The Problem With “Writing Strong Women”

When it comes to easing the inequality of female representation in media, people have lots of different opinions on what the solution could be. Perusing the Internet, I came across one interesting argument — just write “Strong Female Characters”. I couldn’t help but wonder if the answer was really that simple — can decades of inequality, misrepresentation, and sexism become a thing of the past with just writing women as “Strong”?

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Oh Joss Whedon…[/caption]

The simple answer: OF COURSE NOT (but let’s explore why that is.)

To begin, we have to look at the state of things now. Mainstream writers and corporations rely on troupes and stereotypes to write their marginalized characters* (generally, this is anyone not white, middle-class, hetero, able-bodied, and male). This isn’t surprising considering that these people in charge will most likely be male. It’s also not realistic to expect every character will be a hero. Some are needed just to fade into the background. Some characters exist simply for eye candy or to relieve tension. However, there is a problem when there is no variety.

When we look at how male characters are represented in nerd culture, there’s a wide variety of individuals to choose from. Some men are small, muscular, heavy; some are white and some are green. While one may charge into battle, others may cower from it and try to escape. Some are strong, some use their smarts. But not one individual male character represents the entire group. They are free to be simply themselves.

Women in nerd culture do not have this luxury.

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Sorry Joss.. Writing women as simply “strong” isn’t quite the answer (cred: the MSU Reporter)[/caption]

Women are far more likely to be force-fit into ill-fitting boxes. In nerd media especially, we are bombarded with images of one kind of woman — she is attractive (often white, with blonde or red hair and curvy proportions) and most of her character development is dependent on her looks or if others find her attractive. While the male hero can exist with his concerns being on vanquishing evil, his female counterpart always finds herself relating love into the equation. It isn’t enough for her to be a hero on her own; she must balance being “strong” while also fitting into her role as a significant other.

There have been examples of mainstream media shifting this tired troupe, but only slightly. Shows like Xena: Warrior Princess and Buffy the Vampire Slayer had leading ladies that existed outside of stereotypically feminine structures. In 2014, we have seen more women of color on our television screens — Iris West in The Flash, Abbie Mills of Sleepy Hollow, Fish Mooney of Gotham. Movie theaters headline female action stars charging into battle. This past weekend, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part One made news as the “biggest [premiere] of 2014” according to Wikipedia, starring Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen. The success of the Hunger Games franchise has inspired other blockbusters like Divergent to rise to the occasion.

However, we are still failing to see female characters be written equally.

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Original post can be found here[/caption]

The issue with the idea of “writing strong women” is that the approach is all wrong. We should not approach female characters — inside nerd culture or not — as specialty genres. Women make up over half of the human population. We contribute to every area of human skill, and lead lives that include pain, celebration, and triumph. No two women expereience life in the same way — what may define stregnth to one will not be the same to another. Women, no matter how they define themselves, deserve to see our stories told. The default should not be without us in mind.

When we look at it this way, writing “interesting female characters” begins to make sense.

How can we combat this? Well, a large part plays with support. Look at the media you buy — whether that’s comics, music, movies, action figures, whatever it may be. Do they pass the Bechdel test? Do they have the kind of female representation you would like to see if it were you? Would you be proud and excited to share this with the women in your life? If the answer is “no”, then perhaps this should be a sign to shift this.

Because it is harder to find positive representation in mainstream media, a lot of artists and creators, like myself, have turned to other means. There are great self-published artists and writers on sites like Tumblr and Devientart. There are blogs, podcasts, and personal websites showcasing other stories. Chat with these creators, share their work and support their cause. That’s one of the most important ways that change can truly happen.

The idea of “writing strong women” is not bad advice. We need to see the same amount of diversity in our female heroes as her male counterparts. However, it IS important to write interesting characters — whether they are smart, kind, dangerous, feminine, or all of the above — as the people they are without erasing their identities.

Share your thoughts in the comments below! Until next time,


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