Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Strong Woman Who Punches Hard

The portrayal of female characters in modern books and movies, especially genre fiction, is a narrow one. It is seen as morally imperative that these ladies fulfill a specific role: that of the “Strong Woman Who Punches as Hard as a Man.” Yet isn’t it rather Victorian to require that all heroines must be role models? Why are we so afraid that if all the women in action movies don’t wield fists of iron, the girls of American will become repressed maidens who faint at the sight of math?

Sophia McDougall has an interesting article in the New Statesmen, in which she points out how demeaning this role actually is. A few quotes (not all of it in the most delicate of language):

“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.”

“The Strong Female Character has something to prove. She’s on the defensive before she even starts. She’s George from The Famous Five all grown up and still bleating with the same desperate lack of conviction that she’s ‘Every Bit As Good as a Boy.’ ”

“Nowadays the princesses all know kung fu, and yet they’re still the same princesses. They're still love interests, still the one girl in a team of five boys, and they’re all kind of the same. They march on screen, punch someone to show how they don’t take no shit, throw around a couple of one-liners or forcibly kiss someone because getting consent is for wimps, and then with ladylike discretion they back out of the narrative’s way.”

“I want a wealth of complex female protagonists who can be either strong or weak or both or neither, because they are more than strength or weakness. Badass gunslingers and martial artists sure, but also interesting women who are shy and quiet and do, sometimes, put up with others’ shit because in real life there’s often no practical alternative.”

Would any mainstream action movie allow a heroine to be as "weak" as Sherlock Holmes? 

McDougall’s critique is fascinating. It highlights the way that unctuous moralism in stories often backfires. Personally, I want my daughters to be strong and courageous. I also don't want them to be robbed of their femininity by modern feminism or pressured to behave according to our culture's narrow definition of "strong" (essentially, the idea that strong = aggressive). Our modern era doesn't seem to "get" that femininity is a varied, healthy, human thing. On the other hand, the Victorians did not get it 100% right either-- their popular fiction also took certain aspects of womanhood, exaggerated them, and portrayed that exaggerated version as the ideal female. Perhaps the real solution is to read stories from many eras, instead of limiting ourselves to the wisdom of only one.

This issue is all the more interesting because many cultural conservatives and Christian families gravitate toward "hero movies" (especially those made from classic comic books) as demonstrating the clash between good and evil, and as providing masculine role-models. If conservative Christian families feel that it is helpful to young men to identify (albeit in a limited degree) with Captain America or Superman, what of the young women? Can there be any inspiration in this kind of movie for them? 

What do you think? Does the narrow role of modern heroines cause harm, or is it merely irritating? 

Tom Gauld. 

Somewhat Related Reading:

- A post of my own on fantasy warfare and gender realism.

I'm linking up to Wednesdays with Words!


  1. What a good question!! Perhaps our girls are not so easily motivated by a single dimension as our boys are. That is not to denigrate men at all. I like Captain America and I do think his type provides a boy with something to grasp but my daughter is more suspicious of that sort of thing. Modern heroines tend to by making large salaries and living in New York lofts which in real life they couldn't afford with the jobs they have. So that is a lie for modern young women.

    Maybe Elizabeth Bennett is what we are looking for.

    1. Or would Fanny Price ever be able to have a place? I can't remember her name now, but Dicken's Bleak House also has a femininely-strong (as in, she is the home anchor that grounds other characters) young woman, but she doesn't get much action and she's not aggressive.

      What a fascinating thought. Thanks for sharing, Anna!

    2. Cindy,

      Do you think that boys are less worried about realism (they will never possess superpowers any more than most girls will possess expensive NY flats) than girls are? Are girls, in some ways, more pragmatic and focused on detail? Interesting thought.

      I think that Lizzy Bennett's biggest strength is that she (unlike the "strong warrior woman") changes. She has weaknesses and wrong-headed ideas, and eventually she recognizes this. That's a very real-life kind of courage.


      Hmm, I don't think that Fannie Price would appeal to everyone. She kind of conveys the idea that physical weakness is associated with moral superiority (all the characters with "rude health" are morally and emotionally stunted). On the other hand, perhaps that just illustrates the need for literature to portray many kinds of women. I would be comfortable saying, "Look, Fanny Price shows us how a woman with this kind of timid personality can be strong," but not in saying, "Look, this is how a woman should be." Dickens' book _Our Mutual Friend_ does have an interesting contrast between the meek and romanticized Lizzie Hexam and the spoiled yet redeemable Bella Wilfer. I like the fact that Bella shows change and growth.

  2. I like your take on this. (And I loved your gender realism in fantasy warfare piece.)

    Why are we so afraid that if all the women in action movies don’t wield fists of iron, the girls of American will become repressed maidens who faint at the sight of math?

    HAHAHA. Brilliant.

    Fanny Price is an interesting example; her strength is pure, humble, selfless goodness, and I think the story would have been better if she'd actually managed to convert Henry Crawford from his wicked ways. She got so very close. I think Austen threw away her ending there (even though I was all Team Edmund, I must admit, and if the ending is weak it's simply because Austen decided to reward Fanny with what she really wanted.) But I hadn't thought about her conveying "the idea that physical weakness is associated with moral superiority." Now I'll have to read it again and look for that. :)

    I think the girls-are-strong-but-nothing-else problem might be a bit more common in movies than in novels, though I read fantasy and in fantasy, unrealistic battle is kind of standard. But in answer to your final question, I do think the portrayal of liberated femininity as universally aggressive is damaging to some extent. It probably doesn't mess up a lot of individual lives by itself, but it contributes to a cultural perspective that rejects or minimizes the value in the quiet woman, the domestic woman, the pure-hearted woman, the gentle woman, even the passive but still humble and generous woman.


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