The ‘Strong Female Protagonist’ Strikes Again

So that instantly infamous James Cameron profile released in The Guardian on Friday.

This is the one wherein Cameron spouted about his newfound ability to be nice on set, even though it doesn't come naturally to him, even though he's actually really nice in person.

And the one where he confessed the terrible catch-22 of being attracted to strong women, because they don't need him enough for the relationship to work, and that's why he's on his fifth marriage.

And the one where he had an odd outburst in response to the very pressing question, "Why didn't Jack just get on the board with Rose?" (BUT REALLY. WHY.)

But despite all this, the greatest contention of the article was Cameron's statement about Wonder Woman, deeming her unfit as a strong female protagonist:

“All of the self-congratulatory back-patting Hollywood’s been doing over Wonder Woman has been so misguided. She’s an objectified icon, and it’s just male Hollywood doing the same old thing! I’m not saying I didn’t like the movie but, to me, it’s a step backwards. Sarah Connor was not a beauty icon. She was strong, she was troubled, she was a terrible mother, and she earned the respect of the audience through pure grit. And to me, [the benefit of characters like Sarah] is so obvious. I mean, half the audience is female!”

Patty Jenkins, direct of Wonder Woman, spoke out in response on Twitter, and I pledged my allegiance to her for the umpteenth time:

“If women have to always be hard, tough and troubled to be strong, and we aren’t free to be multidimensional or celebrate an icon of women everywhere because she is attractive and loving, then we haven’t come very far have we.”

Hammer, meet nail's head.

As a female creator who creates female characters, this is a topic I think about a lot, so I wanted to lend my own two cents to this ongoing conversation too.

The idea that every female character needs to be a Sarah Connor is ridiculous, taking women out of one box simply to put us in a new one. It's so ridiculous, it feels more like a self-promotion move to me than a genuine criticism. Or, maybe jealousy.

If we extend this logic, is Rose not a strong female protagonist because she posed for Jack to draw?

Or the true question at the heart of all this, really, is: What is a strong female protagonist?

There are so many answers to this question, which has been asked for decades now, that it's been rendered meaningless.

I no longer care about "strong."

I think there are two crucial things women characters need instead of this.

The first has been talked about a ton: Female characters need agency. Ironically, the best discussion I've read of what this means comes from white male author Chuck Wendig, so go check him out to explore this further if you want.

The second thing women characters need is just more of them.

As long as any female character carries the burden of representing all women, we're not going to get anywhere. It's too much for any single character to represent, and the more generic you make a charact, to make her all-encompassing, the less compelling she becomes as an actual character ... because really, she's not one anymore. She's just the shell of an avatar.

So give me female characters who are loud. Give me female characters who are quiet. I want them tall and short, big and small, old and young. I want them grim and bitter, I want them bubbly and warm. I want them black and Asian and Latina and every part of the LGBTQ spectrum. I want lab geeks and soldiers, ballerinas and mothers. I want them beautiful, awkward, troubled, savvy, broken, wild.

In short I want a lot of them, and I want them to come alive with every shade of humanity. Give. Them. All. To. Me.

We need more stories about women, and we need more women in our stories. 

As an author, I will keep on trying to do my part.

In fact, I first started thinking about my responsibility in this battle about two-thirds through writing the first draft of my first novel, Mud. I realized that for some odd reason, most of my key players were male, and I was mid-arc of a traditional, patriarchal guy-saves-the-girl story. And that was not okay. I wrestled with it a lot as I finished my plotting, and a lot more as I revied, breaking the book back down and rebuilding in into something truer.

If you've read Mud, it probably doesn't take a lot of connecting the dots to see where the inspiration for some of those late-plot twists came from. And I thnk those twists are the best thing about that novel.

These questions and challenges stayed with me as I wrote RainIs Nia a "strong female protagonist"? Wow, even I am not sure how to answer that--it would depend on the definition of "strong" you were using. But she damn sure owns her own story.

I took all this glorious, important baggage with me again into Tides, and I feel it helped make Rona into a truly incredible character. She's not going to be easy to content with, and she's not going to make it easy to come to terms with her.

I can't wait to find out what you make of her in October. Because one thing Rona won't be is ignored, so I don't expect many will feel neutral toward her.

But I made these characters difficult on purpose. I don't want them to be easy to box away.

Because the one thing I never want female characters to be? Pigeonholed. 

The more different variations on female-ness our stories offer, the more complex they are, the more wrestling and consideration they demand of readers, the better it is for all the rest of us, both on and off the page.

 

Share this post!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *