First things first. I think a strong female character is important. There, got that out of the way. Now I’m going to talk about why I don’t think a strong female character should be TOO awesome.
Here’s the deal. I’ve been noticing (and I realize that my observations are entirely subjective) that women are being represented a great deal more in leading roles where they’re saving the day, and doing all sorts of awesomeness without the need for any man’s help. (Personally, that makes me sad. I love men and romance and stories involving both, but I’m getting side-tracked.)
There’s not necessarily a problem with this. I think it’s great that girls can see women playing these cool heroine roles. Not that there weren’t some great heroines back in my day too. Princess Leia and Ripley are iconic for being strong heroines.
My issues with books and movies that feature strong, kick-butt heroines is when they venture into Mary Sue territory. Mary Sue characters are seemingly perfect heroines. They can do anything and everybody loves them. They often have zero flaws, and frankly, they can be insufferable.
I recently saw a trailer (not going to mention the movie) where an unarmed woman in a tight skirt takes out two fully armed and armored soldiers, each at least a half again as large as her. Seriously? The worst part was, as far as I know, she wasn’t even supposed to be modified in any way to make up for the fact that what she did was pretty darn impossible. Okay people! Just stop.
Overlooking the fact that the supposedly trained villainous soldiers had to be criminally stupid not to just shoot her during this entire combat situation (not to mention she was able to get one of their weapons) let’s look at the suggestion that anyone, male or female, can punch someone with their bare hand when that person is wearing full armor and not end up with a meat bag of bone dust and agony on the end of their wrist. I’m done. I’m just… done.
To me, scenes like this are just patronizing. Someone somewhere decreed that women need to be represented better in the media and what we get are cartoonish characters who can do no wrong and defy reality even when they’re supposed to be realistic. (We’re not talking superheroes here.)
What happened to appreciating women for attributes that most of them possess, instead of inventing impossible scenarios with the suggestion that this is what makes a strong woman? I take martial arts. I’ve hit things. I’m not buying this bull-oney.
The reason Ripley from Alien is one of my favorite female heroines is because she was an ordinary person. She wasn’t a genetically engineered super-soldier, and she wasn’t a man in a woman-suit to satisfy some kind of affirmative action quota. She came off as a real woman in extraordinary circumstance who found a core of strength within herself and used it to overcome her opponent. That movie had a story that felt genuine, because female exceptionalism wasn’t artificially injected into it.
Too often lately, strong female characters defy realism, because to be real means to make mistakes, suffer setbacks, possess flaws, and perhaps most importantly, rely on others for help. I get that “women don’t need men to save them,” is a popular story trope nowadays. I say, “Sure, if your story maintains believability.” Unfortunately, all too often, it doesn’t. Human beings rely on each other all the time. There’s no reason why a character should have to go it alone when there’s help to be had simply because she’s female and that help might be male. That’s why these characters become Mary Sues. How else can they single-handedly save the day?
My thoughts on this are nowhere near as organized as I’d like them to be, but whenever I see scenes like I described above, I get so frustrated. It’s like when a parent gushes over their child’s scribbles. Maybe they’re actually impressed, but the sincerity isn’t obvious because their reaction is totally unrealistic. These stories treat women like the only way they can be respected and celebrated is to live up to some impossible standard, just as parents set up an expectation in their kids that all their drawings have to be “gush-worthy” for their parent’s approval.
Sincerity. That’s what I want in portrayals of a strong female character. Respect for what women actually are: human beings with strengths and weaknesses.
I’m not suggesting that I never have and never will accidentally venture into Mary Sue territory. It’s difficult not to, sometimes. All I’m saying is that it shouldn’t be the standard for how women (or anyone) should be represented.
I know that some folks love the new “super” woman heroines that are coming out in books and media, but personally, I prefer a female character I can relate to. What’s your opinion?