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August 15 2013

Sophia McDougal hates strong female characters. Here's why. "What do I want instead of a Strong Female Character? I want a male:female character ratio of 1:1 instead of 3:1 on our screens. I want a wealth of complex female protagonists who can be either strong or weak or both or neither, because they are more than strength or weakness."

The problem lies with the cultural rhetoric. Historically, female characters are damsels with no agenda outside their relationship to male characters. When someone like Buffy breaks the mold, she gets labeled as 'strong.' Obviously, we know Buffy is more than just strong - she is vulnerable, witty, brave, and at times, self-centered. She is flawed and complicated like any male characters we wouldn't have to call 'strong' to begin with, but these connotations aren't as commonly recognized in the public eye. Once the female character tradition shifts from eye-candy to individuals, we won't reduce these women to 'strong' or take issue with them when they're not.
And yet people seem to have a problem with shows like 'Girls'.
I liked this a lot. I've been thinking for awhile that the female characters we call "strong" are what I would call "normal". Maybe that's because of the kind of people my mother and sisters are.

Sophia McDougal is right, "strong" just isn't enough and good characters need to be a lot more than that.
Speaking as the product of a post-leftist, hippie, post-feminist household - I couldn't agree more.

Also, I hope that the author knows about this.
I feel like I need to apologize for the rambliness below and I hope it makes sense.

Women are on a default setting. The assumption is that this setting, unless stated otherwise, is everlasting.

Damsel, in a relationship, pining over a man, unintelligent, weak-willed, or weak in physical strength.

And then add in ethnicity and racial stereotypes. Asian women are submissive and smart. Black women are sassy. White women are snobby or shrill.

Then there's sexual norms. Women love men. Period.

Then there's physical looks. Black women are voluptuous, white women are thin, Asian women have alabaster skin and almond-shaped eyes. The message that can be derived from much of the entertainment industry is that any deviation from these "default settings" is unacceptable. Also complicating that is mental ability stereotypes, whether the pretty girl is dumb or the ugly duckling is smart.

It's a minefield and while I also dislike that some female characters are portrayed as defensive and overcompensating for their own abilities by being so overt in their "strong female character"ness, I also totally understand.

In real life, it's difficult to not just give up and say "conformity is easier, I'm gonna go be a doctor now" especially if you're young and there are demands on you to be a certain way. But it's important to keep trying because there are a lot of kids who haven't been able to think about these things because they're 10 years old, or 8 years old and there should be lessons to learn from female characters on TV. They might get to 15 and discover these great characters that show it's okay to be good at your job, not care remotely what someone else thinks of you, and be proud of your body as it is.
I have to agree with this.

It always grates me when every actress says about her character "Oh ya she's a really strong, independant woman who can kick ass like any man".

Not every woman is strong and independant, the same way as not every man is. There are weak people of both sexes and that's ok too.

It's just become this mantra that every actress, director, writer and producer has to say about every female character...repeated ad infinitum until it becomes meaningless PR speak.

I would love for an actress to come out one day and say "Oh no my characters not strong. She's quite weak in fact. And boy does she need a man. And I strip off gratuitously every 5 mins and its nothing to do with being a strong sexy independant's the fact that T&A sells." just to see the uproar:-)

Don't get me wrong. It's wonderful that there are strong female role models for girls out there. But it's become forbidden to portray female characters in any other light. And that's not good either.
My question, and it's not rhetorical, is whether we needed (perhaps stupidly) to go through the Strong Female Characters discussion first, because despite resistance even to that it was a more palatable "message", one that would eventually yield to "well, duh", which would then clear the way for pieces like this one (and this one).

[ edited by The One True b!X on 2013-08-15 19:48 ]
And so many female and soem male characters who don't fit either the stereotype or the "marketable anti-stereotype" are presented as freaks no sane person would bother with.
Leonard's athletic blind date on a BBT episode.)
I just remembered a video of Zoe Saldana at Comicon talking about her character in Guardians of the Galaxy. Someone in production asked her to describe her character and she started by saying, "She's a strong woman-" They interrupted her and said, "No. She's an assassin."

She seemed to get a kick out of saying, "So I'm playing an assassin!"
I think Joss has multifaceted women in all his productions including The Avengers. Obviously the promotional material and posters is what really upsets this writer. I agree with her about the posters (did you see the first one with her butt?), but the movie itself showed that Black Widow had many more sides to her than just being strong. In fact, showing weakness was one of her main strengths.
Put the blame where it lies though, on the advertising agencies!
Jason_M_Bryant, she was talking to her nephew (who was like, 9). So when her nephew interrupted her to say "she's an assassin" was a kid saying that, so it kind of changes the way that story goes. Kids are usually focused on things being cool and not so much on how acting informs the human condition.

What I really liked about Joss' writing and directing of Maria Hill was that even though she was only in the movie for a total of 10 or 15 minutes, she wasn't part of a punchline. Not even Tony says anything sexist to her. This is wildly different from Iron Man 2, when he makes it a point to describe Natasha as a thing by saying "I want one," meaning her. It's played for laughs, and I admit I laughed (but it was because he was acting like a child). But these little things are in small ways insidious and can contribute to a cultural problem with the way women are portrayed.
My question, and it's not rhetorical, is whether we needed (perhaps stupidly) to go through the Strong Female Characters discussion first, because despite resistance even to that it was a more palatable "message", one that would eventually yield to "well, duh", which would then clear the way for pieces like this one (and this one).

Short answer: yes.
Veering onto a tangental rant, this is why I get grumpy when I hear people complain that shows like Buffy aren't feminist enough. Because everyone knows you can't be a feminist and still be vulnerable, or make bad relationship choices, or actually want a boy to like you, or be bad at math.

Because I'm older than dirt, it probably won't happen in my lifetime, but I hold out hope for the day when we've come far enough to have broken the stereotypes enough that both men and women can be just people.
I think Joss has multifaceted women in all his productions including The Avengers.

I think Joss has multifaceted women in all his productions except The Avengers.

I mean, I don't blame him. He did what he could and Black Widow is definitely in the "Good" column. But that doesn't change the fact that the Avengers are a team with 5 men and 1 women. If we count the SHIELD guys and the villain, that's 8 men and 2 women (and one of them was barely in the movie).

So no.

"The Avengers" is an example of the trend, not an exception.
This is ridiculous, it is a stupid semantic argument where the writer is pretending that 'strong' means we all want women weight lifters/gun slingers/marshal artists. The author admits:
"And of course, I love all sorts of female characters who exhibit great resilience and courage"

duh... what does the word 'strong' mean if not people w/courage, resilience, and some degree of intelligent capability? An elderly woman character can be a 'strong woman character' if she speaks her mind and stands up for herself. I don't mean winning fights, I mean that the courage of her convictions is strength.

In Firefly Joss gave a a series of very strong women character, all of whom had their own individual strengths. This is all I ask from any show, I want women I can admire, who bring something interesting to the story.

I feel that this is a manipulative article that is cherry picking examples just to make a point, a lame ridiculous point. IMHO
Embers, I don't think the author is saying she doesn't want strong female characters, but rather she doesn't want "Strong Female Characterô".

Her example of Peggy in Captain America hits the bullseye. Peggy doesn't have much characterization at all beyond "Strong Female Character", which is intended (in the opinion of the author and myself) to placate viewers about the fact that she's the only female character (not including the one without a name who maybe has a line).

The author herself says she loves moments like the Buffy "Me." line. But filmakers take moments like that and reduce them to their lowest common denominator in order to cover up the fact that women make up less than 1/3 of screen time. "It's okay if that was the only woman in a movie, cuz she punched that one guy."

I don't believe the author was in any way trying to disparage actual strong female characters with layers and motivations.
I'm reminded of the ugliness at the Women Who Kick Ass panel at Comic-Con. Where, correct me if I'm wrong, the panelists wanted to talk more than "just kicking ass" much to the dismay of some in the audience.
Simon, you might want to double check what you named the panel in your post.
I have to agree with the author here. In the 70ís, 80ís and 90ís there had to be a massive influx of strong female characters because the imbalance was so off that the scales needed to be leveled.

Now it feels weíve gone too far the other way. A woman canít just be average, she has to be amazing at everything on every level. Iím not saying thatís a bad thing or that it should be abandoned or dismissed, I just feel that this doesnít ring true to real life. Not every female or male is a 100% perfect bad-ass strong person. We all have our own weaknesses and strengths and how we grapple with both those limitations and each other is what is so compelling about the human condition.

I also have to agree with the ratio analogy; instead of a 3 to 1, I want a 1 to 1. When you look at the series of Buffy, enemies were constantly in shock and awe of her going, ďbut, youíre just a girlĒ. Which was very cool and a poignant statement on how our society was viewing women at the time. I think now the next step should be making that point irrelevant and not worth stating by any character because they live in a world where it is just as likely to get taken down by a man or woman.

I know we donít live in a post-gender discrimination world yet but it would be nice for television and film to take that leap for us and show us what it would be like.
This is one of the reasons I love BtVS; it's got so many ways of women being powerful. Of course it has a leg up over Avengers in that it's fifty-four times longer, but here are some of the nuances:

-- Buffy is physically strong, but it's her friendships that make her stronger.
-- Willow gets to be strong by reading stuff.
-- Joyce is occasionally flustered but gets to be strong in classic maternal fashion.
-- Tara is strong in some remarkable ways, including the strength to say no to someone she loves.
-- Xander and Giles not only embrace Buffy's leadership, but, when she dies, immediately make Willow the next boss. And make her a plaque, too, as I recall.
I think the author may not be watching enough cable dramas. Complicated, multi-faceted and flawed women all over the place. Gloriously so.
I agree with her article, she says what I've been saying for years. I want a variety of female characters, I want rich complex human female characters, and I always roll my eyes at all the female characters that seem to be designed to be Strong Female Characters - I just want more and more fully human women, and I want that to be the default instead of something special.

However, I'd like to point out that I've always, perhaps ironically, pointed to BtVS as a show with great female characters. They're allowed to be human, not just constructs to satisfy certain narrow expectations.
Oh b!X, there's a bit in the article you linked that sums it up perfectly I think: "What I need isnít 'strong female characters.' What I need is strong female characterization."
Ciella - yes, exactly. The whole Strong Female Character thing feels like a pat on the head. 'There you go feminists, is that what you wanted? She's a Strong, Independent Woman who don't take no crap from no man. Now can we get on to business as usual?'

I don't think Buffy or Whedon fans need feel defensive here - yes, Buffy (and a lot of Whedon's female characters as a whole) are often held up as examples of Strong Female Characters. But I've always felt kinda frustrated by that because his female characters, whether they're kick-ass action heroes or not, are actually so much more than just that.
duh... what does the word 'strong' mean if not people w/courage, resilience, and some degree of intelligent capability?

Invulnerability. Men are allowed to be vulnerable (sometimes.) If you go by the tenets of the contemporary mainstream feminist movement, at least, women aren't.
Brinderwalt, I've seen at least two other articles, written by women, making the same points that Sophia McDougal makes here, and the ideas always seem to get a large and positive response. We can argue about which feminists are "mainstream," but I'm not sure that a majority of feminists want to see invulnerable women. I think that movie and TV producers are trying to give women what they want and failing badly, as usual.
I want strong female characters whom we don't have to be reminded by the chorus are strong characters. I don't want invulnerable characters, male OR female (well, unless we're talking, say, Superman or Supergirl...)

As far as the ratio is concerned, I want to see a realistic ratio; 1:1 across the board is no more realistic than 3:1 across the board. There are settings and situations where the realistic ratio might be 20:0 - or 0:20.
I'm not sure that a majority of feminists want to see invulnerable women.

Oh, I'm willing to bet oodles of imaginary money that the vast majority do not. However, when the default character portrayal for an entire disparate group of people seems to be wimp - it should come as no surprise that a lot of well-meaning people would have no problem turning a blind eye to those cases where the anti-wimpery is so blatant that you can practically taste the cheese.
I still think Joss did a good job of portraying more than one side to Black Widow. She had a real voice and purpose in the film even though some viewers didn't understand what that was. Yes, he was limited by the character choices, and maybe he should have figured out a way to include The Wasp.
I am just not sure how anyone could have done a better job writing a story about a bunch of male superheros.
As someone above posted, give me a solution to this issue and I will listen to you. Complaining about the number of women in a story is not a real argument. Not every story is about women. Not every story is about men. Don't get me started on Lifetime movies portrayal of men!
On the flip side, one-dimensional Strong Men characters who are only there to be Strong Men are legion. So in a way this can actually be seen as a step forward for feminism, with women characters being given the exact treatment as men characters.
On the flip side, one-dimensional Strong Men characters who are only there to be Strong Men are legion. So in a way this can actually be seen as a step forward for feminism, with women characters being given the exact treatment as men characters.

Just had an "aha" moment.

Feminism, at its simplest, is the belief that women are people, just like everyone else. So in movies and TV, feminists want to see portrayals of people who happen to be women.

For a long time, particularly in action movies, women have been used as props. Arm candy and window dressing (window undressing, perhaps). The Strong Female Character -- whose only traits are being strong, female, and good masturbatory material for men -- is also a prop. Keen-eyed feminists therefore have just as much reason to dislike Strong Female Character props as Arm Candy props.

The fact that this has come as a revelation to me is definitive proof that I am male.

In contrast, one of the best/darkest/most painful/most honest moments in BtVS is that moment where Buffy breaks down while doing the dishes and listening to mariachi music.
Jayne's Hat, you have a point - if aliens somehow only got transmissions from Lifetime, they would assume that most human males are serial killers.
Maybe it's a definition thing... I'm not quite sure where I'm going with this, but something along the lines of strong female character should actually mean 'strongly written' female character. And so what some people call 'strong female characters' that are actually one dimensional, not well written characters in that case would actually be weak female characters... I think what I'm getting at is that the adjective applies to 'character' not 'female'... or... something I'm not quite sure, can someone catch my point and do better with it?
Yes, DreamRose311, you expressed it so much better than I did! A strong character is the opposite of a 'weak character' because we can all agree that a weak character is the poorly written/thin (2 dimensional) cliche with nothing meaningful to add.

That was the wonder of Joss' Much Ado About Nothing, he had no weak characters, all the characters were important and meaningful.
To me, a strong character, male or female, does not need to be physically strong. Or not only physically strong. They continue on in the face of adversary, alone or with support; if they need help they're not afraid to ask for and accept it. They aren't robotic or shut off from their emotions; they're able to contain them if needed to get the job done, but they're not afraid of their emotions - they know it doesn't mean they're weak, just human.

Buffy was strong because she didn't quit. No matter how often she wanted to, no matter how bad things got, who of her friends or family was hurt or killed, she kept on. She might take a while to gather herself, but in the end she always did what she had to, no matter how hard (emotionally and physically) it was to do.

As far as Black Widow being the only female in The Avengers - she's the only one we'd been introduced to up to that point. Joss didn't bring in any new characters (aside from Maria Hill) - he took the heroes from each of the preceding movies and the villain we'd already met, and threw them together. What little we saw of Maria Hill showed that she was a tough and capable woman, but also "vulnerable" in that she was emotionally affected by Coulson's death. She was a strong female - able to shoot it out with the bad guys, question authority, and yet feminine...and human.

Am I making sense here?
Having gotten to read the article, I have to agree strongly with most of it. The fiction often mirrors life, and there is a certain tendency, as she points out, to give women a pass on things that would get a man severely censured. (Heck, I've been guilty of it in one of my fics-Xander said something uncalled for and Anya and Cordelia delivered a Fresh-Prince-of-Bel-air-style slapstick double punishment.)

The exceptions just point up the reality; I agev up comics long ago but Avengers continuity had multiple female characters active in the stories. The Whedonverse, of course, but, despite its popularity, Joss's work always had a "little-show" ambience.

Moving out of both action and fantasy, there were strong female interactions, along with plausible men around them, in, for example, both Desert Hearts and Tender Mercies, but again, little movies. More blockbuster-ish soap operas like Terms Of Endearment tend to give into disempowering cliches again. (Hey, perfectly good words, Republicans are allowed to use them.)

Ratios- in real life, 1:1 ratios are very rare, but the "always always one" cliche needs to be buried both on film and in the wallets of the mavens. And ditto the speech patterns for female characters. The secondary women are needed, and the flaws.
These days the only feature of a female character that really surprises and delights me is when she never expresses any interest in sex, and nobody expects her to. Most of my favorites end up being little girls (or ponies in shows made for little girls).
I didn't see the Lara Croft movies, but offhand, I can't think of any female hero in the movies who is invulnerable.

I've often been annoyed at how insecure Buffy is, and how much blame she gets. I don't want her to be invulnerable. But she seems to doubt herself more than the male characters.

I don't think the author of this article means that every movie has to have a 1:1 ratio. But it would be terrific if the movie industry in general came close to that. As many in the industry have noted, TV has many more roles for women than do movies. One reason is that family members can watch shows as individuals, but many couples go to movies. Boys and men are less likely to go to movies whose leads are female.

Joss doesn't do a 1:1 ratio. There are always more male characters when you count up everyone, including guests and minor characters.
Well, then again quite often those males are there to be disposable baddies for female protagonists, so there you go.

I actually tend to find Whedon was particularly shrewd, especially when I hear writers room stories, about understanding how something would be symbolically perceived.

For instance, hook Buffy up with Xander early and Spike, Angel, Riley, and one night stand never happen. You'd also have Buffy in the "hooks up with the nice guy she's not initially attracted to" cliche and people would have been pissed.

I think men crawl all over Dollhouse because politically that was how he thought it would play the best. Adele, the only woman with agency in the story really for the most part, isn't even allowed to stay "bad" in the audiences eyes. But the rest of the baddies were men because he already had a big enough problem with the general rapey vibe people got from that show.

But essentially I think disposable baddies will always skew male. There are just so many things that people associate with the negative excess of male id that creators know they won't get yelled at for showing.
I'll also add, there's a distinction here between the author's definition of strong is and a dramatists definition of strong. It ends up creating a bit of a strawman however, because yes there really is a strain of people at this point that believe "strong" is synonymous with invulnerability and superior skill. It's why I've been on boards where a woman gets defeated or loses a battle and that is brought in as evidence that she is not in fact strong. This would of course be news to just about every strong male character out there where usually losing or appearing defeated is often par for the course in order to create stakes for their eventual victory.

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