Friday, May 24, 2013

On Strong Women, Agency and Default Narrative States

I've read some really fantastic feminist-leaning literary criticism lately:  This one here on how Your Default Narrative Settings Are Not Apolitical, and the one it inspired, challenging the Women, Cattle and Slaves Narrative.  And, also, Hunger Games is a Sexist Fairytale.  With so many fantastic discussions going on all around, I feel I should step in to offer my own two cents.

The whole concept of "strong female character" is one fraught with problems.  On the surface, it seems simple enough: We want to fill our fictional worlds with the kind of women our daughters can look to as role models.  We want narratives that resonate with women and the problems and triumphs and tribulations we face.  This should not be a difficult order to fill.

But time and again, it goes sideways.  Usually one of three things happens:

  1. The women are depicted as "strong" in a masculine sort of way, suggesting that the only way to be a strong or valuable woman is to deny your femininity and act like a man.  (a common problem in fantasy) 
  2. The women are depicted as "strong," but are still not as strong as the men around them, and a good portion of their strength seems to be diverted toward being sexy.  (a common problem in superhero stories)
  3. The women are portrayed in traditional women's roles, facing traditional women's problems, and even if they are strong it doesn't seem to really matter since they're not affecting a large enough sphere.  (a common complaint about "women's fiction.") 

Over and over again, these things end up happening.  The stories get caught up in a false dichotomy: Either you can be strong like a man, or you're stuck in outmoded gender roles.  Become a dude, or be worthless.

And this is so fucking frustrating because there's such an obvious solution and people seem to keep on missing it.  Maybe it's a fundamental misunderstanding of the word "strong."  I can't blame you.  It's a complicated word.  Did you know that it has 16 definitions in the dictionary?  According to good ol' Merriam Webster's, strength can mean:  Physical power, intellectual power, wealth, superiority, lack of weakness, resistance to injury, and many other things besides.  

A good synonym for "strong" might be "empowered":   to promote the self-actualization or influence of.  

And a good synonym for "empowerment" might be "agency": the capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power.  

So, I posit:  A strong female character is a character who has agency, both in her own life and in the story.  

This is not rocket science.  Characters should have the ability to act freely, make their own choices, and feel the consequences -- both good and bad -- of those choices.  If you were to write male characters who had no agency, nobody would have any patience for it.  It's a fundamental law of storytelling that characters make choices that drive the story forward.  The very definition of "plot" is: Character + Conflict + Stakes.  The way the character solves the conflict is how the story is resolved.  

Yet, somehow, with women, we ignore these rules completely.  Honestly, did any of you notice, before it was pointed out by The Last Psychiatrist, that Katniss never really does anything?  That she manages to survive the Games through sheer dumb luck and deus ex machina?  That she spectacularly manages to not resolve any conflicts?  

Yet, it's deeply, culturally ingrained that women do not have agency.  That a lack of agency is a defining characteristic of womanhood.  Apparently, having agency is the function of testicles, which is why we say "grow a pair" or "have some balls" to people who are too frightened to take action.  It's why people who are cowardly (ie, lacking in agency) are often referred to as "pussies."  This is also why "emasculate" means both "remove a man's genitals" and "deprive of strength or vigor".  There is no female equivalent of emasculation, possibly because women apparently had nothing of value stored in their genitals in the first place.  

Here's some examples I'm sure you all know:  
Female folktales:  Cinderella gets to wed a prince because she's given a bunch of gifts, and doesn't actually have to do anything herself.  The wife in Bluebeard (does she even have a name?) manages to fuck up the one and only choice she makes in the story, but it's OK because her brothers come to her rescue.  In Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, the titular characters succeed in getting the guy while unconscious or essentially dead.  How's that for lack-of-agency.  
Male folktales:  The youngest son gets to inherit the kingdom through cunning and trickery, with the help of a magical cat in Puss in Boots.  A tailor gets to....inherit a kingdom through cunning and The Brave Little Tailor.  Jack manages to gain riches and notoriety....through cunning and trickery...even though he kind of fucked things up with the giant in the first place.  

Now, I'll grant you, there are a few folktales that buck this trend.  For example:  It's Gretel who dispatches with the witch in Hansel and Gretel (and BOTH of them survive through cunning and trickery).  And in Fitcher's Bird, the heroine saves not only herself but her sisters.  What's that?  You don't know Fitcher's Bird? Oh, never mind....

One last point before I open this one up for discussion.  A book should have strong female characters (read: characters with both agency and vaginas) just as it should have strong male characters (read: characters with agency and penises).  This does not mean that female characters need to be paragons of feminism.  Perfect people -- people without flaws, who are the embodiment of an ideology -- make shitty characters, regardless of gender.

All right -- discuss!  I eagerly await your comments on this one. 


  1. empowerment and agency are great words. In fact I rarely hear people seriously engaging with the subject talking about "strong female characters" for precisely the reasons you give.
    Almost all the characters I admire in fiction (as well as the ones I enjoy writing most) are women who are given the space within a novel to dream a fully rounded future, and to pursue it. Sometimes - as Betty in Betty Blue and Teresa in The Unbearable Lightness of Being - they are unable to achieve that future, but their - and our, as readers - engagement with the pursuit of it is fully drawn.
    The more I think, the more I'm not sure that agency or empowerment have to be central - what is more important is that their aspirations are taken seriously. Often the most fully-realised characters lack agency - Erika in Elfriede Jelinek's The Piano Teacher is one of the most wonderful characters in literature - but their struggle for agency, the fact the author takes them seriously, gives their dreams a place to breathe, that is what makes them great female characters

    1. I think the "strong female character" thing may be particularly endemic to genre fiction. In a lot of the more literary works, characters without agency are much more normal, and that loss of agency is sort of the point of the story. If a character's lack of agency is problematized by the narrative, that's totally fine.

      Like, for example, Mrs. Dalloway. I can't very well fault her for her lack of agency, seeing as it's the whole point of the damn book. Which is probably why it appears in Women's Studies classes.

  2. I think that's right about genre fiction. You should take a look at (and maybe submit to) the wonderful Pankhearst collective who write genre fiction featuring exceptionally well-drawn female characters -

  3. Love this post! (I disagree about Katniss not doing anything though. She stepped up to sacrifice herself for her sister, provided for her family through hunting, set the bees on her pursuers, used her bow and arrows efficiently, and, in the end shot the leader of the rebels despite the cost to herself. Although, I hate, hate, hated the point in the books after her sister's death where she just became numb and useless for a while. So, some of the books, yah, somewhat agree.)

  4. Great post! When I was at Wiscon last year there was a panel about how some readers were tired of the "strong female characters" in relation to the ones that were violent or kick ass because they couldn't relate to them. They wanted women who were strong because maybe that were super smart, or maybe they excelled at a profession, etc. It was an interesting panel.

    I fall a bit into the "strong" woman in my WIP, but there's no real way around it since my MC is an assassin, so there's some butt kicking. BUT! She definitely has agency. She makes decisions and acts on them. Sometimes they're the right decision, sometimes they're not. And sometimes she's better than the boys, and sometimes she's not, because I try to make sure that she's an individual as well as the other characters in the novel. Blerg, I hope i'm pulling it off.