Strong Female Characters, and then also, feminism

Aug 12, 2011 02:02


Fantastic female characters. Great fictional phenomenon, or GREATEST fictional phenomenon? That is not hyperbole (for possibly THE FIRST AND ONLY TIME EVER IN THE HISTORY OF THIS JOURNAL AND ALSO THE INTERNET). I am really not sure. I’m not actually going to go into Strong Female Characters™ because I kind of think that’s code for not-feminine. In any event, the narrative that strong, with its connotations of physical strength, as “good” or the way to be well-developed is arguably ableist.*

It’s just, I don’t want that to be where the conversation ends. Paraphrasing myself LIKE A BOSS, that’s where we get into a Sorkinitis situation. If we’re really lucky, there are SFCs. When there’s all the time in the world as a show is being developed, as the foundations for their characterizations are laid, female characters get a lot of thought, to the extent where the writers might consciously set out to challenge, subvert, or even flat-out ignore gender expectations. And creators who do this are rare, and consciously take on a very difficult task, and they should absolutely be lauded for it.

But. Someone as character-focused as I am probably cannot argue this as well as it deserves to be argued, but here goes: it also matters what happens to those characters? And what they do? In other words, plot. And that’s an area where it’s maybe a bit trickier to discuss, because it’s less accessible for general readership, but it’s also where the shit hits the fan.

It is also marginalizing (I don’t really want to quantify whether it’s bad or worse, but, bad in a different way) for women to be well-developed, to have full inner lives and become well-loved, and still be objectified, lose their agency, and sometimes get straight-up fridged along heavily gendered lines. For a supporting character to be, well, supportive of the main characters’ stories is one thing; for the pinnacle of actualization for a main character still to be supporting the stories of others feels less like progress and more like limitation of potential.

It seems entirely too hard for the novelty of SFCs not to overwhelm even initial character creation. The avoidance of standard traditional lady-shaped placeholder types - good! - can end up conflated with the disappearance and trivialization of all presentations of femininity. Even if there’s successful establishment of characters early on, avoidance of gendered tropes seems to be the disposable thing, the first ball that gets dropped. Those stories are so easy to play for drama because they are so familiar, we see them every day, we live them every day, and the effort to resist their pull seems greater than the work of creation.

I am all for appreciation. I am first in line for the great female characters appreciation party. But when the conversation ends up dominated by individual representation (individual vs systemic, as it always is), we end up inadvertently buying into the framework that says we should just be grateful that our existence is recognized at all. And when we decontextualize our conversation about character from our critical engagement of narratives, it gets more difficult to recognize coded misogyny and unconscious sexism.

And that framework , which tends to be the one you hear from mainstream commentators, exacerbates a lot of the issues on s.e. smith’s post. When we cannot even rely on the Karas or the Buffys (or the Veronicas or the Sarahs or the Ainsleys or the Carolines OR OR OR) to exist at all, then we are another level removed from the best place from whih to point out that they are young, thin, cis, straight, with their whiteness emphasized right down to the tips of their straight blonde hair.

Is anyone else generally disturbed by the emphasis on blondness in the “tiny powerhouse blonde” trope? Not just that I’m vain and happen to like having dark hair, thank you, but it very much is as explicitly as possible about whiteness as femininity (presumably it is less shocking when Nikki Wood kicks ass?). It’s not just representation, then, but it ends up reinforcing the trope by way of setting up only one paradigm of subversion.

I’m trying to resist my whole song and dance about BSG, because I’m not sure I have any new markers on my same Rage Spiral. But it’s a perfect example of a story with female characters who are powerfully constructed, just so they can have maximum impact when they are, inevitably, wrecked. But the wreckage doesn’t make me think less of them, so much as it reveals how influential the default male perspective is within the story. However brilliant they are, the female characters are treated as a means, while explorations of a few select male experiences are still the ends. That’s not what I want.

Cf, Dollhouse. I am not sure you could say Dollhouse has a SFC. Adelle, maybe. By its very nature, Dollhouse is a criticism of what we are willfully ignoring when we create a lie we want to believe. It is about objectification, about deconstruction, about the way we want female strength to be controlled rather than experienced. Because it cannot be about the Strength of one individual, necessarily distinguished from the crowd, it finds the philosophical and dramatic power in stepping back and evaluating the systems which, as much as we don’t like to admit it, shape us as individuals.

That’s the useful framework, I think. That female characters, like real women, are worthwhile in and of themselves. Some small movement toward that - where they at least get some screen time for their individual stories, or the measures we take in the meantime to fill them out - it’s better than the nothing we get the vast majority of the time. Better to light a candle and all that, but really, I’d rather we turn on the light.

*I am resisting the urge to tangent about how the second half of BSG was the biggest disability-hate jizzfest this side of Glee, and applauding my maturity and restraint would be in no way out of line. BUT GO AHEAD, MAKE MY DAY.

bsg, feminism, btvs/ats, sorkinitis, dollhouse, p has a caplock problem

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