Female Heroines and Sexual Harassment

Sadly, the title of this post may be a little misleading. Namely, I’ve found some interesting links/drawings regarding female heroines and sexual harassment, separately, and because I found some of them from the same source I thought I’d share them together in one place. However, if someone wants to write a guest post about female heroines and sexual harassment, let me know, because that sounds like an awesome post. :P

First I want to start with a cartoon drawn by Jim C. Hines:

The man who created the above cartoon is perhaps most famous for images he has posted of himself in the poses that grace the covers of fantasy novels. He discussed the female poses here and the male poses here. He also has a roundup of all his posts on the topic here. His commentary is fascinating, especially his discussion of female poses versus male poses. Here are some examples of his pictures:

Next, a couple of months ago, Hines wrote a fascinating post on “sexism and kick-butt heroines.” Here is an excerpt:

Take the story of the kick-butt heroine, a trope that’s become incredibly popular over the past decade or two. Now, I appreciate this trope — I’m a huge Buffy fan — and I’ve written this kind of character myself on multiple occasions. But there are ways in which it’s problematic. Sure, it’s incredibly satisfying to see the heroine physically whoop the harasser/abuser/etc. But when that’s the dominant story we’re sharing, aren’t we basically suggesting that it’s the women’s job to physically overpower and defeat their aggressors? As opposed to men learning to move beyond such behaviors, or to challenge such things when we see them?

The kick-but heroine is certainly one solution, but it’s one that puts responsibility on the victims, and by implication, puts the blame on those victims if for any reason they were unable to physically stop what’s essentially an ongoing culture of systemic sexism.

There are other stories and other characters we need to share. Stories that show men and women as equals. That show relationships built on respect. Stories that give us more than one token example per book of a strong female character. Stories that move away from narrowly defined roles.

But what really made me think of this was another article, this one from the New Statesmen. It is provocatively titled “I Hate Strong Female Characters.”

Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong.

I hate Strong Female Characters.

As someone spends a fair amount of time complaining on the internet that there aren’t enough female heroes out there, this may seem a strange and out of character thing to say.

And of course, I love all sorts of female characters who exhibit great resilience and courage. I love it when Angel asks Buffy what’s left when he takes away her weapons and her friends and she grabs his sword between her palms and says “Me.” In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I love Zhang Ziyi’s Jen sneering “He is my defeated foe” when asked if she’s related to Chow Yun-Fat’s Li Mu Bai. I love Jane Eyre declaring “I care for myself” despite the world’s protracted assault on her self-esteem. My despair that the film industry believes the world is more ready for a film featuring a superhero who is a raccoon than it is for a film led by a superhero who is a woman is long and loud.

But the phrase “Strong Female Character” has always set my teeth on edge, and so have many of characters who have so plainly been written to fit the bill.

I don’t feel like I really have anything to add, but this conversation about strong female characters is a good one. It makes me think of female pioneers, too—it is right to praise women who shatter glass ceilings, but we also have to remember that there shouldn’t be glass ceilings to shatter, and that for every woman who shatters one there are thousands of others who don’t make it.

You know what? Maybe these things connect after all. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if all of these expectations that women have to be “kick-ass” or “strong” play some role in shaping how people react to accusations of sexual harassment.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • wanderer

    Totally agree. I am so over the movie version of heroines who might be allowed to be the main character if they’re still sexy and can kick mens’ asses with karate moves and are the sexual aggressors with a phD while wearing stilettos. Somehow it doesn’t feel like a compliment to my gender when women can’t be heroines and be themselves.

  • Fina

    The problem with “Strong Female Characters” is that they are often simplistic.
    Giving a character (male or female) classic heroic attributes such as combat prowess and heroic will is easy. But that doesn’t make a good character, and it doesn’t even necessarily make a strong character.

    A strong character has an agenda. She doesn’t just react to bad events, rescues her family and then seeks to return to the status quo – she has things she wants to achieve, goals she actively pursues.
    A strong character has flaws – and is heroic despite it. Sherlock Holmes is named as an example – a brilliant man, but with a very flawed character. Which makes it more interesting to read about him.
    A strong character can also be weak. She can be beaten in a fight, she can need rescuing, she can be overwhelmed and have a breakdown – but she gets up again when necessary.
    A strong character has more than physical strength and willpower – she can be intelligent, a good planner, a good leader or just a very caring person. These (and more) attributes can make you just as much of a hero than being a superb brawler who kicks peoples ass.

    Bottom line: I want more than another carbon-copy “ass-kicking female heroine” when i’m looking for a strong female character! Even when talking about actual heroines, which my comments are mostly above as opposed to characters in non-heroic stories.

    • eamonknight

      A strong character has an agenda….[etc]

      Which is one reason I loved Buffy. She’s not just strong and agile and all, but she plans her campaigns, and as she grows through the series she takes over leadership from Giles, gives the middle finger to the Watcher’s Council, and in the end decides to abrogate the ancient magic that governs the calling of Slayers — from now on, the Slayers call the shots, not some long-dead cabal of men.

      • Mishellie

        And part of her agenda, especially in the early seasons is “yeah I’m the slayer but I’m also a teen/ young woman and I get to do teen/young woman things”

      • Leigha7

        She also gets to be weak, vulnerable, and unsure of herself at times, and then she becomes more confident again. With most shows, it’s one or the other, but Buffy (and others on the show, like Willow) get to be more dynamic.

    • observer

      I believe one of the reasons why people are reluctant to give flaws to female heroine is because it may seem demeaning.

      • AAAtheist

        Maybe, but the antidote to a stereotypically weak heroine (see The Perils of Pauline) is not a stereotypically “strong” heroine (see Lara Croft, Tomb Raider or a ton of copycat versions of the same). Heck, even Indiana Jones gets scared, gets hurt, and is afraid of snakes! We’re just asking for some depth, nuance, and humanity, like male heroes are almost always and automatically given without a second thought. See my post and others in this forum for how the creators of female heroines could get it right.

      • persephone

        Sarah Conner in the Terminator series is an excellent example of a good strong female character. She starts out a waitress, is tossed into a life and death struggle, then chooses to save the world.

      • Lyric

        Female characters get hatred however you write them, though. It’s true that I’ve seen a lot of over-the-top vitriol for some flawed female characters, but I suspect that if they weren’t flawed, they would be dismissed as Mary Sues.

  • Em

    It seems like instead of dropping all the objectifying bullshit of the past as far as female character go, they just lengthened the list of requirements. We used to just have busty, doe-eyed, sweet, desirable little women in the media; now we have busty, doe-eyed, sweet, desirable little brain surgeons and karate masters.

  • AAAtheist

    Let’s talk about female characters (in comics, fiction, television, etc.) that serve as a counterexample to the “strong woman” meme.

    Has anyone seen the Showtime series Dexter? In it is a character (played by Jennifer Carpenter) called Debra Morgan (Deborah Morgan, in the book Darkly Dreaming Dexter), the foster sister of the lead character.

    All at once, she’s funny, conflicted, has massive daddy issues, a tender vulnerability, and an unrepentant pottymouth, is full of self-doubt and insecurities, and, yes, kicks ass and is sexy (I think). She has an active sex life without being a sex kitten. She doesn’t kick ass because she’s a “strong woman”, but simply because she’s a good cop. She’s like the cool and genuine best friend you wish you had growing up. She’s also easily one of the most original, intriguing, and fascinating characters, female or male, I’ve ever seen in fiction, and I think a large part of the credit has to go to the actor who plays her. I think you can tell that I’m a fan.

    If you want to see this kind of female character right now, your best bet is probably American cable television, but I’m sure other commenters have more examples to share. Comic creators and action movie producers: watch, learn, and take the hint.

    P.S.: I’m not sure how or even if this relates to sexual harassment, but I felt it needed to be said.

    • onamission5

      And, they never, ever put Debra in a high heeled boob suit, unlike other cop shows. I’m looking at you, Castle. They do however put her in realistic clothing and realistic situations (well, you know, for a show about a serial killer antihero) where she is confronted by sexism, ageism, harassment, and where people underestimate her because of her age, fragility and gender, and then they show her dealing with all of that imperfectly.

      (spoilers)
      I actually like Dexter for its treatment of women characters. I’m not sure the show passes the Beshdel Bechdel test any more since they killed off LaGuardia LaGuerta (whyyyy! sob!) but each one of the woman characters thus far has been a complex, conflicted, fully developed human being who deals with conflict in their own way rather than along one “lady character” formulaic storyline. Yeah, Mom got fridged, so did Rita, and that’s a trope, but so did Dad, so there’s that.

      (edit for name corrections)

      • AAAtheist

        Thanks for the insights, onamission5. I’d not heard of the Bechdel test before, but I’ll definitely be looking out for it in the future.

        As for María LaGuerta, I don’t know. Maybe the actor, Lauren Vélez, had other projects to pursue or quit because of a lack of screen time. That happens in series television a lot. Not to dismiss the Bechdel test at all, mind you. In fact, it probably goes double or triple for women characters of color.

        Also, if you’re watching Season 8, don’t tell me anything! ; – )

        (I don’t watch via Showtime but instead through Netflix and that season hasn’t released to DVD yet!)

      • onamission5

        I won’t tell, no worries! I was hesitant to put up spoilers at all.
        The Bechdel test as it applies to any character of color but especially women, yeah. It is really rare to have a show or film even with more than one character of color, let alone who talk to each other, let alone with women PoC who talk to each other about something other than a man. That’s not even going into the dearth of PoC main characters, just supporting. Then there’s disabled characters. What disabled characters, you ask? Yes, exactly. The only one I can think of off the top of my head is the ME on CSI, and Robert David Hall is the rarity who is a disabled person in reality playing a disabled character.
        /end tangent

      • CarysBirch

        I can’t think of any on current TV, but the sitcom Becker had a blind character as one of the main cast members.

      • eamonknight

        Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye? (2002-2005) She’s deaf. I only ever saw one episode, so I can’t comment on whether the show was any good.

      • Snipe

        RJ Mitte of Breaking Bad plays a character with cerebral palsy. He has it in real life, but not to the same extent as his character.

      • Ashton

        Artie on Glee is in a wheelchair due to an unspecified accident. At one point in the first season the glee club teacher thought that the rest of the characters were being insensitive to what he had to deal with and made them all go around in wheelchairs for a week or so.

      • aim2misbehave

        Most of the actors on the ABC Family series “Switched at Birth” who play Deaf characters are Deaf themselves, and there are entire scenes filmed entirely in sign language and subtitled. They did a really, really good job with that one.

      • onamission5

        Oh, I was not previously aware of this show. Thank you!

      • Christine

        I’m noticing more and more that female cops on TV are being dressed much more realistically than they were even a few years ago. There seems to be much more of a move to minimal makeup, practical hair, pants and practical flat shoes. I’ve often wondered if this is due to the long running success of Law and Order:SVU. Mariska Hagarty’s character Olivia Benson has always had a very limited, and hugely practical work wardrobe consisting of what I’ve outlined above (with an occasional business skirt for court appearances). And she is not waif-thin! Yes, she’s beautiful, but that’s just genetics. The show would not have lasted as long as it has if she wasn’t really good.
        Thinking about Deb in Dexter – when she first made lieutenant La Guerta advised her to dress a bit more “feminine” – skirts and heels, which lasted less than one episode and unleashed a magnificent rant.

      • persephone

        The cop character played by Melissa Leo in Homicide: Life on the Streets was an interesting contrast to the cop played by Isabella Hoffman. Melissa’s character tried to fit in by being one of the guys: no makeup, pantsuits (cheap and badly cut), tossing back drinks. She had long hair, but she did nothing with it.
        Isabella Hoffman, who got promoted, dressed up. Skirt suits, makeup, hair perfectly done. She was a lieutenant and didn’t really socialize with the detectives, but it was implied that she got her promotion because of her looks and possibly by dating certain men.
        It was upsetting, but it also illustrated the way women have to deal with working in male dominated fields, and the insinuations (is Melissa’s character a lesbian, a tomboy, or just trying to fit in?) (did Isabella really sleep her way to a promotion?) that swirl around them.

    • aim2misbehave

      Well, my current favorite is Mako Mori from Pacific Rim – in the past month or so, my friends and I have written huge amounts of meta on how she subverts the typical “kickass female heroine” trope because while she’s pretty and probably could kick your ass, she’s not dressed all sexy or anything, and her physical ass-kicking skills aren’t nearly as critical to her success as her hard work, massive amounts of determination, ability to work well with others, and competency at what she does.

      Joan Watson from Elementary, too, and the same friends and I have probably written even *more* meta about her. Lucy Liu is gorgeous, yes, but she’s never dressed for fanservice, and it’s her intelligence and refusal to put up with any of Sherlock’s ridiculous shenanigans that make her seriously awesome. (Yes, this is the series where John Watson is gender-flipped, but the characterization of both Holmes and Watson are the most spot-on since the Jeremy Brett era)

      I really, really, really love Rizzoli & Isles, too because it’s got a number of great female characters. For starters, there’s the medical examiner who wears designer clothes to crime scenes, the no-nonsense down-to-earth tomboy cop, and her mother (who’s in a mother role to them both, really) who’s strong-willed and very supportive of the two. There’s plenty of good interactions between them, it’s not backstabbing drama, and it smashes the Bechdel test every single week.

    • EchoInTheSilence

      The women in some of the later “Star Trek” series fall into this category too. Beverly Crusher and the short-lived Tasha Yar from Next Generation, Major Kira and Jadzia Dax from Deep Space Nine, and Captain Janeway and Lieutenant Torres from Voyager. And even though the Seven of Nine character from Voyager was kind of brought in for the sex reason initially, she’s very much this trope in her own way; there’s very little sexual content with her (the scene where she asks another character point-blank if he “wishes to copulate” is pretty indicative of her views on sex), and she basically doesn’t really see herself in the context of gender until the very end of the series (even then, she approaches dating like a science project).

  • Gowan

    So that cartoon was not drawn by Jim C. Hines, but by a relative of his, named James? Or is that just a typo?

    I absolutely agree with what you quoted and wrote about heroines. It’s nice to have butt-kicking heroines, but we shouldn’t forget (and not let anyone else forget) that women who aren’t so strong deserve a happy life, too.

    • Mishellie

      Jim can be short for James…

  • MarnieMacLean

    I struggle with this idea too, not because I don’t think women should be the heroes in stories. I think they should be and they should be as flawed and complex as the men. But let’s be real, here. I’m almost 40, 5′ 3″ tall and will never be in the athletic “prime” of my life again. Even if I train constantly (were my body up for the task which I highly doubt) and I were to be in the very best physical shape I could be in at my age, and even if I were to study the various martial arts to the limits of my abilities, there will always be someone who can physically overpower me, or use a weapon I cannot overcome or drug me so I cannot respond. And as I get older, or if I become sick or injured, those abilities will be hampered further.

    But I don’t want to overpower other people. I don’t want to fight my way out of a bad situation. What I want is safety. Even if I’m able to fight, I don’t ever want to be in the fight to start with. I like to believe that most people would rather avoid danger altogether than have to fight their way out of it.

    • Anat

      “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent” – Salvor Hardin, in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. I want more stories where fighting physically isn’t the main way to save the day. And I want both men and women (and those of other genders) in those roles. Strategy. Resourcefulness. Building alliances. Creative thinking. Mobilizing the masses. And many other things.

      • Olive Markus

        Me, too. I’m actually sick and tired of every movie being 2/3 “battle scenes,” female-centered or not. It is old, trite and overdone. The only time I’ve gone to the theater in the last year was to see “The Hobbit” and it, too, was nothing but unnecessary and ridiculous battle scenes.

        You’re right. There are so many other ways to resolve conflict, and 45 minute battles scenes are the dumbest way.

  • Rootboy

    Dropping the obligatory Kate Beaton link on this very topic here: http://harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=311

  • Olive Markus

    My issue is this:

    Regardless of what type of female heroine may come out of the woodwork, she will always and only be a 5’9, bug-busted, picture-perfect supermodel sucked into seductive clothing. Period.

    Regardless of whatever other character flaws or quirkiness she may have, regardless of the culture and the attitude around her, her beauty is the only reason this is acceptable. The industry and, most certainly, the country at large will accept nothing less. Most often, she simply must be perfect, physically and in every other way.

    If she isn’t 21 years old, breathtakingly beautiful, perfect, flawless and generally “fuckable” (sorry for the hideous description, but it is a hideous situation to me), nobody will be willing to accept her. Not only that, but they will be offended that anybody had the gaul to force them to see it.

    I do know some TV shows are starting to break that mold, so I definitely appreciate it, but the backlash for doing it is still there.

    • CarysBirch

      Agreed. I was trying to think of any kick-ass heroines who didn’t fit the mold, and all I got is that Sarah Michelle Gellar’s (very) short (but that goes along with petite, perky, and “fuckable”). That’s… a bad record.

      • Lyric

        Are we counting River Song? Admittedly, she’s a supporting anti-hero rather than the lead, but she’s definitely not petite nor twenty-one.

      • CarysBirch

        I’m about to have things thrown at me, but I haven’t followed the most recent Dr. Who seasons, and in her earlier appearances in the time of David Tennant I thought of her more as a brainy heroine, which is a different trope altogether. I would love it if she was more kickass now though!

      • Lyric

        Well, to date, she’s shot a large number of Silents, a Dalek, and several of the Doctor’s hats. But she also does things like fix a teleport device to save Amy and trick her way out of prison (whenever she feels like, apparently) so I’d say she’s sort of in the mode of Indiana Jones; brainy, but more than willing to wade in physically when necessary.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        Well, to be fair, the whole concept behind Buffy was turning the helpless dumb blonde victim trope on its head so it makes sense that she would be a bombshell.

        But yeah, Joss Whedon shows in general have very, very pretty casts. Not just the women either. (And one thing I love about Buffy is that it’s got some genuine Female Gaze.)

      • SamH

        In Despicable Me 2, she’s rail thin, rather than curvy, and has a proud, beautiful, nose. She’s quickly established as kicking ass, but it’s also a running joke that anyone who kicks ass that often has serious self-control issues. Unfortunately, they depower her and write her completely out of character worse than anyone I’ve ever seen when she’s kidnapped…she doesn’t even resist an overweight middle aged man.
        But she’s not the only one who breaks the visual mold. The Incredibles, for example…
        Isn’t it sad that animation is the only place where this is happening?

      • persephone

        I think you have to go to books to find one that doesn’t fit the mold.

    • Sarah-Sophia

      Whenever I read FB comments about an disliked older female TV character (especially from soap operas) who is not grandmother-like, she usually gets a lot of hag-shaming.

      • Lyric

        Ugh, yes, this. See also River Song, who I mentioned below. And she isn’t even hated by a majority, either, just somewhat controversial. The worst comment I ever saw concerning her was, “Matt Smith should get hazard pay for having to kiss that thing.” It stuck in my mind for being so very over-the-top, even a bit unbelievable, as if it was performative disgust instead of actual distaste. Can’t figure out why there would be performative disgust, though . . .

    • Msironen

      Ellen Ripley from Aliens kinda comes to mind…

      • persephone

        But that’s been over 25 years.

    • aim2misbehave

      I personally think that Carol from The Walking Dead is a pretty kick-ass heroine, and although she’s about 50 and not conventionally attractive at all, all of the fellow fans that I know love her. Not to mention Michonne… she doesn’t come across as “sexy” to me so much as a plain old 100% badass human who just happens to be beautiful. (and the cat thing. omg. that elevated her to deity status in my book!)

      • persephone

        I’m straight, but I find Michonne hot. My lesbian cousin agrees.

      • aim2misbehave

        I meant she’s not really treated as being “sexy” on either a textual or authorial level, and her character doesn’t act in “sexy” ways or anything like that.

  • lollardheretic

    Hines is also coming out of Fantasy and Sci-fi, and a lot of his stuff on this topic is about dealing with harassment at Cons and how it until recently went pretty unchecked. That is, men (particularly older and well known/famous) could get away with a lot really awful crap (putting hands on women, propositioning them, etc.) It is especially egregious for women who cosplay. (Hint: just because I’m dressed like a character, doesn’t mean you can put your hands on me!) But the sci-fi/fantasy world has BLOW UP with the sexism issue lately. (Not that this isn’t everywhere, but Hines is in that particular world). He and John Scalzi have been great male voices in the fight against sexism. There are lots of great women’s voices, too, but this article deals with Hines, so I figured I’d mention Scalizi, too.

    Also connected: female FANS not being “real” fans in the comic/video game world (in sci-fi, too though that’s changing). Fandom is an interesting place for gender issues.

    • https://www.facebook.com/jean.hoehn/info?collection_token=1524166867%3A2327158227%3A35 Phatchick

      The “females aren’t REAL fans” has always bugged me. Sci-fi has been filled with strong females from the beginning; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstien is commonly considered to be the first science fiction novel. Andre Norton and Doris Piserchia are widely regarded as golden age sic-fi writers and their male counterparts, Asimov, Heinlein and Bradbury created strong, real female characters. And women in sic-fi have long had considerable influence, for example Nichelle Nichols. Her role on Star Trek influenced a generation of girls (one notable is astronaut Mae Jepson) to look at science as something other than an old-boys club and we are all the better for it. Any time some punk little boy (real or mental age) tells me women can’t be real fans, I just look him in the eye and say ” jIH ghaHta’ treka qaSpa’ ‘oH ghaHta’ bIr ” (I was a Trekkie before it was cool.)

  • victoria

    I’ve been enamored lately with a webcomic called Strong Female Protagonist that plays with the idea of what it means to be strong and the limits of physical strength to solve problems and create lasting change. Not so much relevant to the sexual harassment topic, but I think it has interesting things to say on how problematic the topic of a kick-ass heroine (or hero) is.

  • Amethyst Marie

    This kind of thing is why the “Buffy is better than Bella because she’d stake Edward” meme bugs me. Yes, I know all the reasons Twilight is problematic. But I don’t think Bella having the physical capabilities and martial arts skills of an average teenage girl is one of them.

    • lucifermourning

      Buffy is better than Bella because she’d realise Edward is creepy, controlling and totally in appropriate in his behaviour. She wouldn’t put up with it – and, more importantly, her narrative wouldn’t portray it as love. Even if when Buffy does get involved in messed-up relationships, the story doesn’t try and tell us they aren’t messed up.

      • aim2misbehave

        Completely agree – there’s a Buffy vs. Edward video somewhere online, and it consists of basically Edward’s creepiest lines intercut with Buffy telling him off, and it is brilliant. Because that’s what would happen if Buffy met Edward.

  • Snipe

    There is an expectation that women should somehow be able to prevent sexual harassment or to prevent future occurrences. I was the target of some highly inappropriate comments during an internship to become a peace officer and reported the offender. The supervisor told me I should have told the guy that his comments were unacceptable. I felt like they were placing some, if not all, of the responsibility on me. I didn’t stay with the department because I was afraid they would hang me out to dry in more intense situations.

    I’d like to see tv and film get away from the stereotypes of Strong Female, Supportive Friend, Damsel in Distress, and so on, and simply portray women who are interesting. Films that center around a strong male tend to include a woman who is clingy, overly emotional, dependent, and sometimes stupid. Rarely do you see innovation, intelligence, and resourcefulness, which make characters interesting to me. Off the top of my head, I can think of only a few that come close. One of them was Laura Linney’s character in the 90′s film Congo. She was strong, but not overly sexualized, and she wasn’t portrayed as an inferior person. Some of Kate Beckinsale’s work centers around very capable female characters, like Selene from the Underworld films. Granted, she was stuffed into some form-fitting costumes, but that seems to be part and parcel of vampire films. Patricia Briggs’s Mercy Thompson is a delightfully imperfect character that anyone can relate to.

    I’ve noticed that American cinema tends to focus on perfection. A lot of foreign films have female characters and actors that are imperfect, but still interesting and appealing.

  • Nicola

    I’m reminded of this essay I read a while ago: http://www.overthinkingit.com/2008/08/18/why-strong-female-characters-are-bad-for-women/

    I think part of the problem here is that the (predominantly male) producers have gotten the message that feminists are fed up of damsels in distress, but not that femininity is as good as masculinity. That is, we can now have the heroine kicking ass and saving the day through male-gendered behaviour, but she can’t pull a Lúthien and do it by braiding her hair and singing at the villain (the irony here is that Tolkien was about as anti-feminist as your average fundie, and yet here in the story of Beren and Lúthien we see a woman who has agency and uses her skills to rescue her physically strong and combative boyfriend from the antagonist). Where the woman is allowed femininity, it’s in how she’s made more attractive to the presumed-male audience.

    The other issue is tokenism. When you’re trying to represent 50% of humanity with a single character you’re going to fail in some way, because women are not all the same. Either you make her strong in a masculine way, and suggest that the only way in which women can gain respect is through physical strength, or you make her “feminine” and imply that women *can’t* kick ass (I know that masculinity/femininity are not binaries and most people possess traits of both, but the writers who only write one woman in their entire story rarely seem to).

    For instance, if Kara “Starbuck” Thrace, the binge-drinking ace fighter pilot, were the only major female character in the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, she’d be a pretty straight-up example of the Strong Female Character. However, because she’s balanced by women like Laura Roslin, who comes to the presidency in the wake of the greatest tragedy her civilisation has ever seen and struggles to hold her society together, and rarely with violence, there’s room to explore Kara’s insecurities and crippling guilt, making her a well-rounded character and turning her ass-kicking into just one of the ways in which women have agency in the series.

    • CarysBirch

      Some of the more recent Star Treks are pretty good here too (anything after Next Generation, which, while I loved it, wasn’t great to women). Voyager has a pretty nice range of women characters with commanding, levelheaded Janeway; volatile B’elanna Torres; and gentle, feminine Kes. I particularly like the fact that the brusque engineer goes the family route with a husband and baby, and the nurturing feminine nurse decides she doesn’t want any children and is quite defiant about it.

      • http://www.brittanyannwick.wordpress.com/ BookishBeemer

        Don’t forget Seven of Nine–while her costume does make me cringe, her stoicism and journey to learn about her humanity was also great to see. Voyager is one of my absolute favorite shows to this day.

      • CarysBirch

        You’re right, I forgot Seven! I tend to watch and rewatch the first season and forget about the rest. Thanks!

  • lucifermourning

    one of my personal favourite heroines is Janet from the old Scottish ballad “Tam Lin”.

    she starts off telling Tam Lin where to go when he tries to claim that she should be asking him permission to go walking her woods. she then gets pregnant out of wedlock and tells the busybodies who criticise her to go to hell. then she saves her lover from the Faerie Queen, not with physical force but by grabbing him and holding on while he’s turned into various dangerous animals (bear, snake, etc).

    she’s brave, defiant and wonderfully imperfect. and this from a ballad that’s hundreds of years old.

  • gimpi1

    I have actually heard a young man say that he thinks (due to those butt-kicking heroines) that it’s OK to strike or try to overpower a woman, because if she can’t protect herself, she deserves whatever he dishes out. Strange, alarming but true.

    I used to think that showing strong, forceful women would help us get away from the “victimization is sexy” meme, but I think the “she better be able to fight me off, or she deserves whatever I dish out” meme is much worse.

    • aim2misbehave

      I’ve heard that too – men claiming that the butt-kicking heroine idea is contributing to violence against women because “then men will think the women can take it.”

      It’s like, dude. A) You think that most people will honestly believe that the CIA super-spies/vampire slayers/warrior princesses they see on TV are totally realistic representatives of real women? and the horrifying part, B) the only reason that men don’t hit women is that they don’t want to cause *too* serious injuries to the women?!?

    • J_Enigma32

      I wonder how many of them would feel the same way about applying that men.

      After all, Superman and Batman can take it, why can’t they…?

  • Gemma Mason

    I really agree with your conclusion. I grew up thinking I would overcome all the prejudice I encountered. It’s been hard, learning that sometimes I’m just powerless against it.

  • Thomas

    Kate Beaton has several entertaining comics about Strong Female Characters (c) at harkavagrant.com that you might like.

  • airtype

    What I love about Buffy is that there are characters who celebrate, rather than degrade, the strengths associated with femininity. Tara shows up in season 4 and is a great example of a character who is strong because she is patient, kind, nurturing caretaker of many members of the scooby gang. Tara is fem AND bad ass without kicking ass.

  • persephone

    I want to see relatable female characters. I want to see women who are strong, not necessarily physically strong, but independent and making their own choices. I want to see women who make mistakes–everyone makes mistakes–but face them and deal with them. I want to see women who have chosen their lives based on their desires. I want to see women who take responsibility for their actions and stand strong about their decisions.
    Apparently, when it comes to movies and TV, that is an impossible request.


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