October 8, 2012

The Stereotyped Female

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"So God created man in His own image; in the image of God 
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?

20 comments:

  1. Who is the author? I googled Mary, Queen of Scots and Lord Darnley and it came up with a book by Alison Weir. I love cold cases both ancient and modern. They are so fascinating.

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  2. THANK YOU ABIGAIL! This needed to be said...rather badly, in fact. "It's worse than uneralistic; it isn't real....For even with all the effects of feminism, we still have some sense of what is real-and this isn't." Amen and amen again and again!

    You've no idea {or rather, you have!} how much these kick-tail or wash-rag women irk me. Blech.

    In a female character I like to see resolve. I like to see strength. But meekness too. Meekness isn't mousey--I heard a preacher describe it as "God-centered strength." It's a quiet iron about a woman (or man, on occasion) that gives them a spine and a platform to stand on. They aren't pushovers. They can take care of a lot. But they're not Black Widows.
    Thanks for writing this post! You've ranted for me.

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  3. I do enjoy a good strong female character, even one that fancies herself better than all the men. However, I like her to also be soft. She needs to be a caring daughter/aunt/sister/mother. I like it when, if there are plenty of men to handle to battle, she doesn't force her way into it. I'm not against females fighting, but I like there to be a good reason for her to take part in the war.

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  4. Thank you, Abigail! I've wavered back and forth for some time over this issue: I wanted to write a post about it, but I couldn't seem to put my thoughts and feelings into simple words. You put it brilliantly, and as Rachel said, ranted for me. ;)

    This female stereotype is one of the reasons I now prefer reading books in which the main character is male (there are exceptions to that rules, of course). Modern-day authors just can't seem to set aside their feministic views when it comes to portraying female characters. The damsels in distress are bad enough, but I am so unbelievably weary of the I-can-conquer-the-world-in-heals mantra that nearly every literary heroine shouts from the hilltops. And what's worse, these authors are bending history to suit their personal opinions. Even Christian historical fiction seems always to feature the girl who wants to be a doctor or a journalist or what have you, and the men in her life say she can't do it. After following a series of very predictable ups and downs, the title character succeeds and everyone who doubted her admits they were wrong, etc., etc., etc. Ick.

    Anyway, thanks for allowing me to rant about that for a moment. :P This post was like a breath of fresh air.

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  5. Yes. I'm so glad to see somebody has the courage to say this! I've grown so sick of reviews and critics that insist a female character has to be "strong" according to the stereotype you describe and can't look to a man for any kind of help, without being less than a person. I know that isn't real, because I'm a woman too. I am afraid of snakes. In a dangerous situation, I'd certainly like to have a strong man by my side, and I'm not ashamed of that.

    I read a book recently—a 1930s Western by a female author—with a heroine of rather complex character, that had me thinking about this topic. One reason I enjoy this author's books is that although she often wrote spunky, brave female characters, they were always essentially feminine at heart and did have their natural limitations. Anyway, the girl in this book was a little different—she spent a lot of time talking about wanting to prove that a woman could be just as capable and intelligent as a man (which seemed at least partly a result of her father's favoritism toward her brother). But when disaster struck toward the end of the book, she did need to turn to the man in her life for support. A feminist reader would probably like most of the book and find fault with that aspect of the ending, but it felt real to me.

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  6. *Happy Sigh.* So glad you are good with words, you hit the nail on the head dear. You never fail to make me think deeply, but also have a little laugh. Women get off with being called "ignorant" no matter how they abuse a man's image, it seems.
    We need to look to real people for examples, really. Sometimes we get so lost in our fantasy world, we forget we are writing about people. And if we want to relate to our books, people in the books most be of common nature as we, not as if from another planet. Great post. :)

    _B

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  7. Forget my quotation marks on your quote. Always editing a little late. :)

    B

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  8. Gabrielle - I don't really like to say; I hate to bad-mouth other authors, and if I don't like their writing, I prefer to let them remain anonymous! But I will say that it wasn't Weir. I hear she's a good writer (very pro-Tudor, though), but I haven't read any of her works myself.

    Rachel - Wash-rag. What an apt phrase! I couldn't quite think of a pithy description for them, other than "door mats". I love your description of a strong woman. It's unconventional, but true. The thing I hate most about this feminism, I think, is the way it minimizes the everyday strength of a woman like my mother, who almost single-handedly keeps her home running day to day. Feminism has made the occupation of "stay at home mom" no vocation at all; they obviously don't understand the strength it takes.

    Kendra - It comes down to the heart of the woman, I believe. As I said, she can be "tough"; she's just got to be realistically tough!

    Elizabeth Rose - The twisting of history is another irritating thing about this trend; it made me writhe in this Mary, Queen of Scots novel. (I know you want to make your heroine sound "awesome," but did anyone ever tell you that this is the 16th Century?) And the parallel in novels purporting to be from a Christian worldview is sadder still. We ought to have a better grasp on what a "strong" woman is, and not confuse worth with the relative position or economy between the sexes.

    Elisabeth Grace - Was the book written in the 1930's? If so, the position the author takes is especially interesting, as that period seems to have been when the feminist movement started to gain ground. It definitely shows in Jean Webster's novels, though they were written earlier.

    B. - I try not to take myself too seriously! There is a lot to be said for gleaning from daily life and from history, and, as you remarked, ensuring the our characters are true people. Although if you're writing sci-fi, I suppose you can get away with characters from other planets.

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  9. Science Fiction seems the perfect genre for Nanowrimo - no rules. ;)

    B

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  10. Yes, this one was written in 1935. This author (B.M. Bower) wrote between 1904 and 1940—I don't really know what her personal stance on feminism was; I can only glean from how she portrays her female characters. They just seem more down-to-earth than some of those annoying early-20th-century heroines who were always slipping in remarks about women's rights and making jabs at men all through the books!

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  11. Touche! Well said and MUCH appreciated! The world has lost sight of true literary heroine can and should be capable but not perfect but no wimp either, a defining balance must be found. To be honest this is one of my pet peeves when it comes too books and another reason I started writing. Thank you for saying this so well.

    Jessica

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  12. Yes, yes, yes!! Thank you. I get so frustrated with modern female characters and yes, male characters too. It seems as though each is taking the reverse role, yet failing miserably. It's a rather sorry thing, actually. :/ When I find a book with a female character that is not a complete "wimp" or a rear-end-kicking superhero, but natural, that always makes me very pleased. :)

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  13. The way I like to put it is, yes, everything Fred Astaire could do, Ginger Rogers could do backwards and in high heels...

    ...but she was still dancing the woman's part.

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  14. I like female characters who are feminine but not mousy, and who are not drop dead gorgeous. That really annoys me when the heroine walks in and is described as beautiful. Thats what irks me a lot. :)

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  15. *Agrees with Meggie.* Every woman is beautiful in a novel. :|

    B

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  16. My female characters in my books are so different from each other. In appreciate a little courage and brutality in my 'girls'. At this moment I write about a protagonist, who is a little bit scared. But she will conquer herself!

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  17. I think it must be quite difficult for a writer to encapsulate a 'personality' whilst still maintaining a quality story line. Often I find the problem is that one is really at the expense of the other and I just *cringe*

    The problem with caricatures is that they sort of act as a cushion or as something to fall back on and many authors 'play it safe' by enlisting them. The caricature isn't really the problem for me but rather how deeply they're explored or expanded to create a believable character.

    So I guess I don't mind how the female is portrayed (be it macho or bird-brained), just as long as she has the capacity for change and remains humanly complex throughout the story. I'm a big fan of complex characters--in whatever form!

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  18. What a interesting post, Abigail! I just recently read and enjoyed a female character in a fantasy book recently that was a both strong warrior, and yet had weaknesses. She was realistic and didn't always come out of a battle unscathed or even on top. In spite of her ability, she had fears and doubts.

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  19. B. - Ah, well, I'm sure that hardcore writers of sci-fi would say that there are rules to the genre! It's just that we, being uninitiated, can't guess what they might be.

    Elisabeth Grace - I've seen several of your reviews for B.M. Bower, and they looked interesting. Of course, I'm attracted to another with an old cloth binding that smells like proper bookshops. It is quite possible that I shall have to get one and try it out!

    Jessica - It seems many issues, in writing and elsewhere, come from a habit of falling into extremes. Of course, as Chey said, it is possible to write either one well; you've just got to know what you're about!

    Bree - I'm toying with doing a similar post regarding male stereotypes, a subject which may annoy me even more than female stereotypes. You're right about the reversal of roles. To use Jenny's analogy, they're dancing the wrong parts and stepping hard on each other's toes because of it.

    ..."Other way, Mr. Collins! Down, Mr. Collins!"

    Jenny - You make me snort. Enough said.

    Meggie - I think a drop-dead beautiful female character has her place; after all, there are drop-dead beautiful women in real life. But it's certainly true that they are overdone, or just badly done. A place for everything, and everything in its place!

    Aritha - Variety is wonderful. I have found some writers whose male characters, or female characters, never vary from book to book. It gets very dull! And a bit of brutality in a girl is good, too, if it fits her.

    Chey - I think you've hit the proverbial nail on its proverbial head. (The apparent conflict we often find between Plot and Character is, by the way, addressed in Sayer's "The Mind of the Maker." I have to shove that book in people's faces at every opportunity.) It is not so much the personality that is the trouble, but the shallowness of it. I would venture to say it probably reflects a shallowness about the writer. That's why our early works tend to be populated by mere stick figures; most of us don't have the experience, knowledge, or wisdom at nine or ten years old to write a well-rounded character. As we grow older and our minds expand, the complexity of what we right ought to grow as well.

    Lilly - Sounds like a good character! Weaknesses are important for any character to have - even if that weakness is their perceiving themselves to have none!

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  20. Upon reading this spot-on excellent post early this week, Abigail, I realized how this week in Australian politics has been riddled with Feminism and disgusting "gender-card" issues and how this post (dealing with feminism in fiction) reflected perfectly what is currently going on in our country on a national level... I need not go into the details, but it has been quite revolting if you ask my opinion!

    I so agree with you on this: "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?"
    So true!!

    It just irks me so much when the occupation of "stay-at-home mum" is despised and hated so (in real life, just as much as in fiction). And as you put it, the way society has put down the true strength of our mothers who almost single-handedly run the household and keep it together in loving strength and godliness. I truly love that chapter in 1 Peter 3... about a "quiet and meek spirit which is very precious in the sight of the Lord". That is true strength I believe!

    And as to characters in fiction... I ask you, why does almost every other tale have a girl rebelling against her destiny of being a housewife and mother and not being 'able to go to college and become a doctor etc...'? They're a personal pet-peeve of mine, and especially if they are historically in-accurate like that novel you read about Queen Mary...

    I also hate wimpy female protagonists who whine through three-quarters of a novel, just as much as I dislike those IAMSTRONG type of ladies who intimidate and move men about with their pinky finger.

    But at any rate, this was a great post and I probably have just echoed the thoughts of everyone present through this comment, but it was good to do a little rant :).

    P.S. I wrote a post sometime ago about the vocation of a woman as a home-maker which you may happen to be interested in, Abigail, though it has nothing to do with writing: The Virtue of the Ordinary

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meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
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Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
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Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 51,000 words

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