Character Assassination, or Why I Don’t Like Strong Female Characters

By some magic spring has finally arrived in Brooklyn. Normally, with the exception of my upcoming birthday I don’t “love” spring only because it inevitably leads to summer, which is my least favorite season. I don’t like the heat. Not even a little.

That said, after this incredibly long winter, seeing the cherry blossoms made me swoony. Bring on the warmth!

So before we talk about characters, I’ve got a few thank yous and shout outs to share.

First off, This Is Sarah got a little love this week. She wound up on a Best of 2014 list and then there was this great review that, I kid you not, references John Green. Hear that sound? That’s me, squealing and then dying.

And my little book went to her first ever book fair. Sniff, sniff….Colin and Claire are all grown up now.


Finally the very awesome Mark Lindberg invited me over to his blog so I can ruin the end of Franny and Zooey for people, whine about people taking pictures in the MoMA and give some love to some favorite poets including John Grochalski, Scott Silsbe, Kris Collins and Don Wentworth. Goggle them. You can thank me later.

Now, let’s talk about this whole hating strong female characters thing.

I complained on some social media not too long ago about how tired I am of the “Strong Female Character.” I realize that sounds a little odd but I mean it. Because the depiction is almost ALWAYS physical strength. Not mental strength. Not being clever. Not being the smartest one in the room.

And you never ever hear about people talking about strong male characters.

One of the responses that I thought really hit the point home was from a friend of mine, Greg, who said:

The character Sansa from Game of Thrones gets a lot of heat for being “weak” in comparison to all the ass kicking female characters in the books/show. But the way she endures shows a strength that in many ways is greater than any of the other characters, male or female. But our culture has a strong bias towards masculine strength even in when it comes to women.

That was followed up by Jessica who said this:

Why don’t we celebrate women’s strengths (endurance, lateral community-building, multithreaded intelligence that supports many perspectives, branching creativity) as valuable? O right, singular masculinity is defined as powerful vs the ‘weak’ female.

The conversation then turned towards the Lean In movement.

So I couldn’t help but think about this again the other day when I read the interview with Tatiana Maslany in the New York Times. Tatiana Maslany is THE actress in Orphan Black, an amazing show on BBC that everyone should be watching. Seriously, cue up the first two season on Netflix now. And when I say she is THE actress, I mean she is it. She plays all the characters because the whole show is about clones.

From left to right we have Tatiana Maslany as Rachel, Allison, Sarah, Cosima, Helena

So while I was reading that interview and lamenting the fact that I don’t have BBC and have to wait till Season 3 is on DVD (note to self: remove all orphan black fan pages from social media to avoid spoilers) I came across this:

An unapologetic feminist, Maslany is frequently hailed as a purveyor of Strong Female Characters. Though appreciative, Maslany finds this a reductive formulation. “That’s so boring!” she said, and went on to condemn the way female strength gets shoehorned into the confines of male-dominated narratives. “What about the strength of this uncharted territory we’ve never explored on camera? We haven’t seen them yet, they’re not archetypes yet, because they’re all related to male expression.

Sophia McDougal wrote a great piece on this entitled I hate Strong Female Characters in the New Statesman. The whole thing is worth a read, but here’s a choice snippet:
What do I want instead of a Strong Female Character? I want a male:female character ratio of 1:1 instead of 3:1 on our screens. I want a wealth of complex female protagonists who can be either strong or weak or both or neither, because they are more than strength or weakness. Badass gunslingers and martial artists sure, but also interesting women who are shy and quiet and do, sometimes, put up with others’ shit because in real life there’s often no practical alternative. And besides heroines, I want to see women in as many and varied secondary and character roles as men: female sidekicks, mentors, comic relief, rivals, villains. I want not to be asked, when I try to sell a book about two girls, two boys and a genderless robot, if we couldn’t change one of those girls to a boy.
I had a discussion with one of my beta readers about my main character in my current WIP, Palimpsest. My character, Kate, finds herself thrust into a world she knew nothing about and forced to navigate its complexities. I needed a way to make Kate in control of her situation even if she had less knowledge about it than anyone else. During the conversation Jessica offered up this:
There is value in you story because it provides a role model for the kind of problem-solving girls are taught to abandon. I like that Kate’s journey deals with the reality of her own intelligence. The thing about many YA story lines for girls – even Gaiman’s – well, for instance Neverwhere has Door as birthright-talent and destroyed family; Coraline is one family’s drama as if she’s learning one opponent; Mirror Mask is a deeply situational doppleganger quest … The Hunger Games novels are all about sport and competition in its basest form, where a girl’s social intelligence and ability to play hide & seek with weapons is rewarded.
Here the story rests on a girl’s intellectual journey in a way that many other stories don’t.
I want a smart girl. Not a kick-ass girl. Not a punch you in the face and then kiss you girl. A girl that uses her brain.
That’s the character I want to read. Hell, it’s the one I’m still trying to write.

By Ally Malinenko

I live in Brooklyn which is good except when it’s not which is horrid. I’ve been writing for awhile, and have some stuff published and some stuff not. I don’t like when people refer to pets as their children and I can’t resist a handful of cheez-its when offered. I have a burning desire to go to Antarctica, specifically to the South Pole so I can see where Robert Falcon Scott died. I like to read books. I like to write stories and poems. I even wrote some novels. You can read them.


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