The Strong Female Character Model
“You’re a big man in a suit of armor. Take that away, what are you?”
“Genius, billionaire playboy, philanthropist.”
-Steve Rogers and Tony Stark in The Avengers
So, in a total coincidence, I came across this news from Variety yesterday about how Buffy the Vampire Slayer will be re-broadcast on the air thanks to ABC picking it up. I shit you not, this project was not planned by me to coincide with that... but damn, if I had any doubt fortune was smiling on me, this has wiped that doubt away!
Daniel Swensen, author of science-fiction novel Burn and regular blogger, says of writing female characters that the stereotype of being scantily clad and badass seems to “reinforce the idea that ‘violence=strength’. Not that I mind ass-kicking characters, but groin-punching is a behavior, not a personality trait.” This is exactly what so many writers do when they want to write a female character and make her relevant to the story: they take a man’s character and transplant their traits onto a woman’s body. Many science fiction shows follow precisely the line that female characters are breaking out of traditional roles by being “strong”, and worse yet, equating that with being “masculine.” In fact, Maya J. Goldenberg says in her article, from the pages of Journal of Gender Studies in 2007, that society “[fails] to take seriously women’s interests, identities, and issues, as well as failing to recognize women’s ways of being, thinking and doing as being equally valuable as those of men.” She also outlines in her paper the idea of the “A/not A” categories, that everything is based around A, and anything not resembling A is seen through the lens of A as not being A. Also note that “feminine” is included in the traits that carry with them a connotation of being bereft of power, so that femaleness is ingrained in society as also being without power or influence.
It seems apparent to me that to be a “strong female character” in a typical “progressive” show, one need only not be a stereotypical woman. A traditional female character on television will be “weak, feminine, irrational, immature, uncultured.” She is without agency, submissive, passive, graceful, self-critical, and materialistic. In most cases, the traditional female character is defined by these qualities, possessing no personhood to speak of, and thus her character comes off as less of a person and more so as a representation of traits and characteristics. becoming a symbol for the weaknesses of women. Goldenberg notes that “gender essentialism is the thesis that there is some property (or properties) necessary to me being a woman and definitive of a generic category of ‘woman’,” and by default extension implies, based on societal implementation and observation, that those properties are in accordance with how women are viewed through the lens of men, that women are seen as “not A” because they aren’t men. The “A/not A” dichotomy persists with the typical female stereotype, but also and especially when the “strong female character” comes into play.
A “strong female character” would be a character who shuns all of the traits of womanhood that are often seen as stereotypical of women on television, and so a female character who is attempting to be progressive is distancing herself from these traits. A typical example of this in science fiction is a badass, knife or gun-wielding, crop top acrobat with a thing for leather outfits. Sherrie A. Inness outlines in her introduction to Tough Girls: Women Warriors and Wonder Women in Popular Culture the four core traits of what she calls “Tough Women” or what I identify as the “strong female character”: “body, attitude, action, and authority,” and her elaborations on each criterion fit into what I have outlined as well: the weapons, body type, and clothing are all geared toward moving away from femininity while also keeping the traits that fit nicely under the male gaze.
Examples of the “strong female character” model in science fiction range from The Avengers’ gun-wielding sexy acrobatic Black Widow, to cyborg logical no-emotions Seven of Nine in Star Trek Voyager, who also occasionally uses guns, to the all-guns, no-nonsense Ripley in the Alien franchise. (Evidently, women using guns is a sign of strength and sexiness in the action movie genre.) All three of these women are classified as “strong” by the majority of their fans, and while they certainly do contain aspects of woman empowerment, particularly Ripley, their characters are simply nothing more than archetypes, and are certainly nothing more than “strong", and I will be taking a look at each of them in turn with this section. To quote G.D. Anderson on his tumblr page in a response he gave about feminism and male leads, “feminism isn’t about making women stronger. Women are already strong. It’s about changing the way the world perceives that strength,” and that is what Buffy is able to understand whereas the “strong female character” is not.
In a 2013 blog post on newstatesman.com, Sophia McDougall examines the word “strong” and how it relates to both male and female characters. One of the many great points that she brings up is that complex male characters are never characterized as “strong”. “What happens when one tries to fit… iconic male heroes into an imaginary ‘Strong Male Character’ box?” asks McDougall. “The ones that fit in most neatly,” she answers, “are usually the most boring,” and most male characters would not be able to fit. Batman, Sherlock Holmes, and Iron Man, she argues, would all have a rather tough time trying to fit into the box labeled “strong”, because they are so much more than that. Yet look at how the “strong female character” box so neatly encompasses the majority of the female characters identified as “strong.” With the “strong female character” box, women are treated as a unified whole, bereft of character complexity or uniqueness within their ranks. Goldenberg notices this failure of a system as well, stating “there is reason to be suspicious of the liberal form of equality through sameness and the invisibility of difference) [the form of which I argue is the “strong female character” motif], as women are rendered ‘just like’ men, but men are noticeably not regarded as ‘just like’ women.”
|And so, I await many an angry email from Black Widow|
This might not have been so bad if it had come after establishing a human character (and no, Widow’s introduction in Iron Man 2 did not establish anything besides the traits mentioned; her introductory scene in that film was also a purely physical one, and likewise was treated as comedy), but as a scene meant to make us care about Widow, it fails as it just makes us care about her body as an object, hardly fitting for a character who is supposed to be progressive. Jeffrey Brown, author of Dangerous Curves, poses the question that Black Widow answers with a resounding yes: “[when] women are portrayed as tough in contemporary film… are they merely further fetishized as dangerous sex objects.” Widow’s introductory scene plays perfectly into this line of thinking, that women are merely objects even when handed guns, and the scene might have worked had the rest of the film not portrayed Widow in much the same light as her introductory scene. But as the rest of the film goes on, we see that what began as satire for Widow quickly devolves into falling in with the stereotype.
Throughout the film, Widow is bereft of complexity, completely dependent on being able to kick ass and be beautiful. She is without agency, or at least any agency that could be meaningful in creating a female character that is above being “strong,” which is surprising coming from someone as deft at writing complex characters as Whedon, and even more surprising as his experience writing the characters on Buffy did not even seem to register here. Anytime Widow’s emotions are represented in the film, they are seen as being part of an “act,” with her character demonstrating in reality that she has no emotions, because, as Inness points out, “such a display would interfere with her performance.” To quote Brown:
"While action heroines may enact womanliness (in the general sense) as a cover, oftentimes the narratives depict the disguise as excessively passive, as almost vehemently disempowering. By using very specific fetishistic fantasies of women as disempowered, the portrayal of action heroines allows male consumers to enjoy the most rudimentary sexist fantasies of women while simultaneously distancing themselves from the misogynistic roots of those fantasies… if they so desire."
|Sydney Bristow toggles the roles of badass|
and fem fetal quite well, with an
awareness often lacking in other shows.
Yes, both Alias and Buffy are television shows while The Avengers is only a two-hour movie; there is an obvious and important difference in how much time a writer has to develop characters in both formats. And it is also true that Widow is not the star of the film. But then, this is Widow’s second theatrical outing; she is an established character in the film franchise now. And yet this film never gives the audience any insight into her character, no themes or subtext that inform her actions or weave her character into whatever greater theme there is to this film. The scene where she interrogates Loki is brought up as a counter to this, that she did have development there as we see her manipulate him into giving away his plan. This, however, does not tell us anything that we do not already know; her introduction scene has her manipulate her captors into spilling what they know. The only things we get from this scene are two bullet points of backstory (which I remind you is not the same as character development), and the twist that Widow’s manipulation of Loki hinged on her being emotional, and again, that is presented as a weakness. And unlike Alias, this kind of representation of a trope is never balanced out or subverted by Widow; it is simply presented and then left unaddressed for the rest of the film.
The idea that emotion is somehow a detriment only to females (because as McDougall notes, male characters are complex and multi-faceted) is absurd and only serves to reinforce sexual stereotypes in the media for both men and women. In The Avengers, Steve Rogers/Captain America asks of Tony Stark/Iron Man, both of whom are used as examples in McDougall’s “strong male character” thought experiment from above, that were he to take away his Iron Man armor would there be anything left of Tony. Tony responds in his colorful way that there would still be left “a genius, billionaire, playboy, [and a] philanthropist.” To quote McDougall, “adding the word ‘strong’ to that list doesn’t seem to me to enhance it much.” There is much more to Tony Stark than just the Iron Man label, certainly far more than even just the list of traits he rattles off to Steve Rogers. As we see in the Iron Man films, Tony Stark is flawed, smart, witty, abrasive, nervous, unsure of himself at times, and he is not always a great guy. I would argue these character traits are fleshed out in their fullest in Iron Man 3. In that movie, Tony suffers PTSD from the final battle in The Avengers, and his reliance on the Iron Man suit becomes stronger, while his resilience and strength of character become strained; by the end of the film, he is able to overcome his inner demons by destroying the suits, his external ones. In comparison to such a journey, look at how little there is to Black Widow. She is a hardened label of physical strength first, and a character second. There is no characterization for Widow because the traits laid out are all that she amounts to. Certainly one is able to read between the lines and point out various actions or expressions that Scarlett Johansson employs in the vain hope that her acting will be able to carry the cardboard cutout she has been given, and I do not believe Johansson to be a poor actor; on the contrary, I find her to be engaging when cast right, and yeah, Johansson can bring all the emotion she wants into the picture− but in terms of exposition and dialogue, what we see of Widow is only that she is a great fighter, and as Swensen said, “groin-punching is a behavior, not a personality trait.”
“No weapons. No friends. No hope. Take all that away, and what’s left?”
Angelus asks Buffy in “Becoming, Part 2” the same question that Steve Rogers asked Tony Stark, and look at what her response is: “Me.” Buffy is established as a character who is more than her traits; we are treated to multiple examples of Buffy showing her humanity prior to this exchange, and so her answer is simple yet encompassing of her character in contrast to Widow’s hypothetical non-answer.
Another example to bring up regarding how the “strong female character” template has evolved into its own stereotype would be Star Trek Voyager’s Seven of Nine. This character was added to the show in 1997, the same year Buffy launched. While the two shows developed largely independently of one another, an important handicap of Voyager was the fact that it was airing alongside shows that were developing longer story arcs, season-long plots, deep continuity with characters, and so forth− indeed it was around this time that the phrase “series mythos” came into its own− while Voyager kept the “alien of the week” method alive, and suffered in ratings because of it (among other reasons). Nothing was grabbing the audience who was watching, and so it was decided to bring on a new character, Seven of Nine.
A human-turned-cyborg at an early age, Seven is eventually liberated from the Borg Collective by the crew of the starship Voyager who turn her back into a human with a few well-placed cyborg remains around her eye, neck, and hand as a reminder of her past. When written correctly, this character fuses the dualistic human/Vulcan nature of Spock, the emotional scars of Picard, and the desire to be more fully human from Data, into a very good package of complexity and character engagement. Unfortunately, as with many things having to do with the writing of Voyager, the instances where she was written well were few and far between. Remember, the writers were now competing with shows that were fully focused on season-long stories, and so it seemed logical to give their new ratings-booster, Seven, an arc of her own. There were two problems with that. First, the writing team had little experience with such a task− Brannon Braga had only worked on Star Trek-related material, and Jeri Taylor and Michael Piller on shows distinctly not serial-based; and second, Seven’s primary function on the show was to serve as eye-candy for young men, with the studio thinking this would boost audience numbers. Jeri Ryan, the actress portraying Seven on the show, even says as much in an interview with Michael Logan: “I knew exactly what I was in for when I had my first costume fitting” says Ryan. One need only look at Seven of Nine’s uniform to see that the marketing people were really playing up her sexiness. While the interview in which this was stated also discusses how Seven is a well-written character, her intended use was to conform to the norm of being there to look sexy.
Brown continues: “Despite being undeniably presented as the sexiest member of the crew (or perhaps because of it), Seven is an interesting, and rare, instance of utilizing cyborgs to question the naturalness of gender norms.” It is important to remember, however, that Seven at her start and even in her closing hours of the series, is still there primarily for visual boosting for men. Besides that, her character’s arc is very flat, and while her presence on the show proved popular at the time, the writers felt that they had such a win with this Seven of Nine character that they ended up turning episodes that were meant for other characters into Seven-centric episodes, simply coasting on the success of this breakout character. “One Small Step”, for example, was originally intended to be a Chakotay-centered episode, but was changed midway through. Robert Beltran, who played Chakotay, freely admitted his frustration about this episode (and about the show in general) in an interview with Melissa J. Peterson in 2000, stating:
"Everybody was so impressed and saying what a great script it was; I wasn't so impressed with it, because it ends up the same way− Seven of Nine saves the day, and Chakotay's prostrate on the bed and impotent, not able to do anything. It ultimately became all about Seven of Nine appreciating something that she hadn't appreciated before. And how many times have we all seen that? So to me, it was the same thing dressed up in a different cloth."
Even with Seven’s success as a character, to me she still falls into the pitfalls that I have outlined above: her emotionlessness is seen as being empowering and intimidating, she is physically stronger than the average human, and she usually resorts to violence to solve problems that might otherwise be solved by diplomacy. Brown observes that Seven’s characteristics are also “decidedly masculine.… In stark contrast to her cold, business-like manner… Seven’s appearance firmly places her within the pantheon of sexy cyborgs and sci-fi babes.” This is to me what is most wrong with the character, or at least her out-of-universe origins and implementations by the writers. Her character, as I see her, is far more of a reinforcement of formulaic patriarchal writing than it is a break away from it. She is logical, levelheaded, terribly sexy in her outfit and figure, and a cyborg to boot. In short, she is the ideal female in the eyes of young men, having the personality of a man with the body of the ideal woman. This firmly reinforces the idea that the role of woman is seen as the “Not A” category to the male’s “A” category, and Seven of Nine’s attempt to be more like the “A” category instead of being more like an actual person says that the notion of a well-written character must be conforming to the framework of masculinity. Brown does go on to say that Seven throughout the show’s run does display more “feminine” qualities of emotion and kind-heartedness, which is true, but the show presents Seven’s emotions as a novelty, as a means of discovery for her character. This is a consequence of her character’s origins, certainly, but it is also indicative of how most shows treat emotional “strong female characters,” with the emotional part as something that women must somehow “learn” or grow into instead of being inherently written with emotions in mind. Once again, the emotions=weakness argument comes up with Seven’s “discovery” of her emotions.
In the last episode that purposefully focuses on her for the series, “Human Error”, Seven not only treads ground that she had explored already in other episodes, but in the end she fails to learn anything new from these retreaded experiences or evolve any more than she had before the episode’s start. Even when the show was a mere dozen episodes away from the finale, the writers failed to push Seven’s character past its baseline establishments, and the reasons for this stem from their trepidation about giving this female character something other than her looks and man-like abrasiveness to work with. Her predicament could be seen as being far worse than just conforming to one role for women, as her intended role as serving the eyes of young men and her “strong female character” conformity means that she is not given freedom from either camp, but instead trapped in both. This problem is apparent in both Hollywood and the American media as a whole: that of making the “strong female character” model simply a male proxy means that society continues to hold women as being in the “not A” catagory: “Women are relegated to the category of ‘not-men’ along with horses, houses, children and cars…. Phallocentrism is a representational system that uses one model of subjectivity (the male, as the phallus is primary) and defines and measures all others positively or negatively against that norm."
We see this phallocentrism in the “strong female character” and the way she attempts to be more like a man, and Brown suggests that “the common interpretation of the action heroine [of] simply enacting masculinity rather than providing legitimate examples of female heroism” has become the norm rather than an unfortunate hiccup in the writing of these characters. Brown makes the point that “[it] is perhaps inevitable that discussions of shifting gender roles in film would be ensnared in the logic of either masculine or feminine [roles] since this conceptual binary underscores our basic perception of the physical and behavioral differences between the sexes.” Indeed, it seems that woman empowerment is targeted directly at sexuality rather than the humanizing of the female character, as its mission may appear, and to target a male audience with a character of the female gender serves to neither expand one’s views on gender nor move women past being objectified. In an interesting analysis of the superhero film genre, Brown notes, “these superhero films imply that becoming a man means becoming powerful, but becoming a woman requires the additional burden of becoming a sex object.” Both Black Widow and Seven of Nine fulfill this apparent requisite for womanhood in science fiction quite well, with their costumes and promotional poster images and trailers exploiting their sexiness and turning it into a marketing strength, rather than focusing on their characters and getting audiences to relate to them as people.
Buffy did this too, by the way. Make no mistake, the marketing people did play up Sarah Michelle Gellar’s sexiness in the promotional posters and the DVD box art for her first two seasons, and casting someone as inherently lithe and fit as Gellar did nothing to detract from the sexiness of the show’s look. But by Season Three, the box art had moved from displaying Gellar in suggestive poses to just a straight shot of her and a few of the cast members for the DVD box art, and the show itself did not display her as aggressively sexy at all beyond Gellar’s physical performance on the show and Buffy’s character making conscious decisions about her appearance and sexual displays. Buffy did not capitalize on Gellar’s looks to an obnoxious degree like with Jeri Ryan, instead focusing on the character’s brains and wit and Gellar’s acting ability. What sexualizing there was of Gellar was for the sake of the story and themes; none of it was gratuitous, and all of it made sense within the context of the show.
Tackling the issue of attempting to remain inherently womanly while not acknowledging aspects of the female stereotype that are insulting is very complicated to maneuver and execute well, and most writers take this to the extreme, bypassing the nuances and the difficulties in order to spoon-feed audiences a condensed version of what they as writers wish to convey. I think to do this is to leave out a crucial aspect of what makes up humanity in its entirety. As McDougall points out: “where the characterization of half the world’s population is concerned, writing well is treated as a kind of impressive but unnecessary optional extra…." An “optional extra” is sadly how critics and writers are treating characters of the female gender, not purposefully or directly, mind you, but they are still doing so, and when these women characters in the sci-fi/fantasy genre are received well, most of them are written as though they were men. Inness too notes that, “tough women are forced to walk a tightrope because they are impinging on male spheres of power. They must be perceived as neither too tough nor too weak and achieve what is an impossible balance.”
And therein lies the problem, a paradoxical goal of not being too strong yet being strong enough to not be seen as “feminine.” How interesting it is to learn, in a 2013 post by Trent Moore on movie blog websiteblastr.com, about how some of the most iconic roles for women were originally intended for men, Ripley was on the list along with Elysium’s Secretary Delacourt and Salt’s titular character played by Angelina Jolie. Like many male-turned-female characters, Ripley’s origins out of universe are that of novelty; Ridley Scott wanted to make Ripley female for the sake of having a female character, and there were barely any characteristic changes to Ripley after this decision was made. And how insulting is it to know that in representing the female gender, sci-fi and fantasy films and TV shows point to men and male characteristics as the “correct” template? One could argue that not changing much to Ripley’s character when changing her gender means that she is as well-rounded as her male equivalent, but seeing as how most military men in the action genre are stock and wooden in personality, this argument would need to acknowledge that Ripley herself is a bland character. This argument, however, is valid, and indeed fits in with what Swensen says too, that when he’s writing characters, he first thinks up a character and only then decides on their gender. That is why I do not believe that the “strong female character” is a poor idea in principle; having women in the action genre at all is a good thing, and making them act like men, some would say, is exactly what we need in order to see that women can be just as valid in this primarily male genre.
Lorna Jowett states in her book, Sex and the Slayer: A Gender Studies Primer for the Buffy Fan, that “[representations] of women are no longer focused on marriage, the domestic, and motherhood… but might now include working women, single mothers, and lesbians.” “Include” is the key word here. Working women being represented is fine, but when returning to inherently “feminine” roles, society still regards motherhood or being a lesbian as being inherently weak, and this is where so much of Buffy’s strength lies: it does not present its lesbian or maternal figures as weak. Jowett’s book is essentially divided into two sections: focus and analysis on the female characters, and a focus and analysis on the male characters. I draw from the first three chapters which focus on the female characters, but my analysis of Buffy defies convention with its characters' sex and gender applies as much if not more so to the male characters on the show. Jowett’s chapters “Tough Guys,” “New Men,” and “Dead Boys” all examine how the male characters of Buffy defy or skew their gender’s supposed correct roles in society.
"That a female character is allowed to get away with behavior that, in a male character, would rightly be seen as abusive (or outright murderous) may seem… an unfair imbalance in her favor. But really [this] reveals the underlying deficit of respect the character starts with, which she’s then required to overcome by whatever desperate, over-the-top, cartoonish means to hand. She’s in a hole, and acts that would be hair-raising in a male character just barely bring her up to their level."
This excerpt is discussing the greater ramifications and implications of Captain America’s Peggy Carter character, introduced into that film as a “strong female character” if there ever was one (and a character who I will discuss more in the next section), so the “violence=strength” phenomenon is clearly a problem that persists even into the 2010s. Inness too brings up the point that the “strong female character” is able to behave in excess of what would normally be permissible: “[when] she acts, the Tough Woman’s actions are often excessive. She dispatches not one man who menaces her but six.” This is a play on what Goldenberg recognizes as the male needing to do in order to remain subjective: “[the] male subject requires the female as Other in order to have subjectivity.”
With this, we can see that the “strong female character” has its turn to twist this postulate around. While doing so may make this seem like it is upholding feminist ideals, what it is actually doing is merely reinforcing the problem, though here it is done to a more dangerous degree. Though the “strong female character” makes us see the Other’s world, this is still predicated on the idea that men in this scenario are “normal,” are “regular,” and that women are still Other; they are just an Other that is demanding of respect through violence, and they demand we view the world through their eyes. That is what makes this so damning: audiences continue to base the world around men even when they are presented a view of the world through the eyes of women. Violence is capitalized in the Other’s world if only to make her seem less Other-ly, and get across the notion that male testosterone and gratuitous violence is a good means of telling a story or presenting a character.
Buffy too does make its female characters violent, but as I will touch upon later, the violence of the characters is almost never able to overshadow their humanity and realism, and so we have a case where a “female character is allowed to get away with behavior that, in a male character, would rightly be seen as abusive” because the female characters on Buffy are not exclusively “masculine” or “feminine”, nor are they just abrasive. Jowett observes that “[Buffy] offers postfeminist and postmodern representations of gendered identity in that the identities of its main characters are shifting, in that the ensemble cast offers multiple versions of gender and sexuality.” The characters on Buffy are human, and so will not resort to this type of pseudo “male” behavior all the time. Swensen makes his final argument as follows: “A female character can ask her boyfriend to open the pickle jar, or hate taking out the trash, or follow her intuition when her brain is telling her a different story. That does not magically make a character weak. What makes them weak is defining them only by that sort of thing.”
I think when writing these types of women characters in the 21st century, writers often are taken with the impression that the male traits are assumed to be “correct” or somehow “better” than the traits of a traditional woman, which is completely at odds with what they are trying to tell with their supposed novel character. Next week, I'll take a look at potential counterarguments to my understanding of the "strong female character" model and to the specific examples seen here.