Saving Science Fiction from Strong Female Characters – Part 6
I have written five essays under the provocative topic of saving science fiction from strong female characters, and proposed a rather unprovocative idea: namely, that woman can be both strong and feminine, and that one does not need to make them overtly masculine to make them admirable and edifying characters.
Indeed, I proposed the idea that confusing strength with masculinity is in truth not a feminist ideal, but a misogynistic idea. He is no friend of woman who says women must act masculine to be equal to men, because that merely makes the word ‘feminine’ equal ‘inferior’. Masculine and feminine are a complementary relationship, not a master-slave relationship. Is Ginger Rogers inferior to Fred Astair when they waltz, even if he leads? She does all the same steps he does, and she does them backward, and, most impressive of all, Ginger can make goofy Fred look like a dashing figure of elegant romance.
I proposed further that a brief, utterly unscientific survey of pre-1950 science fiction showed a healthy number of perfectly strong female characters even in the most boyish of boy’s literature, for example Jirel of Joiry or the Red Lensman Clarissa MacDougal or Dejah Thoris (who, in the text, is both a scientist and a maiden who talks and acts like a Spartan “were his wounds in his back?” -style matron).
The same unscientific survey showed a rise of weaker female characters in the form of Playboy-bunny-styled bits of fluff in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I believe I was the only respondent to this survey, so the answers showed one hundred percent of respondents quizzed being in agreement.
I suggest it to be no coincidence that this was when Feminism was at its height, for it was a time when, thanks (in part) to modern labor saving appliances, housewives were no longer mistresses of a separate but equal sphere, a domestic realm where they were queen; but neither were they welcome in the workforce, which was mostly a man’s world. It was a time when the returning servicemen, having survived the Four Horsemen of World War Two and the Great Depression, the Dustbowl and the Polio Epidemic, asked their women to be more feminine and domestic, and the women granted the prayer. It was also a time when the erosion of standards of decency made open immodesty in dress and behavior acceptable to the mainstream. It was the time of June Cleaver and Marilyn Monroe. It was the time of the dumb blonde, utterly unlike the sharp-witted and sharp-tongue blondes from the decade prior, Mae West or Jean Harlow. It was a time when feminism most nearly being justified in its claims.
Nonetheless it was a time when, in Science Fiction, even the writers who thought they were rebelling against the mainstream—Bob Heinlein springs to mind as an example—went along with the 1960’s ideas of domestic women or Bunny women.
I would have no problem whatever with the feminist demand for more strong female characters in Science Fiction, and only a technical problem concerning the demand for strong female characters in Fantasy, if the demand were honest. (The technical problem is the difference in upper body strength between swordsmen and swordswomen). If the goalposts move, the demand is not honest, and the motive for the demand is not what it seems.
Speaking of which, I did receive a number of pingbacks and comments which I, for courtesy’s sake, did not pass along to my readers, for these were from ill-wishers and prevaricators. I mention this not to complain, but only to make note of the fury combined with the alarmingly casual attitude toward truth which characterized any opposing discussion on this topic. I encountered no polite disagreement, no non-hysterical disagreement, no dignified disagreement, no non-fanatic disagreement, no one who made a disagreeing comment about something I actually said. As best I could tell, not a single one of these ill-wishers had read anything aside from the title of my essay. It was all witch-hunting. It was all barking at the moon like Nebuchadnezzar.
I suspect this is a minor example of a large and commonplace spirit of the age animating such nonsense. This leads me to suspect that much, if not most, of the calls for strong female characters are not actually calls for strong female characters at all, but something else.
What would a strong female actually be like?
Here is an example from the pen of Robert E Howard:
The woman on the horse reined in her weary steed. It stood with its legs wide-braced, its head drooping, as if it found even the weight of the gold-tasseled, red-leather bridle too heavy. The woman drew a booted foot out of the silver stirrup and swung down from the gilt-worked saddle. She made the reins fast to the fork of a sapling, and turned about, hands on her hips, to survey her surroundings.
They were not inviting. Giant trees hemmed in the small pool where her horse had just drunk. Clumps of undergrowth limited the vision that quested under the somber twilight of the lofty arches formed by intertwining branches. The woman shivered with a twitch of her magnificent shoulders, and then cursed.
She was tall, full-bosomed and large-limbed, with compact shoulders. Her whole figure reflected an unusual strength, without detracting from the femininity of her appearance. She was all woman, in spite of her bearing and her garments. The latter were incongruous, in view of her present environs. Instead of a skirt she wore short, wide-legged silk breeches, which ceased a hand’s breadth short of her knees, and were upheld by a wide silken sash worn as a girdle. Flaring-topped boots of soft leather came almost to her knees, and a low-necked, wide-collared, wide-sleeved silk shirt completed her costume. On one shapely hip she wore a straight double-edged sword, and on the other a long dirk. Her unruly golden hair, cut square at her shoulders, was confined by a band of crimson satin.
… this was Valeria of the Red Brotherhood, whose deeds are celebrated in song and ballad wherever seafarers gather.
Now, from my admittedly plebian and pulpish taste in fiction, this is seems more like a fantasy meant for boys with a pirate-girl fetish than a description of the historical Anne Bonnie.
Here is an image that fits the description more faithfully, albeit, I would say, just as clearly an example of cheesecake.
Be that as it may, Valeria is, by the express testimony of the text, both unusually strong yet feminine, and all woman, in spite of wearing breeches. Did I mention her hips were shapely, and her shoulders were magnificent? I suggest such characters were found periodically among the SFF of the pulp era.
In other words, Valeria is the kind of strong women that boys like. Not actually strong, but a girl in revealing clothing with a sword in her hand, who requires a rough and manly man to tame her wild heart.
In other words, this allegedly strong character is still open to the accusation of being a weak character on the grounds that she still plays a feminine role in the story.
I submit that any female character can be accused of being a weak character, precisely because the goalposts move, that is, precisely because the demand for ‘strength’ in female characters is dishonest.
Nausicaa from Miyazaki’s VALLEY OF THE WIND is a perfectly strong character who is brave, active, the center of the plot, the main driver of the plot, nobody’s fool, considerably higher in stature than a mere prize or reward for the hero to win. She is my exemplar of a strong female character who is not a artificially masculine. She is a princess, and she issues commands and is obeyed in a perfectly queenly fashion, she owns a rocket powered jet glider called a cloud climber or a maeve (depending on your translation) and she fires rocket-powered bullets, and is active, intelligent, athletic, and so on. But this is not the true genius of the character. The genius of the character is shown in a short scene in the beginning where when her finger is bitten by a tiny wild animal no bigger than a kitten. Instead of reacting with fear or annoyance, Nausicaa radiates a serenity that calms the creature, who, in remorse, begins to lick the finger where it just drew blood with its little pink tongue. This compassion and spiritual kinship with all living things, including the titanic and insectoid monsters of the all-destroying Toxic Jungle, is a spiritual strength in her that grows and grows in power as the story rolls toward what seems a tragic climax. In the final scene, it is not weapons, not even an ultimate weapon of destruction, that saves the day and changes the destiny of empires and kingdoms, but her self-sacrificing compassion on what to us at first would seem a hideous larva. But only at first. By the story’s end, we see through her eyes.
I myself have never heard Nausicaa being accused of being a weak character, but please note that the very thing which makes Buffy the Vampire Slayer allegedly a strong character, her physical strength and snarky attitude, are precisely the strength and the attitude missing from Nausicaa.
I once heard Mr Joss Whedan in an interview discussing the origin of the character idea. He was weary of seeing scenes in monster movies where the blonde cheerleader Valley Girl wanders into a dark alley, is confronted by a vampire, and can do nothing. For reasons I cannot speculate, Mr Whedan did not think of making a Valley Girl carry a pistol whereby to defend herself (even an undead monster can be chopped off at the knees if your handgun has sufficient stopping power), but instead thought it would be a cute reversal of traditional roles if the cheerleader could take out a stake and drive it through the vampire’s heart. That way she is not the helpless victim. That way she does not need a man.
Then Mr Whedan writes a simply excellent show, truly one of my favorites—let no man dare to say I am not a fanboy of that show— but I notice with the slightest lift of an eyebrow that the main dramatic tension in the show was the romance, the girl’s love interest, Angel and Riley Finn and Spike. The traditional role is not reversed after all, is it?
Buffy must be saluted. She is the inspiration for an entire genre of fiction, the urban fantasy. Few characters can make that claim: Sherlock Holmes for detective stories, Juan Rico the starship trooper for Military SF, Harry Potter for the magical schoolkid genre, Frodo and his Fellowship of the Ring for the epic quest genre. A few others. But considering that Buffy is the very epitome, or so I assume, of strength in a strong female character, a feminist icon akin to Xena the Warrior Princess, why is her main dramatic point her love story? Could it be because she is a female character, and that there is something in the female genius which naturally inclines itself to love?
By way of contrast, I would list Katniss Everdine from the movie HUNGER GAMES as a relatively weak character – and here I am only talking about the movie, which I saw, and not the book, which I did not read. Aside from her extraordinary act of self sacrifice at the beginning of the film, for the rest of the film he is basically helpless, and shows very little initiative. Whether the character develops in the sequels, that I do not know, and make no comment about. She is, however, physically and morally brave, which is not a trait to be scoffed at for anyone living in a nation of physical and moral cowards.
Something unclear in the movie is how any girl survives the first ten minutes of combat with relatively athletic young men of roughly the same age: the difference in aggression and fighting strength in an average sixteen year old boy and an average sixteen year old girl is immense. That is why the Romans did not stage gladiator fights between male and female slaves, or, if they did, we have no record of it. That is why boxing is not a unisex sport.
Katniss Everdine is what I would call weak because she cannot articulate the cause for which she fights. She is not fighting for truth, justice, and the American Way, nor is leading (yet) the rebellion; she is trying to stay alive. Oddly, had she been the only girl in a roster of boys, volunteering to take the place of her younger brother, the plot would have made more sense, because then it would have been a jack-and-the-giant story, with Katniss as Jack.
Weaker still is the character of Valeria mentioned above. She is the stuff of boyish daydreams, not a fully developed character at all. While established to be a ruthless, rough and hardy pirate queen, the equal of any man when it comes to climbing rigging, storming a city wall, or cutting down sea dogs in a sea fight, her role in the story is entirely feminine. Her main role in the story is for romantic interest and sex appeal. She is there to be menaced by the lusts of men, including Conan, to make dumb suggestions Conan wryly shoots down, and be afraid of things that don’t scare Conan, because, as a barbarian, he is such a badass. For all that, she is not a weak character, not a milksop or lily-livered, and is strong and hearty and bold as any soldier. It is just than next to Conan, any soldier would seem like a girl.
Sorry, that was a pirate girl cheesecake picture. Here is another image of Valeria, drawn faithfully to Howard’s description. Judge for yourself whether or not this is meant to be a slice of cheesecake or not:
Podkayne of Mars from PODKAYNE OF MARS is a spunky and lovable teenager who dreams of being a space pilot. As the plot goes on, however, she takes no steps at all, not one, toward achieving this dream. Instead she gets abducted, saved by her brother, and then blown up by a bomb when going back into the villain’s lair for the cat or some other annoying fluffy critter. In the first draft, she died the death, and in the second, at the editor’s insisting, she was merely mostly dead. This teaches her psychotic supergenius younger brother to learn to love and be loved, or somesuch nonsense. And the moral of the story, placed in the mouth of the Uncle, tacked awkwardly onto the end of the book is that Podkayne’s Mom should have stayed home and raised her correctly.
Podkayne is a perfectly fine science fiction character. She does as much, or as little, as the Time Traveler from THE TIME MACHINE by Wells, or Professor Aronnax from TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA. More to the point, she does as much, or as little, as Matt Dodson in SPACE CADET or Bill Lermer from FARMER IN THE SKY who are mostly observers rather that initiators of the action. But the fact that the space girl is blown up and never becomes either a space cadet like Matt nor a farmer owning his own land like Lermer should leave any feminist cold. Is the purpose in life of girls to be blowed up by bombs as an object lesson to psychotic younger brothers so they can learn to love and be loved? Hmmm.
Jill Boardman in STRANGER IN A STRANGE BED, buxom space nurse, becomes the lover and disciple of Michael Valentine Smith, the studly Man from Mars, and happily joins his harem of several lovers … and becomes a stripper. Yes, she takes off her clothing to excite the lusts of men for modest pay. They can stare at her boobs, which she bounces for their enjoyment. Such is the 1960’s version of women’s liberation. You’ve come a long way, baby.
The novel portrays this gross degradation as a dignified profession, whereas preaching the Gospel is portrayed as charlatanry less honest than selling used cars. Yet, had you asked, I am certain Mr Heinlein would have described himself as an ardent supporter of women’s liberation.
Compared to this junk, Valeria the Pirate Queen with the shapely hips is practically a nuanced and three dimensional character as Lady Macbeth. But could someone claim, with perfect justice, that Jill is a strong character? She is certainly witty, brave as a marine, and kidnaps the Man from Mars out from the clutches of the tyrannous world-state. Could someone else claim she was a weak character? Yes, and with equal justice, if not more so. She is lonely schoolboy’s idea of a strong and independent woman, that is, a woman with all the virtues but chastity and modesty, independent enough to use contraception, and strong enough to violate the rules of chastity, presumably, in his daydreams, with the lonely schoolboy.
I should add the third example of Friday from her eponymous book, but there is too much about that book and that character I find personally distasteful. Let me just say that she combines the worst characteristics of physical strength—she can beat up a marine guard—Playboy bunny looks, and an odd desire both to marry and have a family, and to sleep around like a minx in heat.
If you have not read FRIDAY, you can always watch DARK ANGEL by James Cameron. The main character, Max, is a personal favorite of mine. Let no one believe I dismiss or dislike the show. But I do note that she is a Friday style woman: sexy and adorable, and she goes into heat, so that she can both beat up Marine guards with her biogenetically enhanced superhuman strength, and sleep around. You’ve come a long way, baby. The writers there perform the opposite trick as Robert E Howard. To make the girl Max the manly character, James Cameron puts the male lead in a wheelchair, so that he has no possibility of being either the main romantic interest nor being the Riley Finn or Steve Trevor character.
By a Riley Finn, I mean simply that a writer who makes his alleged strong female character physically strong, strong in masculine ways, the writer has no use for a male romantic lead, unless he is superhuman, such as Conan or Angel. Riley Finn was despised by the fans for much the same reason that Steve Trevor is forgotten.
No writer can write a man who swoons over the strength of a superheroine or vampire-huntress, admires her knowledge of French wines and Japanese karate, and find himself swept off his feet by her carried back to her magnificent castle, married in a splendid but secret ceremony, ravished to within an inch of his life, and make it seem other than a satire. No writer has this power because that is not the way human nature works.
How does nature work? Women like men who are virile, vigorous and potent. They like men who are confident, decisive, courageous, and assertive. They want a man who fights. They like strong men. Look at the cover of a trashy romance novel if you don’t believe me.
Men like women who are nubile, fertile and fecund. They want a girl worth fighting for. They want beauty in body but loyalty in spirit. They want a woman who has faith in him and who keeps faith with him.
Let us look at a he-man magazine to confirm this.
Apparently what we men also like is fighting sharks, women in bathing suits, lost treasure, fighting undersea robots, women not in bathing suits, headhunters, and fighting alligators. Obviously getting wet is a big part of our lives.
Why does nature saddle us with these (to a feminist) uncouth and inconvenient urges where different things attract the different sexes to each other?
It is one of the dubious joys of the modern age that otherwise sober men must take the time to explain the obvious, over and over again, to those ideologically committed to denying the obvious.
It is obvious that men and women are different both in fine and in gross.
(I read with some skeptical bitterness that when neurologists first started publicly admitting that there were neurochemical differences in brain structure between males and females, Gloria Steinem said that social conditioning could overcome these innate genetic predilections. I understand that the Left also says that homosexual attraction is caused by innate genetic predilections, but that to use any form of social conditioning to overcome such predilections is illegal in California. Consistency is not the strong suit of the Left.)
Because of these differences between the sexes, the characteristics of sexual attraction in men and women must be opposite and complementary in order for it to be sexual attraction.
Do I need to repeat that in shorter words for the intellectuals to grasp it?
Girls want strong men because strength in men, brute muscle power and leadership ability, is a primary sexual distinguishing characteristic related to the sexual process. Boys want faithful women because fidelity in women is a primary sexual distinguishing characteristic related to domestic life and the demands of domestic life.
But a writer writing an adventure story or a drama that wants to challenge or ignore the basic difference between what men and women find attractive in each other faces a paradox. How is he to make it dramatic?
Now, keep in mind that men and women can admire each other for non-sexual reasons. I am a great admirer of Margaret Thatcher, for example, or Mother Theresa, who are both world-magnitude leaders, one of political and the other of spiritual authority. Any tinge of sexual attraction toward these women from me would be grotesque.
But in a story, especially in an adventure story, the needs of drama want to introduce an element of romance even if the writers at first do not want one there. Romance is as dramatic as death, or more so. It is nearly impossible to keep out of story telling, despite brave efforts by H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Brave but futile. Note that every later retelling or movie version of any of their tales always introduces a love interest. The movie version of FIRST MEN IN THE MOON introduced a female stowaway.
Examples could be multiplied endlessly. I think only TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA by Disney did not intrude an apocryphal female love interest. Hence my conclusion is that if there is no love interest at first, the pressure of the needs of drama always urges one be introduced later, in any sequel or retelling.
If I may use an example from a cartoon, just to dispel anyone’s idea that I have refined tastes in the matter: I am a great fan of Disney’s KIM POSSIBLE. I love that show. Every element is perfect. Teen superheroine Kim Possible is the daughter of a rocket scientist and a brain surgeon. On her website she boasts that she can do anything, and so instead of getting the babysitting or yard working jobs she supposed, foreign governments and major corporations hire her to solve crimes, stop revolutions, and track down supervillains. The show’s supervisors told the writers that, as a Disney show, they needs must put in a cute pet sidekick like the raccoon of Pocahontas or the flounder of Ariel, and the writers subverted the paradigm by introducing a naked mole rat. Who is also a supergenius. Kim Possible’s comedy relief sidekick and Sancho Panza is named Ron Stoppable.
Unfortunately, the needs of drama interfered with this perfect balance of elements in the last season, when some nitwit decided that Kim Possible should fall in love, not with the handsome and competent Will Du, agent of Global Justice, nor with Josh Mankey, the boy on whom she has a legitimate crush, but with Ron, her sidekick. (Who, by the way, was in love with and loved by the alluring and exotic highschool ninja girl and exchange student, Yori).
It is unsettling and stupid, as stupid as deciding that alluring and snarktastic supervillainess Shego would go for her freaky blue supervillain boss Dr Drakken rather than for the rich and handsome and stump-stupid but devotedly romantic Sr Senior, Jr.
It nearly ruined the show to pair the heroine with the comedy relief, because the needs of drama require that the romantic male lead save the girl to win the girl, something the comedy relief cannot do. Otherwise no one can tell why the girl likes the guy. He must appear virile and vigorous and potent, remember? But the fans complained, not without some justice, in the last episode of the last season when Ron saves the day and saves a suddenly helpless Kim Possible when in every previous episode she was able to do everything whereas he was the ineffectual sidekick who comedic antics involved running in circles with his pants on fire, screaming.
But the writers almost had no choice. Romance is innately dramatic because the whole life and future happiness of the characters hangs in the balance, and it is something everyone in the audience over the age of seven can understand and sympathize with. The romantic lead has to be a superior guy. If he is of lower social rank than the girl, or less wealthy, he has to be higher in some other quality that she needs more, even if it is only pluck or impudent daring (cf. Jasmine falling for Aladdin).
This means that superheroes can fall in love with normal muggle women, as when Kal-El of Krypton falls for Lois Lane, but that Supergirl cannot fall in love with Dick Malverine but needs a superhero to be her beau, like Querl Dox or Dick Grayson. And Wonder Woman should definitely dump Steve Trevor for Bruce Wayne.
(If you asked who Dick Malverine is, he is the utterly forgettable male equivalent of Lois Lane or Lana Lang who was always trying to prove that Linda Lee was Supergirl. The dynamic of the plot tension there should have been the same, but since the sexes were switched, it did not work. In real life, there is some drama to a woman trying to find out a man’s secret, especially if she has marital designs on him. It does not work the other way around, the drama is lost, and the guy looks weak and foolish.)
Does that seem unfair? The story logic requires that if a superheroine falls for a guy, he has to be virile and potent in relation to her, in some way her superior, so that she has something she thinks is sexy to admire and adore; and likewise she, even if she is physically stronger and shows directness and leadership and cooks outdoors and has great clumps of underarm hair and in every way is masculine and manly, she has to be shown as devoted, because fidelity is what sexually attracts men to women.
The old cliché of rescuing a damsel in distress is based on the idea that a woman rescued from danger by a man will be devoted to him, because ingratitude in such life or death situations was unthinkable, particularly for an admirable female lead.
Again, the logic of Political Correctness requires that men and women not be complementary because the concept of complementary strengths and weakness is not a concept that Political Correctness can admit, lest it be destroyed. The concept of complementary virtues undermines the concept of envy, and Political Correctness is nothing but politicized fury based on politicized envy. We can define Political Correctness as the attempt to express fury and envy via radical changes to legal and social institutions.
Hence, the Politically Correct writer attempting to make the female ‘strong’ cannot make her strong in the particular feminine way of, for example, Nausicaa, because that would be the same as admitting that there is a particular nature of male and female, which are different and complementary, which, as I said above, undermines the envy-fury on which Political Correctness is based.
So the logic of Political Correctness directly defies the logic of drama. The more you have of one, the less you have of the other.
The more Political Correctness you have, the less Science Fiction you have, because Politically Correct science is Junk Science.
Political Correctness requires the women not to be of complementary strength to men, that is, not strong in a feminine way, because that would legitimize femininity. Remember, feminism is the foe of femininity, hence of love and romance.
Instead, Political Correctness requires the female to be as strong as a man, as good as a man, in the very areas men are good at and want to be good at. It is a deliberately unnatural pose. The women character have to be portrayed as the types of character female readers, by and large, do not want to be like or to read about, and the female characters have to do things women by and large do not attempt because they don’t create a big thrill in the feminine heart, or create many bragging rights. The male characters are basically extraneous.
Can it be done? Sure. Writers are endlessly inventive, and we get to set the situation and the plot and, in science fiction, we get to set the laws of nature, too. So the basic physical limitations of the female physique in real life need not hinder us in science fiction situations, because your heroine can be from Krypton, or armed with a phaser weapon, or have cat-girl genes spliced into her DNA, or be an Amazon. Second, the writer gets to set the period and the genre. No one can claim that Hermione Grangier is in any way a second class citizen of Hogwarts, because, like a detective in a detective novel, physical strength and fighting prowess are not the main point of a magical school-chums novel.
Third, if your superheroine is stronger than any normal man, and does not need Prince Charming to settle the hash of the evil dragon, but can wield the sword herself, you can either leave out your male love interest, or you can, Anita Blake style, make him superhuman also. This, of course, is a sly cheat, because it put the girl back in the position of being allured to a dangerous male figure who is more powerful than she, so your vampire huntress falling for a fallen angel (or whatever) is in the same dainty shoes as the spitfire Irish lass kidnapped by the ruthless but devilishly handsome pirate Black Jamie (or whoever) which we all see in the Bodice Ripper racks at the paperback bookstore.
Paranormal Romance, in other words, is an example of the logic of drama subverting (or perhaps superverting) the logic of Political Correctness. It allows the writer to eat her cake and have it too: she can make her warrior-princess or vampire huntress as tough and strong in any way she likes, as tough as Scarlet O’Hara vowing as God is her witness never to go hungry again, and then also bring in a supernatural version of Rhett Butler, and she can retell the story of Beauty and the Beast while retelling GONE WITH THE WIND, by making her man something other than a human being. (Since young men are often ill-reared these days, this is not as far from real life as it once was.)
Another solution is to make the warrior woman into a sex babe, so that if she is not feminine and attractive in demeanor and words, her luscious body betrays her, especially if she is wearing a halter top and spray-on leather pants. This approach turns the strong female character into a figure of sexual fetish, and it titillates the boy audience while apparently satisfying the female audience looking for an action heroine who does not need a man to kill her vampires for her.
The problem with such characters is that the logic of Political Correctness has been subverted by the needs of drama at the expense of all realism. You end up with scenes like I mentioned in a previous essay, with a hulking huge Hawkeye of the Avengers kicking wispy little sexdoll Black Widow in the face, and both boys and girls get used to the idea of boys kicking girls in the face like it was normal, and, just as bad, both boys and girls get used to the idea that the only way for a girl to be attractive is to dress like the Catwoman. That is fine if you have a perfect figure like a 1950 cheesecake model, but otherwise it basically robs women of an entire arsenal of feminine wiles to use on the menfolk, and silences an entire social vocabulary unspoken signs of feminine dignity.
You also end up with warrior women who should be armed and armored like Joan of Arc dressed in microbikinis that would embarrass a stripper.
And any feminist worth her salt should be able to accuse, with much justice, the fetishistic ninja-babe superheroine archetype as being a weak female character. Such characters are nothing more than action models, eye candy, male fantasy figures.
And yet all of these characters can be accused of being weak, for the reasons I said at considerable length above. And if the character has no weaknesses, she can be accused of being a Mary Sue.
Why is this? Because, at first, the cry for strong female characters is perfectly reasonable and perfectly welcome.
To use another example which betrays my low taste, in the second season or so of NARUTO our feisty girl-ninja Sakura is left with nothing to do. She simply cannot fight as well as the boys, and the writers had her not do anything, despite that she was the third member of Team Love Triangle, along with Naruto the brash main character in love with her, Sasuke with whom she is in love. For the life of me, I cannot figure out why she is crushing on Sasuke. He is merely dark and handsome with a troubled past, tormented by inner demons, a dashing rebel who plays by his own rules. Go figure.
But the girl ninja was useless until the writers wised up and powered her up in the next season, giving her not only magic healing powers, but magic super strength, which make a nice outward sign of her inner exasperation, so she could create an earthquake with her magic ninja punch. It gave her something to do in the plot, unlike (if you look above) the characters added to MASTER OF THE WORLD and JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, which intruded a romantic subplot where none was needed nor wanted, and the female characters there had nothing to do. They initiated no action and solved no problems.
If that is what the cry for stronger female characters want, more power to them, and I add my voice to theirs.
Penelope of Ithaca and Clytemnestra of Mycenae and Helen of Troy are not insignificant characters with nothing to do, nor is Deborah in the Book of Judges. Nor is Ximena from El Cid. Neither is Guinevere of Camelot, even if she never fights a joust while disguised as a boy. Neither is Olivia from TWELFTH NIGHT, even if she does fight a duel while disguised as a boy. Neither is Bradamante of ORLANDO FURIOSO or Britomart of FAERIE QUEENE even if she fights jousts and duels while not disguised at all. There are plenty of examples from ancient and classical sources to follow. I cheer on such efforts.
But look again. If I am cheering on such effort, why am I getting hate mail from Political Correctors, along with anyone else who says what I say?
Because Penelope and Clytemnestra and Helen and Deborah and Guinevere are all romantic figures. Ximena is perhaps the most romantic of all, a woman of noble birth who loves and loses all because she loves the Cid, but loves honor more.
The Martial Maids, while many a feminist still admires them, I have heard dismissed because they are depicted as outliers, that is, extraordinary because a woman is performing feats of arms which would be ordinary if done by a man. I do not know is this is a mainstream criticism or not, but it strikes me as telling.
The calls for strong female characters is like the call for more environmental purity and cleanliness. In the 1950’s (ironically, the same period when women were being treated is a less dignified way than their mothers) there was pollution in the air and in the streams that formed a danger to public health. Some reasonable laws were made to curb the problem, and the problem was solved except in areas of the country administered by Democrats, and then unreasonable laws were made, and then slightly insane laws, and now we live under totally nutastic barking-mad at the moon bat-guano crazy laws, which have declared human exhalation and cow farts to be pollutants.
It was reasonable at first. The demand was satisfied. There are no plenty of female characters in books and films these days, many of them quite well written.
And then the demands became unreasonable, then became slightly insane, and are rapidly becoming barking mad. Why is this?
Because the demands are not honestly made. They are made for the sake of making a demand, not made for the sake of satisfying a demand.
Any female character can be accused of being weak. ANY ONE. The trick is to have your female characters be good characters, having central roles in the plot, and reasonable character arcs, and as many vices and virtues as the logic of drama and your inner burning vision demand.
Ignore whether she is strong or weak. It is like worrying about whether your male character is winsome, devoted and loves babies. He needs a reasonable amount of devotion to be a hero, but it cannot be his main point, because in real life girls look for strength in men first, leadership, trustworthiness, that sort of thing. Even shallow women look for outward signs of competence and strength, like fancy cars and smoothness of wit.
Likewise, strength in female characters is not what makes them dramatic and memorable, but fidelity and compassion do.
What makes Scarlet O’Hara one of the most easily recognized heroines of all time, despite the obvious selfishness and shallowness of the character? It is her fidelity, no, not to a man (she weds idly and yearns for Ashley) but to Tara, the land. Her faith in the land allows her to survive the War and the Reconstruction.
Scarlett, despite being selfish and shallow, shines with these other virtues. Commitment. Fidelity. Faithfulness. Maintaining hope when hope is gone. Having the strength to carry on.
That is something women do better than men. We males tend to break when our brittle pride is shattered. Women handle disappointment and defeat better. (Consider what a disappointment most men are, I am sure there is a logic to that, too.)
So ignore the demands for strong female characters. You cannot satisfy them.
You can satisfy your readers, though, by making your heroine interesting. Nay, make her fascinating.
Make your heroine as fascinating as Miyasaki’s Nausicaa, or Homer’s; or Dante’s Beatrice, or as fascinating as Deborah, Clytemnestra, Helen, Penelope, Camilla, Britomart, Bradamante, and you will have readers centuries to come, or millennia, still discussing her; or make her as interesting as Katniss or Hermione or Scarlet O’Hara, and you will be a best seller and have your books made into movies.
A closing note on hate mail. I said I would return to this point.
Why in the world would anyone in his right mind pen a poisonous letter on this topic? I am not trying to save Science Fiction from Strong Female Characters. The idea is ridiculous, so ridiculous that I honestly thought nobody, not even a humorless Political Correction Officer would take it seriously. The title is meant as an obvious joke.
It is as if I were to say we should stop having Basque Characters, or Albigensians, or Left-handed Wesleyians. No matter what I or anyone said about the type of characters I or anyone preferred, if the demand were honest, no one would give a tinker’s damn about it one way or another.
No one would give a tinker’s damn because readers who wanted character of a certain type would seek out writers who wrote characters of that type, and readers who wanted something else would seek out writers writing something else.
But the demand is not honest. It is not even close. The demand is that female characters of which some tone-deaf yet artistically and spiritually dead sexual neurotics disapprove be swept off the bookshelves and into the memory hole. The demand is political, that is, it is a call for a uniform change in the power relations of the society. The demand is that society change its tastes, change its values, and do so collectively, as a unit, permitting no dissent.
The demand is not on we writers, my dear readers, but on you readers.
The demand made by these subhuman genetically defective control freaks is that YOU the readers, stop liking the books and stories you like, books with females realistic or unrealistic as you prefer, and start liking the books and stories which these genetically defective control freaks demand you should like, in the name of the glorious cause of whatever the glorious cause is this week.
The demand is that you be ashamed of liking popular books and stories, that you be ashamed of nature, ashamed of romance, ashamed of love stories, ashamed of superhero stories, and so on, ad nauseam.
You see, you and I and every sane human is willing to live and let live, and if you want to read trashy bodice rippers and I want to read about space princesses while our neighbor wants to read stories about he-men wrestling ponds of flesh-eating weasels, to each his own. If I write the story I want to write, and even put the odd space princess in it, either the story on its own artistic merits or entertainment value, if any, finds a fit audience or not, as the sovereign will of the readership demands, without imposing on or being imposed upon by others who write and read stories of another kind.
You must understand that you, O my masters, are the sovereigns here. What the readers read is what the writers write and the booksellers sell.
The rebels and the subversives of the Glorious Cause of Political Correctness are not about overthrowing the sovereign power of the state, or not just about that. It is also about overthrowing the sovereign power of the culture, O my masters.
They want to overthrow YOU.
They have only one weapon, which is the unearned moral superiority they pretend to have, and the unearned guilt which they throw onto you.
The serpent cannot force the apple down Eve’s fair throat. All he can do is make her feel ashamed for being so naive as to obey the commands of right reason. The snake tells her she is stupid for thinking that right reason was right.
Likewise, here, the harpies shriek that you are stupid for wanting to read a story where Rhett carries a struggling Scarlett up to the nuptial bedroom, rather than Scarlett carrying Rhett.
Unearned moral superiority for them. Unearned guilt for you. That is their only weapon. Merely pointing it out, naming it by its right name, is enough to disarm it.
Science fiction does not need to be saved from strong female characters. It needs to be saved from Political Correctness, which makes a demand that all stories be uniform, and all serve the Glorious Cause, and become propaganda told for the purpose of social engineering, not stories told to glorify the beauties and horrors of life.
It is, in fact, a demand that stories not be stories at all.
It is a demand that we wreck our culture, ruin our lives, and damn our souls. Stories are just the smallest part of it, and science fiction stories are smaller than that. Stories save souls, and give strength to sanity: for tales, even the simplest, even the shallowest, can refresh our faith in truth, in beauty, and in virtue. In stories, the muses bring us wine from heaven.
Political Correctness serves politics, that is, the power struggle between factions seeking to govern our laws and customs. Art serves truth. Do you wonder at the venom of the struggle? Political Correction Officers attempt to mock and destroy even the concept of truth. Political Correctness is the foe of all truth, all beauty, all virtue. Their ambition is immense, nay, awe-inspiring: They want to drown the universe in excrement.
The sole weapon of the Political Correction Officers is to make the innocent feel guilty by making a reasonable demand followed by an unreasonable demand, a demand you can never satisfy.
We must save the world, and, more importantly, science fiction from that.
I close with words from the Pen of Tom Simon:
The whole point of Political Correctness is that it’s impossible to be politically correct: someone always has a free pass to attack you for something. Just as the whole point of Sustainability is that nothing is ever really sustainable, so someone can always attack you for insufficient dedication to Mother Gaia. Modern Leftism is not about doing what is right; it is about believing that everybody else is wrong, and always having a stick handy to beat anyone you want to beat.