Hello friends! I've talked before about tropes that I dislike, but there are a few that I think need more extensive examination, partly because they have important social justice ramifications. As such, I'm presenting you with Kill the Trope, a series examining problematic tropes! Today, as indicated by your votes, I'm kicking it off with the Strong Female Character.
How many characters in recent popular media can you name as "strong female characters?" There's been a major surge of this in recent decades, primarily through science fiction movies like Star Wars and The Hunger Games. These women kick butt, save the day, start revolutions, keep up with the best of the men, don't let their girly feelings get in the way...
...there's the problem. Do you see it?
A lot of others online have discussed this issue, and I don't think a single one of us has a problem with women doing these things. We appreciate that media is now portraying women in what used to be "masculine" roles, giving them power and voice and action. A lot of us really like and relate to these characters. But we're hard-pressed, still, all the time, to find female characters that are strong in the diverse ways that women in real life are strong. Women who like things other than battle and hunting. Women who are romantics, who wear dresses, who like knitting or reading or whatever else--who also are portrayed as strong, intelligent, and admirable. Who also get to be heroes.
When used to exclusion, this standard "strong female character" trope does not promote the continuation of feminism in the third/fourth wave we're seeing today. It rests pretty decently in the second wave of feminism--necessary, but not where we need to be at anymore. Feminism is no longer just about women being "allowed" to do the same things that men do. It's about destroying the dichotomy of masculine=good / feminine=bad, and promoting respect and opportunities for all of the complex people in this incredibly diverse world we live in. This is a world where "strong" should not just mean "manly."
I personally know I've been affected--in the sense of believing it, in the sense of imbibing prejudice--by the way traditionally "feminine" things are treated as lesser in our society. I've sometimes felt like I'm fighting tooth and nail to be considered intelligent and valuable when I'm also, in many ways, quite "girly." This is just how my life is. I possess a number of interests and qualities that are associated with the feminine--y'know, on top of being a woman--and the world keeps trying to tell me that I can't have those things and also be strong and capable. Which is N-O-T not how it should be. Many--oh-so-many--of these things that we degrade in our culture as being less-than or bad are not, in any intrinsic way, either of those. We call them that precisely because we associate them with the feminine. We still, in the center of our culture's consciousness, believe that female equals less.
Recent pop culture, and my response to it, has made this problem much clearer to me. As I said, I'm pretty feminine. My parents always said, when I was little, that I was not in any way a "tomboy," like my cousin, but a "girly-girl," which somehow always felt degrading. Maybe because, in our culture, the implicit perception of it is.
In all honesty, though, I was what you would call a "girly-girl." My favorite colors were pink and yellow, and when my elementary school in Albuquerque had us all nominate colors and an animal for our new mascot, I said "pink and yellow and a unicorn." (We ended up with red and black and a dragon, and I was quite unhappy about it.) In my first of over seventy diaries, I wrote about how important fashion and sparkly stuff was to me. I liked to play with dolls and embroider things and go to stamping club with my mom, and I hated that she wouldn't let me grow my hair out to my waist. I wanted to make my own Babysitter's Club, or maybe a Crafts Club, or a Knitting Club. I believed in fairies until I was nine (and in Santa Claus until I was fifteen or so). I loved makeup, up until it became less of an art and more of a nightmare, thanks to my BDD, and as soon as I learned about puberty I wanted to wear a bra, even though I didn't need one yet. I wanted to be a princess-mermaid-fairy-dolphin, Ariel from The Little Mermaid was my hero, and I played imaginary games with my brothers and then with my friends at recess until we were fourteen.
I grew out of all of those things, and some of it I purposefully let go of because I was tired of being looked at as though I were a silly child instead of someone with a lot of deep and complex thoughts and dreams. I wonder, sometimes, who I would be if I hadn't felt pressured to forget the color pink, to stop embroidering and knitting, to let go of mermaids and fairies, to hate being "girly."
Still, at the core of me, I am a "girly girl," and I couldn't--and shouldn't have to--change that. I still like Disney movies. I still play imaginary games, but now I do it alone and on paper in the form of storytelling. I like to wear dresses and skirts, and I like to feel pretty. I love kittens, and my favorite flower is a rose. I cry a lot; I have a lot of feelings. I like to hold babies and pet their heads, just like I do with cats. I can't stand the thought of hunting, and I don't like guns. I also happen to be disabled, which contributes to the fact that I have no interest in sports whatsoever. Most of all, I have wanted to fall in love with whomever my future husband may be and have a family with him since I was two-years-old. That has not changed in the slightest. I am a romantic. More than almost anything in the world, I love love.
I have been told repeatedly that I am the lesser for all of those things. Because I like dresses and Disney movies and "girly" things, I must be silly and weak, too naive to have deep thoughts and important opinions and the ability to call people out on their crap. I have been called "innocent" my entire life, and the implication is that I don't know anything, rather than the truth: that I have moral code I hold to with great determination and a religion I think deeply about and have great passion for.
Popular culture has never told me otherwise. I have spent my whole life looking up to heroines who are what I cannot be, who, sometimes, make me feel worse for being myself.
Like Hermione Granger--intelligent and bookish and strong--but not emotional like Cho, not spiritual like Luna, not romantic like Lavender, because all those things are too girly for a main female hero. Hermione's two best friends are boys, and we don't get to see a real female friendship until maybe the fifth book with Ginny (who is intelligent, sporty, and strong). Or, like Katniss Everdeen--fierce and physical and great with a bow and arrow--but not interested in romance, not kind or caring like Prim, not drawn to any kind of artistic pursuit, because those things are too girly. Her one female friend growing up got erased entirely from the movies, though she does have good relationships with other female characters. I have spent years trying to live up to Katniss Everdeen, worried that my own mother would prefer to have someone strong like that for a daughter than the emotional mess that is me. Terrified that I will never be enough to start a revolution or make a difference. Afraid that I will never be someone to admire.
Then there's Star Wars. When the newest one came out, I was super excited to see a brand new heroine taking center stage in one of my favorite worlds, but I ended up kind of disappointed. There's nothing wrong with Rey, just as there's nothing wrong with Hermione or Katniss. I love all of these characters. They don't fall in with the long, trope-ish history of writers turning women into 2D characters without complexity or heart, and they are great people--but they're just not me.
Rey is independent, willful, and strong, a future Jedi Knight with great spiritual power and a gifted mechanic / pilot--but she doesn't want a boy holding her hand and has, as of yet, no female friends. She comes on the heels of Leia Organa, who fought in the Rebellion and spoke with confidence and independence, but often little sense of compassion, and was also, always, surrounded by men. A feminist icon, a great woman, but not like me.
Growing up, I actually liked the Star Wars prequels best. I got a lot of flak for that from guys who want to insist that, because the prequels aren't as well-written, I must only like them because of foolish romantic girlishiness. But it's not that simple. Even though the prequels aren't great, the heroine I have related to most for a long time is from them: Padme Amidala. She was a source of empowerment closer to home than anyone else. Padme is a strong heroine who falls in love, who prioritizes family and her personal sense of morality over most other things, and clearly has a great relationship with fashion, btdubs. She's not particularly a fighter, though she has moments, but she is a great political leader. Padme is a hero whom I could see myself being, for once.
*Star Wars prequel spoilers ahoy*
But of course, Padme is a victim of bad writing who got much less than she deserved. In the final prequel movie, she's portrayed with much less strength than in the first two, though I'd argue she continues to show greatness in her determination to hold to her morals. If she hadn't, she might have lived and been able to keep the family she loved so much, but she never for a second thinks about it--doing the right thing is so important to her that it is impossible for her to join Anakin in the Empire. She also holds to the belief that Anakin is capable of redemption even though everyone else pities her and thinks her weak for it--and in the original trilogy, of course, she's proven right. That turns out to be basically the entire point of Star Wars. Not to mention, unlike Anakin, she faces her potential death with dignity, only concerned for the welfare of her family, not for herself.
But yes, Padme dies in the end, leaving two children behind. Even if you hold to the theory, that she dies not of a magical "broken heart", but because Anakin's revival as Darth Vader broke the laws of nature and necessitated that another death occur to create balance, it's not great. The prequels, and especially Padme, had the potential for so much more, and that is also a crime.
I additionally struggle with the fact that Padme did not have use of the Force. She was not spiritually capable or a heroic Jedi like Leia and Rey. I was told, as a girl, by the men in my life, that I would never have been able to be a Jedi because Jedi have to be stoic, emotionless, not girly and romantic and full of passion like me. "That's why so few Jedi are women," they told me. "Because women are too emotional." This, of course, isn't just cruel, but wrong; it promotes this continued masculine=good / feminine=bad belief. I'd hoped Rey might prove those men wrong once and for all. Maybe that's why I felt disappointed. But of course, her story's only just beginning. She may not be "me" in the same way Padme was, but she could still show the world that feminine traits do not exclude you from being a hero.
Still, is it any wonder that I'm so drawn to Wanda Maximoff (aka the Scarlet Witch)? At the age of twenty-one, with the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron, I finally saw a heroine like me. I've discussed this before: Wanda is emotional, chaotic, holds her family in high priority, and wears dresses and jewelry; her powers derive from mental rather than physical power, and she is beautiful and strong in all the ways I never expected to see. In the comics, she marries Vision in a passionate and awe-inspiring relationship--they are Marvel's power couple with a capital power--and they have two children. All of this means that I, for the first time ever, have a heroine to look up to who doesn't make me feel bad for being emotional, for being a romantic, and for having mental, not physical, strength. I have a reason to believe that women like me can be heroes. Having that in front of me now, finally, makes me all the more aware of how much I've been missing out on.
(Though, sadly, men still like to tell me that I only like The Avengers because the guys are hot.)
I do need to stress that there is nothing wrong with any of the heroines I've talked about; they are great, complex characters who inspire a lot of people, and they have inspired me. I know women like Hermione, like Katniss, like Rey and Leia. My three best friends, as well as my mother, are strong in these ways. They're dismissive of male dominance. They're not into romance, and they're very independent. They're scientists and visionaries and runners; they grew up playing cowboys instead of fairy princess; they like spy movies and science fiction, have few female friends, and don't feel drawn to chick flicks or Adele--though some of them do! Some of them like Taylor Swift and lipstick and Disney and Pride and Prejudice and want their own families on top of all that other stuff, and not a one of them happens to have all of the traits I just described. Because personality and strength and intelligence are complex things, and you can't just lump all women into one category.
Here's what it comes down to: the Strong Female Character trope is damaging when it limits strength to traditional masculine traits to the exclusion of all else. Strong Female Characters who tend towards "masculine" interests and physical strength exist in real life, and their representation is fantastic and necessary. But women like me exist too, and we deserve to be seen as heroes. Women deserve to be seen as strong even while wearing dresses and falling in love and watching romcoms.
Because we are.
Kill the trope, my friends! Remember that women are complex and diverse and have interests and qualities that fit into all kinds of categories. Remember that we all have our own ways of being strong. Remember that it shouldn't be acceptable to treat the "feminine" like something lesser. Remember that the feminine has as much power to change the world as the masculine does. Go out there and create strong female characters of every single kind.
Thanks for reading all of that! Let me know about some heroines you love, and vote below for what next Saturday's post should be! *Poll closed* I'll see you Wednesday.
Images via favim.com, slouisebailey.wordpress.com, hitfix.com, Star Wars on Fanpop.com, and YouTube.
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