1. Welcome to the Fantasy Writing Forums. Register Now to join us.

Is it unfair to dislike characters because they are "strong" female characters?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by fantastic, Sep 16, 2016.

Thread Status:
Not open for further replies.
  1. fantastic

    fantastic Minstrel

    There has been many complaints about term "strong female character" and what it usually means. Supposedly, the term strong female character becomes a synonym with "a physically strong woman" or even "badass female fighter". And some people feel that it somehow underestimates other useful roles female characters could be in.

    I understand that reasoning but I don't think it is entirely correct.

    First of all, I think you will probably agree that if a character is a skilled fighter, he probably deserves to be called strong. After all, when you think about word strong, physical meaning is perhaps the most obvious one. At this point, I expect someone to correct me and say that a good fighter is not necessarily physically strong. Speed, technique, intelligence, mindset and will are all important. But even so, if a fighter is skilled purely because of his speed, I still think he could be described as a strong fighter.

    So, when you say "strong female character", you assume that this character is strong in some sense. Maybe physically or mentally or in some other way.

    Which brings me to a very important point. The reason why people even want strong female character is because they are usually reduced to essentially useless character whose only purpose is being saved, also known as damsel in distress. "Strong female character" is a reply to "useless female character". The term is supposed to let you know, that the female character won't be reduced to a useless character. And in that sense, I believe it is a good term that tells you the character is capable of something.

    The problems people think they have with "strong" female characters, is not a problem with female characters being strong. The problem they have is the fact that, a strong character can still be useless, a strong character may not be an interesting one, a strong character being strong without a good reason makes the story weak.

    If you say that a female character doesn't have to be physically strong to be "strong", you are absolutely right. But if a female character is physically strong, she is also "strong". So, when you complain about female character being strong, are you not really complaining that the character is not realistic, interesting or more useful in the story?
  2. Peat

    Peat Sage

    Straight off the top of my head answer - I don't care whether its fair to dislike characters or not, I do or I don't.

    Slightly more considered answer - Love the player, hate the game. I don't dislike characters because they "strong female characters". I dislike the preponderence of them, they way they're sometimes seen as the only worthwhile female lead, but I don't dislike the characters just because.

    And I have to say I've never seen anyone complain about a character just because they're a "strong female character". *pause* I haven't seen anyone who isn't clearly sexist as all hell do so. I've seen complaints about the trend, or wishing to avoid being labelled part of the trend, but not about individual characters because they're part of it. Fair enough if you've sent different.
    TheCatholicCrow and cydare like this.
  3. psychotick

    psychotick Auror


    First to paraphrase Peat - it's not about fairness. The reader doesn't care whether he's right about his opinion of a particular character.

    Next, I don't think that the resistence to strong female characters is only because there'sso many of them these days, or even because they sometimes end up like a cartoonish characature and not very believable. I think there's another factor at work - the issue of femininity. Women are sterotypically supposed to be the safoter carers, the nurturers. And the idea of the kick arse female seems to rub against this. You start tearing down someone's sterotypes and they aren't going to be happy. Just think how happy you'd be reading about the effeminate male hero of a book. It just grates somehow, even though there's nothing intrinsically wrong with it.

    Cheers, Greg.
  4. fantastic

    fantastic Minstrel

    Well, unfair was maybe the wrong word to use. After all, you are allowed to like whatever you want. However, what you say means that people dislike some characters not because he is not made well, but simply because it breaks stereotypes.

    Disliking some types of people is one thing, but disliking idea of such people being in a story is weird, in my opinion. Also, something to keep in mind is that women are less likely to be skilled fighters in our world, in some stories however, there may be systems that allow them to fight equally or even better. In which case it is pointless to even have the same stereotypes you would in our world.

    I can definitely understand the complaints when a character is too skilled and it doesn't make sense. There are plenty of people who make the female characters physically strong just to avoid having a "weak female character" everyone will complain about.
  5. Peat

    Peat Sage

    I'm more used to seeing people dislike it because it is a stereotype - and it is by now - than I am to seeing people dislike it because it breaks stereotypes.

    Although that might be because I tend to walk a wide path around the latter.
  6. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

    This thread smells like trouble. But hey, I'll throw in my opinion. I'm explicitly against "strong female characters" so maybe I can act as the voice for that camp, as I know that many people on this forum are in favor of them and few will admit to being against them.

    For myself, no, I don't think that at all. For me, when I hear "strong female character", I assume that the character's actual character is secondary to their position as a "strong female" representation.

    Not to sound conspiratorial or whatever but there seems to be a debate going around as to the role of media in humanity. Many people seem to be under the impression that the value of art is determinant on its value to society. The logical conclusion of this line of thinking is that the "ultimate use" of art is to promote "good" social beliefs such as "women must display these 'strong' traits but not these 'weak' traits".
    I can go on about the theory behind this like where this line of thinking originated and how it has manifested through history but that all gets very political.

    I believe that the value of art is determined by how it effects individuals. Not society.
    Just today, I had a friend give me a weird look when I suggested that people can "have relationships with" books and movies and things like that. But that's my viewpoint. I don't really think that art's only place in the puzzle of humanity is to act as a reflection of society which in turns transforms that society.

    When I hear "strong female character", a red flag goes off. It tells me that the writer is probably more interesting in selling me an idea about humanity than telling me a story about people.

    Does that explain it very well? If you have questions, let me know.
  7. psychotick

    psychotick Auror

    Hi Fantastic,

    The point is that stereotypes are important to us. They frame our psychological world. They let us see it in a way that makes sense to us. And some stereotypes are central to our world. A lot of the resistence to changing our racist, sexist, and every other ist world comes from the simple fact that people are comfortable with their world views and if you force them to change what they "know" they're going to be unhappy. Their world is changing and people don't generally find change comforting.

    Fiction has a role to play here. It helps to shape the world readers see around them. At its best it makes people think. But the more challenging a work is in terms of breaking down stereotypes, the greater the resistence will be and the more likely it is that a work will be considered unrealistic or even offensive.

    Consider the reaction to Stowe's work - Uncle Tom's Cabin. While it was wildly successful in some parts, in the south it provoked an outcry with booksellers being run out of town for even stocking it and everyone jumping on the bandwagon to ban it. And if you read the criticisms of the book carefully, you'll see that what is being complained about is as much about the shattering of a world view as it is about the work itself. The criticism was so severe that Stowe had to write a second book to defend the first - A Key To Uncle Tom's Cabin. And this is for a work of fiction.

    In the same way, though obviously not to the same extent since there have already been many role models in fiction of strong woman, more books following this trope still have to overcome this natural resistence.

    Cheers, Greg.
  8. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

    Come now, this seems reductive. This suggests that people primarily or only resist certain conventions (subversion of archetypes) because it falls outside of their comfort zone and they feel threatened. It's almost a strawman, really.

    Some individuals like the "subverted stereotype" because it rings true to them. Others like the "straight stereotype" because it rings true to them. Some people may feel that both can ring true.

    I mentioned in my previous post that I do not see this as being the case. In fact, I don't want it to be the case. I really dislike that art is used as a tool for people to "shape" others. That sounds like propaganda to me.
    In my opinion, I do not think art changes who we are. Certainly not in my experience.
    Art lets us learn about ourselves. It's a lens with which we see ourselves. Not a chisel that let's the writers carve us.
    TheCatholicCrow and Xitra_Blud like this.
  9. Peat

    Peat Sage

    If art is a lens that lets us see ourselves, then it helps to shape the world we see around ourselves.

    The lens we use will shape how we view ourselves. The world we see is linked to our view of ourselves and our position in it.

    More over, how we see ourselves, what we learn about ourselves, will slowly change ourselves.

    And if a piece of art does that to thousands and millions of people, then how is that piece of art not affecting society?

    I am not advocating art as a way of deliberately attempting to shape the opinions of others. Nor am I saying that is the only value art has. Or even the main one.

    But I think that denying that art is capable of shaping the way others think - whether the creator intended it to or not - is illogical. It has done so in the past and there is no reason for it to not do so in the future.
  10. Russ

    Russ Istar

    While you may not like the idea that art is trying to shape you, that is very much part of what it is, particularly in writing.

    Communications is about transmitting something relevant from the sender to the receiver, in the hope that the message will change the recipient in some fashion.

    That is the essence of writing and even more particularly story telling.

    What the message is varies, but the purpose of the message is the change the reader.

    I may want to:

    - make you entertained
    - improve your mood
    - educate you
    - provide you valuable information
    - change your view about something
    -get you to think about something you may not have otherwise thought about
    - depress you
    - outrage you
    - harm you

    But communications is about changing the receiver.

    Communications in its many forms changes us as individuals and as groups.

    Otherwise...why bother?

    And if you want a lens to look at yourself in an enhanced fashion, feel free to just buy a better mirror.
    Gryphos likes this.
  11. Guy

    Guy Inkling

    Dislike a character for whatever reason strikes your fancy, though the strong female is probably my favorite character type. My red button on this particular issue is when a character is presented as a strong female but when a serious challenge shows up she's reduced to a damsel in distress.
    Gryphos, glutton and KC Trae Becker like this.
  12. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

    I thought that everything you just said was implied in what I said. I didn't think that I'd have to expand on that.

    The message isn't the only thing that varies. The purpose of the message would vary depending on the messenger. The purpose varies from piece to piece and creator to creator.

    There is a world of difference between saying "I want to change someone's mood" and saying "I want to change someone's worldview".

    I, personally, have never written anything with the intent to change someone's worldview in any way, shape or form. I write mostly for myself. Allowing other people to read my work is mostly just a way of legitimizing the time and effort I put into my craft. I don't care what reader's think about my work, for the most part.
    I mean, I would want them to think "hey, this is great! This dude is talented" but, y'know, that's the most I can ask for.

    You're suggesting that storytelling is just a form of persuasion. I like to think that storytelling is something else entirely. Something purer, maybe. Like something more romantic.
    I don't know. I'm a romantic person. I like to think there's something else.

    Look, I was speaking figuratively. The "lens" in this case was a metaphor for...oh, wait....is that a joke?

    I feel like my writing shapes me in a way that no other writer has been able to. Every time I finish a book or a short story or a comic or a poem, I feel like I'm a slightly better (wiser, more experienced, more practiced, more complete) person than when I began writing the work.
    This is partially why I write. I'm very slowly making myself into what I want to be, in a way.
    I don't want to get too personal in this thread. It's not worth it.

    Hey, under the right circumstances, I'd turn into a damsel in distress. No one is invincible.

    That scenario is an example of a writer wanting to have a "strong female character" without actually having a strong character who is a woman. There is a difference between those two things. The former is a tool that imitates a character and the latter is a character that imitates a person.

    Also, I've been drinking so I can't tell if this post makes any sense. I'm really sorry if it doesn't. I can't post responsibly.

    Kids, don't drink and post.
    Last edited: Sep 17, 2016
  13. ascanius

    ascanius Inkling

    My problem with the 'strong' female character is a lot of times, not always, they are nothing more than men with breasts. A lot of time I get the impression that the author in an attempt to be diverse, inclusive what have you, they simply take character traits for a male character, multiply by 10, and make her antisocial. It ignores all differences between the sexs. They lack all depth and uniqueness.

    I don't think it has anything to do with breaking stereotypes, but more to do with with creating an equally absurd stereotype in its place.
  14. psychotick

    psychotick Auror

    Hi WooHoo,

    First, didn't say that people only resist what they see as perversions of their established norms because it falls outside of their comfort zones. There are other reasons they may resist too. But that is an important factor which is what I said.

    Second, when you talk about art being used as a tool to recreate you, that is propaganda as you say. But propaganda is not necessarily bad. Propaganda comes in many forms including education and the things parents teach their children etc. And I get that you don't like that writers / artists may be trying to use their work to influence your viewpoints. But one thing you have to understand about many forms of writing and other arts is that they do influence your world view. They do shape you. That's regardless of whether the writer / artist is trying to persuade you to a particular view or not.

    The only way to avoid this is to avoid all forms of communication. Hiff the telly out, burn all the books, live in a shack by yourself and refuse to speak to anyone. That way that at least you can be sure that all the ideas you come up with are purely your own and your world view is completely of your own making. But they'll probably be pretty mundane thoughts and a sad world view!

    Cheers, Greg.
    Gryphos likes this.
  15. glutton

    glutton Inkling

    I think discussion of the Strong Female Character stereotype is overplayed because while it does exist, so do stock Strong Male Characters (see most B action movies) and they don't get nearly the same amount of attention. Heck if you focus more on developing your heroines like I do, you might have to pay more attention to developing your male supporting characters enough so that they don't come across as token Strong Male Characters who are there to have a male presence among the protagonists.

    With regard to the Strong Female Character being overly aggressive and antisocial though I think that is overdone and often makes them look like tryhards (which is okay if they are actually supposed to be), but a real confident badass doesn't need to go around beating up random men and even allies with little to no justification if they're actually secure in their abilities and don't feel the need to validate themselves by bullying others.

    Why try to make yourself feel tough by picking on your male allies who are weaker or unwilling to fight back, save that aggression for fighting the big bad so you hopefully don't get humiliated and look completely useless compared to the same male hero you were bullying earlier in the story lol.
    Last edited: Sep 18, 2016
    cydare likes this.
  16. I don't dislike Strong Female Characters. I don't think anyone does.

    What I do dislike is "Strong Female Characters" who are just one-dimensional caricatures lacking any depth or development and who are characterized as "strong" by making them badass fighters who have no emotions. THAT's what's annoying.

    Or worse, weak, weepy, unmotivated heroines unable to do much except melt across the nearest male's bronzed pectoral muscles, but who are presented as "strong female characters" but lose that facade whenever the tiniest bit of danger shows up.

    Nobody hates a strong woman for being strong, but the "strong female" cliches are very much worth hating.
  17. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

    That was the only reason you addressed. That suggested you thought it was the only or primary reason.
    As someone who dislikes "strong female characters" (and is speaking for that opinion in this thread), I do not believe that ingrained sexist attitudes is a major factor in dislike of "strong female characters".

    The definitions of propaganda are...

    "Propaganda is information, especially of a biased nature, used to promote or publicise a particular political cause or point of view.

    the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person

    ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one's cause or to damage an opposing cause; also a public action having such an effect"

    You're trying to justify propaganda by saying it is similar to socializing agents such as what parents teach children. Propaganda is something different entirely. Mostly, it is understood that propaganda is a tool that the creator uses on the audience for the sake of a cause (which tends to be political in nature).
    Attempting to use art as a way of bettering myself is hardly comparable to propaganda.

    It is also a little much to state "one thing you have to understand about many forms of writing and other arts is that they do influence your world view. They do shape you."
    That doesn't align with my experience. There's no evidence I have encountered to lead me to believe that this statement is factual true. I have never had my opinion/view on something explicitly changed by a piece of fiction.

    This is a black-and-white fallacy. My want is not to prevent people from being effected by art. It is for artist to not primarily use their art to try and push viewpoints on people. This can be achieved without avoiding communication.

    This is a slippery slope fallacy. I dislike creators using art primarily as a tool to influence people's views. The logical conclusion of this line of thinking is not that I will become some kind of hermit who destroys media for fear of being influenced.

    And hey, who's to say being a hermit is "mundane and sad". I'm sure that some people enjoy being hermits. It doesn't mean their thoughts are mundane or their worldview is sad.
    Miskatonic likes this.
  18. Nimue

    Nimue Auror

    I disagree with the idea that books with strong social messages are automatically propaganda. They may be simply written for and by people who believe in those ideas, and like to read things that explore those messages, or at the very least won't surprise them with problematic (from their view) character treatment or authorial viewpoints. It's possible that something rubs you the wrong way simply because you're not the target audience--that doesn't exclude the idea, of course, that it might be poorly written. Putting message before writing quality might be a red flag.

    Literature carries the ingrained assumptions and beliefs of the society it's written in. Hard to imagine a book that doesn't, unless it was written by a computer. Of course, if we all share that society, it's almost invisible, and comes through only when we get to political or fringe beliefs. This includes fantasy fiction, to be sure, because in imagining new worlds or characters, we may gravitate to ideals or symbols that reflect our own world or history...
  19. AElisabet

    AElisabet Scribe

    a) Just want to get out of the way that I think a book can "say" something to society without being propaganda. A GREAT book finds the universal in particular. Sure, some books are propaganda, and I don't care for that. But what makes them propaganda isn't that they have a moral center, but that they failed to find the particular in universal, or tried to ram something that isn't universal down the readers throats as if it was.

    I think ASOIAF has an amazing moral center - the brutal consequences of war, the hubris of power, the falseness of the traditional "hero" narrative, the significance of women, bastards, cripples, and "broken things" to saving the world. But is it "preachy"? Heck no.

    b) When it comes to "Strong Female Characters" my annoyance at them comes from the following (rant incoming :) )

    * First: "Strong" is almost always equivalent to seeking out non-"traditional" female roles. Being a fighter! Or a scholar! No dresses! No marriage and babies.

    Now, I'm definitely no traditionalist when it comes to gender roles. I've been a "Career" woman. I'm a Feminist. I've been a scholar. Graduate degrees and a decade commuting to Manhattan to show for it. But now I'm a SAHM and I love it, too. And you know what? Getting married, falling in love, and having babies is the STRONGEST and bravest and most exciting thing I've ever done. Having to choose between my career and my children broke my heart.. But I made the right choice (For me. For me.)

    So many Strong Female Characters don't make real choices like real women do. They want only one thing. To not get married! To Do One Awesome Thing! But IRL the conflict for many women isn't just "I want to be X Awesome Thing, but society says I must get married and have babies, which I have no desire for." The conflict for many women is "I want to be X Awesome Thing, AND marry this person I love, AND be with the children who have filled my whole heart, AND find an hour a day to write a novel about it all...but I only have 24 hours in a day and have to choose between these things, society will work against me no matter what I do, and the choices I must make hurt."

    If I read one more female character in a fantasy world who is all "Woe, I don't want to marry, it will destroy my ability to go on adventures, and I hate dresses!" I will hurl.

    And yes, there absolutely are women who genuinely have no desire to marry or have children. But even for women who have no interest in "domesticity", their conflicts aren't one sided. They are complex. Their choices hurt. They still have social networks and relationships that are affected by their choices and people whom they love. They have good things they must sacrifice for better things. I want to see writers really show this, rather than resorting to the easy dichotomies of the stereotypical Strong Female Character.

    * Second: The Strong Female Character often ignores all the potential for women who are more traditionally domestic to go on world saving adventures. Mothers have tremendous incentive to save the world. We have the very lives of our children. Someone please write this into fantasy aside from GRRM.

    We also have Baby Bjorns (or Bekos, or whatever your favorite brand is). I regularly hike small mountains with a 2 year old on my back and my four year old running ahead talking to imaginary dragons. Mothers don't sit around the house poking the hearthfires; have you ever sat around the house with small children? IT'S CRAZY MAKING. Mothers with small children want to GET OUT. Mothers with small children would be the first ones in the village to raise their hands and volunteer for adventure if just to tire the munchkins out.

    I think we could make it to Mordor if we needed to.

    In conclusion, I don't like the stereotypical Strong Female Characters because it is a cheap shorthand for character development, it is too distant and simplistic when compared with the real experiences of women (including women who have no interest in marriage or babies), and because it implies that women who do have those "traditional" domestic responsibilities are somehow excluded from having interesting or adventurous lives and too boring to write fantasy stories about.

    No, no, and no.

    Rant concluded :)

    (Totally unrelated, I noticed a few familiar names on the thread - I am AKA MammaMamae in other corners of the internets, so hello!)
    Last edited: Sep 18, 2016
    cydare likes this.
  20. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

    I'm not trying to imply it is. I'm saying that when a writer invests in the "strong female character" archetype, their goal tends to be propaganda. Not art.

    I don't see how this is relevant.

    It's not like that because the writer is shaped by their environment, their work must be written for that one society. Or that they or their work must act as representatives of their society.
    And I definitely don't think that a work can only be appreciated/examined in context of the culture that allowed for its creation.

    And surely there must be some value given to works that manage to transcend their own culture and speak to everyone. The Iliad doesn't just speak to Hellenist Greeks, Journey to the West doesn't just speak for Ming-era Chinese people and Lord of the Rings doesn't just speak for English Catholics who love Norse mythology.

    All these works have something in them that manages to cut through cultural attitudes and speak to humanity.
    When a writer's primary concern is the society they live in and not human nature in general, I doubt they'd really be able to make something universal.

    Man, I've been wanting to either read or write about an older mother protagonist for the longest time. I really should get on that.
    It's strange that for as important as mothers tend to be in every human society, there are very few works of fiction that focuses on them. Mothers are almost always supporting characters.

    This ties into what I was saying in my previous posts: there is a difference between "strong female characters" and strong characters who are women.
    AElisabet likes this.
Thread Status:
Not open for further replies.

Share This Page