The Androgyny in Strong Female Characters
We are a group of seven friends and we make it a point to have dinner once every month. The food is always an excuse and we end up talking more than eating. Last week, we had this debate on strong female characters in movies or books. They said the term implies women are weak. I said strong as in strength, strength as in character. The discussion veered to a post in NYT where the writer lampooned strong female characters as ‘men with boobs.’ She thinks it casts them in a mould be it movies or books: beautiful, capable, brilliant – just your everyday Jane, but without any genuine feminine characters.
Why we were having this debate was because the food was terrible and we would rather do something to pass the time than eat. The only saving grace was dessert by which time we decided instead of strong, why we can’t use words like unforgettable or memorable. Somebody suggested favourite, but favourite sounds like you are being partial to someone. Memorable is more egalitarian. It doesn’t put the onus of performance on the female character. She doesn’t have to battle half the world or face stigma or suffer one tragedy after the other. She is memorable because she endures in her feminity. What else, we thought. She is funny and irreverent towards society’s sensibilities and the conventions of her times, an utter romantic, but with a dark side to her character. I like the dark side bit.
So how is the modern memorable character different from those before? Are they better educated, slimmer and carry more advanced weapons? How would somebody like Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander compare to the tragic heroine of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. How would Éowyn from The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien, a woman of much grace in the face of adversity compare to someone like Vladimir Nabokov’s Dolores Haze from Lolita. What about someone like Erin Brockovich, someone grounded in reality, an ordinary woman, a single mother with a bunch of children taking on an energy giant. Would she count as a memorable character? By the time coffee arrived everyone was busy naming their MFCs. Jane Eyre was a popular figure. Everyone liked their heroines to suffer a bit before redemption. Somebody else said Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series. She was booed and we missed her company for the rest of the evening. Others that made the list include Haruki Murakami’s Eri Asai from After Dark (might I add, Murakami does create the most enticing of characters), the ever popular Lady Chatterley from D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Gustave Flaubert’s irreverent Emma Bovary, Éowyn again from The Lord of the Rings trilogy and so on, a few helped by their recent movie avatars. It is safe to assume our memorable female characters change over the years, but a few endure.
It gets a bit dicey because the consensus was that male writers create more memorable female characters. Someone suggested (and adds that it is pure speculation on his part) it was because men write with a detached view of things, an inborn, inherent trait in the male of the species, which comes to the fore when writing about female characters. Someone else said it was because the male understanding of women is at a more profound level, which was basically saying women are more superficial. Granger fan gathers her courage and suggested female writers tend to have this inherent need to make their female characters stronger. They are more stereotypical of their female characters while the male writers are more exploratory in their characterization.
It was midnight when we left. By then we were getting into an argument over strong male characters, and we came to the came to the conclusion that there weren’t any.
‘There is no need,’ I said.
‘Exactly,’ said my friends. ‘Now you know why we hate strong female characters?’