Strength in the “Fairer” Sex

I was going to talk about how it’s important to stay healthy while you’re working on any project (even a writing project), but I’ll save that for another time. Because I seem to be coming down with something, and because, earlier this week, my thought processes were waylaid by a few different posts about what it means to be a woman, and how society views women. I’m not taking a stance on whether one or both of these posts is right or wrong. They simply made me think. About myself, and specifically about my female characters.

I’ve talked about this conundrum before: how important (or not) it is for a character to be likable. It’s the same for women characters as it is for men. Whether they’re likable is often irrelevant, so long as they’re realistic. Likability should come – or not – based on how “real” they are: their sympathies, their reactions, their thoughts and feelings. My current main character is a man, and his big starting flaws are that he’s vain, distrustful, and driven by his biology, to put it nicely. He’s been an absolute blast for me to write, because – particularly early on – he’s free to be so one-dimensional in a lot of his interactions (“Let’s have fun!” “Let’s surf!” “Let’s f–k!”). Since it’s a romance story, he has to face and overcome (or run away from) certain obstacles introduced by the main female character.

This is where it gets tricky.

Women expect other women in stories – especially romances – to be intelligent, powerful, strong. But, not all women are powerful or strong in the same way.

Don’t get me wrong: I love women who kick ass. When I was a kid, I wanted so badly to be Vasquez from ALIENS: she was no-nonsense, stood toe-to-toe with any of her fellow (male) Marines, and went out in a blaze of glory. I loved that! My opinions of strong women haven’t changed as I’ve gotten older…but I have realised a woman doesn’t necessarily have to be a stoic smartgunner in order to be “strong.”

said kickass smartgunner

As I’ve become a woman, myself, I find I appreciate other women – fictional or real – who can embrace their femininity as a kind of strength. My last heroine was a woman who had a hard time reconciling being a fierce warrior but also a young woman who wanted to be loved by her man. That was a fun, enlightening journey to take with her, but I wanted to do something different for my next heroine.

Perhaps it’s because this current story is from a man’s point of view, but I don’t have a problem with my new heroine being girly, sassy, and sexy. (That’s what my hero likes about her!) That doesn’t mean she’s a wimp, though, and I don’t think I’m dismissing The Sisterhood by making her not be a fighter; her strength ends up manifesting in more subtle ways. Simply because she’s a nurturer rather than a hunter shouldn’t mean she’s any less valid as a strong woman character than a ball-busting CEO or tough-as-nails starship captain.

Of course, no one will ever be another USCMC PFC Vasquez, J. (Sidenote: Jenette Goldstein, who played Vasquez, is just as kick-ass as her breakout role. Just check out her shop at http://www.jenettebras.com/ – this is a lady who understands how great it is to be sexy!)

What does a “strong” woman character mean to you?

8 thoughts on “Strength in the “Fairer” Sex

  1. You seem to have conflated the concept of “fully human” with violent aggression. Which is easy to do in a world where only men are accepted as fully human.

    Femininity is a set of behaviors that mark women as different from, and inferior to, men.

    In closing, I’ll quote from a better site than my own. You’re warmly invited to go on over and read some of the interesting posts there; it’s a trans-friendly site.

    It’s like when I happen to run into the occasional woman who thinks Bust is a feminist magazine. Or maybe she believes that femininity is “natural,” or that “radiant skin” is desirable. Look at her sails! Her bloomy, billowing sails, bloated with hot wind! What can I do? If I don’t take that wind outta them things she might go around the rest of her life arguing that burlesque is an empowering form of feminine self-expression.

    So I cram down her neck the truth that our patriarchal social order, despite what she’s been told since the cradle, doesn’t really have her best interests at heart. I explain that she is defined in this social order solely with respect to male interests, and that she is a member of an oppressed sex class out of which she may not opt, and that her success in life is entirely a matter of the degree to which she appeases her oppressor.

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  2. I’ve always admired the women who could just be completely selfless. I have a friend and an aunt who are like this, where they never complain about anything. If they see something they don’t like, they just say so very simply, but they don’t sound angry or anything. And somehow, people listen. I’ve always wanted to be just like them and just take everything as they come, without getting buffeted or bothered by whatever comes at me. It turns out that I’m not that type of person and easily get upset.

    I’ve found those type of women (or men, I suppose) to be exceptionally strong. They have a mental strength that makes me question if they are just that mentally powerful to deal with irritation, or if they are just naturally unbothered by things that would normally infuriate others. How is it that they are so selfless? What makes them so willing to help others and expect no help in return? And if they do need help, they don’t complain about it. It’s that inner strength that I’ve always strived for, but found that I just can’t bring myself to possess for myself. Let’s face it–I’m a natural whiner.

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    • I don’t know anyone who doesn’t benefit from a little venting now and again. It’s a stress-reliever. Nothing wrong with airing your thoughts.

      Complaining about something over which you have no control can get a little irritating to the listener, sure. But, are you complaining for the sake of it, or because you’re just fed up and need to get that out of your system?

      Protesting against something you find wrong or unfair is making your voice heard. For many of us, we have the freedom to make arguments against injustices and unfairness. The injustice could be something huge like genocide, or something very intimate like closet space.

      So, “whining” can be defined more by the person hearing the complaint or protest, than the one doing the protesting.

      I, too, think there’s a great strength in being able to listen and mediate. And in selflessness. It’s a strength of heart and conviction, and courage to speak your mind.

      As for how certain people are better at this mediating behavior, I think a lot of that is probably base personality. The difficult part is making that mediator character engaging on the page. :)

      Thanks for commenting!

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  3. I never had a problem seeing Chie as a beautiful woman. Then again, I’ve never had a problem looking past skin deep graces to look beyond that. Chie may never have the natural beauty that Yukiko or Rise had, but she had a warrior’s grace and a sympathetic heart. Even Vasquez, rough and coarse as she was can be attractive AND strong.
    So what’s wrong with drawing strength from beauty at any depth?

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    • I don’t see an issue with different kinds of beauty/strength, either, Shade. The other posts just made me think more critically about how and why we (I/my characters) see women in particular the way they do.

      Thanks for commenting. :)

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  4. I fully agree with you that not all women are powerful or strong in the same way. I also think that it depends on what is going to happen in the book. I think that in stories we kind of have to tailor the strengths to fit the plot. It does us no good for a woman to be strong emotionally if she’s not going to lose or gain anything from it. The strengths in our characters need to have a purpose that will affect or be affected by the story in some way.

    I also love the characters who ‘find’ their true strength midway through the novel and then act on them. To me, that is more interesting than the ones who start off gung-ho.

    Your male protag sounds very interesting and complex–a fun character to write with.

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    • Thanks, Kate. You’re right – strength (and weakness) has to have a purpose in a story. Building one up or tearing one down doesn’t do much if it doesn’t end up affecting the plot or characters over the course of the story. I’m definitely thinking more carefully about that, as I move from first draft into second. :)

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