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.


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