Tuesday, February 17, 2015

How To Create Strong Female Characters in Books, Movies and Games

What makes a female character in writing or in films "strong?"  Is it the ability to kick butt?  Chuck Wendig notes that butt-kicking ability is neither necessary nor sufficient.  A character is  more than a pawn on a chess board only when she has agency, an inner landscape which is not completely outer directed, a role more significant than merely justifying why the male hero does whatever he will do in the story.
Many “strong female characters” feel like something ripped out of a video game. Or worse, they feel like toys — objects that look tough, hold guns, wield swords, have karate-chop arms, but are ultimately plastic, posable action figures. Empty and maneuverable, they go where you tell them to go because they’re just devices.
Alison Bechdel coined the Bechdel Test, which asks if the story (or an overall body of storytelling) features at least two women who talk about something other than a man.
Gail Simone talks about the “Women in Refrigerators” problem, where women and girls inside comic books are used as fodder — raped, killed, or otherwise excised of power through violence (and often to make a male character feel something). The only power these women have in the story is to be damaged enough to motivate the story or the male characters in it.
Kelly Sue DeConnick talks about the “Sexy Lamp” test, which says, if you can replace the woman in the story with a sexy lamp and it doesn’t affect the story outcome, well, fuck you, that’s what.

I liked that quote.  I have long used the beer-barrels-and-ham-hocks test* when reading the most misogynistic type of evolutionary psychology (which I call Evolutionary Psychology or EP, to distinguish it from the more sensible kind of scientific inquiry, ep). 

Just replace any reference to women or "females" in the article by beer barrels and ham-hocks, and if everything else stays consistent and nothing makes you start giggling, then women or "females" in that study are assumed to have had the same agency as barrels of beer on cuts of ham.

The linked post makes a wider point (or so I read it).  It's not that we need to have all female characters in art be "strong,"  just as we don't need to have all male characters be that way.  The same goes for being all good or all bad. 

Real people are complicated mixes of strengths and weaknesses, and the more one-dimensional we make them in stories the more we start leaning on simple myths:  The damaged but valiant hero with big muscles but not much brain, the bitter but ultimately good anti-hero, the endlessly sacrificing/admiring/caring wife or mother or girlfriend, the woman-as-mobile-tit-carrier and so on.

Those myths often offer women up in a particularly impoverishing ways. defined by their relationships to the hero of the story, the mother-girlfriend/wife-whore trinity.  That, in turn, means that just a handful of those roles is sufficient for most action stories, and that being a girlfriend becomes a role equivalent to being one of the seven guys with different jobs and personalities.  This is probably one of the reasons why there are more jobs for male than female actors.

*Copyrighted here by me!