While the high fantasy and sci-fi genres still seem to be dominated by male authors (with a few notable exceptions, of course), in the urban fantasy world, there are some interesting things going on in that age old gender war. People sometimes underestimate the power and social influence that books and television exert over the world. For instance, before Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the idea of a female hero (not a heroine, not someone who seemed strong until they needed to beef up a macho man and have him swoop in to save her) was unfathomable in the mainstream media. Buffy Summers paved the way for protagonists like Veronica Mars and others who flooded in after her.
I was reading my Twitter feed yesterday, and there was a little trend of hashtags inspired by Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake, entitled Things Anita Blake Taught Me. Here are some that stood out to me:
“It’s okay to have wild monkey sex with more than one man at one time. Rawr!”
“Being a woman — and a petite one at that — doesn’t mean shit. Stand up for yourself!”
“Loving two men is okay.”
“A woman can be tough, carry a gun, be beautiful, smart — can be herself and still have lots of men want her.”
“It’s okay to date men who are prettier than you are.”
“Being a bad ass and being a woman are not mutually exclusive.”
“It’s easier to live in a man’s world if they secretly suspect you can kick their asses.”
“It’s too much of a burden to saddle men with always being the strong ones, just as it’s too much to saddle women with being the weak ones.”
Some people might argue that Anita Blake is oversexualized, but I am going to step out on the edge of the sword and say that she is an empowering figure. How many millions of times have we seen the man with his gaggle of women? How many references to men being more bad ass, more sexy, stronger, more manly for having more sexual partners, yet women are sluts and whores?
The power comes in because writers like Laurell Hamilton and Charlaine Harris are lending a hammer to the glass divider between the sides of that double standard, blurring the Madonna-Whore complex and showing that women can be sexual, can have multiple partners, and still be strong, confident, intelligent, and competent. It’s not the shattering blow yet, but there are cracks appearing, and that gives me hope.
I just read a quite interesting essay entitled “Why Strong Female Characters Are Bad for Women.” (If interested, you can find it here.) I’ll admit it piqued my curiosity. I tend to think a lot about how women are portrayed in cinema and TV, mainly because as a child and young adult, I remember getting very annoyed at all the damseling I saw. In recent years, there have been a barrage of “strong female characters” to enter the silver screen and the boob tube (no pun intended). However, many of these indeed do not fall into the categories of strong characters. I still see damseling pretty much wherever I look. Cute girl + charming/surprising/cliched strength + hero/shlubby everyman/nerdy audience stand-in = girl being rescued by dude by the end of the movie, almost without fail. This is not to say there are no exceptions to this, but…how many times have we seen that scenario played out?
What I want to see — and I think many women would agree with me on this one — are female characters with strengths, weaknesses, and well-rounded, fleshed-out character development. I hope that the women in my writing are three dimensional. God knows I try to make my characters as gritty and true-to-life as I can in spite of the fact that I write fantasy.
Sidebar! Fantasy writers are among the absolute WORST when it comes to this topic. What I see in most fantasy is: big breasted, nearly naked women with swords/bows/guns. Did I mention the nearly naked? Is that necessary? Is it even remotely realistic? I give props to Dragon Age for not only fleshing out the women in the story but um…covering their flesh with appropriate amounts of armor, to the extent that I can look at them without my normal dubious, “And she is protected in battle how?” Not to mention that it’s one of the few fantasy games that allows you to be a female hero and save the world, the world being one wherein women and men are actually portrayed as having more or less equal respect and responsibility. Kudos. The rest of the fantasy writing/filmmaking/graphic novel/gaming world needs to get a clue — women read fantasy too. Unless you’re creating a sequel to Lord of the G-Strings (yes, that is a real softcore porn movie), put some damn clothes on the women. No one but a supreme idiot would try and fight demons half-naked.
One of my biggest peeves when it comes to this subject is that movies seem to be overrun with stereotypes. The one that grates most obnoxiously on my nerves is the Shrew. There are very few films that don’t have one of these in them. You know her. The woman who is constantly portrayed as an emasculating, overbearing, rude, spiteful killjoy who wants nothing more than to ensure that her boyfriend/husband/love interest does exactly what she wants, to ruin all his fun and make him a laughingstock of masculinity. This ball-and-chain stereotype infuriates me. And it’s everywhere. Fannie in Sense and Sensibility (and Lucy Steele, for that matter). Ed Helms’ wife in The Hangover. Natasha in Bridget Jones. I watch a lot of “dude movies.” Because I like them. But I hate when they portray women like that. Yes, some women probably are like that. But not nearly as many as Hollywood would make it out to be.
All that said, there are some remarkable women out there in fiction-dom. If you ask me, the one that started it all and paved the way for strong characters (female) everywhere was Buffy Summers. I’m possibly a bit biased on this count, seeing as how Buffy is one of my favorite shows/characters of all time, but before Buffy the Vampire Slayer came about, you would be hard-pressed to find a female hero. In fact, if you can think of one, I’ll give you a cookie. Not heroine. Hero. The one who saves the day. The one who doesn’t have to damsel to get a man.
Buffy is flawed. She is not perfect. She is selfish at times, overprotective, stubborn, and a bit holier-than-thou. But she risks her life (gives her life twice, for that matter) to save the world, to save her friends. Her character grows and changes thoroughly throughout the show’s seven seasons. She struggles and triumphs and falls short sometimes. But she gets shit done. And she kicks ass. Sometimes she does so in baggy overalls and unattractive sweats. Sometimes she gets the shit kicked out of her. Sometimes she’s bloodied and bruised and not so hot. She is a hero. And she’s a woman. The other women on the show are also strong characters with three dimensions. So I applaud Joss Whedon and the writers for blazing the way for female heroes. Joss has explained the Buffy creation by saying that he was sick of vapid blondes who would run upstairs and get killed off within the first fifteen minutes of a movie — he wanted to see a woman who could not only hold her own, but was capable of greatness and heroics.
The Bride from the Kill Bill movies is also a very strong character. Sure, she’s Uma Thurman and hot, but she also cries and gets beat up sometimes. She struggles. She keeps fighting. She saves herself. Go Quentin for that one.
Another new favorite of mine is Veronica Mars. She’s clever, relentless, brave. She’s also cynical, distrustful, and overly sharp at times. She gets into trouble, but she gets herself out of it.
It’s not that there aren’t examples of strong characters who happen to be female out there. it’s just that they seem to get lost in the shuffle of the Megan Fox’s of the world. The damn damsels who are given a couple traits mainly to make them more appealing to the male world and then set up to fulfill the rescue fantasies of said males. The icing on the cake for me is when I see a “strong female character” who has been set up to be strong and badass for the whole movie only to be suddenly put in peril and saved by some everyman — clearly a gratuitous gesture. You’d never see Superman suddenly powerless, only to be rescued by that nerdy girl who lives down the street. Male heroes don’t have to damsel 99% of the time — so why should the female ones?
Anyway, all that said, I’m just going to keep writing my characters to be people I would want to know. Not characters who would make me want to headdesk.