As many of you know via my work here with Fraud or Freud?, in the other side of my professional life I am a college instructor at a large university in the States. Given this, the past few months of my summer vacation have been devoted to crafting my syllabus for the upcoming fall term. I am happy to report that I have what is essentially a completed syllabus full of lots of challenging texts and themes for my students. As I have been working on it I find myself listening to what I have deemed “strong woman anthems,” that is, songs written and performed by women that are filled with themes of accomplishment, anti-patriarchy sentiments, and overcoming various types of difficulties. Some examples: I’ve listened to Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill” more times than I care to admit, sang along with Erykah Badu, and annoyed my partner with a million other feminst-y songs that she doesn’t like because they aren’t Gogol Bordello.
Listening to these songs and trying to undo the knot that is a syllabus got me thinking about a certain question, which is: What constitutes a strong female character to our contemporary consciousness? Is she physically strong and ripped? Is she a great mother? Does she work outside the home? Does her onscreen love interest (because there always is one) respect her?
Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft
A basic Google search for “strong female characters” yields expected results. We get Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft and Mrs. Smith, discussion of Katniss from the Hunger Games Trilogy, and some of the more outspoken Disney princesses like Mulan. All great examples, but, the common denominator is clear here—physical strength or action is what normally will push a female character into the “strong” category. When we dig a bit deeper we get some examples from historical and period films like Rob Roy, The Lion in Winter, and The Queen. But those women still exhibit a certain “masculine” aggressiveness that forces us to reorient them within our brains. Queen Elizabeth does not question her decisions nor does Eleanor of Aquitaine.
When I used to do introductory courses in medieval history and literature, Eleanor was always our go to “strong woman” to disprove the idea that all medieval women were submissive. Same goes for Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. What we remember most about the Wife (Alison) is that she wants to enjoy sex as much as the next knight down the block and has a radical idea: that women should have sovereignty. In other words, these female characters still operate within our paradigm of strength that is based off a masculine ideal. In order for a female character to be considered strong she better have a body that defies female stereotypes about physical weakness or a mind that is not ruled by sentiment.
Hermione Granger of the Harry Potter series has boyish confidence that makes her fellow students uncomfortable because they aren’t used to a girl who is smarter and better than things than they are, but eventually such characteristics win Ron Weasley’s heart. Critics have said that Rowling’s creation of Hermione was revolutionary because she was put on equal standing with the boys early on in the series, an indispensable and highly valuable part of the group. A far cry from the Bella Swan’s and Anastasia Steele’s of the literary world (Bella being the protagonist of the Twilight series and Anastasia coming from the horribly inaccurate BDSM fantasy and Twilight fanfic franchise Fifty Shades of Grey).
In fact, when time came to make cinematic adaptations of both books, Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey, female directors were chosen because they were thought to be able to tap into the films’ central female characters a bit more accurately than their male counterparts.
Rumours about the upcoming Fifty Shades of Grey movie have stated that the selection of a female director was due largely in part to feminists’ objections to the BDSM present within the novels, and that a female director could act as a sort of a buffer between the sexually explicit content that needs to be depicted and feminist complaints that the story is misogynist. Either way, millions of women worldwide have fallen in love with both Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey and imagined themselves as the delightfully submissive central heroines.
Mothers who encourage their daughters to be more like Hermione fantasize themselves as Anastasia, and thus, we get a conflicting message about what it means to be a strong woman or strong female character. Little girls are told they can do anything that boys do, but once those little girls grow up we tell them to submit to their boyfriends and force-feed them stories full of classically romantic and violent encounters.
Bella Swan wakes up in the 4th Twilight book after losing her virginity (post wedding, of course) covered in bruises because her new vampire husband has been so uncontrollably violent during their first sexual moments together. The ideal man is not gentle or understanding of consent, he just takes. A similar theme is brought up in tons of films. Being a straight man is about having no limits.
The boys of Hostel need to go to Slovakia to satisfy their carnal itch because Amsterdam isn’t wild enough. Patrick Bateman needs to kill women because merely fucking them isn’t good enough. Don Draper tells Rachel Menkin in the pilot of Mad Men “Miss, you’re being way out of line,” when she asserts her disappointment in Sterling Cooper’s plan for her business, even though she is the client he seeks to impress.
The Wife Of Bath, wearing red and riding side saddle?! She’s bold!
Given this minefield of a popular culture environment, how do we expect any type of realistically strong female characters to ever make it on the page or on screen? Angelina Jolie can kick the shit out of you in Salt but, don’t worry, she’s not going to get sentimental. It’s a homoerotic fantasy at its best, the best friend who happens to have the body of a supermodel and won’t turn into all those annoying women you’ve had to deal with who want to talk about feelings. On the other side of coin, strong mothers are de-sexualized (which is why a film like Something’s Gotta Give was so revolutionary) and told that they are beyond their prime. It’s time that their daughters took their places at the table of sexuality while they serve the coffee and then disappear into the attic.
So, what could a strong female character look like besides a miniature wizard with an uncanny ability to memorize or a girl with a crossbow? We could turn to Chaucer and see what Alison says at the beginning of her Prologue, which in modern English looks something like this: “Experience, though it would be no authority in this world, would be quite sufficient for me, to speak of the woe that is in marriage.” In other words, to make strong female characters we need to listen to women’s experiences and stop working within the realm of ( mostly male) fantasy.
Yes, cinema and literature are about fantasy, but I’m pretty sure some of our more beloved male characters, like Holden Caulfield (of Salinger’s self indulgent and now unfortunately canonical The Catcher in the Rye) or Phineas and Gene (from Knowles’ most likely unintentionally homoerotic masterpiece A Separate Peace), are hailed as feeling very real to young male readers. They have universal experiences of loneliness, isolation, and crises of confidence. The stories stroke their bruised egos. Places like Devon School might not be exactly real, but Phillip’s Exeter is, New York City is, and WWII actually happened. The list goes on. Boy characters exist in a world that we can picture. Last time I checked Tomb Raider wasn’t real, there were no Hunger Games, and the closest we can get to Hogwarts is by going to a Universal Studios theme park or visit the tribute to Platform 9 3/4 in London’s King’s Cross.
I’m tired of strong female characters being stuck in fantasy literature or action films. I’m annoyed I had a childhood of imagining myself as a strong young boy protagonist because there were no strong girls I could identify with besides The Babysitter’s Club (I could devote like eight columns to how that type of gender reversal has affected me). I was Gene. I was Holden. I was Charlie (of The Perks of Being a Wallflower). I wanted to grow up and write like T.S. Eliot. I wanted to be the boys in The Sandlot; they had so much freedom to play and explore.
Virginia Woolf, Christine de Pizan, Marie de France, Edwidge Danticat, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich…names I didn’t read until college, but changed my ideas about literature and writing forever. I owe the professors who introduced me to them more than I will ever be able to give.
I’m happy little girls now have more options for literary (and cinematic) role models than I did and way more than my mother (and women of her generation) did, but we still need our Holden. Our girl that exists in the real world and isn’t a wizard, elf, vampire, etc. And for you Bronte and Austen buffs out there, don’t worry I didn’t forget about you, but all those stories are about finding a man (or keeping a man), not being an autonomous person with agency. That’s just as bad, but in a different way. We don’t want to teach our girls to be waiting or to be tamed. We want them to be free. Like boys always have been.
Tag, you all are “It.”
Which one of us is going to write her story?