Is it wrong to be strong if you’re female?

Earlier this month, Sophia McDougall at the New Statesman declared ‘I hate Strong Female Characters’ (see http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/08/i-hate-strong-female-characters). In my opinion her point is rather obscure because it seems to lie mainly on the fact that male characters ‘are assumed to be “strong” by default, whereas a strong female character is ‘anomalous’ and portrayed patronizingly as a result.

McDougall refers mainly to the film industry in her scathing comments, focusing on fairytale princesses for whom knowledge of kung fu is, nowadays, de rigueur. This is true – it’s becoming almost clichéd nowadays to see a woman fight be exposing her opponent to her best roundhouse kick. Even in Despicable Me 2 the ditsy female sidekick has to show superior martial arts skills to make up for her irritating scatty mindedness.

Miss-understood?
However, is Sophia McDougall’s problem mainly with semantics? Is she assuming that ‘strong’ equals a woman who can karate-chop her way out of a sticky situation? She says: ‘Chuck Wendig argues here that we shouldn’t understand “strong” as meaning, well, “strong”, but rather as something like “well-written”. But I simply don’t think it’s true that the majority of writers or readers are reading the term that way.’

Here I disagree with McDougall. For me, a strong character is one who, male or female, captures your interest and engages you throughout an entire book or film. You may not even totally like them all the time but you must care about what happens to them, otherwise you give up watching or reading or bothering. McDougall says that ‘Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong.’

Her summary of the attraction of Sherlock Holmes is a synopsis of what I look for in any character: a panoply of traits that ultimately add depth and fascination instead of an armory of stereotypes rolled into one. This is why I stopped reading chick lit immediately after I started it.

Yet as Kate Mosse comments in a blog post (http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/aug/24/where-have-all-brave-girls-gone-kate-mosse) that one assumes must have been inspired by McDougall’s outburst, genres such crime fiction and sci-fi are exemplary in their ability to wave the banner for ‘strong’ (there’s that damned word again) female characters. However, as Mosse also admits, this often comes at a price – Sarah Paretsky’s investigator VI Warshawski is the female equivalent of all male PI loners, while it’s rare to find any police detective happily ensconced in a stable relationship.

Adult fiction versus children’s fiction

Perhaps Sophia McDougall’s claims don’t ring quite so true to me because I read literature aimed at both adults and children. I can sympathise with her frustration over many of the portrayals of women in what could best be described as mainstream women’s fiction – literary mannequins that wear a story and change their outfit by the end. They all drink coffee instead of tea now (why?) and pour a glass of Chardonnay on returning from their high-powered jobs, all the while feeling the lack of male company.

This is very obviously not the case with children’s literature, where there is an amazing array of inspirational female characters. In a Twitter chat on 23rd August, hosted by LH Johnson (whose storify edited version can be read here: http://storify.com/chaletfan/kidbkgrp-female-characters-in-children-s-literatu), all those participating had no trouble coming up with their favourite childhood literary heroines, including:

• The girls from Swallows and Amazons, by Arthur Ransome
• Holly & Opal out of Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl books
• Lauren St John’s feisty Laura Marlin
• Madeline, by Ludwig Bemelmans
• Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery
• Katniss Everdeen, star of the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins
• Cassandra Mortmain, in Dodie Smith’s classic I Capture the Castle.

I also asked Holly who her favourite literary heroines were and she said:

• Cat Royal, from Julia Golding’s ‘Cat’ series: ‘She sticks up for herself, is daring and tries to be one of the boys.’
• Sheila Tubman, in Judy Blume’s Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great: ‘She’s a worrier but tries to overcome it.’
• The twins Pat and Isobel from Enid Blyton’s The Twins at St Clare’s: ‘They were very proud girls to start off with and thought they were too good for St Clare’s but they settled down and stopped being so snooty.’
• Hermione Granger, heroine of the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling: ‘She’s very independent and happy in herself. Boys are in awe of her because she is so clever.’
• The witch in Julia Donaldson’s Room on the Broom: ‘She’s a good witch and takes on all the animals on her journey. Then they help her out in return. She’s not a typical witch.’
• The female cat in Atticus Claw Breaks the Law, by Jennifer Gray: ‘She becomes his conscience and turns him into a good cat.’

A clear observation that can be made from this, and one that was mentioned during the Twitter chat, was that favourite characters tend to be those who are both likeable but flawed, talented but with weaknesses. This is all part of being human and therefore the characters we read about must reflect, to a certain point, reality as we know it, even in the most magical or surreal circumstances.

Does children’s literature allow more diversity than adults’?

An interesting point arose from our discussion on Twitter – does children’s literature allow more diversity than its adult counterpart? In some ways I think it does. Perhaps because by the time we become adults we grow into societal stereotypes and literature is merely reflecting this? Or do stories show us what we wish to become? Or, alternatively, avoid?

I think Kate Mosse summed it up well in her blog when she said ‘…adult writers could learn a great deal from children’s writers. Every author should, of course, be free to write the characters she or he wants to, but literature needs fictional voices of all sorts – strong girls and gentle boys as well as gentle girls and strong boys. After all, what makes a hero – male or female – is a sense of purpose beyond the everyday, courage and determination, independence of spirit.’

Thank you
I’d like to thank everyone who participated in the recent #kidbkgrp discussion and for LH Johnson at http://didyoueverstoptothink.wordpress.com for hosting the event.

Thanks also to Zoe at www.playingbythebook.net for her eagle eye on spotting various articles in the press and passing them on!

What are your thoughts about female characters in books – either in children’s or adult literature? Please share your thoughts!

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6 Comments Add yours

  1. Zoe says:

    It’s so wonderful that @chaletfan’s ##kidbkgrp can inspire this sort of thoughtfulness, and conversation between us – that makes me very happy.

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    1. It’s great isn’t it? Looking forward to the next one!

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  2. ReaditDaddy says:

    We’ve been following various articles both criticising and speaking up for ‘strong female characters’ not just in children’s picture books (where most female characters often seem to show up the ‘daft’ or ‘mischievous’ boys) but in YA and early chapter readers too.

    The mention of Sherlock Holmes made me wonder what the original article’s author would’ve thought of Joan Lennon’s excellent ‘strong’ girl character Slightly Jones (who is inspired by Sherlock Holmes himself). Slightly isn’t purposely set out to be written as intentionally strong, she just happen to have a level head, logical brain and can get to the nitty gritty of a mystery.

    Or perhaps the fantastic character Lucy in “Lockwood and Co” who is the perfect foil for the two male characters who make up the ghost-busting threesome.

    It’s puzzling, the original article doesn’t make more of the huge strides that have been made in children’s fiction over the past 60 or so years. As you said, there’s a mine of inspiring girl characters in children’s books and it feels like we discover fabulous new ones every single day we crack open a parcel of books.

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  3. Sam says:

    To be honest sometimes I think these articles are written to be deliberately hyperbolic and cause this kind of stir in the media. If the article had been more bland and less controversial then we wouldn’t be talking about it. It is a shame though that no connection was made to feisty females in children’s/YA’s books. Perhaps they just wanted to focus on adult fiction but I am sure there must be some inspiring females.

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    1. Thanks for the mention!

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