Strong Female Characters, in Context

Rose Fox -- August 16th, 2013

Sophia McDougall’s New Statesman piece “I Hate Strong Female Characters” is getting a lot of attention today, most of it positive. I want to highlight a particular element of her argument. Talking about the character of Peggy in the movie Captain America, she says (emphasis mine):

when one recognises that sole responsibility for representing her gender and tackling sexism rests on Peggy-the-character’s shoulders, that her actions are outlandishly large to compensate for all those other women who simply aren’t there, some of the strain and hyperbole in her characterisation becomes more explicable.

McDougall goes on to say that having multiple female characters would help to relieve this pressure.

I conclude from this that McDougall hasn’t read widely in the fields of romance, women’s fiction, and urban fantasy, where secondary female characters are common. I’m all in favor of casts with a 1:1 male-female ratio (and some characters from other parts of the sex and gender spectra too, not just McDougall’s casually tossed-in “genderless robot”) but I don’t think for a minute that they encourage authors to avoid writing stereotyped characters. Instead, you just get different stereotypes filling up the cast: the dotty aunt, the controlling mother, the granny who fires off hilarious one-liners while matchmaking like mad, the wise-beyond-her-years daughter, the obnoxious sister, the ditzy best friend, the tough-but-fair boss, the hero’s jealous ex. And the heroines are often Strong Female Characters even with all those other women around, perhaps because the authors feel a need to justify making them heroines (and, in romance novels or books with romantic subplots, justify having desirable people fall in love with them).

Diverse casts are awesome, but they’re not panaceas. Lazy writers will write stereotypes until the end of time, whether their characters are all men or all women or all small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri. The only cure for Strong Female Character Syndrome is for writers to work on making all their characters well-rounded and interesting and complex and real, with a mix of physical, emotional, psychological, familial, professional, and social strengths and weaknesses.

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