Talk To Me, Folks

This is an open invitation for reader feedback. I realize that this means the trolls will come out, but them’s the breaks.

As a writer, it’s important for me to know my craft and to seek technical excellence in what I do. Same as any other skill, really. I read journals and blog and Tweets and anything I can that might help me understand how to write better, with greater purpose and focused intent. A few of the things I’ve read recently have been on the same topic, one near and dear to my heart: strong female protagonists.

What really stood out to me about these mentions of female MCs was the assertion that they come in one of two flavors: frail or manly. And after a quick review of the kinds of things I’ve read (and written, I’ll be honest), that tends to hold true. Your female lead is either hopeless without her strong (usually male) supporters or is Rambo without the Y chromosome.

In graphic novels (particularly American), female leads are powerful and sexual. I’m sure most have heard the gripes that super-heroines are over-boobed for the job, and I certainly agree with that. Moreover, consider how those characters are posed. My chiropractor would love for me to maintain that kind of posture because he would be assured of steady business. I hurt just thinking about how those characters pose in every panel.

And I think that the reason those female characters get stuck with those attributes is that someone (artist, writer, producer) is trying to compensate for the She-Man effect. These female characters are strong physically and often forceful in personality. So they “obviously” are not feminine. Slap on improbable anatomy and use Gumby for the pose model, and presto, feminine! Right?

This got me to thinking about what makes a woman a strong person. The stereotype is that women are weaker in all ways compared to men, and just about every culture in history has reinforced that to some degree. Yet we all know at least one woman we would consider “strong”. So what goes into that personal definition?

Does a woman have to sacrifice her femininity to be strong? It certainly seems that way with my character, Sarta. Looking at her picture, you might not even realize that she’s a woman under all that muscle. Her reserve and aloof manner are also not in keeping with the “ideal” feminine character. So is Sarta a She-Man?

Are aggressive women unfeminine? Can a woman like guns and swords and fighting and dislike frills and romance novels and still be a woman? Who would believe a tale that tall?

And who would find such a woman attractive? In nearly all of the stories with “strong” women that I can think of, the knee-cap-busting woman has a love interest. Quite often, she is steamily involved with that man. I look around at Real Life and I see a huge difference in perception. “Realistic” female characters are doe-eyed ingenues with enough spunk to be interesting yet still needing the male characters to save the day. Fantasy females sling swords and promise hot sex.

Which led me to wonder how men see this matter. Do men find “strong” women attractive? As in the kind of attractive that leads to til-death-do-us-part, or just a novel sort of attraction that wears off after a while? So what do men think about the women warriors depicted in fiction and movies and games? I’ve seen plenty of examples of males bedding warrior females, but I seldom see it last in a plausible way. The writing forces the characters to stay together and proclaims that they are happy, but it kinda falls flat. Unlike her cleavage, which remains as upright at 85 as it did at 15. Is it plausible that a real man would want to be with a real woman who was like that?

While Sarta is not intended to be a romantic character, I do have a few other women in my mental lineup who will kick butt, take names, and have a happily despite it all ending. Am I setting myself up for just another trope? What would it take for a female character to be believable as both strong and womanly? Do I just damn the torpedoes and full steam ahead?

Talk to me, folks. What do you think about this?

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5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. David
    Jul 05, 2011 @ 22:37:13

    In my very humble opinion, the heroine that struck the best balance between masculinity and femininity is Dagny Taggart from Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. In the novel, she is the Vice President of Operations for a major railroad, a job normally held by a male. Without going into too much detail, she is usually calm, cool, collected, and perhaps one of the most competent major figures in the entire novel. At times, when presented with situations of overwhelming pain, she does have emotional moments. I don’t see those as weakness or feminine traits as much as her being a human. While the author reminds us from time to time of Ms. Taggart’s physical beauty, in no way is she over sexualizing her. Instead her beauty is used to accent her steely personality. The men in the novel that are attracted to her are those who share her values, the good looks are an excellent side bonus. Though I can’t speak for everyman, when one thinks of their ideal of a strong female character that makes a story memorable, Dagny Taggart us certainly near the top of the list.

    Reply

    • Rose's Ink Well
      Jul 07, 2011 @ 19:26:50

      I appreciate the feedback, David. So in your opinion, Strong women are calm, collected, and have attractive personalities that are more important than their looks. Did I get that right?

      So what do you think about muscle-bound barbarian women? Are they strong or just compensating?

      Reply

  2. April Raines
    Jul 05, 2011 @ 23:36:32

    Have you heard of the Bechdel Test? http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TheBechdelTest

    Not to send you on a time killing journey to trope-ville. 😉 I’ve heard of it via a friend with a Ph.D. in Women’s Studies. It doesn’t directly relate to what you’ve asked, more indirectly. It’s about a) the presence of females in a work and b) whether their existence is ‘defined’ by males in terms of the storyline.

    Directly to your question – when I think of strong females I tend to think more of mental strength or strength of will. The woman who cares for her family despite hardships with little complaint (’cause none is hardly realistic 😉 ) being the classic example.

    Reply

    • Rose's Ink Well
      Jul 07, 2011 @ 19:34:35

      I have heard of that, April, and thank you for the reminder. Sadly, in SaS there just aren’t many other people for Sarta to converse with, let alone other women. And the one conversation she does have with another woman is about Melkeen. Granted, they’re talking about him like he’s five and with no “romantic” connotations whatsoever, but they are still talking about a man.

      So I guess she doesn’t pass muster just yet. 😛

      Reply

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