Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Strength and Weakness

The first thing that came to mind for me when we discussed this topic was how important questions of strength and weakness can become in fiction. This takes different forms for male and female characters. I thought of Maui from the movie Moana, whose physical strength is legendary but who uses it as a cover for emotional weakness. Another character who takes on the question of strength and weakness in an interesting way is Mr. Incredible from The Incredibles.

Morgan took us away from the pure concept of physical strength with the idea that in school we should "focus on our strengths." A strength, loosely defined, can be anything we are particularly good at. But she said we should not forget to work on those areas where we are not as good.

Physical strength takes a front seat in toxic masculinity. Men are encouraged to be "strong," which often includes not showing any sign of being sick (and not getting any help until it is severe), playing sports through pain, etc.

Che remarked that playing through pain is not always a good idea. It may be helpful for arthritis but not helpful for injuries, so you have to be able to recognize what kind of pain you are feeling!

Working while sick is potentially a big problem because as strong as you think you are, you are also risking contagion for those around you.

It can also be toxic to believe that you are weak if you need someone to care for you.

Women "tough it out" in different ways. They are often expected to keep households running despite being sick; their illness tends to be ignored rather than acknowledged and pampered.

Do men and women perceive pain differently? Some research has suggested as much, but our research on pain is very preliminary, and pain is very subjective.

Back to the idea of strength as something you are good at: are you "allowed" to have more than one strength? Is there a zero-sum pie for strengths in the social context in which you move? Nerd is good at the intellectual and jock is good at the physical. This division is very common in popular narratives, and you have a few cases of "Wow, exception!" like Beast from the X-men. However, in the real world there are plenty of people who are good at both. Some families try to compartmentalize their kids' strengths to keep them from competing against each other, which means they encourage some strengths in their kids and suppress others.

If you draw your expectations from fiction you may be deceived.  If you draw your fiction from expectations you may be... boring.

The context of a science fiction and fantasy convention doesn't cause a person to leap to the conclusion that there would be a lot of rock climbers around, but I've met a surprising number of SF/F writers who climb!

Strength is also contextual. John Carter of Mars relies on the premise that John's strength is incredible on Mars because of the change in gravity. In real life, people can be exceedingly good at sports and not have what we would imagine as a typical "strong body." Here is a great link showing the body types of Olympic athletes: www.boredpanda.com/athlete-body-types-comparison-howard-schatz/

We looked a bit at the concept of the Strong Female Character. The problem with many of these is that they tend to fall into the pattern of being kickass women with a lot of body strength who nonetheless are still secondary to the plot of a story (as in the LEGO movie, argh argh). Hermione is a better character, intelligent, with focus and drive and some influence on the plot. However, she is still not the protagonist. Watch out for the Cassandra: a character who has an amazing power but nobody ever lets it influence them.

It's important to realize that oppressed characters are not necessarily weak. I spoke a bit about the difficulty of creating non-POV female characters who were oppressed, and not have them come across as weak. I had to make sure they were changing events in whatever small ways they could manage.

We need to break the expectation that weakness is feminine, and also the expectation that crying is a sign of weakness. Both crying and rage are emotional steam valves, but the latter is usually portrayed as strong and the former as weak. Crying is a communication instinct, and often a healthier response than self-suppression.

Thank you to everyone who attended the discussion! This week's discussion will feature guest author Laura Anne Gilman, who will tell us all about her new novel, The Cold Eye. Join us tomorrow at 10am Pacific on Google Hangouts to hear all about it!