Strength, Weakness, & Why Everyone Gets Feminism Wrong

There was some discussion this week about what makes a so-called “strong female character,” and since I’m often touting that I want that very thing in a novel, I thought I’d offer my two cents. It all started with Natalie Whipple, YA author and my former fake-battle-of-the-band nemesis. She blogged on Wednesday that she hates the term “strong female character” because it usually implies that there is only one way to be strong. In response, and further elaboration, Sarah Jae-Jones examined what it means to be feminine and the variations of “strength” it indicates.

I call myself a feminist and I don’t understand how anyone, male or female, can say they are not one. Feminism is the belief that women are equal to men, and that women have the freedom to make their own choices. That’s all it is. We are not militant radical hairy-legged man-haters intent on ridding the world of all things male. The thing about applying labels to yourself is that, suddenly, you become every negative connotation that label has ever represented.

Another example, though on a far less ideological scale, is the casual science fiction fan. Say you like sci-fi or fantasy to the average person and you become pegged as a Babylon 5-loving, Dungeons and Dragons-playing, convention-attending fanatic. (How many times have I experienced the “judgmental nose crinkle” after one hears my favorite show has the word “vampire” in it? Yeah, a lot.)

The point is, it’s easier to generalize; the extreme of a situation is always more fun to consider than the reality. To me, real strength is rising above those labels and bringing their original meaning back to the forefront. (And yes, I am attending the Rally to Restore Sanity.) Strength is not the ability to be sassy, independent, or fall out of gender roles. (Sorry, but I buy impractical shoes and paint my nails and am afraid of spiders – and I like to think I’m pretty damn strong.) Strength is the ability to be yourself and be comfortable with that person. There are characters who are less self-assured and still considered strong, but we’ll get to that later.

So what do I mean when I say I’m looking for strong female characters? Well, it’s the same as what I mean when I say I want strong male characters. “Strong” women are not necessarily the single-and-proud modern femmes made popular by Sex and the City. Of course, those characters were strong, for the most part. That is, until the movies showed up and demanded Carrie needed a marriage license in order to be happy, even though the person she married was horribly emotionally abusive to her for over ten years.

But I digress.

Actually, it’s not digression. By making Carrie get married, her character was weakened. She represented the “It’s OK to be single!” crowd (started a movement, even!) and making her marry Big instead of just living monogamously ever after or (gasp!) remain “happily single” the way she did in the book, basically lobotomized her. Yet, making a character like Charlotte remain single would’ve just been upsetting. Her whole purpose was to find love and marriage and have babies. Not giving her that happy ending would have weakened her too. It would have said everything she worked for was all for nothing, and that her dreams were meaningless.

The ladies of SATC were by no means the originators of ambiguously happy endings in the form of marriage. Elizabeth Bennett wasn’t suddenly in less control of her life because she married Darcy at the end of Pride and Prejudice. What made Lizzie strong was her intellect, wit, and refusal to adhere to the restrictions of her time. We’d root for her no matter what she’s done because of who she is. If she ended up single at the end, she wouldn’t be tragic or a martyr. She’d still be Lizzie, who got there on her own terms.

There is also what I’ll call plot-based strength. Think of Ryan Bingham from Up in the Air (made famous by George Clooney in the movie). In Ryan’s case, independence and freedom are not always positive strong points. He is solitary and convinces himself he wants it that way. Then we see how lonely that life is, and just when we think he can finally connect with someone… he doesn’t. The ending is incredibly sad, but the novel sets it up to be that way. Sad endings aren’t always deep and happy endings aren’t always an easy way out. But, in Ryan’s case, his sad ending existed to make the reader reflect. Like Lizzie, it almost didn’t matter if the character found happiness through another human being or whether he decided being alone is what he really wanted. It was his time, place, and circumstances that made him who he is. If we knew him in real life, would we consider him a strong, confident man? Maybe not. But he does make for one strong character.

Back to my original question, now: what do I mean when I say I want strong characters? I want people who transcend the labels, who are multi-dimensional, and who’s endings are in keeping with what they want or deserve. Words like “strong” or “weak” only apply to how you write your characters and what types of lives you want them to have.

To me, the weakest character in all of literature is Bella Swan. She is passive, unremarkable, and has no purpose other than to be the object of crazy-stalker-boyfriend’s affection. She is the poster child for low self-esteem and teaches girls all over the country that it’s OK to be controlled, bitten, and obsessed over, as long as the boy is cute enough. (Oh, and it’s perfectly fine to carry his claw-happy offspring, as long as you wait until marriage and give up your humanity.)

The reason all of this makes Bella weak, other than the obvious, is because through it all, we’re still supposed to think of her as our heroine, and not as the tragic figure she really is.

Writing good characters, like feminism, is about choices. Whether your character is male or female, ask yourself if they were responsible for their story’s conclusion, and, if they weren’t, can it be considered redeeming or poignant.

20 thoughts on “Strength, Weakness, & Why Everyone Gets Feminism Wrong

  1. “Strength is the ability to be yourself and be comfortable with that person.”

    That to me says it all.

    Oh, and don't ever go to Australia in their summer. My sister lives outside of Sydney and they have these evil/gigantic creatures called Huntsman – she's seen four of them…alive…in her condo. And they chase you. I'm shivering just re-telling the story. I HATE SPIDERS.


  2. I enjoy your Blog, but I feel quite the opposite than you do about the current role models available for girls on TV and in YA literature. The role models drive me crazy! Of course, girls and women have the right to choose however they want to live their lives. But the role models today seem to be saying: “Yes, you have the right to be smart, to be President of the United States, to be a neurosurgeon, astronaut, author of serious literature, or a Mom with a brain; but we’re not going to show you how to do that because we just wanna have fun! Yeah, the feminists of the past worked really hard to guarantee women equal rights with men, but you’re not ever going to see us working that hard. If you want a role model to show you how to be smart rather than shallow, serious rather than silly, emotionally healthy rather than emotionally wounded … well, you’re on your own, honey. Now, could you just hand me my chick lit novel over there, bitch? Oh, and by the way, isn’t it fun to revel in all the derogatory names like ‘chick’ and ‘bitch’ that feminists worked so hard to eliminate so that we’d be respected? Oh well, I guess I can live with less respect and being paid a lower salary for the same job as men … because, deep down, I have very low self esteem, I don’t really think I deserve any better, and the best I can do is to show you ways to work around that.” In my opinion, YA literature is filled with those types of role models. There’s a mixed message of: I demand for you to think of me as strong, even though my behavior will clearly show you someone suffering from very low self esteem. And it makes me very sad that so many YA authors feel these books must be in high schools because all teenaged girls suffer from these kinds of problems. Seriously? Believe it or not, some teenaged girls are actually planning to become astronauts, scientists, authors of serious literature, etc., and hate being continuously confronted by vapid “heroines” in the media and YA literature. Enough already.


  3. When I started writing my new book idea with a female protag, my cousin said to me, “Please don't make her weak and pathetic like Bella. Someone strong please.”
    Yeah, sure Bella is a klutz and her world rotates around Edward. But she wasn't that bad (in my opinion). She had some redeeming qualities such as the willingness to self sacrifice. If she could sacrifice herself to protect the people she loved, she'd do it without thinking. Self sacrifice isn't easy and it takes its own brand of bravery. Ok, that's my spiel, take it or leave it. Great post. =)


  4. @Amy – I tried to use Bella as an example of a weak character in contrast to what I consider strong. My other point was that I think Bella is weak only in terms of how Twilight was written. If the book set her up as someone we should feel sorry for, ala Ryan in Up in the Air, then I'd probably see her differently. Of course, there are millions of people who disagree with me! Thanks for your comment.


  5. Great post, Sarah. Yes, yes, and yes.

    The part about the nose-wrinkling — spot on. I get that same reaction for saying I read fantasy, I play video games, or I'm a vegetarian. The key is to rise above the labels!


  6. Not sure I agree about Bella or that your assessment that she's the weakest character in ALL of literature is in keeping with the rest of your post, but I like several of your points.


  7. I'm still surprised by the reaction the Bella character pulls out of a lot of people. I don't necessarily disagree with the analysis, but I guess as I read Twilight, I wasn't looking at the character from that perspective and doubt that I would have if there weren't so many negative emotions wafting through the blogosphere.

    Teen girls often go through a very illogical, irrational stage as they tangle with hormones, love and romance, especially for the first time. I enjoyed the novel and characters as an intense, fanciful teen romance of the supernatural kind.

    I don't believe girls aspire to be like Bella in regard to her psychological makeup as much as they just want to be the sole focus of a super hot, extraordinarily good looking boy.

    I guess if the story had not become a world wide phenomenon, people wouldn't think about it so deeply. Twilight certainly seems to divide folks into lovers or haters on some level. It's interesting…thanks for adding to the dialogue.


  8. Thank God someone finally said it! I was horrified (and not in a good way) when I read Twilight. I thought, this is the character to which all the young girls are aspiring? God, when I was young, my idols were Joan Jett & Debbie Harry!

    I've never actually said it out loud, because I didn't want it to sound like sour grapes, i.e., jealous of Ms. Myer's success, but I just couldn't understand it.

    Another thing that struck me was that Bella is a compulsive liar – that's not strength; that's weakness!

    Good on ya, Ms. Mighty Mouse LaPolla!


  9. I just get tired of the Xena characters that are tougher than nails and can kick every guy's butt.

    Most of my female protagonists are geeks. 😉 But they drive the action, and they stick up for themselves, for others, and for their beliefs. That's what makes a character “strong” IMO.


  10. THANK YOU. Wise words. Especially about Carrie et al. Lots of people now think they're anti-feminist throwbacks because of those films, but in the book/TV show they were anything but. Same with Elle in Legally Blonde, who was ridiculously girly but very strong. People talk about chick lit as if it was anti-feminist.

    But lately, there has been much sliding back into the “As long as he need me…” days of yore. Thanks for voicing concern.

    So fantastic you'll be Jon Stewarting. Do blog about it!


  11. Wonderful post! Reading this made me think about my MC and you know what? I think I might have succeeded in making her a strong female lead.

    whew! Now to keep double checking everything else. LOL.


  12. UGH, you're so lucky to attend the rally. I ordered a T-shirt, which is the best I can do from Texas.

    I love [one of your] definitions of “strong” being “multi-dimensional.” This is a great post — and not just because you think the weakest character in all of literature is Bella Swan. 😛


  13. This is something I've been pondering since I saw the original flow chart that Natalie Whipple linked to in her post this week. It doesn't seem like it's an easy question to answer, but I think you've taken a fantastic stab at it. Great way to clarify things, thank you ^_^


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