Silvia Moreno-Garcia Guest Post–“Say No to Strong Female Characters”

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 ( “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 ( 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.

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. ( 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 MovieThis 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 Underworldand 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.

5 thoughts on “Silvia Moreno-Garcia Guest Post–“Say No to Strong Female Characters”

  • February 11, 2015 at 9:25 pm

    If the only female characters we’re allowed to read about are the strong or feisty ones, what does that say about the average woman? Is she, by implication, weak? What message does that send?

  • February 14, 2015 at 5:12 am

    Lois McMaster Bujold and Janny Wurts (with Raymond Feist) have provided strong female protagonists who didn’t fight. There may have arisen some occasions where said females might have had to push back a would-be rapist or robber or whatever; but those events were what we gamers call “side quests” or “random encounters”. As part of the actual PLOT these women worked through men (and with some women) to get stuff done.

    From a gamer’s perspective, we have the interactive-fiction world of “Plundered Hearts”. At least, the 40something contingent have that…

    I think part of the problem might be that the newer generation of fantasy-readers has grown up on role-playing games and first-person shooters (and not “Plundered Hearts” or King’s Quest IV). The whole point of those games is to kick a$$. If women are playing them, they have to kick a$$ too. It’s cathartic, and maybe the women don’t mind either, but it does distort what women can do, and then these tropes trickle into SF/F fiction where it looks more silly.

  • February 14, 2015 at 6:21 am

    I remember, a few years back, dipping into one of the old Galaxy Readers from the Fifties. In one of the stories, the hero gives a gun to the main female character so she can hold it on the bad guy. After the hero leaves the room, the bad guy simply walks up to the woman and takes the gun out of her hand.

    My first thought was, no one would ever write something like that today.

    My second thought was, there really are women like that, but you’re not allowed to write about them.

  • February 28, 2015 at 9:59 am

    Good Article, Now I am so sick of hearing about social justice articles in my entertainment. but it seemed at least you were are posing a more bigger box view then typically done by the so called enlightened tolerant ones of the Belieber age..

    I just like to point out a few things anyone out there who are trying to champion this so called Repressive tragedy, as some have termed it to be.

    One, Most fiction writers never even bring up the race of the character.So all critical essays on lack of racial diversity is in many ways, quite a false premise.

    And the biggest fad (beside zombies)of the last few decades would be The publishers trying to find the next J.K. Rowling and well heres a 3rd point.
    If you want to talk about shallow female characters possibly the most bought book of the last Millennium is the Fifty Shades of Grey that basically was about a submissive female into a Dominant male and 99% of the buyers that made the book so huge were…..Women.

    Yes the female lead in the Pirate movies was fine, but if Jack Sparrow was a woman then most of these same types would still find reason to complain about it.

    Say what you want about Entitled Victim hood. But that term is not Science Fiction or Fantasy. In fact it’s quite possibly the biggest political talking point in the Western World for the last decade.

    A Fascinating subject for people brave enough to bare the criticism.
    Which I would say is the job of any good writer.

    You know there is a hypocritical problem when people are calling out Neil Gaiman(one very accommodating person) again as a Insensitive Sexist.

  • March 10, 2015 at 1:00 pm

    I would even take this one step further to say that many, many “strong” female characters in speculative fiction, particularly the mainstream and modern pulps, are just men with breasts. Many act like men, talk like men, and in the end, are judged good or bad based on their success in a man’s world, i.e. power, glory, honor, etc. Replacing ‘she’ with ‘he’ has no effect on the narrative. Where do I begin listing the authors who portray their (fe)males as such?

    Thus, generally speaking, I would say gender presentation is limited by genre. By default, literary fiction is not concerned with the ‘feistiness’ of its women. The general goal is realism/relevancy, which naturally includes the spectrum of humanity – the strong, the weak, the guilt-ridden, etc., the need to include a token female character with spunk absent. Speculative fiction, on the other hand, finds itself in the position that 1) it has to forgo 3D characterization in order to balance its fan’s expectations for exciting plot, setting (aka worldbuilding), and sensawunda, and 2) it must make up for its legacy of sexism. Where women were once portrayed so weakly, now they are portrayed so strongly, the imbalance simply shifting to the other side.

    There are works of speculative fiction which feature realistic female characters. But they are a minority. And unless the majority of sf readers shift their concerns away from splashy entertainment toward the human condition, then I don’t see this changing anytime soon.


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