Why are most female characters in contemporary media… dull? The average female character is ‘empowered’ and ‘takes no crap from anyone.’ But she’s as rich as a sponge soaked in mud. There are no intricate flaws, and any danger she’s in: don’t worry, she can get herself out of it! If the ‘strong female character’ can’t use a weapon she’ll boss everyone around. Worse if its historical fiction. The lead is always modernised, because no one cares about women with ‘traditional’ mindsets, right?
Such thinking plagues many writers, and it is frustrating. Not only does it simplify history, but it also sets an unfortunate precedent for how a female character ought to be.
I’m currently reading a book (The Tolstoy Estate by Steven Conte) set in Russia during WWII. In it, there’s an outspoken female character who has little time for gender roles or wartime assumptions about women. Although the novel is fine, the character is a weak point. It’s not because she’s annoying, or of a dislike for ‘empowered’ female characters. No. The character Katerina is weak because she’s not believable.
There is nothing wrong with female characters that challenge gender roles or societal expectations. Historically, many women did! But Katerina is so bombastic and obvious about her intentions, that clearly, the writer wants us to pay attention.
Adding to this challenge is the novel’s secondary genre. Romance. Not only is romance often maligned by assumptions, that it’s “sexist” and “places pressure on women”, but many authors write to ‘prove’ they aren’t like other romance writers. And it’s because of such beliefs that The Tolstoy Estate does not charm.
I despise how we perceive women from history as ‘less’ than ourselves. This became apparent when I considered the adaptions of Pride & Prejudice. Elizabeth Bennett, in particular, us rude and can not read social situations. This is a sharp contrast to Austen’s novel. Elizabeth has fiery moments, but she is not as antagonistic as Keira Knightley played her.
Historical television continues this trend. In Vikings, the showrunners illustrate how ‘liberated’ female characters were (Lagertha, Siggy, etc) compared to the docile and weak Christian women of England and France. Whilst it’s true that strict gender roles and expectations suppressed women, there’s a smug assertion that the only way a woman is truly liberated is when she leads men or is violent.
Powerful women did exist in history. But part of why we study history is discovering the rich lives of ‘ordinary’ people. I’m a romantic, and I must say that everyone has a story worth telling, regardless of the ‘power’ they wield. One of my favourite novels is Les Miserables, precisely because of Cosette. Her life is worth following, mainly because it represents many souls in France. Cosette’s narrative is not passive, either.
Historical fiction authors may believe a ‘powerful’ character is automatically an interesting one. That’s not true. After reading Lord Of The Rings, I concluded that Sauron is boring. (Although that neglects the rich lore in other Middle Earth books). Why? Because he lacks the spellbinding vulnerability that characters need in order to interest the reader.
In Harry Potter, Voldemort is at his most interesting when he is vulnerable. Many villains and heroes are like that. Readers dislike passive characters (generally) but they like characters who express humanity.
I believe it scares novice writers to create female characters that are helpless or need saving. It’s clearly not a ‘feminist’ message. However, everyone, in their lives, needs help from others. There’s no shame in it. To have a female character that’s solely independent in herself detracts from the importance of friendship and family.
A positive example is Buffy Summers from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Various episodes involve her saving others, whilst others reverse the dynamic, and have Buffy being saved. When she pushes other people away in her life, she clearly suffers and makes decisions that she’s not happy about. This is clear in early season three, where Buffy leaves Sunnydale.
What’s great about Buffy the Vampire Slayer is seeing Buffy at both her lowest and highest. She’s not a fearless warrior with no emotion. Rather, she’s a young women trying to figure out the world around her.
That’s probably why I never connected with the Frozen movies. Although vastly different, they construct the sisters Elsa and Anna in a way with little vulnerability or fear.
In my review of Frozen II, I argued the importance of conflict, and why the movie lacked in tension. I believe Disney has a weird shame about classic fairy-tales from the twentieth century. In their minds, they taught young girls’ bad things, and the only way to remedy the situation is by showing them the opposite. I understand that. However, we shouldn’t deny the vulnerability of human experience, and that it’s okay for a woman to accept help.
All fictional works mentioned may differ in genre, but all utilise ideas about history. For example, Tolkien was a well-known medievalist. Hugo did not shy away from debating revolutionary rhetoric in Les Miserables. Both Buffy and Harry Potter use ‘medieval’ symbols and iconography, because you can’t discuss fantasy without talking about the medieval. Frozen reinterprets Scandinavian folklore, even if it simplifies it.
The only fictional work that’s ‘contemporary’ is Pride & Prejudice, which reflects Austen’s time. However, it gets the historical fiction treatment by contemporary artists and English lecturers. (Which, to be fair, is understandable.)
My point is to highlight how important history is in fiction. As someone who studies history, I observed a weird ‘shame’ about history, particularly the treatment of women. On a surface level, this makes sense. Terrible events occurred, and they should never have. However, when our shame twists truth into make-believe, that’s a problem. Writers who write women must not nurse the reader into a lie.
As I watch and read these ‘enlightened’ texts, I remember that’s not how women act. Men don’t act like caricatures, either.
It makes for dull storytelling. If there is one thing you can’t do, it is boring writing. Write women as they are, not who you wish they were.