Ah, feminism, is there a more confusing -ism that just boils the blood and makes the hair on your arm stand on end? I’m sure you’re probably wondering where this is coming from and/or preparing to call me an uber feminist or a femi-nazi or some such variant that implies that I have a vendetta against men. Quite the opposite. I happen to like men. I occasionally have crushes on, fall in love with, or lust about men. As is my right. The purpose of this article is to give you an idea of my little pet peeve about the perception of “strong, female characters” in movies, television, and comic books. In fact, I’d really like to call a moratorium on the use of “strong, female character” to describe women in media or as a reason to get me interested in any of those mediums mentioned above. Why? Because “strong, female character” is basically code for “scantily clad women toting weapons without a lick of personality and/or character development.” It also seems to be a synonymous with “empowering,” which is just a special kind of insulting.
The reason I’m opening up this oh so loaded can of worms has its origins in a particular conversation I had with a gentleman at Bellingham Comicon last Saturday. Myself and a friend were walking around when this gentleman, sitting behind his table, signaled me over. Now, I’m a big supporter of comic book conventions because they give all us geeks a chance to get together and be who we are without fear of judgment to a certain degree. I’m also open to looking at independent and creator-owned comics because they offer another avenue of storytelling that the big two often don’t. So my friend and I walked over and started talking to him. As the conversation progressed, I started noticing the phrase “strong, female character” occurring regularly as he described the different books he was selling. One book in particular featured a woman in a crop-top, bare midriff, with Daisy Duke shorts and a shotgun across her shoulders. This, he said, was justified because she was a “strong, female character”. In fact, he said that it was okay to have female characters in comics with bare midriff and big boobs as long as they were “strong, female characters”. At no point in this conversation did he mention any other character traits because apparently being a woman means I will automatically latch on to any character that is “strong” and “female”.
I’ll admit, I probably gave him the impression that this schtick might work what with my being female and wearing a Wonder Woman t-shirt and my Big Barda tattoo clearly visible. But I was also wearing a Flash necklace and there wasn’t much conversation that dealt with him. I will also concede that this man was not trying to be an ass about it. He was clearly trying to get me and my friend interested in his product and thought those particular buzz words would be enough. This is where the problem lies. “Strong, female character” is used so often it’s the equivalent of saying “going rogue” or “game changer”. The more you say the words, the more meaningless they become. What the hell is a “strong, female character” and why does she have to be so distinctly identified? Why don’t we use “strong, male character” as a description? By emphasizing the word strong in conjunction with female, there’s an implication that female characters are inherently weak and, therefore, we have to make certain that this particular character we’re promoting is made more prominent by being referred to as “strong”.
But what do they mean by “strong”? Does it imply that a female character is physically strong, mentally strong? Does she have fortitude? A heart of gold? The ability to balance a family and a career while still maintaining a sense of self and accomplishment? Strong is such a generic word that it could pretty much encompass everything I just laid out. Its non-specificity makes it easy to say without having to explain the circumstances under which “strength” is required. Female characters are strong because…? Well, Lifetime and Oxygen seem to think that women are “strong” because they overcome either a certain obstacle or their own circumstances, which is why most of their movies deal with cancer, verbal and physical abuse, and rape. Ya know, because the only way to show that a woman has strength is for her to overcome the most traumatic of experiences. Video games are even less forthcoming with what makes a female character strong. There are two exceptions: Samus Aran and Lara Croft. Both characters exhibit intelligence, cunning, an ability to take a lot of punishment from alien monsters or ancient booby traps, and they save the world from time to time. Unfortunately, revamps and new games diminished their characters entirely. Samus became dependent on male approval before she’d literally do anything and the writers for the next Tomb Raider game flat out stated that Lara Croft’s origin involved her nearly getting raped as a means of showing how badass she became because she had to fight back. Because badass women need a reason to be badass.
And then there’s Sucker Punch. Let me be clear, if you like Sucker Punch, that’s fine. You’re well within your right to like the movie. I’m actually a huge fan of Zack Snyder’s aesthetic and his adaptations of 300 and Watchmen. But saying that Sucker Punch is about “strong, female characters” and “empowering women” is like saying Jaws is about a misunderstood fish who just wants to be loved. Sucker Punch is a male fantasy about female empowerment in that the main character, Babydoll (none of the women in this movie have real names, by the way), allows herself to be put in a mental institution by her abusive stepfather/uncle (?) where said male figure makes a deal with an orderly to get her a lobotomy so she won’t talk. It’s also heavily alluded to that the orderly is abusing and, more than likely, raping the girls. Babydoll, who doesn’t speak until 20 minutes into the movie, retreats into a fantasy world where she and her fellow inmates are whores who dance for a male audience (empowerment!). Babydoll, apparently an idiot savant at bumping and grinding, retreats into yet another fantasy realm full of CGI video game set pieces whenever she dances where she and her friends wield guns, swords, and wear skimpy outfits as they fight because…feminism? Movie Bob over at the Escapist has a couple videos addressing why everything I’ve just said is wrong about the movie, and why I don’t “get it”. But here’s the thing, if someone else has to explain to me all of the “layers” of Sucker Punch in a way that the writer/director couldn’t, I’m gonna say the movie has failed on some level.
Just for funzies, would you like to know who my favorite superhero is? Batman. Why? Because Batman is a hero without super powers who uses his mind and intellect to solve crimes. He’s also one of the most complex characters in comic books. After losing his parents, he devoted the rest of his life to making sure that the same crime would never happen to another child. He’s a psychologically scarred, obsessively driven individual who dresses as a bat so he can scare the shit out of the criminal element of Gotham City. But his obsession often leads him to alienate those closest to him, usually his many wards and colleagues. He skirts the line between hero and villain every time he leaves the bat-cave and a lot of people are convinced he’s just as crazy as the people he puts in Arkham Asylum. See Jack’s article for more on that! My point here is that in my run-down of the reasons why I love Batman, though I use the pronoun “he”, I didn’t say I like him because he’s a “strong, male character”. I like him because he’s an identifiable character and that has nothing to do with the fact that he’s a man.
The same is true of Wonder Woman and Big Barda. Are they women? Yes. Is that the reason I like them? NO!! Wonder Woman is a skilled fighter capable of great compassion for those in need of help. Go read Greg Rucka’s Hiketeia if you want a really good example of how far Wonder Woman will go for a person in need, even someone we wouldn’t think deserves her compassion. Though recent events in the comics have revealed her true parentage, Wonder Woman has had to prove her worth to her sister Amazons and show them that she is more than just “clay”. She’s also an emissary, an example of nobility and composure that she takes to heart who’s not afraid to kick butt when it’s required. Barda is similarly superpowered, but she’s possessed of a great, fiery temper that makes her quick to react when threatened. She’s got a wicked sense of humor, she loves her husband, and she’s not even the slightest bit fazed by fighting a dragon. She’s also been the victim of torture at the hands of Darkseid’s minions, but fought back to earn her freedom from Apokolips. Both women exhibit identifiable and relatable character traits that are not restricted to being female.
It would be hypocritical of me to say that being female doesn’t factor into my reasons for liking Wonder Woman and Barda entirely. If anything, I see them as exemplary characters that I would want to introduce to my children some day. Girls and boys need role models and they often find them in television shows, movies, cartoons, and, yes, comic books. But I want to emphasize that character is the word we should be focusing on, not whether the person is male or female. A character goes through a journey, a character arc, if you’ll allow me to use the proper terminology. Though comic books often have the luxury of long-form storytelling to achieve character arcs (your mileage may vary on that), movies and even television have a shorter time frame in which to give a character room to develop. Whether it’s two hours or a season of television, we expect characters to have gone through some kind of experience that changes them for better or worse, in big leaps or small steps. Why? Because characters adapt. Characters change. Characters experience the ups and downs of life.
In my parting thoughts, here’s a little litmus test for when someone tries to sell you on a “strong, female character.” Ask them why. If someone says Buffy Summers is a “strong, female character” your follow-up should be, “Why?” If they can’t answer said questions with any actual personality traits, character flaws, or give you a plausible storyarc, then you can move on as that person clearly doesn’t have you in mind as an actual reader, viewer, or gamer. They think that using those words will draw you in and that isn’t right. The “strong, female character” is a myth. Women are simply characters and should be treated as such regardless of gender.