(Image by the neverending font of comedy genius that is Kate Beaton.)
Okay, you know what? That’s it. I’m done. I’m out. Oh-doubleyou-tee, gang.
(Sidebar: Don’t you miss when people would call their audience “gang”? I am totally going to bring that back when I am Famous and Rich and a Role Model For America. Anyway.)
And you might be looking at the top of this post and wondering, “Why are you done writing strong female characters, Wright/Fford? Are you going to focus excusively on ruggedly handsome Brad-Pitt-ian men with voices like perfectly tuned cellos and rippling pectoral muscles such as yourself from now on? If so, why? Has your blog not been decidedly female-centric since it first appeared? Were all those posts merely the ramblings of a deranged man now back to his old oinking self? Are you going to start posting pictures of ladies in various states of undress, possibly earning more followers at the cost of your very soul?”
To which I reply: thank you, Hypothetical Reader, for both your ackowledgement of my statuesque physique (which I am far too modest to brag about, being a Paragon Of Virtue) and your question, which is a very very good one that I will definitely answer right now.
What was it again?
Ah! The title! Yes!
So, as some among you may already have guessed, I am not going to stop writing strong female characters, nor will I cease to read about them. However, there is one thing I am going to try to do as little as possible from now on: using the phrase “strong female characters” to describe said characters.
Why? A few reasons.
First, because it’s idiotic. I write characters, and I try to write them well. Why should “female” be in there at all? What does that matter, really? Is anyone asking Elmore Leonard or Stephen King or basically any male writer in existence why he writes “such strong male characters?” Why is it odd at all to write tough, smart, funny, cool, awesome characters just because they have a pair of breasts and no wang between their legs? Who decided that?
I know awesome men, and I know awesome women, and I know awesome trans men, and awesome trans women, and awesome everybody-elses. I also know some people of every sex and gender imaginable who I don’t like, because they’re stupid, hateful assholes. People are people are people. Why should it be notable that I write people as people? Every time you hear some dickpiece of an interviewer ask a writer why they write “strong female characters,” I want you to imagine the interviewer said “strong people characters.”
Hey, wow, that sounds real damn stupid, doesn’t it? Exactly.
That is not a question that any civilized human being should ever ask another civilized human being, because it’s a meaningless, vacuous question with an obvious goddamn answer: “Because I’m a writer, and a writer writes about characters, and some of those characters will be women, barring some plot device that prevents women from being there, so I might as well write them like the rest of the damn characters, you maladjusted chimp.”
Reason two: “strong” is a crappy word for the quality people who use the phrase are trying to pinpoint. It’s a quality meatheaded dudes who shove other kids into lockers prize, is strength. And yes, I get that it means strength of character, but it is so, so easy for some dunderhead to talk about how he writes “strong female characters” because Buttfloss Girl (secret identity: Anorexia Andrews!) catches crooks while she simpers about whether or not Mark Manventure will call her and omigod she totes broke a nail. You know?
“Strong” is too ambiguous, too quintessentially macho. It’s “HEY BRAH I COULD LIKE TOTALLY DO MORE SQUAT THRUSTS THAN YOU BRAH!” It’s a word in the language of bullies. Let’s not pander to bullies, huh?
What about smart? Why don’t we ever say “smart female characters?” It’s always the quality I’m looking for in a character, female or otherwise. I try damn hard to plot my stories around none of my characters carrying the Idiot Ball. I don’t always succeed, but I try, because it’s more difficult and more rewarding to write smart characters than it is to write Keith or Kendra Violence, and because so few characters in any story use their damn heads for a second.
SIDEBAR: And yeah, some characters are dumb, because some people are dumb, and some smart characters do dumb things, because some smart people do dumb things sometimes. But so many stories have “dumb” characters and “smart” characters whose actions indicate that they’re on exactly the same level, intelligence-wise. You can’t portray characters as dumb unless you have actual smart characters.
Another issue with “strong” is that weakness - weakness of mind, weakness of body, weakness of morals - doesn’t make a character bad. Often, it can make a character great. Look at, say, Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo. Or, you know, every character who isn’t Marge Gunderson in Fargo. Amazing characters, all cripplingly flawed. Even Marge has her flaws. Flaws are what make characters interesting. Using the word “strong” to describe well-written female characters implies that a female character can’t be well-written if she’s flawed, and that’s just as wrongheaded and sexist as any other approach to writing female characters. It’s treating a person like a damn unicorn.
Which leads me to reason three: “female character.” What a creepy, clinical thing to say, particularly if you call your male characters, you know, characters. ”Female” just sounds so Ming the Merciless, y’know? ”You, the female! Come here, let Ming gaze upon you!”
Reason four: Kate Beaton, Carly Monardo, and Meredith Gran’s Strong Female Characters (who adorn the top of this post) more or less killed any gravitas the phrase previously had.
There are other reasons, but those are the big ones.
The breaking point for me came a couple of months ago, when I read the first issue of the excellent new Captain Marvel series.
See, I follow Captain Marvel writer Kelly Sue DeConnick on Tumblr. I noticed she’d been answering a lot of fan mail on here in support of the book. I read the first issue, thought it was terrific, and decided to tell her so. If she responded (which she did, graciously), great! If she didn’t, great! At least I’d read a great comic and brightened up her day as a result.
So I started to type this effusive note into her Ask box, right? And there was this moment when I was trying to figure out how to say I loved seeing a cape comic starring a badass, non-sexualized, three-dimensional female protagonist without sounding like a patronizing dick. I didn’t wanna come across as a white-knighting jerk to this person I’ve never met, y’know? I went through my mental dictionary trying to think of a term for the idea that didn’t sound vaguely creepy, but nothing was really sitting right with me. Finally, I got to “strong female characters.”
That was when I got angry.
I got angry because I realized something: it all sounds patronizing because it is patronizing. In every sexism debate I’ve ever been privy to on the Internet, the phrase “strong female characters” is used by a dude before it’s ever used by a woman, because dudes think that “chicks like it when you’re all into equality and shit.” Nine times out of ten, they have no idea what it means, and they don’t actually care.
If you click on the link above, you’ll notice that there’s nothing about female characters whatsoever in the note I sent to her. That was, needless to say, deliberate.
Carol Danvers is a character who’s been around for, what, twenty years? Thirty? Forty, even? And she’s had the original Captain Marvel’s powers for nearly as long, much longer than he himself did. Mar-Vell (I know, I know), said original Captain Marvel, has been as dead as dead gets in a superhero universe (which is to say, he’s only been resurrected a few times over the years, and not for long) for decades now.
And yet Carol Danvers, the most likely immediate successor to Mar-Vell’s legacy, has never been allowed by editorial to call herself Captain Marvel. She’s always been “Warbird” or “Ms. Marvel,” even though that makes no sense. She’s finally been awarded the title she deserved all along, and she sports that title in a high-selling, great comic book that’s been promoted a fair bit by Marvel Editorial. Admittedly, she’s not the first woman to bear the mantle - that would be Monica Rambeau. But it’s nevertheless surprising and important and praiseworthy.
And the reason it’s so important is because it shouldn’t be.
In an ideal world, Carol Danvers’ sex would be as important as her hair color or whether or not she likes Oreos. It would be as important as her male counterparts’ sex is to the success of their books. It wouldn’t be considered praiseworthy to write a comic book starring a woman who dresses comfortably and has a brain and doesn’t have tits that would snap an actual woman’s spine in half. That would be [i]expected[/i].
In an ideal world, femme fatales and ingenues would be two archetypes among many, just as the preternaturally cool crook and the hapless introvert are two archetypes among many, and all archetypes could be credibly inhabited by either sex and those in between sexes. ”Strong female characters,” as a term, would be hilariously irrelevant.
Yes, we all know it’s not an ideal world, and that media that does a good job with characters who aren’t straight white men is worth pointing out. But we should all be working to make that ideal world a reality. So I’m doing my part.
Goodbye, “strong female characters.” And good riddance.
Now to get back to writing about smart, funny, badass people, some of whom are women.
Oh so that’s where you’ve been.
Greg Rucka did a great interview on this subject, which I’m pretty sure you’ve read, but here it is for those of my followers who haven’t.