"So God created man in His own image; in the image of God
He created him; male and female
He created them."
He created him; male and female
He created them."
- genesis 1:27
The other day when I was over at Jenny's house, I idly picked up a novel about Mary, Queen of Scots that neither of us had read and started in on it. The writing was so-so; but the subject was the murder of Lord Darnley, and historic "cold cases" are, to me, fascinating things to study. I was enjoying myself, until the author introduced the main female character (not Mary) and, I suppose, the love interest. And then I started to groan.
The woman was the archetypical kick-rear-end character, constantly overawing the men with her fearsome wit and amazing skills. She was, apparently, around to protect the main male character from his own naivete, but when I tried to look beyond her "coquettish smile," she seemed quite brainless. ...And we'll not even go into how historically inaccurate such a character is for the 16th Century.
The character started me chugging on a long train of thought regarding the sexes in modern literature and the amount of stereotypes that crop up. Judging more from reviews than from contemporary novels themselves, since I read few of them, it would appear that there are two ways to write a female character: either make her irritatingly "awesome" and capable of wiping out the entire male population with her pinky finger; or make her inept, the sort who sulks 80% of the novel and cries the other 20% and whom the hero must rescue at every turn. I've seen a host of reviews that say of the heroine, "She started out kind of wimpy, but about seventy pages in she got her act together and kicked the villain's rear." So apparently a lot of authors manage to cram both stereotypes into a single book - even into a single character!
The author of the novel on Mary, Queen of Scots is a man, and as I thought, it occurred to me that a man writing a female character is in a much tougher situation than a woman writing a male character. Feminism has taken such a tight hold on our society: frankly, even if we're not "feminists," I think we must admit that we're more influenced by the movement than we would like to believe. Women can be very jealous of their self-image, and there's the underlying belief that a woman can do anything, be anything, just as well as a man. For men, this has to present a difficulty when they try to write a woman - because if they err toward the stereotype of a woman being helpless, they'll be labelled misogynistic, whereas if they err toward the stereotype of a woman in steel-toed boots, they'll be more leniently called "ignorant." Women get off with being called "ignorant" no matter how they abuse a man's image, it seems.
And yet women are by no means innocent when it comes to stereotypes, female (painfully ironic) as well as male. For in order to make men and women the same - which is really what feminism is attempting to do, and goes much beyond equality of the sexes - authors must either make women out of their men, or men out of their women. Why is it that so many authors can't seem to avoid turning their characters into such caricatures? Might it actually be because a great many of the underlying beliefs in our day and age are patently false? That women and men are not the same, emotionally, mentally, or physically, and that maybe maybe women can't do everything just as well men can?
Saying such a thing tends to break a great many toes, but I think it's reasonable to look around and realize that most of the women we meet are neither spineless sponges nor steel-booted superheroes. (We'll leave Black Widow out of the picture for now.) They're somewhere in between, perhaps nearer one end of the spectrum than the other. And it doesn't denigrate who a woman fundamentally is to be there. The only reason we think it does is that we've got our notions of equality and capability and worth all mixed up and snarled.
I'm not saying there is no place for strong female characters, nor even that there is no place for Black Widow heroines. But these characters have to be real, and not caricatures. They've got to have foibles and weaknesses, and times when they just can't handle all the lemons life is throwing at them. It is unrealistic that a character should be able to take care of herself a hundred percent of the time, or that she is never a failure at anything, or that she never has need of a man's help. It's worse than unrealistic; it isn't real. And no matter how many awesome fight scenes there are in which the heroine kills forty men at a time, and no matter how many times she tells the hero, "You can't save me; I've got to save myself," readers can spot the flatness of her character. For even with all the effects of feminism, we still have some sense of what is real - and this isn't it.
what traits do you appreciate in a female character?