This blog started out as a comment on Facebook to a male author that got way out of hand – long enough that it warranted its own post. It was written in response to this blog post here: The Fallacy and Potential of the Strong Female Character.
One thing I find conflictual in the SFC argument – on both sides of the argument – is this weird double-standard of ‘SFCs are sexualized bimbos! Bimbos/bitches can’t be SFCs!’ vs ‘SFCs are just men with tits! Why can’t they preserve their femininity! They should be powerful as women, not because they act like dudes!’. It results this push towards: “The only right female characters are characters who are complex and feminine in this very particular way.”
There’s a basic problem with looking at female characters with those parameters. Firstly, it imposes a judgement on what is considered active and not, feminine or not, and questions the right of certain kinds of women to protag. When judged by this strange paradox, you’re saying a character is either too female or not enough, and female strength should only be embodied by the median. Which, incidentally, is generally only a specific kind of independent white femininity.
What about butch femininity? Furiosa comes to mind, but not just her. What about Ripley? Butch women often both strongly identify female, and strongly identify with presentation and activities often considered masculine. Is someone who embodies practical, physical, active traits, who wears compression bras and ski caps against the weather while they’re sniping from a tower ‘acting like a dude’? Are stone butches not women, able to take protagonist roles?
Conversely, women can be powerful in the nude or in skimpy clothing, and some women are and feel very empowered in those states. The embrace femme identity and feel empowered by it. Are these women not strong enough because they feel good this way, not dynamic enough because they happen to be under the gaze of the viewer? Is it not the viewer’s problem? Why do pundits make the presence of big breasts and skimpy clothes the problem of the female protagonist, and undervalue her because she’s high-femme?
Many women move between states of masculine and feminine, just as men do. A soldier in lingerie is still a soldier, as Motoko Kusanagi often proves. They don’t embody the grey zone of comfortable femininity.
In other words, who defines the feminine, and at what cost to the validity of other characters?
Part of the problem is that female characters don’t have male counterparts – not directly. We don’t ask these questions of male characters, or discuss the judgement of their masculinity or their ability to protag based on their sex. I think that often, the discussion of female protagonists ends up unintentionally reinforcing the binary and reinforcing the object-focus of women’s bodies and activities in fiction.
For example: Male protags get away with acts of toxic masculinity without being regarded by the public as not suitably male. Harry Dresden of The Dresden Files, for instance, is always attempting to coddle (and often fails at relating to) women, and never grows in this respect. No one would ever say he’s ‘too masculine’ to protag. No one questions his complexity because of his unconscious masculinity. His clothing or lack of it is never judged, or even remarked on.
But women – frail and not, sexy or not, white or not, femme or butch – get put under this lens and scrutinized. And I think that we should be very aware of that as male authors.