Yeah, I’m aware this topic contains a lot of well-tread ground already, but I’ve got to get my revenge on those terrible fantasy novels I read as a kid somehow.
I’ve had kind of a rough year–I’ve been super depressed, college homework is hard, and to top it off, my grandfather died a couple months ago due to covid complications. It was just not fun. 🙃 It hasn’t been all bad though, and I really want to write and blog more? Hopefully?? Anyway, enough about me. Let’s talk about bad fantasy heroines.
I’m sure you’ve met the character type before. (If not, I will be hitting you up and
blackmailing convincing you with mild force to let us switch lives and reading experiences.) This female character is tough. She’s like a man, but better. She looks down her nose at more feminine characters as she mows down a zombie horde, and she’s horrified by the fact that her stuffy aunt wants her to wear a DRESS and EMBROIDER, and despite living in a historical period, she acts like no historical woman ever. Which is a good thing, because historical women are WEAK. And our heroine isn’t weak. Insert some faux-feminism into the story and demonize every woman who is not our heroine–these are crucial steps–and done! You have created a Strong Female Character.
God, I’m giving myself flashbacks.
Here’s the thing, YA authors of my childhood. Women aren’t naturally weak. Just because “Womyn are kept under the thumb of the patriarchy and are treated like chattel!1!!” doesn’t make those women weak, and that goes even for the women who act like how society wants them to. Especially for the women who act like how society wants them to, in fact. Living up to such high expectations is impressive! Stop denigrating people who haven’t done anything wrong!
And femininity isn’t weak. Femininity is pretty cool, actually. I’m pretty sure all the authors who write characters sneering at sewing and embroidery have never sewn or embroidered anything in their lives. It’s hard! Sewing is really, really hard and takes a lot of practice and skill and sometimes math to get right. It’s an art form.
POV: You are a sewer. You’ve been working on a dress for weeks. It’s your finest creation, taking all of your skill and imagination. You’ve put so much of yourself into creating something beautiful, something that you love and that other people will love. You pick up a YA novel, one with four stars on Goodreads and Amazon. “Women who sew are dumb!” Snippy YA Heroine says. “I sure can’t breathe in this corset!” You close the book in disgust and wonder when authors will open a history book.
(Corsets don’t. They don’t choke you. Sometimes they can! But that means you’ve either been tightlacing or else the corset doesn’t fit. ALSO, CORSETS AND STAYS ARE DIFFERENT THINGS. PSA.)
Hey, I just had a thought. I wonder if sewing would still be considered weak if men did it? I bet it wouldn’t, huh? It’s almost like we denigrate women’s work just because women do it, and not because it’s inherently bad…Nah, that can’t be it. It must just be that math, fighting, and not showing emotions are considered good because they ARE good! Men must just like better things. Hah! Silly women.
In a world where fields that are comprised of mostly women are undervalued and underpaid, I don’t really like this kind of take, funnily enough.
And a lot of traits that are traditionally coded as feminine are…good, actually? Being kind, compassionate, and a good parent is not like…a crime. It takes a lot of strength, funnily enough. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t good parts to masculinity as well, because there are, but masculine traits are not ‘more strong’ than feminine traits. Being brave and outspoken is great! So is being humble and kind. (And that’s not to set up a dichotomy between the two. You can absolutely be both.) And I don’t want to hear ANYBODY say that crying or otherwise showing emotion is weak. Crying is your body’s way of processing emotions, and it’s quite effective. In fact, stigmatizing every human reaction except anger and violence is how you get toxic masculinity! Huh, imagine that.
Anyway, call me crazy, but I think that ‘femininity is bad, actually’ is an incredibly bad take for a feminist to have. Of course, maybe I’m just blinded by the patriarchy. /s
And I want the women to be friends! Just! A woman–or, for that matter, a person–does not have to be an island in order to be strong!
And a character doesn’t need to be strong. They need to feel like a person.
Let women be weak. Let them be passive, let them be quiet and meek. Let them have a quiet strength, or let them be cowardly. Because women are people, and sometimes people are all of those things. And then let your other women be strong and brash and brave, because sometimes people are those things, too.
You know who’s a good Strong Female Character? Eowyn. She has a motivation for wanting to fight, she doesn’t look down on other women for being different from her, and she recognizes that being in a war is bloody and awful but she wants to fight anyway because she both wants to be there with her family and is suicidal, at least in the book. She’s amazing and awesome and I SHIP HER AND FARAMIR SO HARD (sorry, random Farawyn outburst that happens to me every once in a while). I kind of get the sense that all these Strong Female Characters are trying to be Eowyn and failing, because the authors don’t get what made Eowyn work in the first place.
She’s just…REALLY cool.
My hot take is that damsels in distress are cool, actually. Sue me. The issue isn’t that “The woman sat around and waited for some guy to save her, what a COWARD.” The issue is when a woman is a) put in distress in order to get her out of the way because who has time to write a woman, am i rite lads, or b) put in distress in order to be a motivation for the hero. “Oh noes! Princess Erlandia was kidnapped by the dastardly villain! I CAN’T back out of this plot now! Wait what was her name again”
Women who fall into misfortune and can’t get out without help? Not a problem. And yes, that includes women who get saved by men. Sometimes…it…happens??? I don’t get why people make such a big deal out of it? Though I will admit women saving each other is *chef’s kiss* amazing. Anyway, #StopDemonizingCinderellaForBeingAnAbuseSurvivorChallenge
(I feel like a lot of the narrative around feminism and fairy tales is…deeply weird. I’d like to do an article on that but other people have done it better, I think. In sum, they are LEGENDS told in like 300 words and if you really want to go there, a lot of men in these stories wait around and get saved by old ladies!! The focus is not on the characters and I’m sorry you didn’t get the modern novel you were expecting?? A lot of fairy tales are WAY more female-focused than the literature of the era was and it seems very strange to me to assume that just because men collected the tales, that means women weren’t telling them.
AND STOP. DEMONIZING. CHARACTERS WHO ARE ABUSE SURVIVORS FOR ACTING THE WRONG WAY AND NOT BEING ‘STRONG.’ I SEE YOU PEOPLE TALKING THAT WAY ABOUT CINDERELLA AND RAPUNZEL AND I HATE IT.)
And also, last complaint I promise, but I feel like female friendships don’t always get a lot of depth? A lot of them are, at worst, disgustingly wholesome and thrown in for the brownie points, and at best, not as memorable as a lot of male relationships I can think of. I’m perfectly willing to admit this may be the books I’m reading, because YA has a habit of letting the main romantic relationship be
the juggernaut to end all juggernauts the main focus, but I don’t know. Can any of y’all think of female friendships in modern literature that are as developed and memorable as, say, Frodo and Sam? I just want more really developed female relationships that are allowed to be the focus of a story. And I don’t just mean romantic relationships.
Tl;dr: THERE’S MORE THAN ONE KIND OF STRENGTH TO BE FOUND ON THIS EARTH, AUTHORS. And also develop your female relationships for the love of God. Things that you shouldn’t talk about if you can’t be normal about it: 1) femininity, 2) fairy tales, and 3) abuse survivors. Oh, and 4) corsets.
P.S.: When I say mean things about YA, I’m joking. I literally write YA, that’d be pretty hypocritical of me, lol.
Anyway! Let your women be messy and beautiful and ugly, my good people. Good night, and happy early
Gawain and the Green Knight Day Christmas and Hanukkah to all who celebrate! Man, I wish I could get a sexy guy to come through my door this Christmas and challenge me to a game in which I behead him and then have to go to his castle and get hit on by both him and his wife but then I don’t get beheaded because I’m too sexy. Alright I’m sorry for making you read that last sentence, I’m out (but also, please God let this happen to me)