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September 14 2011

Strong female characters are.... myths? Angel writer Mere Smith looks at what makes a strong female character in TV and film.

Aside from population, I'm not sure there's a meaningful distinction between the plight of unrecognized strong female characters and strong male characters in this regard.

Consider -- how long of a list could one come up with of strong male characters in TV or film who don't also "wield a god-like power to either kill people or heal them".

Forgive the fun toys meme, but Strong Character is Strong.

I'll agree without qualification that there are certainly more strong male characters in TV and film than there are female, and probably more SMCs by percentage of all male characters than there are SFCs by percentage of female. But Mere Smith's column seems to imply that there is a limiting rule within, and specific to, the SFCs that SFCs all have to have a sword dipped in awesome sauce, professionally speaking -- I don't think that's a phenomenon limited to the SFCs at all. It's how most TV and film characters get the "S" in the first place. Call it a shortcut, a cheap writing heuristic even, but the first and easiest way to put a neon sign over a character, male or female, and say "this shall be the character to which you shall aspire in some way" is to give them skills or abilities beyond the average audience member's.

It's a topic that's right in my wheel-house as a long time fan of Xander Harris, who is a male character that often struggles to get recognition as a "strong" male character precisely because he lacks that same mythical quality. I take her point about Roseanne's sitcom version of herself, but by the same token, just as Christina Yang might be unfairly recognized as an SFC more than Roseanne (Connor), Dr. Cliff Huxtable probably would get picked out as a male role model before Dan Connor would.

This specific issue is not one I see as being an existential crisis limited to female characters other than as a function of their being far fewer SFCs, mythical or otherwise.

And one side-note, does Ripley really come off to people as being a woman of privilege? The Nostromo crew seemed to be depicted as pretty blue collar, ham-and-eggs folks, and that actually plays in "Aliens" since the job she gets is working on a loading dock. It's just not a way I ever expected to see her described.
I read that quickly, but I don't think the author mentions Sarah Connor. She's not rich, she doesn't have any superpowers, she's just a normal woman who turned badass in the face of adversity. I'm sure we can find many other examples... Laura Roslin? Captain Janeway? Sure, she was a captain, but her leadership didn't rely on an ability to kill or save lives.
Ragondux, leave a comment on her blog or tweet her (@evilgalprods) she asks for examples of non-superpowered strong women.
KingofCretins, regarding the Ripley side-note, it's been mentioned to Mere already that the crew was pretty blue collar.
Well, there is Gemma from Sons of Anarchy. Blue collar and one of the toughest women ever- think of her rape and what she then did. Ripley was blue collar and Buffy was not upper middle class. Maybe middle class, to be sure.
And Buffy being middle class was not a cause of her strength, it was part of the paradox: we don't expect the typical wealthy cheerleader to be strong.

Which makes me think of Cordelia as a good example of strong woman with no superstrength.
no lawyers, no doctors, no cops, no superpowers
I agree that it can be very frustrating to see how little strong female characters there are on tv and in film, but considering the ubiquity of law/cop/medical shows (whether you like it or not) and the general lack of people that really have to work for a living on tv, the way the complaint is framed here seems just a tad ridiculous.
Also, what does it really mean to be strong? My idea of strong women might include Catherine Willows and Sara Sidle of CSI, for example; it might include Sophie from In Treatment. Not superhero strong, to be sure, but strong as real humans. I might include Tara Maclay. Cordelia. Fred. All strong. Zoe. Hey, Saffron. Strong.
Rarely do I see an article about Buffy that's based on class structure and from a Mutant Enemy writer too. Makes a change.
Well a show like BSG had virtually only blue color (military and not at all rich) characters and the women were strong, independent and interesting. I think the trend has been to show only the rich on shows lately (not just wealthy women, but only wealthy men as well). 'Terriers' was about the lower middle class, and of course in 'Walking Dead' everyone was completely destitute (but they had quite a weak assortment of women on both those shows in my opinion).

[ edited by embers on 2011-09-14 15:17 ]
Aside from population, I'm not sure there's a meaningful distinction between the plight of unrecognized strong female characters and strong male characters in this regard.

My initial thoughts exactly - that and the Ripley flub.
I think we may need to question ourselves what exactly a strong, female character is suppose to be? Thought I had a good ideal, but after reading these posts, I'm starting to have doubts.

Perhaps one of those thoughts where everyone has one? :)
Interesting thing about BSG though ... the strong women who aren't killer robots (Roslin and Kara) end up having mystical visions, great destinies, ties to the supernatural. Which arguably ties in to Mere Smith's point: it's not enough for Kara to be a strong woman who's a great pilot, she has to have a special destiny. It's not enough for Roslin to be a minor politician who's suddenly leading the human race, she has to have weird visions from the gods.

By comparison, most of the strong men on the show (Adama, Lee, Helo) are normal people with no special powers.

For an "ordinary" woman who's portrayed as strong ... Donna Noble comes to mind. (Though she's a problematic example in a number of ways.) And when it comes to non-genre stuff I'm drawing a blank.
I've thought for some time now that even our beloved Joss writes strong female characters by making them really good at killing, i.e. a traditionally male aspect. (Fortunately he also wrote Joyce, Tara, and Cordelia, but even Tara had some power and Cordy was pretty deadly by the end.) I'd like a strong female character who saves the day by doing something else. Would Inara count? She got the crew out of a jam or two; I'm thinking "Jaynestown," for instance.

The class thing is an astute observation as far as it goes, but I note that Buffy was drifting into lower-class territory by S6, with the burger-joint job and the house troubles. And Cordy started out rich and spoiled, but working for Angel she was just scraping by. Same goes for Zoe (and therefore Kaylee).

Most important, however, is Willow.

Yes, Willow. Superpowered by the end? Absolutely. But she's superpowered because she learns. In the Buffyverse anyone can work a spell if they know what to do and do it right (heck, Andrew can do magic). Willow's just great at learning. In our world she'd be a programmer or a scientist (or heck, a lawyer), someone who's really, really capable because of her knowledge. I don't really find that unrealistic in the slightest.

She's still middle-class, though.


All in all, great thought-provoking read! And I think all my non-genre examples would have to come from West Wing.
I'm sorry, did Buffy not have serious money troubles when she came back from the dead? And she was most certainly not upper middle class.
Her mum owned an art gallery, that's somewhat upper middle class in my book.
We have no idea what kind of art was in the gallery, or how much it cost to run or its profits.

The best way we're given to judge is by their house and car. Most definitely middle class, not upper.
The American middle class has a really wide range within it. They're certainly not in the lower reaches of the middle class, not even when Buffy is working fast food. She's doing it to maintain a rather nice house (which she's probably got a mortgage on?) and raise her sister. It's nice to see Buffy struggle realistically with mundane financial realities, but she's never faced the kind of lifestyle Faith has, for example.
I didn't say she was upper class, merely upper middle class. And class is reflected by your social status as well as economic.
Yeah, I would also say upper middle class. Especially when you consider the references to Buffy's dad as a deadbeat. Joyce's salary can't be anything to sneeze at. Buffy lives in one of those tv dream houses with the upstairs and the downstairs and all that space tastefully decorated. For two people!
Cordelia could even be classified as upper class.
Cordelia's family had certainly been rich, but my understanding was that Joyce could only afford that house (which was quite a nice house) because property values were so depressed in Sunnydale (ie even a single Mom could afford to own one).
Any article that leads to a discussion among Whedonverse fans that does NOT involve debating over Spike in some way is A-Ok. :)
the sciffy version from John Scalzi, which addresses Ripley and how she is a problem for SF
embers has the right of it. Sunnydale's pretty cheap to live in, can't think why. And it's also implied Joyce is a really good homemaker, hence all the decoration.

If I had to guess, an art gallery director moves in upper-class circles, but money may be spotty depending on sales. And Joyce is a single mom, so while the money may be decent it's not exactly easy. Joyce makes some references to "wrestling with the IRS," too. Does she say anything about needing help in getting Buffy to Northwestern? Can't remember.

Solidly middle-class in values, expectations, and clothes, however. I wouldn't put Buffy any lower or higher than middle-middle until Season 6.
And there there is this: http://www.theawl.com/2010/12/ellen-ripley-saved-my-life
The results are in from her asking for examples.
Wish that link had been posted earlier than today - I don't think she's going to post my comment so here's what I had to say:

I love that you brought up Roseanne, Mere. Like or dislike the actress, that character rocked big time. I think there may be more “regular” folk strong-women characters in the past, currently, and coming up than we’ve thought of. Olivia Benson on L&O: SVU, the child of rape championing and trying to empower other rape victims; Olivia Dunham on Fringe (even though she’s got some sort of “power”, she also got experimented on as a kid and has endured and carried on with all of that weighing on her in past seasons, psychologically speaking); Lucretia on Spartacus: Blood and Sand and the prequel, Gods of the Arena (okay, evil, but she held/holds her own in a world run by men); Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect, BBC – let’s see how Maria Bello does with the American version. And also, Sarah Michelle Gellar’s new character(s) on Ringer. I thought the blue-collar Bridget character disguising herself as her own twin pretty ballsy, and I hope that continues (and Bridget herself – no problem with assertion there).

I would love to see a trend wherein these women are honored as much as a wealthy superhero type (of which I’d contest Buffy doesn’t really belong).

Further: On the way home I was thinking about why Roseanne is so great, and I think that at least part of why her strength is so enviable lies in the fact that it takes a lot to break her. Who knows whence that strength wells from, but of course I thought of the episode Joss wrote, in which Darlene delivers her poem to an audience of students and parents. Seeing that chink in her armor was a thing of beauty, and still is:

To Whom it Concerns
Buffy struggle realistically with mundane financial realities, but she's never faced the kind of lifestyle Faith has, for example.


Except when Buffy lived in LA in a rundown apartment post-Becoming.
Unless I am missing the point, I am surprised that no-one here or there hasn't mentioned Nurse Jackie. In the confines of a comedy drama, she seems pretty real to me as do Zoey and the administrator Gloria Akalitus.
As a lifelong middle class American, I still maintain they were middle class. Their house was nice, but really just slightly above average for middle class. And again, their car was average. I feel like I have a pretty good idea of the American social strata. At least at this level.

In any case, I find it pretty amusing that this class discussion of a character from a tv show that ended 8 years ago has gone this long. We are fans. :-)
Apparently there is NO standard definition of "middle class" in the U.S. no matter how much everyone tosses the term around. No government agency has one, not the census bureau and not the treasury. And almost everyone in the States self-identifies as "middle class" whether they are seen that way by others or not. No one apparently wants to say they are lower or upper class. A more accurate term to use might be "middle income" which, if you use the standard-ish understanding of it, in 2010 the upper limit on middle income/class was considered to be anywhere between $90,000-$100,000 for a family of four by various people and entities. (Googling "definition middle class us" gets some interesting articles.) I'm not sure what the numbers would be for 2011, but in 2008 only 6% of the U.S. population had a household income of more than $97,000. Make of it what you will. :-)

I'm not sure how one would adjust the Summers' household income for 1997 numbers on a California Hellmouth. Maybe Joyce was funding stuff through credit? Maybe she got child support? Alimony? I never pictured her running a top notch gallery, myself. A town the size of Sunnydale with a lack of high tourist flow just couldn't support it. She was probably getting by, but not by much. Northwestern is an expensive school and I can't imagine Buffy getting too many scholarships. This didn't seem to worry Joyce. Upper middle class doesn't seem like a bad designation to me. If the middle class ranges between say, the $20,000-ish poverty limit and the $90,000-ish upper range, the upper middle class would be… $70,000-$90,000? It doesn't buy as much as it sounds like, especially with Joyce's probable health insurance. It would allow the Summers household to make some lifestyle choices though.

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