Strong Female Characters

Strong Female Characters

Clara Rinker, as seen in Certain Prey and Mortal Prey is a good strong female character. Modern fiction could stand to use a few more Clara Rinkers.
Movies and books are overloaded with white, young, attractive lead characters [1]. Oh, it's not 100%, and there are exceptions to be found, but when modern media strays from the formula, the exceptions tend to be either insulting stereotypes [2], unbelievable stereotypes [3], or simply wrong [4]. Or some mix of the three [5].
In recent years, there's been a trend for more diversity in movies and books, but — and I've ranted a bit about this before — when that's applied due to corporate orders from above, it feels heavy-handed, misguided, and wrong. At no point does anything feel natural [6].
I'm going to pick on a few things as examples, and they're things that I like. But I feel they illustrate the problem well.
In Star Trek [7], the viewer is watching the adventures of the crew of the starship Enterprise: an attractive (white, male) captain, overseeing a logical (white, male) alien science officer, a curmudgeonly (white, male) doctor, an eccentric (white, male) chief engineer, a Japanese (male) navigation officer, and a Russian (white, male) weapons officer [8].
There are three named regular female characters in the show. One is essentially the captain's personal assistant, and one is the doctor's head nurse. The standout, of course, is the black female communications officer, but fills the role of secretary in the original series. Those are all secondary, support roles, never starring ones. The same kind of roles women were expected to fill in real life.
And this show was a tremendous step forward for diversity and inclusiveness. Imagine how much more monotonous it had to be before this. No, wait, you don't have to imagine. You can go look at almost any television show before 1950. The women never had important jobs, never had important roles. If they did anything of consequence, is was almost always because either a man told them to, or they were just being a silly female, easily ignored. If they had an important role it was either as the helpless female sidekick, because the hero needs someone to rescue and someone to ask him stupid questions [9]. Or they were the Femme Fatale, almost always doing something out of love, because that was women's big weakness. There was little else, and nothing remotely realistic.
Some people say that, well, sure, but that was representative of culture of the time. And that's not true. It was representative of what people thought of culture. And in this case, that means people in power. Who were almost exclusively white and male. History being written by the winners, as it were.
If we fast-forward to today, the situation has improved... but not that much. The reboot of Star Trek, just a few years ago, as a huge major motion picture has all the same lack of diversity as the original. Oh, there are some additions that make you feel that things are better in the background [10], but that's where they stay: in the background. The new, important characters are the (white, male) older captain of the Enterprise, and the (white, male) alien bad guy from the future and his (white, male) crew.
There's another major motion picture that came up recently. A comic book movie, The Avengers. This one has not one, but two female characters that get names, and have important roles.
So next to the (white, male) super-soldier, the (white, male) God from Asgard, the (white, male) bowhunter sniper, the (white, male) scientist with anger issues, the (white, male) millionaire industrialist with his powered armor (all of them fighting the (white, male) bad guy from Asgard and his (white, male) science lacky) [11], there are two women fighting with them. They're both white [12], but, hey, baby steps here. No need to rush.
But one of those women — Maria Hill — acts mostly as the secretary to the guy running the whole thing. Her presence in the movie does not change anything. The other is Black Widow, the super spy.
Natalia Romanoff [13], the Black Widow, is the epitome of what the media now views as the Strong Female Character. She's impossibly skilled, she's amazingly intelligent, she has no discernible sense of humor, she's willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done, she has a sense of style that looks like it was designed by the costume and makeup department of a major Hollywood motion picture [14]. She is everything the male super-macho action hero is. Or everything that the male super-macho action hero was, before Hollywood collectively decided that the role was just not believable.
It's not a character. It's a caricature, with no more depth than an actual comic book [15].
Clara Rinker is none of that. She's got some amazing skills, but they're not outside the range of anyone willing to dedicate a lot of time and skill to a craft [16]. She's got intelligence, but not the kind of super-genius skills that let her hack an alien computer while simultaneously solving Rubik's cubes. She makes mistakes, but not the stupid, damsel-in-distress kind that then require she get rescued by the (presumably white and male) heroic lead. She's very human.
And we, the readers, absolutely sympathize with that. We all know what it's like to be human, and we all knows what goes on in daily life that ends up on the cutting floor of book production [17]. There's none of the leaping-from-exploding buildings that never happens in reality. There's none of the beating-up-ten-bad-guys-at-once. None of that. She laughs, she cries, she can be ruthless, she can be forgiving. She's got more depth of character than a dozen Black Widows, because she's treated as an actual human, rather than a super-human, or a stupid sidekick, or a poker chip, or some other trope.
She's human, with all the success and failures and seemingly interminable mundanities that brings, and she's a much stronger character for it. And that is the lesson that writers — both of movies and novels — need to learn, if they haven't: if you need to have a Strong Female Character, you don't have to make her super-capable, or super-intelligent, or humorless and relentless, or give her some skill that she can use to show up her male comrades. You just have to make her human [18].

Footnotes

1. To be perfectly fair, books are much less guilty of this than movies are. There are major thrillers with believable female leads, with complex characters with crippling flaws, of complex characters without crippling flaws, with ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. On the other hand, there are also those action-packed thrillers where the Good Guy has to beat up the army of ninjas to save the President, who is carrying the nuclear football, which must be reset every hour or it automatically launches a nuclear attack... A few of those come out every week, and they sell very well.

2. "He's the gay friend, so of course he has to be flamboyantly gay, like he just got out of an all-gay cabaret revue."

3. "And then after she punches out the army of ninjas, she dons the scuba gear, jumps out of the exploding helicopter, and sneaks inside the nazi submarine through a torpedo tube, all without messing up her fabulous hair or her perfect makeup."

4. "He's a platypus. They don't do much, you know."

5. "Since we already know that all Belgians are lazy, have black-belts in Tai Chi, and eat clam chowder all day, why don't we make a character that goes against that type?".

6. Such as the gay friend stereotype, or the hippie chick stereotype, or the folksy southerner stereotype, or the violent redneck stereotype, and on and on and on...

7. And as much as I get angry about problems with Star Trek, it's only because I care so much about it. It was my first real fandom, and every time someone screws it up, it feels like a betrayal. A lot of fandoms are like that. Maybe all of them.

8. I'd noticed it before, but it was this cartoon that really brought it into focus.

9. Even when they were the main character, the women would frequently end up in peril, and have to be rescued by a man. The early Nancy Drew books fall into this so hard that they're almost unreadable by today's standards [19].

10. Quick: the green girl in the first movie. What's her name? Or the cybernetic guy who works on the bridge. Any idea? They have names, but they're never mentioned on the screen. Even Spock's mother, the most important woman aside from Uhura, is there specifically so she can be killed, to give a character some depth.

11. Some people immediately say that, oh, this is because it's playing to a specific demographic. They've been saying that for years, and it's never been true. Yes, the white, young, male demographic is desirable, but so is every other demographic. It's the same mentality that leads to marketing people believing that the only way to sell something to women is to make it pink [20].

12. The only major black character plays a character who is white in the comics. There was a huge outcry when it happened, because black guys should never get cast as white characters [21]. Of course.

13. Yes, it's Natalia, not Natasha. As much as I seem to be hating everything about this movie, let me restate this: I am a huge comic book nerd. I love all this stuff. But after a while, I can't overlook the fact that a lot of the stuff I love is horribly biased, and carefully designed by marketing experts to appeal to a demographic that I happen to be in. Anyway, it's Natalia. Natasha is sort of a diminutive form of the name [22].

14. Even in the comics she wears an outfit that no actual spy would wear. It's a Superhero 101 thing, even though she's not a superhero. The most recent series is actually doing a good job of deconstructing all of the tropes surrounding her that've persisted for decades. Recommended reading, oh yes.

15. That sounds insulting to comics, and it probably is, but consider: as much as I like comic books, and as much as a lot of them do have depth, I'm constantly pissed off that the major publishers — DC and Marvel — are constantly turning their back from anything that might be depth-inducing. Several years ago, in a huge crossover event, Spider-Man unmasked himself live on television, and suddenly his identity was known to everyone, along with all the consequences. This was the most interesting thing the character had done in years... and it lasted about a year before he made a quite literal deal with the devil and everyone in the world forgot. They claim to want to have depth, but they keep reverting to the status quo.

16. Yes, Clara Rinker's an expert shot. She's also been practicing for a decade, almost constantly. Even if you're no good with guns right now, you'd probably be pretty good after practicing every day for a decade.

17. What happens in the bathroom stays in the bathroom. Most of the time, anyway.

18. This rule doesn't necessarily apply if you are literally writing about alien creatures. But think about it: are all of the aliens identical? Do they not have down time where they get restless or play video games? Doesn't Blivit Quiznot get tired of the same Nebulon Fractal Modules for dinner every night [23]?

19. It's the same for Wonder Woman in those early comics, except that Wonder Woman always had that bondage fetish thing going on. Not the character, mind you, but the writers and artists.

20. There is no reason why a pink home tool set should exist, beyond the misguided marketing.

21. And yes, this is a deliberate Think about this moment. Nick Fury, in canon, is a grizzled old white guy. The last white guy who played him was David Hasslehoff. Whatever your opinion may be of Hasslehoff, I maintain that Samuel L. Jackson's version is better, even though he's a black guy playing a character who was originally meant to be white. Similarly, Lucas Davenport is a white guy in the series, if not as grizzled or old as Nick Fury. But for the Mind Prey TV movie, he was played by a black guy, Eriq LaSalle. I bet there are plenty of people out there who hated the TV movie specifically because Lucas isn't black in the books, but who had absolutely no problem with Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, even though Nick Fury wasn't black in the classic comics [24].

22. It's more complex than that, but while I'm willing to discuss science and math in the footnotes, that's because I know science and math. I don't know Russian, so I'm relying on my sister's expertise in this matter.

23. I know I do.

24. Yes, I know that Nick Fury is black in Marvel's Ultimate universe, but he was specifically designed to look like Samuel L. Jackson almost from the get-go. In the previous 50 years of established canon in the mainline Marvel 616 universe, he's always been a grizzled old white guy, all the way back to World War II.