I was not a fan of The Book of Life. I will not elaborate too much on this point except to mention that when I watched it I recalled a bit from an article by Sophia McDougall published in The New Statesman:
I remember watching Shrek with my mother.
“The Princess knew kung-fu! That was nice,” I said. And yet I had a vague sense of unease, a sense that I was saying it because it was what I was supposed to say.
She rolled her eyes. “All the princesses know kung-fu now.”
I thought the same thing about the heroine of The Book of Life. She knows kung-fu and she spews the kind of “feisty” attitude we must associate with heroines and she is therefore strong and everything is kosher.
In an effort to get a wider variety of women in movies and books, we have often heard the mantra that we need more strong female characters. However, as some commentators have noted (http://www.overthinkingit.com/2008/08/18/why-strong-female-characters-are-bad-for-women/) “strong” has often become a code word for a very specific kind of character. The kind that must demonstrate her chops via feats of physical strength. So, for example, in Pirates of the Caribbean 2 the heroine Elizabeth Swann has now acquired fencing skills. This serves as a credential for her “strength” even though the character had demonstrated “strength” of another type already in the first movie: she was smart, even devious, managing to wriggle her way out of more than one situation.
Shana Mlawski did an interesting study of male and female characters a few years ago. The main question she wanted to answer was whether male characters are more immediately likeable than female characters (http://www.overthinkingit.com/2010/06/28/are-male-characters-more-likable-than-female-characters/). Her conclusion:
All of the above data suggest to me that we (or at least the critics at EW) like a wide variety of male character types but prefer our women to be two-dimensionally “badass” and/or evil.
That means that badasses like Sarah Connor and villains like Catherine Trammell could be palatable to audiences. Male characters, however, were allowed to come in a wider range and still deemed likeable. Men, Mlwaski, writes, could be “passive” characters. Women? They could blow stuff up or kill people.
The result is sometimes a bit like this comic strip: bang bang, I’m strong. http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=311
One could argue that “strong” refers to a well-rounded character. However, in the words of McDougall:
Chuck Wendig argues here that we shouldn’t understand “strong” as meaning, well, “strong,” but rather as something like “well-written”…. But I simply don’t think it’s true that the majority of writers or readers are reading the term that way…. And even if this less limiting understanding of “strong female character” were the common reading, doesn’t it then become even sadder and even more incomprehensible that where the characterisation of half the world’s population is concerned, writing well is treated as a kind of impressive but unnecessary optional extra?
Maybe part of the problem is the desire for “likeability.” For niceness. (http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2010/oct/19/novels-nice) Girls still have to be sugar and spice, or perhaps, kung-fu and a pretty face.
Since I have small children, I watch a bunch of animated movies every year and aside from The Book of Life I watched The Lego Movie. This had a character who can build all kinds of cool brick structures and can “kick ass.” How To Train Your Dragon also has a “strong” girlfriend for the hero. Yet it all felt like a MacDonalds burger: it looks like meat but I’m sure it ain’t meat.
In fact, a couple of weeks ago I watched the 1980s adaptation of Flash Gordon and was mildly delighted to see that Dale Arden was “strong” too! Despite the cheesiness and bubbly sexism Dale kicked ass! She was for the duration of the film most interested in exclaiming FLASH! but at one point she took off her heels and beat about half a dozen guards. Strong woman, indeed.
And that, I guess, is my point. We really haven’t gotten that far from Dale and her display of 1980s strength. What’s more, every few months I am distressed when I hear a call for more strong women like the ones we used to have in the 80s. Ripley and Sarah Connor, a breed that has apparently gone extinct. Only it didn’t go extinct. Alice has fought the Umbrella corporation for years and Selene is still battling vampires and werewolves in Underworld, and a few years ago we got Trinity from The Matrix and surely the new Star Wars films will bring us some feisty new lass who can shoot a laser gun. Hey, even turds like Van Helsing knew that you require one (and only one) “strong” woman in the film.
My debut novel Signal to Noise is coming out and I’ve been obsessively reading the reviews. The main character, Meche–who in 1980s Mexico City discovers how to cast magic spells using vinyl records–has been described as “awkward,” “angry and cruel at times but also powerful, active,” “angry and self-isolating” and “smart, caring and affectionate but, at the same time, bossy, possessive and manipulative.”
You have no idea how much this pleases me.
When I think about the desire for “strong” women in fiction I think about my great-grandmother who was an illiterate peasant and then a maid after the Mexican Revolution. Surely she wouldn’t fit the grade of “badassery,” but I think that there is a certain kind of endurance in being on your knees for years, cleaning floors, in order to support your illegitimate daughter. There is duty and there is affection.
You might reply that this is not a good example as audiences rarely want to read about the tribulations of poor maids, but my point is not to demand a particular type of character but to remark that we should not yearn for “strong” women but for a wide variety of women. They need not all know how to fence or have studied kung fu.
About the Author
Mexican by birth, Canadian by inclination. Silvia’s debut novel is Signal to Noise, about music, magic and Mexico City. Her first collection, This Strange Way of Dying, was a finalist for The Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic. Her stories have also been collected in Love & Other Poisons. She tweets @silviamg.