Good Fairies and Tiny Wonder Women
I am getting weary of the term "strong female character." Not of the concept, obviously - just of the term.
I grant that if you're looking at a story written 100 years, 50 years, or even 25 years ago, this might be striking. Now, though, when I open a recently written novel, I expect there to be a strong, good female character in there somewhere, and I'm slightly annoyed if there isn't. Generally, a novel that doesn't have any strong female characters isn't disappointing merely because its female characters are weak - it's often disappointing because all its characters are weak.
Strong female characters seem to be on everyone's mind this week, in response to the UN naming Wonder Woman as their Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls. The reaction was, maybe predictably, mixed. Let's set aside for a moment whether or not this role should have been fulfilled by a real woman, and assume that the UN wanted a fictional figure (as they have done before with Winnie the Pooh and Tinkerbell). What then was the objection to Wonder Woman? One that seemed to be at the forefront was that Wonder Woman was an "overtly sexualized image."
Wonder Woman is a comic book character. Realism is not generally what they do. But this is a case where treating female characters differently from male characters runs us into problems; obsessing over the strength and sexualization of fictional female characters over male ones strikes me as an obvious double standard. Male comic book characters are no more realistic than female ones, but no one seems terribly squeamish about the sexualization of Batman or Superman. And if you think it doesn't exist, then I invite you to have a look at the cover of the New 52's Action Comic #1.
Quibbling over Wonder Woman's costume seems petty. The more interesting conversation to me has less to do with Wonder Woman, and more to do with our sloppy language - when we say "strong female character," what kind of strength are we talking about? We rarely define this, and in Wonder Woman's case, it matters. Are we talking about physical strength - the kicking and punching of every action hero - or are we talking about the Wonder Woman who refuses to consider herself inferior, who encourages others, who is hopeful and decent and good in the face of so much hatred? We need to consider which one we mean. Because while the idea of a woman who can physically match Batman and Superman is heartwarming, a woman with the mental strength to endure and survive and carry on with hope is a much more helpful one to most women and girls. Being strong doesn't always mean simply fighting evil. Sometimes, it means being smarter than it.
Last week, I told you to go watch Sleeping Beauty. Did you? If not, that is very much your loss. Anyway, consider the true protagonist of that movie. Nope, not Prince Phillip, the dreamiest Prince in Disney-dom. I mean the Three Good Fairies, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather. They seem like push-overs - they're not. They hide the Princess from an evil villainess, they sneak into a fortress guarded by goblins and orcs, and they guide the hero, complete with sword and shield, to his victory over a fire-breathing dragon. They never touch their enemy - they're smarter than that.
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Jane Perrella. Teacher, writer. Expert knitter. Enthusiast of medieval swordplay, tea, Shakespeare, and Batman.