Strong Female Characters in Distress

If – like me – you’re a hopeless social media addict, you may have noticed a shitstorm going off lately in cyberspace under the loose collective term of #GamerGate. I’m not going to attempt to recount the whole distasteful and – sadly – ongoing saga here, but if you’re interested, see the links below. When I attempted to explain it to my husband, his first question was ‘is this a thing on Twitter?’ to which the answer is, yes, it is a thing on Twitter, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an impact IRL: actual people have been forced out of their actual homes in actual fear for their actual lives because of this shit. A movement which was kicked off by concerns about the ethics of game journalists and developers has culminated in threats to shoot up an entire university campus in order to stop a talk by Anita Sarkeesian – who is neither a journalist, nor a developer. Sarkeesian is a feminist cultural commentator whose series of videos criticising the representation of women in video games has, it’s fair to say, raised a few hackles, and has been raising them since long before GamerGate became a thing. The most succinct summary I can give here is this:

Sarkeesian: The portrayal of women in many popular video games is kinda sexist, and this has troubling implications for the attitudes of those who play them.

Trolls: You’re wrong you stupid lying c%&$ and if you don’t shut up we’ll rape and kill you.

Me (thinks): Yep, those guys have definitely made an excellent argument for how video games definitely don’t encourage violent misogyny.

Sigh.

Anyway, what does all this have to do with little me, back in meatspace? Well, if there’s one conclusion you can draw from the escalating hysteria, it’s this: people care about the representation of women in media. They care a lot – one way or the other, whether it’s the gamer dudes who are screaming someone is trying to take away their T&A, or the critics who are suggesting there should perhaps be more to creating female characters than the jiggle physics. Literary women seem – thankfully – to inspire fewer death threats, but they still matter. They certainly matter a lot to me: from my love for Sophie Hatter, the lead character in Howl’s Moving Castle – a shy young girl who spends most of the book magically transformed into a cantankerous old woman – to the nausea I recently experienced when reading Raymond E. Feist describe an elven princess with the words ‘her terror as thinly veiled as her body’ (sorry, got to take a vom, BRB).

Female characters in fantasy have thankfully evolved a bit from the days of being either largely absent (thanks, JRR) or terrified eye candy. But some writers still seem to struggle – like Patrick Rothfuss, who I heard speaking quite earnestly at World Fantasy Con last year about the importance of women’s representation, yet still couldn’t manage to put any women in The Name of the Wind who weren’t either sexy damsels-in-distress, or the protagonist’s dead mother. Funnily enough, women writers like Robin Hobb or the (by me) recently-discovered Elizabeth Bear usually seem to do a bit better, and it’s their example I’m endeavouring to follow.

In these discussions, you often hear bandied around that most dreaded phrase, ‘Strong Female Characters’ – a phrase which, frankly, makes me want to hurl. Again. Why? Because proper representation of women isn’t all about broads with swords. It’s about the fundamentals of good writing, about thinking your way inside someone’s head, about realistically portraying both weakness and more than one type of strength. Suzanne Collins gets it right in The Hunger Games: Katniss may be a BAMF, but she also has flaws: physically strong, but troubled and awkward, she’s beautifully counter-pointed with Peeta, who makes up for his lack of BAMFiness with emotional intelligence. The point about good characterisation of women is that that you shouldn’t just create a bunch of characters who are ‘strong’ and then give a few of them tits. The point is, you should create a whole cast of characters who are deep and rich and nuanced, who have fully realised personalities, who have hopes and dreams and fears which extend beyond being rescued or which boys they fancy, and then give slightly less than half of them dicks.

Links:

A brief summary of GamerGate http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2014/10/14/the-only-guide-to-gamergate-you-will-ever-need-to-read/

Interview with Anita Sarkeesian https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/anita-sarkeesian-gamergate-interview-20141017

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