I’ve been reading about what James Cameron said about Wonder Woman and have been following people’s reactions to it and that got me thinking (not for the first time) about what we mean by a Strong Female Character.
In case you missed it – James Cameron argued that the recent Wonder Woman movie was a ‘step backwards’ from the non sexualised Strong Female Character he argues is typified by his Sarah Connor in the Terminator movies.
Now, I loved Sarah Connor. I loved the growth in her character from the first movie where she was scared and had very little autonomy to the second movie where she was harsh, complex, bitter, frightened, and yes – kick arse. That single armed shot gun reload was a magic moment!
But I love Wonder Woman too. Yes, she wears tiny clothes and the costumes and sexualisation of female superheroes can be highly problematic. But Wonder Woman was such a beloved part of my childhood because she solved problems herself. She was humorous. She was clever and strong. She stood up for justice and truth. And – she was gloriously beautiful.
I love beautiful things – rainbows and starry nights give me happy bubbles of joy. I like to surround myself with things from which beauty shines.
I love beautiful people. I have a friend who is incredibly beautiful to look at, and her soul is a gorgeous thing too; sometimes I just sit and admire her.
Beauty doesn’t equal strength but surely it doesn’t take away from it either?
One of my characters in Redemption, Jelena, is a beautiful and elegant woman who comes from a noble family but wanted the life of a soldier. Here she explains some of her conflict:
The birds circled out over the waves, calling to each other as they swooped and dived.
“I was out of place.” Jelena said finally. “The dresses and the drawing rooms and the pianos, they’re lovely for many young women but I always felt enclosed. Suffocated. I used to hide in the garden and read stories of heroes.”
She had no idea why she was talking like this, to an old lady she barely knew, but it was if the pressure of years had finally shifted. She sank down on her haunches, balancing on the balls of her feet, and flicked her plait to the other side of her neck. “Not all the heroes were men. I went to my father and showed him the pictures in my books” She smiled, seeing in her mind the determined young girl she had been, the indulgent smile of a doting father. “He agreed to teach me to use a sword. I think he thought it would be a fun experiment. Neither of us was expecting me to be any good, but I was. I was brilliant” She said it without any arrogance, just as a bald statement of fact. She picked up a pebble and started scratching in the dirt. “But the older I got, the more I didn’t fit. My family didn’t allow me to join the army once I finished the academy so I left. Set up on my own. I couldn’t be both the princess and the hero so I chose to be the hero.”
She looked at the picture she had drawn, a stick figure in a long dress with a sword and a big smile.
“Can I tell you a secret?”
“Of course, dear. Grannies never tell.”
She smiled at the old woman, and this time it wasn’t difficult. “I’ve always wished I could have been both.”
I’ve always wanted to be strong as well as beautiful. It’s not surprising that our imaginary games as children switched between princesses to spaceship captains to adventurers and back again. I did, after all, grow up with Princess Leia as my patronus.
In the same way that beauty doesn’t equal weak or silly, pure brute strength doesn’t necessarily equate to a strong character. Emotional resonance comes from more than a forceful action. The reason that Sarah Connor’s single armed shot gun reload in Terminator 2 made such an impression on me was not just because I knew that it was incredibly difficult and that Linda Hamilton had worked hard as an actress to nail it. No. It resonated with me because of what the character had already been through. It represented to me an overcoming of fear, of obstacles, the determination of a mother to save her child and to save her world. You could also argue that Sarah Connor’s strongest moment was in deciding to not kill the man who, in the future, would be responsible for SkyNet and the deaths of 3 billion people. In that moment she still chose humanity but a smaller version represented by a scared man, his wife, and his children. In that moment she took the first steps towards choosing a new fate.
When I think of a Strong Female Character I think of someone with whom I identify. Someone who has characteristics I admire and respect. Someone who has complex reasons for her motives. In author terms of course it should really mean writing a strong character – female or male. But as a reader? a viewer? I want someone I aspire to be like even though I know they have feet of clay.
Flaws. Maybe it’s that feet of clay that is the most important aspect for me. We feel more in tune with someone whose foibles or struggles remind us of our own.
I think we can also connect with characters who aren’t always good at everything or who are frightened of the things we are frightened of. When they overcome their fears and become stronger for it, we feel the vicarious thrill of it too. Here’s Adelia Lark in Dust Bound doing something I still don’t think I could ever do…
Shit. She didn’t know if she could do this. Okay. Tighten pack. Walk up to the pipe. She turned, wiping her palms down her pants. The hounds bayed and she closed her eyes for a second. It wasn’t as if there was a choice anyway. Right. Her eyes flew open as she started running. Her heart pounded and she could feel her muscles springing beneath her, but she skidded to a stop just before the edge. Shit shit shit! This wasn’t possible. She couldn’t just throw herself off the edge. She looked over the divide at Ryder who had his palms pressed together in front of his lips. He nodded at her. Okay. Fine. She just had to believe. Fairy tale stuff. How appropriate. She jogged back to the pipe and didn’t give herself a moment but turned and sprinted, her arms pumping. She didn’t stop this time but threw herself off the edge, her legs pumping still, coat flying out behind her like a superhero. She only just made the lip of the opposite edge and for a second felt herself waver backwards. Then Ryder’s strong arm was round hers and Pye was there ready to pull her forward.
She looked up at Ryder and felt a grin stretch her face.
Another important Strong Female Character for me is the woman who does what is necessary to protect those she loves. Even if she doesn’t understand what she is going through. Phoebe in Light Breaks has to leave her children with her ex-husband while she tries to ‘save the world.’
I swooped Ella up and hugged her. “Of course you won sweetheart, you’re good at chasing, and you never give up do you!”
She gave me an enthusiastic 4 year old kiss, which involves a lot of crushing teeth and slobber. Matt came snuggling into my side and tried to tickle me; he never stopped trying even though I’d taught myself to not be ticklish. My heart expanded. I knew I would be leaving soon but the memory of this was what I would take with me. This was my world. This was what I would fight for. This was my reality.
“I am sorry my lambs, but this is an adventure just for Mummy. Mummy has to go and make things safe again. When it is safe for you I will come back to get you. Look after Daddy, and look after yourselves.”
Phoebe is not a warrior. She is a researcher. And her joy in this process is one of the things that attracts Damon, the warrior fae who helps her.
Damon watched Phoebe work out of the corner of his eyes. It was yet another side to this woman that he marvelled at. She was methodical and analytical in the way she approached the documents, but her pleasure and excitement at the research and in the books themselves was unexpected. It made him look in a different way at the book in front of him. It was old, older than perhaps the two humans realised. He tried to see it in the way Phoebe did. As he scanned through the pages looking for references to a power like Phoebe’s he tried to capture some of the feeling he’d seen reflected in Phoebe’s mind; this had been written by someone millennia ago. He wondered what they had been like, who they had loved.
How she could hold this much emotion for others so long dead was beyond him.
He looked at her again; she had no idea how luminous her joy made her.
Phoebe’s powers make her strong, but her real strength lies in her connections to other people and in her compassion.
Ultimately, for me, a Strong Female Character shows love, compassion, strength, and truth.
What about you? What are some of your favourite Strong Female Characters? What makes them your favourite?
Tell me in the comments!