SUPERVERSIVE: The Key to Strong Female Characters is Strong Male Characters

Tuesday , 13, March 2018 20 Comments
Image result for riza hawkeye

Lieutenant Riza Hawkeye, Exhibit A

This is a minor update of a post originally made down at Superversive SF.

I have a feeling this is going to be a controversial article.

On one hand you’ll have the usual crowd of squawkers yelling that I’m a misogynist. That’s easy enough to predict. I wouldn’t be surprised if I got some link backs from the usual suspects (then again, I wouldn’t be surprised if they ignored me either).

But I suspect I’ll also get a crowd who thinks I’m just totally wrong and even the characters I talk about here are just awful and women should never ever ever be in these roles ever.

But I stand by it.

You know, I first thought of this rule after watching “Castle in the Sky”, and watching “Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood” helped confirm my conclusion. Since this is what helped me crystallize it more fully in my mind, we’ll call this the Brotherhood Principle.

To write a strong female character successfully – I mean strong in a more masculine sense, like tough in combat or similarly masculine endeavors –  you need one of two things:

1) They need to suffer some sort of loss related to their femininity. Olivier Armstrong in FMAB is tough as nails and can even beat Major Armstrong, her brother, in head to head combat, but she is asked over and over again when she will be able to find a man, the implication being that no man wants to deal with her attitude. Orual in “Till We Have Faces”, by C.S. Lewis, is a terrific swordsman and distinguishes herself in battle but is hideously ugly and unable to marry. Eowyn the Shieldmaiden of “The Lord of the Rings” joins in battle because she is bitter and frustrated after being spurned by Aragorn, and after she survives her fight with the Witch-King she gives up dreams of war and starts a family with Faramir.

2) They need to be paired up with a male character equally strong or stronger. Izumi Curtis is a terrifyingly powerful alchemist and a brilliant martial artist, but she gets this wonderful line of dialogue after joining a fight with Major Armstrong: “You’re a fine man, but I already have a man a hundred times finer than you!”

Despite her martial prowess and essentially magic powers Izumi still makes sure to verbally and publicly praise her husband, whom she is obviously very close to, and she publicly identifies herself as a housewife. The disparity is of course amusing, but it also makes her much more lovable.

(Incidentally Izumi also loses her ability to bear children, which means she’s also a match with point 1. This is a larger point in the 2003 “Fullmetal Alchemist” series, but it is still present in “Brotherhood”.)

Or consider Lieutenant Riza Hawkeye, one of my favorite characters, a badass normal in a world of magic. Hawkeye is, of course, an excellent shot and a formidable and competent foe in combat, but she is the subordinate (and clearly wishes she could be the love interest, come on) of Colonel Mustang, arguably the most powerful of all the alchemists. It is her loyalty and love of Mustang that makes Hawkeye such an endearing character outside of her hard shell.

Image result for princess leia

Note the fairly large gun

Miyazaki was, for the most part, extremely adept at this; I quibble with Nausicaa being able to go toe to toe in swordsmanship with trained male soldiers, but even Nausicaa is known more for her more feminine than masculine characteristics, and notably Nausicaa has no love interest. “Princess Mononoke” has a different dynamic going on entirely, and I would argue the balance of power between the males and females is one of the reasons we know that Lady Eboshi’s Iron Town is “off”.

We see examples of this in western media as well. Consider the reception of Princess Leia as opposed to Rey. Leia is also abrasive, rather nasty, and skilled with a weapon, but Leia is also one of the most beloved female characters in movie history. Why?

Because of Han Solo. Han doesn’t take Leia’s crap, so whenever Leia gets too nasty to be likable she’s slapped down, until she admits she has the hots for him and gives in to his charms.

Rey doesn’t get a Han Solo. She gets a Finn, a worthless tag-along who gives her puppy dog eyes when her back is turned.

For that matter, Leia is also turned into a far less interesting and likable character in the new Star Wars films. Leia the Princess who falls in love with the smuggler? Awesome. Leia the general in the bland dress who’s apparently a divorced baby-mama? Nobody cares about that character, not really, and this despite feminist efforts to turn her into some sort of icon.

If you want to make a female character competent and likable, she needs to relate to male characters in a way that is humble and respectful, or she needs to sacrifice a feminine aspect of herself. Men and women are different, and no matter how much we may dislike it that’s the reality we need to face, in life and in fiction.

  • windsong says:

    It makes logical sense that women who are capable of competing with men in more masculine things have to surrender some part of what makes them feminine. Biology will always win out.

    I think (in reference to your two points) that’s why (masculine endeavor type) “strong” female characters fall so flat in books and movies. “Strong” women rarely have the benefit of a good male foil who is just as strong (or stronger) and one that makes an even match. Thinking about Leila without Hans, and yeah, she never would have crossed over into likeable without him. It was also to Hans’s credit that we saw her feminine side at all.

    I think the other problem is either they aren’t shown to have lost any feminine part of themselves. (These women can have and do it all. Alone. By themselves.) or those who have don’t show any regret to losing that part of themselves. They don’t feel the lack, and there is no sense of sacrifice—something that would go a long way to make those flat characters feel more real.

    • Anthony says:

      Right. Olivier Armstrong is a good example here, I think, because she is respected by her troops, tough, has a very masculine demeanor, and is a superior fighter to most men.

      It works well with Olivier because it’s a running gag with her – almost *every time we see her* after she goes back to Central City, right up until we reach the climax, you have people asking her when she’s going to get married. Mustang even pokes fun at her – getting her orchids because they represent “lady-like charm”.

      Hence that lack of femininity is clear and acknowledged by the show and cast, which goes a long ways towards making Olivier feel like a real person.

      • windsong says:

        I haven’t gotten far enough into the show to have run into her yet, but I’m looking forward to it now. Your reasoning is solid, and it’s definitely a useful tool in analyzing why a character is, or isn’t, working.

        I love it when show and cast acknowledge those kinds of things. It adds to the realism (in a good way) because people would notice and talk about those things in the real world.

      • VD says:

        “Right. Olivier Armstrong is a good example here, I think, because she is respected by her troops, tough, has a very masculine demeanor, and is a superior fighter to most men.”

        Which shows both a) why you are completely wrong, and, b) why she is a ridiculous character.

        They might have more credibly given her a tail. There is not a single woman of the 3.6 billion on the planet who is a superior fighter to 1.8 billion men. There is not one who is a superior fighter to 3 billion men.

        This isn’t that hard. Everyone understands that women can’t fly, so why do you have such a hard time understanding that women can’t fight either?

        • Anthony says:

          I don’t, of course women can’t actually, nor does she look like she can. It looks ridiculous, and is played humorously.

          I did not say it was realistic, I said it worked from a storytelling perspective. And it absolutely does – the character is interesting and fun.

          I stand by that. To be clear here – if you are disagreeing with me still,I am saying wholeheartedly that I think you are absolutely wrong.

          • Salamandyr says:

            Something else that helps. Olivier is very specifically NOT physically stronger than the men around her. She is tough as nails (in an actually believably feminine way) and someone who relies on weapons and sheer determination to win. Yes, it’s ridiculous she can fight guns with a sword. Sue em, it’s anime. Yes, it’s ridiculous she beats up her much larger and stronger brother (until it’s quite definitively shown that he lets her win). Ultimately, her “strength” is her ability to command the respect of those around her, not her muscles or her sword arm.

          • Anthony says:

            She can throw the Major across the room. I’d call that ridiculous.

            But again – I have no problem with it.

            (When is it shown he let her in? I thought it was just left open as an option.)

          • Salamandyr says:

            Anime…super judo. Yes, it’s ridiculous, but it’s ridiculous when everybody else does it too.

            To my mind, when the Major practically solos the homonculous she could barely touch pretty much proved that, when it came to his sister, Major Armstrong wasn’t going all out no matter what he said.

        • Anthony says:

          Thing I did not say:

          “To make a believable character who can fight like a man, she needs to have at least one of the above two points.”

          I not only think that’s wrong, I reject it utterly. You can have a character who has genetically altered super-strength, explained in story, and if it does not follow my two points, *no matter how much sense it might make from an in-universe perspective*, it *still would not work*.

          Does that help? I’m talking about how to make a character the audience can relate to or like, not a realistic character.

          • Terry Sanders says:

            Yep, though there is another factor that can work.

            Consider Supergirl vs Power Girl.”The Ingenue Who Can Shatter Mountains” and “Grrl Power from Krypton.” DC keeps pushing Power Girl, and I’ve never heard from anyone who really likes her except feminists and guys who are there for her, um, *upper body strength*! Yeah, that’s the ticket…

            So what makes Supergirl work? Two things. The first is one you mention, but with a twist. The male she defers to is her cousin; and her deference is not romantic. Instead it’s a combination of familial love and a respect that sometimes verges on hero worship.*

            The second–well it’s not that she’s less feminine so much as childlike, in a very specific and likeable way. The Supergirl treatments that work, (that I’ve seen) emphasize her sheer joy in her abilities. Where Kal-El fights for Truth, Justice, and the American Way out of a strong sense of duty, Kara Zor-el seems to do it out of sheer gratitude for the privilege of being Supergirl. Where he says “Up, up, and away!”, she says “This is SO COOL!”.

            *Beka Valentine had more or less the same relationship to Dylan Hunt in ANDROMEDA. No romantic interest you could see, but she’d do ANYTHING to earn his approval…

          • Anthony says:

            I suppose a third factor is humility, or perhaps more accurately innocence. It’s a very feminine trait, so feminine it makes a lot of masculine action heroics actually come off as feminine.

  • TheZec says:

    Solid argument. You’ve got me sold, especially as a guy who often balks at suggestions that sex plays no role in a character. I hope it takes off, and I’ll certainly keep it in mind.

  • Skyler says:

    Kaylen was like that a bit in the first book of the sword of truth series. Her powers as a Confessor made her unable to marry for love. She was devoted to Richard as the Seeker even though at first there was no hope of them coming together.

  • Mr Tines says:

    I’d actually word point #1 more strongly as “are essentially sexless” — be they one of Jim Schmitz’ “neutral heroine”s who are just a pronoun away from being men or be they one of today’s anime series where all the active characters are girls (usually because only pure maidens have whatever story defining magical power).

    The nearest (and it’s not very near) thing I can think of to an exception is Ripley who does go full-on “Mama Bear” in _Aliens_ — but even then, I remember some film critics at the time expressing surprise that this wasn’t some new pretty-boy actor in the lead role.

    • Anthony says:

      I think that wording it that strongly leaves out too many effective characters. I think the important thing is that the central “lack” is real and can be felt.

  • Luke says:

    I think you’re confusing “strong” with “warrior”.

    The two strongest female characters I know of are Mattie in True Grit, and Rose Sawyer in The African Queen.
    You could argue that they meet the second criteria, but it’s a pretty major stretch.

    Men and Women are different.
    A Fantasy of Power for a boy might well involve being a feared Ranger tracking down outlaws deep in Indian country, or keeping your small boat running in a dark and hostile land.
    But a female Fantasy of Power might involve getting these very competent male characters to do your bidding against their clear best interests.

    Heck, though I’m sure it would make him guilty of doubleplusungood crimethink now, Neil Gaiman opined at length about about boys and girls having different Fantasies of Power in his Sandman series. (Fortunately for him, SJWs have mastered doublethink, but I do recall them putting shots across his bow on occasion.)

    • Anthony says:

      I’m not confusing anything. I very deliberately said “Strong in a more masculine sense, like tough in combat or similarly masculine endeavors.”

      Mattie in True Grit 150% meets the second criteria, at least in the original book and superior new movie. She never marries and it’s implied her harsh attitude has driven men away. She also has a clear character arc where she is humbled, and is rescued by Cogburn during the climax when her slight, young, female frame can’t handle the force of a gun, causing her to fall backwards into a pit of snakes.

      Rose Sawyer I don’t recognize.

    • Anthony says:

      (Mattie is also one of my all-time favorite characters, and I named the protagonist of “Tales of the Once and Future King” after her!)

  • JA Buck says:

    Good article, Anthony. The Abraham Merritt novels A Dweller in the Mirage and The Ship of Ishtar come to mind. One of my favorite scenes in Dweller in the Mirage is when the protagonist kisses the tough-as-nails warrior princess:

    She took a step back; she said furiously:
    “I give my kisses. None takes them.”
    I caught her in my arms, crushed her mouth to mine, then kissed her.
    “I take them.”
    I struck down at her right wrist. There was a dagger in her hand. I was amused, wondering where she had hidden it.

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