Jul 25 2014 1:00pm

No One Accuses Bruce Wayne of Being “Vulnerable”—SDCC and Strong Female Characters

“The Most Dangerous Women at Comic-Con” focused primarily on—and spent a lot of time dissecting—the idea of the “strong female character.” Moderated by Katrina Hill, the panel included stuntwoman Lesley Aletter, Legion of Leia founder Jenna Busch, model Adrienne Curry, and writers Jane Espenson, Jennifer Stuller, Allen Kistler, and Brian Q. Miller.

Hill kicked off the discussion with a question for the panel: which female character would you partner with for the zombie apocalypse? The answers—Katniss Everdeen, Ripley, Zoe from Firefly, Buffy Summers, Starbuck, Peggy Carter, and Starfire—were largely what you would expect people to cite when talking about “strong female characters.” Hill went on to ask what else makes a female character strong other than the ability to kick ass.

Stuller observed that the phrase “strong female character” has become a cliché and buzzword, when what’s really desired is a character who is complicated, complex, and has agency and nuance. Espenson proposed the thought exercise of what it would mean to have Battlestar Galactica’s Gaius Baltar recast as a woman—would such a character be seen automatically as weak, or understood with the same complexity? She argued that beyond strength, writers should strive for humanity. Miller agreed, saying that unless the story was specifically about gender, it shouldn’t matter whether a given character is male or female.

There’s probably a further discussion to be had about whether it’s possible to have a story that isn’t about gender, but instead the conversation turned to the subject of female villains, a particularly interesting extension of the idea of the “strong female character.” Female villains, Stuller said, are almost never on the same level as male villains—they’re not “really really bad,” and they either die or are redeemed by falling in love with the hero. Miller noted that while 24 did feature a female villain, there’s always an urge with such characters to spend a lot of time explaining why the woman is so evil; a male character like the Joker requires no explanation beyond “oh, he’s just crazy,” but for a woman, a rationale has to exist.

Related to this was a point brought up in a discussion of what undermines a character’s strength—the trope of what Stuller called “but she’s vulnerable”—the compulsive and gendered need to add “vulnerability” to a female character in an attempt to make her well-rounded. It’s something that’s rarely said about male characters, even if it’s true; Curry noted that every time Bruce Wayne falls for a woman, something goes tragically wrong, but no one ever says “Bruce Wayne, he’s so vulnerable!”

The subject of Thor came up again, with the accompanying ambivalence as to whether or not this was truly any kind of game-changer. Miller pointed out the hard reality of sales; it might have an impact, sure but only if it becomes a top ten book. Kistler said he was interested to see what would happen, but he might have been more interested in having Sif become the thunder god. Espenson had a more optimistic response, saying that while Marvel’s approach may not be perfect, it was better to attack someone who was 100% wrong than someone who was 90% right.

That it was important to have a diversity of female characters portrayed in pop culture was, at any rate, a given for all of the panelists. Espenson said that women for a long time have had to do some mental translation to identify with male characters, and so maybe it was time for male viewers to have to do their own translating. There was also a desire to see a wider range of female types—all bodies, all ages. Busch enthused about Olenna Tyrell on Game of Thrones—“she’s not all good, she’s not young, she doesn’t punch anyone, but she’s awesome.” Orange is the New Black was brought up as well, though Miller pointed out that the publicity materials didn’t emphasize the diversity of the cast until it was an established success; the Season 1 materials just showed Piper by herself—“the scared white chick.” Sleepy Hollow was brought up as another positive example, and Curry got laughs when she said that she’d always wanted a comic about Storm’s week of PMS.

Hill closed by asking the panel for recommended reading and viewing involving interesting female characters. Busch cited Anne McCaffrey; despite some things being “very much of the time,” she still admires characters like Menolly and Lessa. Curry mentioned Dr Roseanne in We3, who is “kind of a bad guy” but also brilliant. Stuller suggested Modesty Blaise (and judging from the audience response, perhaps three people knew who she was talking about), and Espenson brought up Jane Austen. Kistler is a fan of Captain Marvel, and also mentioned Big Finish’s series of Sarah Jane Smith stories. Miller praised Veep for its messy portrayal of a woman in a man’s world. Aletter spoke up for Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones, and Hill mentioned Lesley Knope in Parks and Recreation, the horror film You’re Next, Red by Alison Cherry, and The Heat. Curry chimed in with Absolutely Fabulous, and then the time ran out with Stuller recommending Lost Girl and Kistler adding the sitcom Miranda.

All of our ongoing San Diego Comic Con 2014 coverage can be found here.

Karin Kross is at her sixth San Diego Comic-Con. She can be found elsewhere on Tumblr and Twitter, and she, her husband Bruce, and her friends Shellie and John are posting about SDCC at nerdpromnomnom.

Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
1. Lisamarie
I would have to go with Katniss.

"unless the story was specifically about gender, it shouldn’t matter whether a given character is male or female." - I'm not sure I can get myself to agree with this. I love that we are talking more about how to make realistic, strong female characters (and villians) more common, as well as dissecting some of the common tropes/assumptions that tend to go along with female characters (such as the aforementioned 'vulnerability' angle).

But then to say that it doesn't really matter if a character is male or female -while I understand that the intent is to prevent the idea that a character-as-male is the automatic default, and to bring the ratio of male to female characters to something more equitiable - I think that in a way it kind of sidesteps the idea that gender IS an important aspect of identity and not something that is just interchangeable. I do think that being male and female (and other things) means something - not necessarily what we have narrowly defined it as in the past, but still something.

If for some reason my life because a story (it would be a boring story, as is), there's really not much about it that is about gender specifically, with the exception of my having experienced childbirth. But let's say we ignored that part...I still wouldn't want my character to be portrayed as male, becuase I'm not a man. And I could be understating the importance my gender has on my life, there are probably thousands of tiny little ways my being female has influenced my life, possibly even biological ways my temperament or way of thinking of things. I don't know.

But on the other hand...for a fictional character, especially the type from a franchise that is re-invented often, where it is a character whose symbol/legend are what are important (I'm kind of thinking Batman right now as my go to example for this kind of thing) - it's not quite as important and I can see how the character can be re-imagined and explored as a woman...but I wouldn't necessarily say gender is irrelevant (or interchangeable) - and this is probably not even what they were saying, since this article also contains one snippet of a quote that I'm starting to go my own direction with.

I love what it says further on about women being able to relate to male characters, so men should be able to do the same. I hate when things are automatically relegated to 'women's's literature, etc, because the main characters happen to be women. Like it's some kind of niche fiction, or something. I used to read a lot (well, still do when I get the chance) of Sharon Shinn and Juliet Marillier, and I have had to stop myself from describing it (as I used to in high school) as 'women's sci-fi/fantasy' or something similar, because their books have primarily female protagonists and also tend to have some kind of romantic theme or storyline.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
2. Lisamarie
PS - thanks for all the updates, they simultaneously make me really sad about not being able to make it to ComicCon, but also a tiny bit easier to bear!
Billy Abbey
3. felix
Words have a gender, people have a sex. Sorry, it is a pet peeve. I would go with Zoe.
Luis Milan
4. LuisMilan
I would go with Julie E. Czerneda's protagonist from her Species Imperative trilogy, Dr. Mackenzie Connor ("Mac", to her friends"). She's one of the best female characters I've ever seen written.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
5. Lisamarie
People have sex AND gender; I wasn't speaking solely about biological sex. For me personally, they are fairly well interconnected, but not everybody will say the same.

I do try to be conscious about word choice, and in this case, gender seemed the appropriate word.
Chris Nelly
6. Aeryl
@3, No, people have both. Sometimes people have a gender and sex that match. Those people are called Cis. Other people have a gender and sex that don't match, those people are called Trans. And then there are people, who's feelings about their gender can vary greatly from day to day, hour to hour. To say that people only have a sex, is a big erasure of trans, intersex and genderqueer people.

Faith Lehane is my choice, BTW.

I have to agree with Lisa above, sure you can create a villian like Mason from Snowpiercer, where there isn't much about them to say they have to be a man or a woman. But the gender dynamic of a lot of female villains is what makes them so fascinating, IMO.

Lucretia and Illlythia from Spartacus, Atia from Rome, Cersei from GOT, these are women whose villainy is very much informed by their gender, and the restrictions their gender puts on them in their societies. They are villains who wouldn't make sense as written as gender neutral. And they are amongst the BEST female villains I can think of who are absolutely on the same level, if not higher, than their male counterparts in their stories.
7. Ragnarredbeard
I'd want Kaylee. She knows how to fix things, and she's stronger than she lets on.

Not all strong female characters have muscles and guns.
8. Ryamano
In a zombie apocalypse I'd go with Alice from the Resident Evil Series. She's a Mary Sue that could save me from anything in that scenario, since she also has previous experience. My second choice would be Buffy Summers, followed by Katniss. Most choices don't have a good history of being able to save and keep safe someone that's much weaker than them (like me).
Chris Nelly
9. Aeryl
@8, OOOOH, Alice is a good one. Can I just say I HATE how taking back the T Virus was supposed to be some huge game changer, and it affected her abilities, not at all.
10. Gerry__Quinn
I'm guessing that a female Gaius Baltar would engender internet rage at the 'sexism' of the depiction.

As for words, they tend to have a lot of meanings, and often we are encouraged to embrace new ones. One frequently used meaning of gender is synonymous with sex. Perhaps if the other meaning didn't tend to become vague and inconsistent when people are ascribing rather than defining it I'd be more inclined to treat it as useful. At the moment it seems to mostly mean sexual orientation in practice - at least as applied to Western society - and there is already an expression for that.

If gender really meant something different from sex in practice, we'd have two separate categories of transexual and transgender people, no?
Chris Nelly
11. Aeryl
If gender really meant something different from sex in practice, we'd
have two separate categories of transexual and transgender people, no?

We do. Facebook allows you over 50 options to descibe your sex/gender.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
12. Lisamarie
This is not an area I am an expert in, but I am pretty sure gender means something different than orientation. Orientation is whom you are attracted to, gender is who you are.

For me it's a bit hard for me to break down; I'm biologically female, and I also feel female at my core as an identity (despite having many 'stereotypically' masculine traits/interests on a superficial level which is why I say while I think male/femaleness does mean something and they aren't just totally interchangeable concepts with only physical differences, it's not the narrow things/boxes society has said it has meant in the past). To me being female really means something outside of my chromosomes/body. For me there is also a lot of spiritual significance to it.
14. JenLL
Intersting point about Baltar as a woman possibly leading to the character seeming less complex. Strikes me that when they made Starbuck a woman, the character became infinitely *more* complex, without resorting to "oh, but she's vulnerable." I mean, yes, she *suffered,* on camera and off; but everybody on the show suffered. Kara was never more vulnerable than, oh, say, either of the Adamas.

As for sex, gender, orientation and preference, my personal breakdown is suchlike:

Sex refers to body parts. Keep in mind, there is not so much of a clear binary distinction here as we want to believe there is. Even in this, we are on spectrum, not two sides of a coin.

Gender refers to attitudes and/or behaviors. Femininity and masculinity as expressed when we talk, and act, and react to other people talking and acting. This is even more nebulous than physical sex, because of complex interactions of culture and the hormonal soup that is our consciousness.

Orientation refers to what you find attractive in a mate. What your eyes are drawn to. What makes you flush and twitch.

Preference refers to who you choose to bed down with.

As an example, my sex is female, my gender is androgyn, my orientation is bisexual, and my preference is men.

There are, of course, many more axes that we revolve around, because the world is complicated, and we are part of the world. The fact that we only have so many words that can describe things does not have anything to do with how many things there are in the world.

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