Every now and then, I come across a blog post or an article about Strong Female Characters. (Sometimes several come along at once.) Often with the capital letters, usually decrying a simplistic reading of strength. True strength, these articles argue, goes beyond mere skill at arms and a sharp tongue. True strength encompasses so much more than shallow kickassery and badass posturing.
Well, you know, I’m not likely to argue with that case. Strength, and courage, and virtue—notwithstanding its very manly Latin etymology—encompass more than surface-level traits. But I do find it interesting how this argument is almost always applied to female characters. How many posts and articles decry the shallow sorts of strength of the thriller hero—seldom sketched in more than two dimensions—a strength that can generally only be demonstrated by his competence with violence, his willingness to defy authority, and his occasional ability to make entertaining banter? More often you find them praised, or taken as the model for a whole subgenre, at least in terms of style. (Here I make sweeping generalisations, but no more sweeping than have been made in the other direction.)
But show me a female character whose major characteristics are competence with violence, willingness to defy authority, and the occasional ability to make entertaining banter, and I’ll show you a character who—I am willing to guarantee you—has been dismissed as entirely lacking depth, or as a “man with breasts,” or criticised for being insufficiently well-rounded, or not really “strong.” (Look at the critiques sometimes leveled at, for example, Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels. Or any number of other urban fantasy female protagonists—it’s often urban fantasy that bears the brunt of this critique, since it’s the genre with the greatest preponderance of ass-kicking female characters.)
It puts me in mind of that old adage, that a woman needs to be twice as good to go half as far as her male counterparts.
I’m not arguing in favour of greater shallowness, lest anyone be tempted to misunderstand me. But the double standard of content, the double standard of criticism applied, bothers me really quite fundamentally. We fall into the error of really rather relentlessly applying criticism to female characters. They’re too domestic! They aren’t domestic enough! They have too little agency! Or too much, having unbelievably few constraints on their choices! They’re too violent, too shallow, too brittle. They’re too gentle, too generous, too forgiving, too soft. They’re insufficiently maternal, or too much so. They’re too independent! They’re not independent enough!
They are, in short, very seldom considered good enough to escape this kind of scrutiny.
(Which is unsurprising: If you haven’t noticed, nonfictional women are equally subject to a more intense scrutiny than men. And it’s not just men who subject them to it: It’s something many of us have internalised and reproduce. It’s the air we breathe and the society we swim in.)
This continuous critique of female roles in narrative, though—not just their lack, but every aspect of their presence, both in specific and in aggregate—points to a rather more basic issue. Women just aren’t seen as normal the way men are. And female protagonists, female heroes, are even more a thing to be remarked upon. Male characters escape this sustained critique, because male characters are still the default, the standard. Male heroes are ubiquitous. And they offer no potential transgression of our existing social hierarchies.
So how should we address this double standard?
There are a couple of ways which have been pointed out to me, and which I think are worth considering. It’s vital that in our discussions of Strong Female Characters, we remember the double standard exists. It’s not fair to hold female characters to such a high level of scrutiny. (Part of this, of course, is a scarcity problem: When there are only one or two significant female characters in a narrative, or when they are less than completely ubiquitous in a genre, their representations carry more weight and attract more criticism, because they have to stand for every woman.) We need not only to discuss female characters in light of the double standard of content, but also in light of the double standard of criticism.
We could also spend some more critical energy on interrogating Strong (and Weak) Male Characters. Subject them to higher levels of scrutiny. Ask ourselves what we really mean by “well-rounded” and “believable.”
But mostly, I think, we need to destroy the idea that there is a default sort of human and a default sort of protagonist. That we should judge strength differently based on who has it. (Maybe even that some things are peculiarly male or female at all.)
Look, don’t get me wrong. By all means, let’s debate the meaning of strength. Let’s argue against shallowness, and in favour of depth. But let’s try not to uphold the double standard while we’re doing it?
I know it’s hard. But it’s got to be worth a try, right?