Friday, January 25, 2013

A Weapon Is Not a Strong Female Character

'deadly Black Widow' photo (c) 2012, greyloch - license:

One of the reasons that fans continue to regard Buffy the Vampire Slayer with  a sense of epic nostalgia is that in many ways, she broke the mold for what a female protagonist has historically been .  With the introduction of Buffy, we moved from having women featured as desperate damsels in distress waiting to be saved, too arse kicking in control female protagonists, though it would three seasons, before Sarah Michelle Gellar learned to deliver a decent kick or punch. What at one time was extremely liberating, has become limiting, in that now the arse kicking archetype has become so common that it has become trope laden. Now we have these arse kicking protagonists, with absolutely no depth, to the point where they have become cardboard cutouts.

And we can see why slotting your female characters into this role is so tempting, especially since the role of ‘woman,’ (particularly White womanhood) as some precious, special object to be protected and preserved but with little actual capability in her own right is still very prevalent in the genre - and wider society. We have a number of female protagonists in the genre who are treated as special by all and sundry for no apparent reason, such as Bella in Twilight. Or because they have the Chosen One Woo-woo, which doesn’t really give them power, but makes them oh-so-special and desireable. Like Elena being the doppleganger in The Vampire Diaries; Sookie’s fae blood in True Blood (and the books); Chyrsabelle’s special comarré     blood in Kristen Painter’s House of Comarré series; Anna Strong’s chosen one status in Jeanne C Stein’s series (note: until book 6); Tessa’s shapeshifting in Cassandra Clare’s The Infernal Devices - these women have  special natures that make them desirable as possessions, but don’t give them any particular power or strength in their own lives. They’re desirable trophies, something to value, something to own - but their special nature is passive. It just adds to the endless trope of the woman being the damsel to rescue, the hand to win, the prize to be contested.

So from this, the woman who can kick arse and take down everything around her seems awfully attractive.

If you closely examine this new archetype, it is clear that these women have been reduced to weapons, with things like dead parents tossed in to give a veil of characterization.  In M.L.N. Hanover’s Black Sun’s Daughter Series, Jayne (Pronounced zha-nay and yes, for some reason the author thought this was a good name) spends most of her time travelling around the world to look for riders to battle. This has become her special mission, which fits because she is little more than a weapon, with the social skills of  a concussed penguin.  There is also Mira from Jocelynn Drake’s Dark Days Series.  Yes, Mira is the oldest vampire in the Americas and can set people on fire with her mind, but when she is not fighting or intimidating someone, she has no idea what to do with herself. But hey, why have quiet time when you can threaten those stronger and older than you? Kellie Independence wins everytime. Sabina Kane of Jaye Wells’s Sabina Kane series, is an assassin (nope, none of these women can ever have a career that involves desk work) who struts through life with pride over the vampires she has killed. She would much rather fight and kill, than have a conversation and always has a punch ready for any superior who crosses her.  This is all explained by the fact that Sabina is a half breed (half mage and half vampire). Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake, is perhaps queen of this trope, with the ability to spawn a new super-power every week (or, rather, pull a new super power out of her vagina since they all manifest during sex); her constant power creep making her the most powerful of them all and vanquishing all enemies without any real development. This is only a small example from a genre that is far too overwhelmed with this kind of protagonist.

Why is it that the moment women gain superpowers, virtually every other aspect of their personalities gets erased in order to ensure believability? It is important that women not be reduced to damsels in distress and that they are understood as being capable, but how is turning them into Dirty Harry clones, to be understood as advancement when it only slots women into a role typically occupied by men with little nuance. Just as a stepford wife is problematic for her robotic role, so is the female weapon because once she enters into this role, there is no room for her to express or experience femininity as a spectrum filled with fluidity.

The “strongest” characters we have come across in the genre are those that don’t have the power to reduce cities to rubble with a single angry glance. They’re capable, but they’re not super women. Often they don’t have the super-special shiny power; any supernatural power they have is no more special or odd than any other being of their type (and they’re not the only one left living in their special loneliness). Or if they do have a special, unique power, it’s completely non violent (while, at the same time, not reducing them to a prize to be won). Some of them can’t even fight at all.

Their “strength” is not based on the death count they can rack up, or the number of bad guys who are terrified when they walk through the door. Their strength is based on being fully rounded characters. It is based on them having agency, on them being an active participant in their stories. It is based on them being intelligent, or at least having a modicum of common sense and not running around with Spunky Agency that should have got them killed or mocked several times over. It is based on them having goals and fully fleshed relationships, opinions, desires, and hobbies, and generally having lives. It’s about them overcoming obstacles through smarts and determination, not just with a super-accurate bullet from their awesome gun, or a dazzling display of martial prowess.

Women like Diana Rowland’s
Kara Gillian Series and White Trash Zombie series. Women like Alex Craft in Kalayna Price’s Grave Witch Series, Cassandra in Tracy Sinclair’s Cassandra Bick Chronicles, Kate in Jesse Petersen’s Living with the Dead Series, and October Daye in Seanan Mcguire’s series. Some of these characters have powers and special abilities, but they’re not world destroyingly awesome nor do any of them have combat skills that leave their contemporaries gasping in shock. They’re not subject to endless power creep, they are not appreciably more powerful or dangerous than the people around yet they are some of the strongest characters we’ve come across.

It is not impossible to combine the two. You can have a character who is strong and has special powers, like Jane True in Nicole Peeler’s Tempest Series, Kim Harrison’s Rachel from The Hollows Series, or who can fight and kick arse better than anyone else. Just as you can have a character who is strong, but has the passive Chosen One trait that makes them such a prize. But they’re not strong characters because of these traits and martial capability cannot be used to replace strong characterisation.