Thoughts on the “Strong Woman Character”™

Lately I’ve been thinking about this strange bird, the “Strong Woman Character”™.

As November approaches, various conversations regarding characters, and sometimes in particular, the Strong Woman Character (hereafter known as the SWC), arise in the fora devoted to NaNoWriMo. Who writes SWCs? What comprises an SWC? What are the advantages of including one? Do you have to include one to appeal to women? What is at the bottom of the recent focus on her?

The other day, Elizabeth Donald posted a link on her Facebook page to a blog by Kameron Hurley, entitled “The Blog Post that Lost Me Half My Audience.” The main point of the blog was that from lamenting the lack of SWCs, we’ve now seen them arise in the work of men, and now they are seen as valid to the point that when asked “Who should we talk to about sexism in genre fiction?” some answers replied exclusively with names of male authors (Hurley, 2013). Hurley also points out, generously in my opinion, that this phenomenon may in fact be due to a peculiar literary amnesia, to the fact that women were the first to begin writing about women, and as such, should continue to be part of the conversation. Dare we even hope that someday, they become so natural in the landscape that they are finally accorded the status of “writer” as the SWC may be accorded the label of “character” without the heretofore necessity of the gender differentiation?

So, from Virginia Woolf (1929), who noted that the rise of the middle-class woman novel writer resulted in interesting women characters who are read and recognized by women, we have this interesting phenomenon that in ordered to be validated as interesting, we must appeal to men, we must be talked about by men (Hurley, 2013). At the very least, the male voice lends a weight to the discussion even as sometimes the female voice becomes excluded in her own discussion. Are we still to be seen as stunted reflections in the mirror of man’s self-regard (Woolf, 1929)? Or have we forgotten, as readers of any genre, how many SWC’s are hanging out there, written by women, yet ignored because of a biological accident of chromosomal chance?

I started to think about this, and about the fact that there are certain authors who get a good amount of credit for writing SWCs, and because they write these characters, they get a lot of credit for furthering the cause of feminism. Off the top of my head, the whole “Thank you, Joss Whedon and George R. R. Martin, for writing us entertaining SWCs, we’re saved!” phenomenon comes to mind. (I.S. Note – I have a lot more to say on this subject, but as this post is approaching epic lengths and I’m not sure if anyone even made it this far, I’ll wait for another time…)

My goal with this post is not to explore whether or not these authors deserve the attention they get, or whether it’s worth getting agita over the fact that people seem to have developed this peculiar sense of literary amnesia. (I.S. Note –My personal answers are No and Yes, respectively, but see previous note.) Rather, I’d like to address Hurley’s point, that we have forgotten who, exactly, began the tradition of the SWC. I’d like to point out some of the authors who should, I feel, get major points for SWCs – but also for writing what I hope will be the NEXT phase of genre lit’s big thing, namely Human Characters Who Happen to Be Female, or HCWHTBF’s. Catchy, eh? Think it would sound good on a convention panel? (I.S. Note – Any conventions want to invite me to a panel? I promise I’ll behave … mostly…)

Let’s start with Jane Austen. I’m currently reading Michael Suk-Young Chwe’s excellent work, Jane Austen, Game Theorist (Chwe, 2013). While I’ve always enjoyed a good Austen heroine, Chwe’s book has given me a new appreciation of her characters. He illuminates her strategic mind, and her skill in highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of her characters, the strong women, the women who have strength of character, if not necessarily strategic mindsets, the women who are silly, and those who are cunning. But in her books, strengths (of mind, of character) are rewarded, and one is left at the end with the impression of a strongly-minded heroine who learns a lesson, or teaches a lesson, and is, above all, well-rounded and lifelike.

And then, of course, there can be found throughout Austen’s novels, such particular proto-feminist observations such as Fanny Price’s remark: “…I think it ought not to be set down as certain, that a man must be acceptable to every woman he may happen to like himself” (Austen, as quoted in Chwe, 2013, pp.97). When I think of the conversations I have had, both in familiar conversation, or in online fora, regarding the inability of people to understand why women should not have to “expect” male attention when she is moving in public spaces, this line rings particularly true. For a women character to explicitly speak it, reminds me that even in 19th-century literature, there were characters who were strong, and women, at the same time.

Of course, the Austen heroines aren’t the gunslinging, pull-ups executing, super-strong Sarah Connor or Ellen Ripley, but in the setting in which Austen worked, she demonstrated how a women could be strong within the confines of her time. I return to these novels (and some of the excellent film adaptations … Hello, Alan Rickman!) time and again because her characters are not only strong, but also well-drawn, and deeply thought out and felt. My question is, why don’t we (and I include myself here, because until I started reading Chwe’s book, and Hurley’s post, it took a second to think of it this way) think of Austen as a writer of SWC’s, and her characters as such?

Lucky for those of us pondering deep thoughts about women and fiction, we find that minds deeper and more eloquent than ours have been thinking deeply and fruitfully for some time on the matter. Virginia Woolf writes in A Room of One’s Own that part of the consequence of women in fiction written by men is that: “Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size” (Woolf, 1929). While such a perspective is sometimes conducive to writing those SWC’s, quite often the opposite is true for, by necessity, one does not willingly enhance the image of others when one can so reliably count on the enhancement of one’s own stature by the upkeep of the status quo. But then, as Woolf points out, here comes the change, the metamorphosis of a “woman character” into a “character who is a woman” – the fact that as women begin to write, they begin to display those relationships between women heretofore thought not worth mentioning, for example, friendship, female siblings, filial loyalty, etc.**

It is here, in these relationships, that we begin to see enough depth of women to start to fashion characters who are women, who have strength to them. As referenced above, in Austen’s work, there are several women who display strength of judgment, strength of mind, strength of intellect and strength of character. A woman writing about women, and lo and behold, you have women characters who begin to move beyond caricature.

One possible exception one might take to my exegesis so far would be that these are “literary” authors, whose characters should be expected to be fleshed out, well-drawn, and have some strength of purpose. But now, we’re talking SWCs – modern renditions in what might be properly referred to as “genre literature,” namely, popular books that fall into the categories of science fiction, fantasy, detective fiction, etc. I still argue that the SWC is not a new phenomenon, and that we can find her if only we can extricate ourselves from the temporal blinders of literary amnesia.

Before I hit my 30s and turned into my Dad–by which I mean I began reading almost exclusively non-fiction–I was a voracious consumer of novels. The Beverly Gray books (1934-1955) by Clair Blank told of the adventures of a woman reporter and her madcap friends who traveled the world having adventures and solving mysteries. Beverly Gray was a reporter from NYC (and thus immediately became who I wanted to be when I grew up). She was smart, she was strong, and even though sometimes she made mistakes she regretted, she was one tough cookie. Her friends, some of whom were male and some of whom were female, were interesting. Some of them were there to provide the inherited wealth to fund the yacht trips, but overall they were an amazing world to a 10-year-old girl who loved books about mysteries and newspaper reporters, and dreamed of a career encompassing both. (Note to self, now I want to re-read the series. Although I could probably say that about all the books…)

In addition to the Beverly Gray series, our shelves also contained a bunch of Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew books. When I refer to Nancy Drew, I’m not talking about the horrific reboot from the 80s. I’m talking the classics. Nancy and her two friends, George and Bess, who drove around in her yellow convertible solving mysteries, even when the situations placed her in personal danger. Strong Woman Character? Most definitely. Interestingly enough, my mom explained to me that the author, Carolyn Keene, was a pseudonym, and that many of the books were written by different people. It is telling that the publisher chose a female pseudonym–telling, but not surprising. Honestly, I never noticed. I just knew that I liked detective stories, and I thought Nancy Drew was the best one out there. (Eat it, Encylopedia Brown!)

Who was Trixie Belden? She was the heroine of Kathryn Kenny’s (yet another pseudonym) series (1948-1986) about a young girl who lives in the Ozarks and solves mysteries. I remember this series not just for the heroine (who was a distant third-favorite after Nancy Drew and Beverly Gray), but because of a moment that occurred one day when I was reading one of the books. In the story, Trixie is gifted a girdle by her mother to wear to fancy event. In the text, it states that “it slimmed her figure marvelously” (not actually a direct quote, I’m going off memory here). I was a kid in the 80s reading this thing, and had no idea what the heck a girdle was, and also was kind of huge compared to all my normally-growing friends. So I read the quote to my mom and this was her incredibly out-of-character (for her) sarcastic reply: “Yeah, because she was really fat before.” And in that single moment, I realized that I was reading books that my mother had also read and enjoyed, and also that I had a lot to learn from my mother about what was in those books, and also developed a lifelong inoculation against Spanx and control-top pantyhose.

Jumping a little forward in time, I only have to think of some more authors who, last time I checked, wrote prolifically and also managed to slip in a SWC or two. (And then I’m going to wrap this up because this blog post has become so much longer than I originally intended…)

Anne McCaffrey (she’s famous for the Pern series, but what I’m thinking of here is The Crystal Singer), Tanya Huff (thinking here of Sing the Four Quarters), and Mercedes Lackey (thinking here of the Bardic Voices series) are three authors who write in the genres of fantasy and science fiction, and (cue ironic tone) could be said to have churned out an SWC or two in their time. I know that they are part of a rich tradition of authors of science fiction and fantasy who also just happen to be women, but they are well-known in their own right and I have chosen them because they are my favorites. I read pretty much every book they wrote that I could find in my local library, where all the books were free because I spent my babysitting money on karate lessons. I read them most heavily in my high school and college years, where I didn’t necessarily think of their characters as SWC’s in particular, but I sure did start to notice the difference when I picked up a book by, say, Robert Jordan, who I still haven’t forgiven for having one of his characters say to the Queen, who is about to pardon him for his heinous crimes, that he can’t tell her all of them because it might damage her feminine sensitivities. (Frankly, at that point, I was hoping she would invite him to spend the night re-thinking the decision in a comfy cell overlooking the executioner’s block.)

I’m glad this topic came up, not simply for the fact that it’s taken me down memory lane and, in consequence of curing a little of my own literary amnesia, has forced me to reflect on what books I have read, what I thought of them, and how they have affected me both growing up, and now as I pursue a career as a writer. I find myself once again wondering why, with over a century of women established as popular, commercially-viable authors, we still must have this debate, and still must find those who fly the SWC flag as especially worthy of commendation.

Clearly there have been popular authors who have long been in the habit of writing strong, women characters. But we don’t necessarily think of these characters as SWC’s, or we have forgotten they exist except on the bookshelves of our childhoods. Instead, we hold up male authors for approbation because they write SWC’s. (Thank you for noticing women exist, Any Male Author!) Maybe it really is just a matter of literary amnesia, and it’s time for some of the classics to be rediscovered. Maybe it’s time to really look at the SWC’s and ask ourselves, how much credit should these authors really get? And maybe, too, it’s time for all of us to quit answering the question with examples, and start asking ourselves, what, exactly, do we mean by “SWC,” and can we start writing – and reading and valuing – HCWHTBF’s.

Yeah, gonna have to work on the acronym. But first, let’s get writing.

***

Notes:

** Woolf also points out, quite presciently, that the first to value these middle-class women writers, famously derided as “bluestockings with an itch for scribbling” were other women readers. Not only did women read these novels voraciously, but the lives of their authors served as an example that women could and did cultivate their imaginations and begin to make a living using their innate talents for creativity.

***

Sources:

Chwe, M.S. (2013). Jane Austen, game theorist. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Hurley, K. (2013, October 10). The blog post that lost me half my audience. Retrieved from http://www.kameronhurley.com/the-blog-post-that-lost-me-half-my-audience/.

Woolf, V. (1929). A room of one’s own. Retrieved from http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91r/contents.html.

 

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