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What We Talk About When We Talk About Strong Female Characters

Carina Chocano doesn’t like strong female characters.

This is a leading statement, of course. What Chocano really claims to want is realistic female characters. If you read her rant, she bemoans the hyper-masculinization of female characters and calls for a resurgence of  “blubbering, dithering, neuroticism, anxiety, melancholy or any other character flaw or weakness that makes a character unpredictable and human.” For Chocano, the strong female character meme conjures up portrayals of women who are consumed by something, be it ambition, duty, what have you. They neither invite nor accept connection, do not allow weakness, all that fun stuff. Her examples are Natalie Portman in No Strings Attached and Rooney Mara in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, of all things.

Unfortunately, what Chocano hasn’t realized is that these characters are realistic.

That is to say, they are nuanced. They have dominating personality traits, yes, but there are also subtle ones that someone NOT up in arms about gender roles can pick up on. In No Strings Attached, Portman plays a brilliant doctor-in-training who addresses her world through logic and rationale. When her feelings get deeper and more unpredictable, she panics. She’s afraid to go out of her comfort zone, afraid to get hurt. So, she pushes Ashton Kutcher away. But if you want blubbering, there are few scenes better than the drive where Natalie is stuffing her face with powdered donuts, sniffling and singing “Keep Bleedin'”. That scene comes after she’s realized that even though it’s a risk, love is worth it, only to “find” (hooray assumptions) that her chance is gone. If that’s not a relatable situation, I don’t know what is.

And as for Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth Salander, if you want neuroticism look no further. Salander is the definition of neurotic. Her short life has been nothing but a string of abuses and psychological trauma. She copes with her neuroses with piercings, tattoos, cigarettes, hacking, and reticence; who are we to say that she should be more relatable? The fact is, Salander is not your average movie-going woman. Most women, thank god, will not be able to relate to her on an emotional level. There are moments, in the book and movie, where Salander softens, or seems accessible, and THOSE are the moments we live for; not just for themselves, but because they come from her, a young woman so distant. We love to know her troubles and hope that she can overcome them. We see the balance between strength and weakness in Salander.

Chocano claims that the problem with the phrase “strong female character” is semantic. For most people, she says, it evokes women who are “tough, cold, terse, taciturn and prone to scowling and not saying goodbye when they hang up the phone” rather than ” interesting or complex or well written” or “[figuring] predominantly in the story”. I don’t know that this is necessarily the case, but undoubtedly in any discussion that followed it would be quickly determined which definition of strength was meant. And that’s the other thing: as Mur Lafferty points out, there are many different kinds and definitions of strength.

It seems to me that Chocano is a little behind the times. These days, female characters overall are pretty well-rounded and complex. Obviously, there will always be the two-dimensional characters: the nothing-but-blubbering twits and the uber-manly action heroines and everything in between. But even this is realistic. The thing is, ladies, as long as some of us are silly, simple-minded girls, there will be silly, simple-minded female characters; and as long as some of us are manly badasses, same thing. Art imitates life. These tropes will persist as long as real life inspires them.

There was a time when female characters were intentionally caricatured, and it’s not completely over. However, the movement over the last decade has definitely been in favor of realism for both male and female characters.

Of course, as Sherwood Anderson says, “Realism, in so far as it means reality to life, is always bad art.” I hated Kristen Wiig’s character in Bridesmaids–the example that Chocano holds up as someone we should relate to because she is weak. I don’t know about you, but I relate to weakness, not to weak people. I understand that no one is strong all the time. I’m certainly not. But if I refuse to be friends with people who constantly blubber, dither, and simper, why would I want to watch a movie or read a book about such a person, male or female? You want to talk about semantics? “Weakness” is definitely a human trait, but it’s not likeable. Here are some other words we should be using in its place:

  • Humility: the quality or condition of being humble;  modest opinion or estimate of one’s own importance, rank, etc.
  • Gentleness: kindly; amiable: a gentle manner; not severe, rough, or violent; mild, moderate, gradual
  • Tact: a keen sense of what to say or do to avoid giving offense; skill in dealing with difficult or delicate situations; a keen sense of what is appropriate, tasteful, or aesthetically pleasing; taste; discrimination.
  • Modesty: the quality of being modest;  freedom from vanity, boastfulness, etc.

And those are just a couple off the top of my head. These are qualities of a different and understated kind of strength, which Chocano lumps under the category of “weakness” because they’re not in the burly gun-toting vein. Often, in my opinion, these “soft” strengths are far more valuable than the blustery kind, and much more difficult to maintain. Wiig in Bridesmaids, for example, had NONE of these qualities (at least in my recollection), and I spent the whole movie just shaking my head at her. I was appalled by her behavior.

Part of the women’s rights movement has been an effort to show the strength of softness, reservation, empathy, and other so-called “feminine” qualities. But while we’ve succeeded in broadening the definition of strength, it seems that we haven’t yet narrowed the definition of weakness–at least not for Chocano.

So here’s an idea: as characters become more nuanced, why don’t we become more nuanced in our reactions to them? There is no black/white strong/weak dichotomy anymore. We as readers and viewers need to see the spectrum and analyze accordingly. This does not mean ignoring true weakness of character, obviously. It means finding the difference between humility and submissiveness, for example, or modesty and self-consciousness, or tact and non-confrontationalism. We also need to turn this discernment inwards–because like as not, what we find in these characters are things we can also find in ourselves.

One thought on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Strong Female Characters

  1. […] These three characters have many things in common beyond their alliterative names. They’re all warrior types, physically strong. They’re all outsiders. They’re all baffled by how male characters could possibly be attracted to them, and they reject those connections. They’re the kind of Strong Female Character TM that Carina Chocano complained about over two years ago. See my response to her here. […]

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