Tuesday, July 2, 2013

TTYU Retro: What's in a "strong female character"?

I'm a very strong advocate for writing strong female characters. Recently, I see a lot more female characters who are physically powerful and unafraid of a fight, and I have little problem with that (though those who know me know that I have trouble with over-sexualized images of women, even physically powerful ones). I'm one of the first people to cheer when I see an image like this one racing around Facebook:
I quibble, however. When I saw this girl wearing her awesome armor I hesitated to share it, because it falls into one of the many traps of gender image. To lead into which trap I'm referring to, I offer you this next photo, of one of the strongest females I know:

It's my daughter, Rhiannon. She was a Barbie Musketeer a couple of years ago at Halloween. I guess my first point here is the old saying that one cannot tell a book by its cover. Clothes are a very complex form of social signalling, and practicality often takes a back seat to that. The whole idea of a Barbie Musketeer made me cringe (and still does) but I honestly don't see why it's problematic to have one's long-lavender-dress moments and one's armor moments as well. Of course, I'd advise anyone (including kilt-wearers) to keep skirts under control while in combat, for practical reasons.
Let's focus, though. This isn't a post about beauty or body image or femininity standards of appearance (much as I'm often tempted). It's about elements of character.

I appreciate the idea that women should be able to take on male roles, and be "tough" and even violent when need be, but this is really only one side of the total issue. It still gives first dibs to the value of the traditionally masculine constellation of qualities (including toughness, goal-orientation, competitiveness, etc.). There is a great deal of value to be found also in the feminine constellation of qualities - and these should not be disregarded, either when we're designing female characters, or when we're designing males.
It's hard sometimes to get past the "feminine"-labeled things that drive us crazy. A heightened concern with appearance is one of those things. I have been known to tear at my hair in response to the idea that "how to get the best Christmas gift for each of your friends" is a worthy topic for an hour-long movie. There's also the question of whether "how to get your friends to work together to host a birthday party" is worth a movie, or more hair-tearing. Somewhat more meaty is the topic of "if you miscommunicate and hurt a friend's feelings, how do you get out of it?" A trend I've noticed in all of these - one that frustrates me like crazy - is the way that commercialism gets unquestioningly mixed in with all of these, as when so many girls' stories feature salon scenes, or shopping (grrr).

So I thought I'd list three critical qualities that I consider to come out of the traditional view of femininity and feminine roles, but which are extremely valuable for both female and male characters. These qualities do tend to come out in movies and shows for girls, but my problem with these shows and movies is that these admirable qualities are so circumscribed in their application - by which I mean that we see them applied to birthday parties and Christmas rather than to grander pursuits (or again, when girls are saving the world, these qualities distract from rather than contribute to the girls' success). Obviously this list isn't exhaustive, but I hope it inspires further thought and questioning of those qualities we often dismiss.

1. Patience, long-term tolerance of ambiguity, and moderation in response
I never realized how patient I could be until I became a mother. When you're holding together a household twenty-four/seven, you are faced with a complex, constantly evolving social situation that you can't just walk away from. Especially when you understand the full basis of child behavior, you tend to be a bit more tolerant of its extremes. The other thing that this constant commitment does is that it makes ultimatums very difficult to carry out - what I call being careful with "or else." Any kind of threat you don't intend to carry out ultimately weakens your authority... and since you'll be the one dealing with any chaos you create in the environment - over the long term - it tends to encourage more moderation. [For those of you who are wondering, yes, I do lose it and flip out sometimes. I'm just talking about ideal feminine qualities!]

2. Consideration for others
Girls and women are always being asked to consider things from another point of view - often in the name of understanding why the boys must have what they want, but also in service of larger group dynamics among females. This can be construed as a form of weakness, but it's actually an enormous advantage in any social situation where no one person is in charge. Where a large group is trying to get something done (traveling, staying alive, etc.) a traditionally masculine goal-orientation may cause some members to fall off the group motivation and be lost or diverted; a simultaneous application of consideration for the larger social dynamic can help keep the group together. I'm put in mind of the movie Chimpanzee, which we watched recently, where the group which prevailed in keeping its territory was smaller in numbers, but had a male leader who spent more time grooming the members of his troop. (Take that, salons!)

3. Persistence in the face of setbacks/lack of recognition; constantly taking small steps
This is where patience meets goals. I'm reminded of the story I saw going around Facebook the other day of the man who came home to find his house a complete and utter wreck and his wife in bed with a book saying to him, "You know how you asked me what I do around the house all day? Well, today I didn't do it." Managing a household is like that (particularly where diapers and tiny bundles of chaos are involved). For all my talk of letting the house get messy, I can hardly walk into a room without doing some small thing to contribute to its improvement or ongoing state of usability. The laundry piles up and I keep doing it. When the kids were in diapers, I kept changing them (my motto: that's what diapers are for!) There's a little room in the system for grand gestures (Look, honey, I dusted the whole house today! or Look, honey, I mopped the floor!) but one has to realize those don't last long, and not get discouraged when a spilled juice wrecks your work of the last hour. There's also the fact that many women must continue to achieve success in this way without any recognition that they are in fact doing so (thus the Facebook story).

I'll end this post with some questions:

What other qualities of traditional femininity do you consider valuable? 
How do they contribute strength to a social system? 
How might they change the way a character would go about saving the world? 
Can you recommend some strong female characters who are strong in feminine as well as masculine ways?