Boys are not allowed to feel (unless they're gay of course) and so women end up as main characters and narrators, particularly in first person or close-third person narratives.

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  9. I definitely agree about context, Susan. I guess it's also important to remember that there are MANY stories, not just a single one. So if a book like Coraline has a terrifying female villain who's supposedly a mother, it doesn't matter so much because that's not the ONLY story about mothers out there. It's important to remember there are many voices.

    Amanda: Oops, I didn't mean to say that women are scrutinized more today - just that today we have these conversations, whereas before it was harder for people to voice these concerns. And the numbers thing was more me getting sidetracked, really. But I do very much agree with you about introspection, yes. That's especially noticeable in YA. I don't see it so much as an issue of discrimination against women versus discrimination against men, but as two sides of the same coin. My interest in feminism is indissociable from my interest in this. When we rely on rigid definitions of what men and women are supposed to be, we short-change everyone. And that's really a pity. I'm always happy when I see a book that tells boys it's okay to feel, and I hope these become more and more common in the future.

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  10. "When we rely on rigid definitions of what men and women are supposed to be, we short-change everyone."

    Exactly. For me, feminism is about equality for everyone.

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  11. I am "old school" (meaning I'm just plain OLD!) it's so strange that I don't notice if there are not a lot of strong woman written about..maybe because I've always known that if anyone wanted to do something (regardless of sex) would do it! I have admired some of the "stronger woman leads" in books but I never thought of it as I liked them BECAUSE they were so strong so much as I liked the personality the author gave them.. the more likeable the more I wanted to read about them... re: Less of Pern. Ann McCaffrey wrong a number of "strong woman".. but I just liked them.. I feel like I would have liked them even if they weren't "heroic"...
    I am so old and so tired of all descrimination... hell, I have always tried to treat anyone the way I would hope they would treat me..if that much happens back at me.. well I admire them then.. strong or not...

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  12. I understand what you mean. I suppose it's my interest in the discriminations that men face (which has been something I've studied for about 15 years) that makes me see that side of the coin. It makes me very sad and upset when we basically say men, especially teenage boys, are not allowed to feel unless they're gay or something traumatic happens to them.

    I know I fall victim to this same mentality, though - every single novel I've written has been from a female pov. I can't tell if this is because I myself am female and therefore it's easier for me to write from that pov, or if it's the same as what Westerfeld said.

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  13. This is a thought provoking question. I have noticed I am especially critical of the way an author portrays a character with autism or Asperger's (a subject close to my heart), a mentally ill character, or a homosexual character, because there are not enough positive, well-drawn portrayals of these individuals. (That seems to be changing, though). I have never really considered this in terms of my reactions to female characters. It's something to ponder.

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  14. After I finished Brooklyn recently, I felt that Eilis, the main character, was weak because she let things happen to her...she put off decisions until circumstances forced her to decide. So in the end, I didn't really care for the book for this reason. However, I know lots of women who are like that, and it isn't so much Eilis herself that I'm critical of, it's that her character made the book not so interesting to me.

    Many people have mentioned recently that it seems like there's a trend towards female characters in historical fiction that are anachronistic. My grandmother would've been a contemporary of Eilis, and I know she avoids decisions, so I think of that too, in regards to Eilis's character. Did Toibin intend her to be reflective of the times?

    Anyways. That's something I think about when I think of a female character...how are they acting in relation to the time and place the book is set.

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  15. For the second time in a week, I'm left wanting to kiss you for your post! :) Not only is this a wonderful post, but there's so many wonderful comments, too.

    We've talked about this before, of course. I'm so glad you brought up "weak/strong" thing. And I, too, am interested in what it is that different people mean by those words. I've been very hurt at times by people's reviews in which they disparage "weak" women and their "weak" choices, or non-choices. Sometimes what might be regarded as a "weak" choice by most is the in reality the only choice a person can make at the time in terms of self-preservation. *sigh* As usual, I'm having a hard time putting into words what I mean. I'm so grateful that you've acquired the ability to read through my bumbling words and know what I'm saying anyway. :)

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  16. Well, this a discussion that is going to linger well past today. It reminds me of a conversation the BFF & I had long ago about the unevenness of criticism: that the assumption was that men somehow wrote women better than women could--a complete fallacy, but it was the prevailing attitude at the time (I wish I could remember the book that had us so angry). I think of Updike's "S" in which the heroine is so insipid that I boycotted his novels for years (only read one of his later ones, well done, but again, his female characters literally paled against the male) Same with The Corrections--the author clearly has contempt for his female characters and is not ashamed to show it....

    As for children's literature, it is still true that girls will read a book (or see a movie) centered around a boy far more often than boys will if the main character happens to be a boy: think Harry Potter, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and Percy Jackson (in fairness, I don't know about Coraline; will fix that). Which is why Harriet the Spy remains my all-time favorite childhood read: Harriet solves her problems herself--not without difficulty--and her best friends are Janey who wants to blow up the world, and Sport, the sensitive boy who takes care of his father. (yes, I do love Jane Eyre)

    Sorry to have gone on for so long--also for losing the thread of my point. Which is that I do consider female characters, but thanks to the remarks of others, should also be considering my responses to other less postively portrayed characters.

    Thanks, Nymeth!

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  17. You know, I've never thought about this before, but I'm going to pay attention from here on out. I certainly hope I'm not more critical of female characters, but I may well be because our society certainly is.

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  18. I use "strong" to describe female characters quite a bit, I confess. I do not often use "weak", however. It really makes me wonder what I think a weak female character would be (extremely needy, whiny, needing a man to feel complete?). I don't really see a vulnerable or flawed character as being weak. Rather, I think that only adds to a character's strength. I also don't think a bold or mouthy character is necessarily a strong one.

    I do think I am more critical of female characters than male. I think though that is in part because I can most identify with females. I am more likely to be critical of someone who shares my profession than someone in a profession I know nothing or very little about, regardless of gender. That doesn't necessarily make it right, of course.

    Whether a character is weak or strong isn't so much an issue for me when it gets right down to it as is the individual character in the context of the story. I guess you could say that I'm more of a situationalist.

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  19. Great post! It does seem that, in general, readers are more forgiving of weak/flawed male characters (sorry I can't think of any specifically right now) than weak/flawed female characters. Maybe part of it is the "boys will be boys" thinking?

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  20. When I was reading Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance (about the life of Richard Bruce Nugent, a black homosexual), I kept coming across the following: Many of his contemporaries didn't want him writing "negative" portrayals of black people because they felt this inhibited their overall goal of increasing respect for their race. I feel the same sometimes holds true for women.

    We get caught up in the idea that any negative portrayal of our gender is detrimental to feminism. I completely disagree as I feel that portraying women as consistently positive actually does more harm than good to the concept of equality. Equality means the same possibility of success and failure, goodness and badness, etc.

    My only issue is when the female lead is portrayed as strong but she still needs a man to take care of her (financially, emotionally, and so on). I feel we do a great deal of harm when we equate a strong woman with one who knows she needs a man in her life - a strong woman is one who accepts she can't take care of herself or accepts she can't do certain things.

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  21. Ana - Another brilliant, thought-provoking post. And the comments have been wonderful. I completely agree with you here..

    But as for weakness or wickedness, give me a good complex female villain or a vulnerable woman who feels real over a spineless or a bold but superficial female heroine any day.

    It has to do with complexity and human nature. It also has to do with what I consider "good" writing.

    I wonder about people who are critical of how women are portrayed, whether "wicked" or "weak", being unable to allow for and be open to those traits in themselves and in others. Of course we all have different connotations for those words and the many others used to describe characters in stories and novels.

    When I grow uncomfortable with a character I try and leave myself open to them and allow for growth and change. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't.

    If I am making judgments about a character, female or male, I try and figure out my reaction. What, in me, is reacting to that character, and why.

    I agree with Susan, it is important to remember the context, and that in the past historians, critics and the people in power have controlled what others see, read and hear. I have seen this change, and hope that change continues.

    Again, this is a great post.

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  22. Great post! I agree with the idea expressed that what I want to see in books is the full range of the human experience. At the same time, I often do notice things about female characters. I notice how people of faith are portrayed, etc.

    What Scott Westerfeld said is interesting, b/c I just recently read a film review that suggested the same thing...that the rich deep emotional films had female leads. (this was male reviewer) And I do think that's problematic for whatever reason...after all, for whatever we women face, it seems men have to hold up to the standard of "being a real man"

    So I think Amanda's points are interesting as well.

    Great conversation!

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  23. If we try to avoid writing “bad” women altogether because that might be perceived as having a bearing on all women, aren’t we once again limiting the roles that are available to women? Aren’t we implicitly accepting that women are less than fully human, and therefore don’t have the full range of human emotions and motivations at their disposal?

    I worry about this sort of thing a lot in relation to female characters, and to LGBT characters and characters of colour. Whenever I encounter a villainous character who belongs to one or more of these groups, I'm inclined to wonder why the author chose to make that particular character into the bad guy. Are they trying to reinforce negative stereotypes? Are they saying that women, LGBT folks and people of colour are weak; that they allow power to corrupt them; that they are inclined, by nature, to hurt others?

    Of course, being female/LGBT/POC does not necessarily make one a good person, any more than it necessarily makes one a bad person. There are bound to be good and bad people in any group; most are likely to see-saw back and forth across the good/bad divide depending on circumstances. But I sort of feel like we're at a place in history where depicting people from these groups as villains isn't really exceptable specifically because the stereotypes have held sway for so long. When we have a female/LGBT/POC villain, we're reinforcing those stereotypes whether we mean to or not, and we'd damned well better make sure we show them as one of a number of possible options rather than the norm.

    When I was little, I remember reading any number of books in which shrewish, nagging women were the norm. I used to think that I didn't like female characters, because these were the only sorts of fictional women I ever came across. I'm not sure if I actually encounter fewer fictional women who fit this mould in my current reading or if I simply regard these women in a different light now that I'm older, but I don't feel like this the norm anymore.

    As far as strong, non-villainous female characters go: I think I worry about this more as a writer than as a reader. I've kind of written myself into a corner so far as the Bechdel test goes because of the male narrators in my current project, but I do try to show that the women in my world hold equal power to the men. I've got female army officers, female politicians, women who occupy jobs that we traditionally consider as belonging to men (and men who occupy traditionally female jobs)... women of all sorts. Whenever I create a new character, no matter how minor, I ask myself whether there's any reason that they couldn't be female instead of male. There are times when I do decide to make them male instead, for whatever reason, but I hope I've managed to include a goodly number of female characters who are presumably interacting off screen, even if my narrators aren't privy to their discussions. And I hope they're both capable and vulnerable, just like people everywhere.

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  24. ...and I just realized how long that was. Sorry! I seem to be hijacking peoples' comments over the past week or so.

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  25. I think I probably am more critical of female characters than male ones, in books and films, but I think it's because they're representing my experience in a way that male characters aren't. Not that I expect every female character to be like me, but I like to see women acting like people and not just placeholder props for the guys in their world. Does that make sense?

    (Excellent, thought-provoking post, by the way.)

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  26. Interesting. I find that, for whatever reason, I tend to read book with female lead characters, so it's an anomaly to read something with a male LC... so I guess that's a long way of saying that I don't really think about it in those terms. I'm critical of LCs no matter what, but I think I tend to give authors a bit more slack than perhaps I should. I see examples of real-life women using their sexuality with bad motives all the time, or women who are "good" being mistreated. I also see sexy, kind, women using their sexuality for good, and "good" women actually being scheming and manipulative. And that's in real life. I think that you can choose any LC, any sex, and make them anything you want, and there will be a real-life parallel somewhere. That doesn't mean you shouldn't use your powers of literature for good whenever possible -- it just means that I tend to take books at face value. Sometimes a setting or a character reaction feels unrealistic, and I'll think "Hmm. What was the author thinking here?" but in terms of broad general categories or stereotyping, unless it's totally blatant, I usually just assume a point is being made (or not) and generally go with whether I felt the story felt "true" or not. I get annoyed by certain LS for sure, but I get annoyed with certain people IRL too. Am I making any sense? Probably not. Mostly: yes. We should be conscientious, but also leave room for creative license.

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  27. Looks like you've got a good discussion going on here Ana. =)

    I think, especially for us females, we judge a character as being 'strong' or 'weak' based on how we ourselves are, or what we expect of ourselves. It's like, if I'm someone who has a problem being decisive and outspoken, I'll find a female character who can make decisions and stick to her guns as someone 'strong', and vice versa. I think it might have a lot to do with culture as well. In the west, if I'm not wrong in assuming so, women are considered 'strong' if they are very opinionated and don't give two hoots about what other people think. But in the east, a woman who places her family as top priority, willing to sacrifice her own desires for the comfort of those around her might be the kind of woman who's seen as being kind and considerate and 'good', as opposed to being weak and unable to think for herself.

    Like what you said in your post, I think sometimes it's that female characters lack complexity. There seems to be a blanket perception about 'strong' female characters, which is just as stereotypical as those generally considered 'weak' or 'wimpy'.

    I mostly find characters (male or female) annoying when I can't feel them. If you make a female character indecisive and submissive, I want to feel why she feels that way. If I can understand her, I don't get annoyed.

    Like for example, everyone would call Jo from Little Women a 'strong' female character, and an easy favourite. But I think Beth was an equally strong character. She was obedient, she was kind and generous, and gave in easily to the wants of her sisters and mother. That didn't make her 'weak', because for me, I could understand why Beth was the way she was. And sometimes it also takes strength to want more for your loved ones than you want for yourself. She didn't have the general characteristics of someone typically considered 'strong' (outspoken, brash, decisive etc.), but did she have to?

    Well, that's what I feel. I don't think there's one right answer, but it does show that there are a lot of social prejudices and thought barriers that we have to break.

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  28. Awesome post, Nymeth. I've actually been thinking about this a lot this week while reading Persuasion--but I'll discuss that more when I do my review.

    I don't think I personally hold different standards for male and female characters in the books I read. I get just as annoyed with a male character when he's weak as a do with a female one; or when either is so infallible that it's ridiculous.

    I think we like to read about strong characters because we'd all like to be stronger ourselves--wouldn't we? At the very least we want the main characters in stories to overcome obstacles and undergo a change for the better. I don't think that expectation is gender-specific.

    Generalizing, however, is another matter. Especially when it's a male writing a female character, as a reader I admit I DO tend to view that as a generalization, at least on the part of the author, and I am very sensitive to that. And when there are only one or two female characters is a book and you don't view their behavior as realistic, how can you NOT say think they're generalizations?

    But that doesn't mean that generalizations don't have their place in a story, as long as they're not the main character. For example, you mentioned Coraline and how Other Mother is a generalization--I agree, she is. Or perhaps iconographic would be a better word? But she does serve a purpose in the story that helps make Coraline and her real mother more sympathetic.

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  29. Great post! Weak women in fiction absolutely bother me - which is why when I read a novel with strong female characterization I tend to do a little private cheer -YAY!

    But in fairness, weak characters (male OR female) bug me. I want to light a fire under them, make them stand up and take control of their lives. Of course, if they start out weak, and then grow strong, I am thrilled :)

    I don't like stereotypical characters at all - it seems such a cop-out by the author...and I suppose female characters are more apt to be stereotyped.

    Thanks for making me think about this :)

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  30. I don't think I judge female characters more harshly than males, but I *do* have a lower tolerance for the way female characters are portrayed by a male author.

    Rather than considering female characters strong or weak, I mainly decide whether they feel real and/or deep or artificial and/or superficial. Sure, sometimes women in fiction drive me crazy with their choices (Portrait of a Lady, anyone?), but to me that's a sign that I'm really into the book and care about what happens. Sometimes men drive me crazy too! lol

    I just read Origina by Diana Abu-Jaber. The main character is female, and we hear things from her voice...and she's definitely a mix of strong traits and weak ones. AND one man ends up helping her a lot. But none of that annoyed me, because she felt so real!

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  31. Great post, Nymeth! I know that I often- more often than not, actually- judge female characters really harshly. I expect them to meet a very high standard. But I feel I base that in reality. I don't like PERFECT girls. I hate females portrayed as perfect much more than those with flaws. And in my whole rant on women in Victorian literature, I talked about how it's the rebellious women (WAY too rebellious) are exemplified as being so CRAZY and out there that it really makes it seem like no NORMAL woman at the time would ever fight against the constraints placed on her. That upsets me, too.

    I don't think a woman seen as "weak" is one I dislike. Many see Anne Elliot in Persuasion as weak, but I love her.

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  32. Hi Ana, as many have said, this is a thought-provoking post. I read my books with an open-mind and I will try to understand why the authors portray the women in a certain way.

    I'm perfectly OK to see a weak, needy woman in a story--yes, I get a little annoyed by her, want to give her a smack in the head to wake her up--and I appreciate her all the same. It makes me reflect and think that I should not be that woman, but then who am I to say or judge? Until something similar hits me, I may react in the exact same way as the woman in the story did. But now, thanks to the author, I "know" I should NOT be that woman.

    Well, essentially, what I'm trying to say is every female character in a story deserves to be appreciated for who she is. After all, the earth houses many types of women with all sorts of personality in every part of the world. "Weak" or "strong" they are all unique.

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  33. This is such a great post and comments. I love it. I know I'm more likely to classify women as strong than weak, but I don't really like those words. I do prefer a well-rounded character. For example, I just read the Magic books by Ilona Andrews, and in the first one, the main character Kate Daniels got on my nerves. She was TOO strong, in that she never let anyone in, at all, and relied on herself so much that she seemed stupidly stubborn and risk-taking. But that changed over the course of the next two books, and it was masterful the way she opened herself up to being vulnerable because she started to love people, and realize that she was happier for it. That seems like it sounds almost too corny, but she remained strong while developing "weaker" characteristics. That's the kind of heroine I like, if that makes sense.

    I think I also tend to be more tolerant of "needier" heroines because I have so many women like that in my family. I wonder in what way experiences like that play a part in how we read. I'm sure I complained about a wishy-washy woman in a novel recently, but I can't remember what it was.

    You're also right that men aren't scrutinized nearly so much. I can't remember the last time I considered whether or not a man was a strong character or not. I always thought I judged them less because I wasn't a man and couldn't see things from that perspective. I know I think about them, just not in the same terms, and you've made me think further about why exactly that is.

    Sorry for the lengthy comment that I don't think added anything! =)

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  34. I understand your dislike of the words ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ as I feel the same, especially in the light that the first is seen negatively in our societies. Personally, I feel both sexes have both attributes, and there is nothing wrong with that.

    Stereotypes are everywhere, so I don’t think authors can choose a formula that would work for everyone. I don’t mind whether the heroine is beautiful or not, using her sexuality or not, from the moment she is a real character, with flaws, and on a learning path. The same applies for men too actually. What I cannot abide is when authors take a male character and just change the sex! That is communicating the wrong message that to be a heroine is to be a man, and deny all that makes a woman.

    This has reminded me of Austen. She was aware as well of how women were portrayed in books, which might explain the following passage in Persuasion where she defends women against being judged inconstant (Chapter 23):
    Captain Harville: “But let me observe that all histories are against you--all stories, prose and verse. If I had such a memory as Benwick, I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman's inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman's fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men."
    Anne Elliot: "Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything."

    I absolutely adore Persuasion and her heroine, Anne Elliot. Throughout the novel, she is described as being weak, plain, passed her time. We don’t even hear her for nearly the first half of the book, and yet you can see that she is the steel structure that holds her family together.

    You mentioned statistics and I remembered reading the following: The Forliz Study of Children's Literature, conducted in 1989 on 'easy' books in the children's catalogue produced by the American Library Association for the period 1900-1984 found:
    * in the titles of books. 2.3 human males to every human female
    * in the titles of books, male animals outnumbered female animals by almost 6 to 1
    * for central characters in books, the ratio for the whole period was 3 males for every female. The leaning towards males was greater if focus was on adult characters (4,2), less if focus was on child characters (2.8) and much greater if focus was on animals (5.8)
    * as for change, the imbalance in depicting males and females varied through the century: representations of males and females were more egalitarian in the early decades of the century and in the 1970s and 1980s, while in the male-female balance among adult characters and animal characters, males got more prominent over time

    This shows how harder it is for girls to have 'positive' female role models. The situation is changing, but slowly. I was lucky to have a great female heroine to identify with when growing up who was feminine, independent, could defend herself physically (martial art) but who used her brains and heart to resolve situations. She had her flaws but tried to overcome them. And all this was in a graphic novel series, genre that is often frowned upon...

    Coming back to physical beauty and sexuality - do you think these are often used against women because these characteristics threaten men after all? What about madness? Women through history and literature are often judged to be mad, even nowadays. Would men be labelled mad if we were in a matriarchal society? Literature can help change ideologies but it is a slow process, but then so is erosion. A last example - Charlotte Perkins Gilman achieved change in the treatment of women's physical and mental health by writing her excellent short story The Yellow Wallpaper. There is hope.

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  35. This is a really thought-provoking post, and it's also something that I've been thinking about recently as I read. I feel that you need a variety of female characters in fiction just as in real life, be they weak or strong. As long as they are complex and not one-dimensional or stereotypes, then I can live with it. Maybe it's because I grew up reading a lot of fiction with male protagonists that I am only beginning to realise that most female characters aren't taken seriously. So when I come across a female character with depth and complexity, it stops me in my tracks.

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  36. Deslily: I never thought of it as I liked them BECAUSE they were so strong so much as I liked the personality the author gave them. I very much feel the same. I connect to people (even fictional people), more than I do to role models. Also, I think that treating everyone as you'd wish to be treated is an excellent life philosophy. It's what I try hard to do as well.

    Amanda: Yeah, sometimes it's hard to tell if we're unconsciously becoming a part of the problem or not :\ But! You can still write awesome stories about introspective boys in the future. There's plenty of time :P

    Stephanie: "Because there are not enough positive, well-drawn portrayals of these individuals." --> Yep, that's the whole problem. I agree that this is starting to change, but it'll take time.

    softdrink: I absolutely agree that historical and cultural context very much matter - and anachronistic characters ARE annoying :\

    Debi: They can be very hurtful words, I agree, even if people don't mean hem to be. And Debi, I understand what you meant not only because I know, but also because believe it or not you explained it perfectly clearly :P

    ds: Sometimes I wonder if the belief that male protagonists in children's literature are a safer bet because both boys and girls will read them is not a self-fulfilling prophecy. I'm sure it DOES happen, but if boys weren't socialised to avoid "girly" things like the plague it probably wouldn't be as much of a problem. Coraline is actually a good example of a book about a girl that is very popular with both genders - as is the His Dark Materials trilogy. No wonder I love them both :P

    Kathy: Very true - the world at large is, which is what makes this so hard.

    Literary Feline: I think you've nailed my feelings on the matter: I don't mind "strong", but I do feel uncomfortable with "weak". They're such subjective terms anyway. You're also right that perhaps as women we are more sensitive to female characters that feel wrong. Not that women and men are all THAT different, but you know what I mean. That's something I hadn't considered, so thank you for giving me something new to think about. And yes, I very much agree that context can make a world of difference.

    Valerie: I'm sure that has to do with it, yes. There are so many types of behaviour that are easily tolerated in men but not on women.

    Trisha: I completely agree that equality means having every possibility at our disposal, but I also worry about the point Memory brought up: that because the world we live in is what it is, negative portrayals reinforce stereotypes whether we want them to or not. There's no easy answer, it seems :\

    Gavin: The words really are difficult to definite, but I agree with you - how we respond to "weakness" and "evil" might very well have more to do with us, with what makes us uncomfortable or not, than with how the character is written. I think that's actually perfectly fine as long as we're aware of it, like you said.

    Amy: I definitely agree with you and Amanda too. I dislike stereotypical masculinity (the concept of a "real" manly man) as much as I dislike stereotypical femininity. Both reduce people to fixed moulds, which is just awful, and I think both are symptoms of the same problem.

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  37. Memory: never apologise for leaving long comments! Seriously, I don't mind them at all. I think you most definitely have a point, though what you said worries me. But I guess playing it safe and reducing the options available to minority characters might be the less of two evils. There really is a very big risk that we'll be reinforcing stereotypes regardless of whether or not we want to. I guess that if a story requires a minority character to be portrayed negatively for whatever reason, they could not be the *only* character belonging to that particular group? Hopefully that would make generalisations a little more difficult.

    Jenny: It does make sense. As I was telling Literary Feline, that's a point I hadn't considered, and you're both probably right.

    Daphne: I think our individual reading choices make a difference too. For example, because I read a lot of fantasy, comics, etc and feel that women are still more in the minority in these fields than in mainstream fiction (though this is changing FAST), I've spent years reading very few books by/about women. In some ways, that might have made me more sensitive to how women are represented in fiction - more demanding than I am when it comes to real life, though I very much agree with you that there's always a real parallel somewhere. But yes, I'm all for creative license despite all my rants :P

    Michelle: Hmm...in my case, though, I actually tend to feel closer to "weak" characters because I am myself what many consider a weak person. I'm not outspoken, I don't stand up for myself, I have trouble saying no, I let people walk all over me, etc. I think you're right that cultural context matters, and personal context does too. Also, I can't tell you how much I agree with this: There seems to be a blanket perception about 'strong' female characters, which is just as stereotypical as those generally considered 'weak' or 'wimpy'. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!

    Heidenkind: The thing about Coraline, though, is that I very much disagree with whoever made that point. I didn't think the Other Mother was neither a generalisation or ironic, mostly because she wasn't even actually a woman - she was a supernatural being who had happened to adopted the shape of a mother. Of course, there *are* reasons why a bad mother is perceived as creepier than a bad father, but I thought Coraline actually critiqued that line of thinking. But then I thought, wait, this is my favourite author we're talking about here, am I dismissing this too fast?

    Wendy: The word "weak" gives me so much trouble. I strongly dislike lazy or superficial characterisation, but actually tend to identify with characters many people think of as weak. Which might be why they don't bug me. I need someone to come and light a fire under me sometimes ;)

    Eva: I'm sure you'll be unsurprised to hear I have no read Portrait of a Lady :) But I think I still understand what you're saying. I definitely care more about how realistic a character is than about how strong or weak they are.

    Aarti: I think that being demanding in the way you are demanding is definitely a GOOD thing. Perfection is tricky - who in reality can live up to it? I don't like it in my fiction either :P

    Alice: I absolutely agree that it's good to put ourselves in the shoes of characters we're initially tempted to dismiss as "weak" - the ability to sympathise with anyone at all, to place ourselves in a myriad of different circumstances, is after all part of the magic of books :)

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  38. hmm this post goes very well with the latest book I've read. I've used "strong" a lot in my review, to describe the female lead character.
    I loved her because she was strong minded,intelligent, resourceful, and wouldn't subdue to anyone telling her she couldn't do something. I do look for this kind of female characters everywhere in my reading. I get frustrated when female characters are not smart enough, independent enough or just not interesting. I like female leads but I have no time for wimpyness in women, it makes me mad. And I know I'm biased but I don't mind if some male characters are not as strong. I would notice it, as I noticed in Of bees and Mist, but it wouldn't put me off the book completely as it would if they were female.
    this said, I mostly look for strong characters. Not emotionally or physically, but strong as in well written. They must feel real, well developed and well rounded. To me that is what is most important.
    But then again, it's undeniably true that if there is only one or two side female characters and they are both useless, or evil, I'd probably end up not liking the book very much. I need smart women in books because I like smart women in general, it's that simple.
    but it's also a matter of balance. Actually it's the main thing. For every stupid/evil/useless female character I'd need another one who is the opposite, to represent the good female side of things.
    Same goes for people of colour or LGBT. If the only black person or gay person in the book is either a drug addict or a criminal, or just not a good positive characters, I would be pissed off. Although it's a whole different matter as LGBT and PoC characters have the representation issue to consider. There's just not enough of them, and where there are, you want them to be positive ones. While for women, I wouldn't feel like we lack representation. Not as much as gays,trans, or ethnic minorities.

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  39. I have never really thought about this before. But,I think I do scrutinize women characters more and I am probably harder on them than I should be. As always you have sent me off to think more about something and too how I can relate it to my future book reading!

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  40. Ahhhhhhh so much good stuff here I feel like I should be on my feet clapping this post for being so thought provoking. I especially like the last paragraph about how this can apply to other character groups - I constantly have to remind myself not to get on my high horse about over the top gay characters because although in some hands they represent a stereotype (I'm mostly thinking of films when I say this, reminds me of what someone said about the changes made to Nick's gay bandmates in the adaptation of 'Nick and Norah's Ultimate Playlist') in others they reflect a real segment of gay life.

    Ok so strength vs weakness. I think we all define these terms through our own baggage, so if I saw a weak contemporary female character (we have to allow different standards for historical charactres I think) she'd be entirely dependent on a man, or a female romantic partner, or parent, or a friend now I come to think of it. Slowly I work my way to seeing that some reliance is fine, as long as it's a reciprocated reliance because relationships provide people you can lean on in times of trouble. I think for me the word 'crutch' should never enter my mind while reading about a woman's relationship with anyone, but if the word 'support' arrives in my mind then I know I've found a more positive, co-dependent, sharing relationship.

    Also we should have more evil women please. I know I made it sound super hard to write one and negotiate all the different stereotypes, but everyone came up with such great ways of negotiating those problems I think it's high time there were more evil women. I need someone to compete with Atwood's great evil, yet sympathetic friend, Zenia, in 'The Robber Bride'.

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  41. Meghan: Characters like the one you described can annoy me too, but if they're developed well and we get to see their human side like in that case, then I don't mind them at all. I'm also more tolerant of women classified as "weak" because in many ways I can relate to them much more than to the stronger ones. And never apologise for long comments! I loved reading your thoughtful response :)

    Veronique: wow - I love your comment! So much that I want to respond to! First of all, I love the stats. That was interesting to know and they gave me lots to think about - maybe that's a topic for a future post :P Secondly, I think it's so interesting that so many commenters brought up Anne Elliot from Persuasion. I confess I haven't read it yet, but after this I'm determined to make it my next Austen. Next, the topic of madness - I think it has definitely been used as a tool of control. Again, I have to say I haven't read The Yellow Wallpaper yet and then run to hide in shame, but I actually have it saved here as an .html file and had been meaning to get to it soon. My next Sunday Salon post will be about that story, promise. Thank you for giving me so much to think about!

    Chasingbawa: Same here, actually - I grew up reading genres where the gender gap is even more noticeable than in mainstream fiction, so I've only just begun to open my eyes to all these issues.

    Valentina: it makes perfect sense to be drawn to the same kinds of characters we tend to like in real life. I think part of my problem is that I tend to be intimidated by strong women in general, mostly because I'm not one. I'm not assertive or independent, I never stand up for myself, I constantly worry about what others think of me, I'm cowardly, I'm insecure, I'm needy, etc. etc - I'm a complete wimp, and really all those things that tend to drive people crazy in fictional women. And then I worry that because I care about gender equality even though I'll *never* be a role model for anyone, I'm nothing but a hypocrite and a walking stereotype. Maybe those stronger characters make me uncomfortable because they make me face all the things I dislike about myself. Anyway, you're right: the issue of representation in LGBTQ and PoC characters is not even comparable - I definitively didn't mean to imply it was.

    Kathleen: I look forward to hearing about it if you do notice anything in the future :)

    Jodie: What makes this so difficult for me is that I can imagine a real situation in which a woman came to depend and rely on a man, for whatever reason, but because of how things were between them privately, it wouldn't actually be merely an emulation of centuries of dependence and passivity. I'm thinking, I don't know, chronic illness, financial hardship, you name it. I think it's possible for these things to be merely private exchanges between human beings without gender politics being involved, but of course that in the world we live in, it's almost impossible to portray this in fiction without it automatically being seen as being about gender.

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  42. I definitely think that female characters are judged more than male characters, but I can't say that I am cognizant of being more critical of them in general over male characters. I also tend not to think in terms of weakness or strength because I don't think it's that easy to boil a character down, despite their actions at times. I would agree that some female characters have more flaws than others, but this also can make them more interesting and morally complex. I do see your point though, and have never really considered how much more of wide latitude that male characters are afforded.

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  43. When I think about "weak" female characters, I tend to think of women who have a pattern of making choices that are not to their benefit or allow them to be dominated by men, and the world of the book doesn't acknowledge there is something wrong with that. I don't mind characters that make those decisions, but do mind when the narrators or other characters implicitly assume those are the best decisions possible. I'm not sure if that's right or accurate or fair, but that's what I tend to do.

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  44. Ana, I understand what you mean. I'm not a superwoman myself, I am too very insecure, worried about myself and what others think of me, hypercritical etc, but maybe it's for these reasons that I want sometimes a female character to show me that there's other ways to deal with these insecurities, and that it's good to be proud and confident. I hate, instead, when it's implied that a woman who is so self-assured, powerful or in control of her life, is not natural or makes mistakes because she doesn't listen to her male partner/father/teacher, you name it. So it all depends on how these strong characters are perceived in the book.
    But I also agree with you that I would identify more with a shy, less confidence female character. Identification for me is a different matter. I don't need to identify with someone to be inspired by them. Actually that's exactly why I'm inspired by them. Because they're not like me, but they're how I would like to be or to become. That's why I need them in my reading or in my movies. I like female heroes :)
    A good example that shows the difference in identification and inspiration is "Buffy". When I started watching I had two main reasons to love it: I had Buffy, hero, protector, leader. And then I had Willow: my mirror image. Shy, insecure, nerdy. Willow wasn't clueless or helpless, she just needed to grow and become more confident in her own skin. I liked that such different young women could be best friends, and help each other to understand and accept themselves. (I know that there's Xander as well in the gang, but this is in danger of becoming an essay on Buffyology so I'd better cut it short)
    So my point is, I don't despise this kind of "weak" characters, because in my view they're not really weak. They just need to acknowledge their strengths more.
    What I despise is the depiction of women as generally inferior to men, or not worthy to be the hero of the story. When the only representative is a clueless blonde, only there to please the male readers/viewer. That's what really drives me mad.

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  45. What a great resource!

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  46. Great discussion, Ana! I hate that I'm coming to it so late. I do think female characters fall under more scrutiny than males, and I base this opinion on multiple discussions had in grad school about everything from classic novels to contemporary. I hadn't really thought about it by now, but it seems that students (both male and female) were prone to labeling female characters far more than the male ones.

    As for the issue of letting one female character represent all women. Off the top of my head, I wonder if this happens with female readers more often because women identify with their reading so strongly. Maybe the reason we get so ticked with those "weak" females is because we see something of ourselves in there or wish we could rise up over something we are challenged with. This is just a personal observation since I seem to relate to characters at a much deeper level than my fiance does when he reads.

    Just something to think about !

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  47. Good point and I think in those kind of situations (at least the chronic illness one) I'd be with you, trying to work my way away from gender. The idea of a financially dependent women would be so hard to reconcile for me, even though I can see how your thoughts are working and it seems like you've got a solid idea there about private exchanges. Money is so bound up with gender politics it would take a really radical mind switch to seperate it out and I'd have to be cast iron sure it wasn't tied up with gender, but I can see it being a possible, convincing portrayal that doesn't weaken the female characters.

    One of the things I think feminism really hasn't embraced as part of its thinking is the idea that when women makes choices that don't fit the typical feminist model they're not always subscribing to the patriachal society. There is still a lot of talk about women who wear makeup and dress nice being part of the problem, women who choose to be homemakers being tricked into taking on anti-feminist lifestyle. There's still a big conspiracy movement in among us and I don't think it's always wrong to examine why a woman stays at home when she could work(there are women who don't work because men in their lives don't want them to and we still have to be super vigilant against detrimental patriachal thinking) but it's not always right to assume it's because they don't really know their own minds, or aren't significantly aware of feminism(there are women who want to be mothers who don't work for their own reasons, some women can not work due to health problems). Sometimes feminism reacts against authentic experiences of women who have taken the traditional feminine stereotype and actively changed it and taken it back, for whatever reason. And that can cause a judgement to be made on the authenticity of experience by people who don't know that experience (just because a reader is female, doesn't mean they know everything about every scenario a female character may go through). So we end up talking about weak female characters in situations where it's maybe not appropriate.

    Personally I think there's also a ton of negative 'we must be male' thinking, that characterises the kind of scenarios you proposed (being ill, not having enough money) as weak, because a man would feel weak if he was struck by chronic illness/borrowed money from a woman/couldn't provide a house for his family.

    PS I know I totally just went off on 'the problems of feminism' but I would like to clarify that I love feminism. I'm just a little annoyed about the backlash against 'choice' feminism right now - apparently we're killing the movement.

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  48. Zibilee: I completely agree that it's not easy to label a character "weak" or "strong" just because of an action, choice, etc. All the same, we humans are often tempted to stick labels on things, aren't we? But yes, complexity is everything. Make the character human and I'll almost surely be happy with her.

    Kim: I LOVE the point you made about it being more about how the world of the book presents the character's choices than about the choices themselves. That's definitely how it is for me too.

    Valentina: Yeah, the whole idea of "unnatural" women drives me crazy :\ I think that every way of being human is natural and valid and that personality traits should not be seen as gender specific. But I know a lot of people disagree with this. In other news, I STILL haven't watched Buffy :P *kicks self*

    Anonymous: I can't tell whether or not you're a spammer. Apologies if you aren't.

    Andi: We do seem to label women a lot more quickly than men, don't we? And that worries me :\ I think you're right about the identification thing, but I wonder whether it's gender-specific. I think the tendency to identify or put ourselves in the shoes of the characters we're reading about is there for men too - probably it's more a matter of personality than of gender. IMHO :P

    Jodie: Don't worry, you don't sound like you're attacking feminism at all! I know you love it, and I do too, but at the same time I completely see what you're saying. I had a conversation about this with a friend just the other day, actually. Obviously feminism is not a monolith, and it's only natural that we'll find people within the movement that we disagree with. I think that trying to force women to fit a mould of any kind is more harmful than helpful. But on the other hand, even though I'm all about respecting individual choices, there's the danger that certain things that are more a matter of social coercion/lack of different opportunities will simply be explained away as individual choices. For example, I completely respect women who decide to stop working, either for a few years or permanently, when they become mothers. But would some of them have made the same choice if their workplace offered free childcare? If the burden of having a job and still be expected to do most things around the house weren't overwhelming? If they had more supportive partners/families/employers? I don't know - in some cases yes, in others no. It's helpful to try to respect choices but also understand the context in which they're made. But this can be so complicated.

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  49. I don't like weak characters of either gender. I want my characters to DO something, to take an active role in driving their future.

    This is why I had a hard time getting into Going Bovine at first.

    But I do think this is a good point to make because it's easy to hold female characters to a different standard, and I'm sure I've done it myself, seeing as how I'm a flaming feminist who likes her female characters more Buffy than Bella.

    That girls everywhere are reading Twilight and possibly not much else makes me cringe. This is the girl we want them to read about? But it's a chicken-and-egg problem too. Maybe one of the reasons it's been so popular is because that's still the mainstream with girls today. And if you look at girls' magazines, you see the same thing.

    A girl's worth is determined by her physical appearance, and all aspirations should have to do with getting a boy to date you or keeping the boy you're dating happy.

    Bit of a soapbox, sorry!

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  50. Reply yes, yes, yes :) But it's so hard to seperate out authentic individual choice and created 'choice' isn't it? I feel like some feminists don't even try though, they see something they don't agree with and dub it inauthentic choice rather than going any deeper.

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  51. I really like DesLily's and softdrink's Michelle's comments. All of them, in fact. There are some advantages in showing up late to the party.

    Your initial scrutiny remark was great (though I realize you reframed it in your response to Amanda). Maybe the amount of talk has something to do with the readership of books with prominent female characters. Or at least the portion of that readership who talk about female characters with the greatest vested interest?

    I know I scrutinize female characters because I have found so many who failed to echo my own experience of the world as a woman. Strength and weakness aren't the main issues for me. It's a reflexive scab-picking. "Are there really women like that? Really?!! She's making no sense!" (Which is how I end up finishing books like The Devil Wears Prada: pick, pick, pick all the way! Very bad for me.) And when I find a female character I find authentic, I want to talk about her! Either way, I add to the noise.

    I scrutinize the male characters too, but because I'm not a man, when a male character acts "off" I'm likelier to chalk it up to some part of guy culture I just don't get, so I don't have as much to say. Likewise, I'm never sure whether I can chalk up my (generally) greater ability to empathize with male first-person narrators than female to just being a "non-girly" girl, or to the female characters suffering from a case of literary conventionality.

    I adore a good female villain. I wish there were more! Dianna Wynne Jones does them. Aside from Jones, all the ones I can think of are insane. Dickens comes to mind. I wonder what that says: that a woman has to be insane to be evil?

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.