There Are No Good Masculine Female Characters

Saturday , 15, April 2017 36 Comments

Over at SuperversiveSF, Declan Finn wades into the strong female characters debate with a roundup of good and bad examples from film and television. The resulting discussion is both brisk and entertaining:

Jeffro: Strong Female Characters…? Eh, no thanks. Let’s see some Feminine Female Characters. That’d really be something new!

Declan Finn: [Arched Brow] You don’t think Emma Peel is feminine?

Jeffro: Shambleau is feminine. Deirdre in “No Woman Born” is a brain in a robot body and she’s still feminine. Emma Peel is most famous for dressing up in dominatrix getup.

Dawn Witzke: What do you consider feminine?

Jeffro: Read C. L. Moore for an example. Compare “No Woman Born” to “Totaled”. Compare Jirel of Joiry to both Conan and the range of “Strong Female Characters” referenced in this post.

Dawn Witzke: That would require entirely too much reading time, since I haven’t a clue about any of those characters except a vague recollection of Conan. I just want a concise idea of what you consider “feminine” so I have an idea of what you’re talking about.

Jeffro: If you don’t have time to read five short stories, then you will not grasp what I’m pointing out anyway. I really can’t make it more concise than that.

Tom Simon: Everybody has the time to read five short stories. Not everybody has the time to find them when you don’t provide links to sources: especially when the stories in question are decades old and were originally published in magazines. Nobody has the time to do your homework for you, and nobody is under any obligation to let you prescribe their recreational reading for them because you can’t be arsed to spell out your argument.

Jeffro: If you have not read A. Merritt or C. L. Moore, then you will not be able to imagine what I’m talking about. There’s no point in explaining. The culture gap is that great.

Books I can recommend include The Ship of Ishtar and The Best of C. L. Moore. Short stories like “Through the Dragon Glass” and “The Face in the Abyss” are also good. Again, Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories are also an essential reference point. Anyone that has only a “vague recollection” of that character could stand a go back and take a second look.

For those that are having trouble finding these classic stories by C. L. Moore, the old Ballantine “best of” collection is the best place to get them. Yes, they’re decades old and they were published in magazines. Nevertheless, they are (along with works by Burroughs, Merritt, Howard, and Brackett) the cornerstone of the fantasy and science fiction canon and are essential reference points in any discussion of the field.

For those wondering what “Totaled” is, please see my 2015 post here. My review of “Through the Dragon Glass” is here and my review of “The Face in the Abyss” is here. And if you’d like to read a retrospective on C. L. Moore’s stories in the same vein as those in Appendix N, please check out Cirsova #3. Finally, Puppy of the Month Book Club covered this volume back in January and you won’t want to miss their posts on this!

36 Comments
  • Look, if you want to give people examples of strong feminine characters in S/SF that they may have heard of, try Heather Lelache in “The Lathe Of Heaven”, Promise from “Streetlethal”, Teela Brown from “Ringworld” and Rebel from “Vacuum Flowers”.

    • Blume says:

      Actually, I haven’t even heard of any of those books except ringworld and vacuum flowers and only vacuum flowers because of your review. Jiriel of joiry references are everywhere and shambleau at least had passing mentions every few years. I admittedly haven’t read them but the come up often in debates about female characters and authors.

      • Terry Sanders says:

        And Teela Brown didn’t impress me, either. Without tossing spoilers, I can say she never actually did anything. And given her “secret,” that’s not surorising.

      • Wait–you’ve never heard of “The Lathe Of Heaven”? That’s sad, it used to be considered one of the classics. It’s been made into a film twice (or TV dramas, I think it was BBC both times.)

        For what it’s worth, I think it’s a brilliant book, and Ursula La Guin manages to play with some very big ideas without losing touch with how these big ideas impact one man.

        • Blume says:

          Yep the only two things ever mentioned about le guin were earth sea and left hand of darkness. I read earth sea and was severely disappointed by the last couple books so I never looked for more.

  • Jon Mollison says:

    “What do you consider feminine?”

    That’s a trap question, and you did well to avoid it. We all know the answer to that, so it strikes me as an request for nits to pick. It’s like people who ask for citations knowing damn well they intend to DQ any source that doesn’t back their position.

    • Jeffro says:

      Who reads Robert E. Howard and ends up with only a “vague recollection of Conan”?

      • jic says:

        Somebody who read only one or two of the short stories, several decades ago?

      • deuce says:

        She may not have even been read actual Robert E. Howard Conan. It might’ve been pastiche, most of which is pretty damn forgettable. Until the last 15yrs or so, reading non-pastiche REH wasn’t that easy. The ’90s was an era of almost complete Conan pastichery. You have to go back to the mid-’80s to find (edited) REH Conan in the Ace editions.

      • Anthony says:

        Someone who read it years ago and doesn’t necessarily share your tastes?

        Dawn is no troll or SJW. I can say with reasonable confidence she at least wasn’t consciously threatening to trap you.

  • Hooc Ott says:

    “I just want a concise idea of what you consider “feminine” so I have an idea of what you’re talking about.”

    Wasn’t the article a list of good masculine women?

    A counter list of good feminine women was provided. Why the sudden change in requirement for a concise definition?

    Also Superversive, although not entirely, is a blog for writers. Holy moly if ever there was a need for living working writers both Men and Women to read and use as example CL Moore [Current Year] would be that time.

  • Vlad James says:

    While I would have agreed with him 20 years ago, it’s inexcusable for Mr. Simon to complain about “legwork” in finding the works of an author today.

    I found two short stories by CL Moore in all of 30 seconds on Gutenberg. There is likely more if I visited several other free online libraries.

    Also, why is there so much discussion of crappy, third-rate television series like Xena and Buffy? With the wealth of interesting, unique female characters in the genre, THESE are the examples they wish to focus on?!

    • Blume says:

      They are uber popular to the masses who might not read a lot of sci-fi. So they have cross over appeal.

    • john silence says:

      I guess that someone with proper cultural/sociological chops needs to answer why they became so popular at that exact time.
      They ARE among the “nerd culture” staples though. Buffy is, in any case. Xena, far less so.

      • Blume says:

        Personally, they werent. Both shows were carried by their male counterpart shows and an uber feminine sidekick. With out Gabriela and willow those shows are un watchable. And I stopped watching them when those characters turned gay.

    • john silence says:

      Also, I can’t say that I ever enjoyed Buffy. Until maybe 5 or 6 years ago it was just a blurry memory from way back, one cheesy teen action show among many others. So it came as a surprise to me to find out just how popular it is or what sort of philosophical depth fans try to project into it.

    • deuce says:

      One of my favorite exes was a huge Buffy fan. The only good she got out of it, IMO, was a hatred of the “Twilight” books.

  • You don’t think Emma Peel is feminine?

  • anonme says:

    Dominatrix outfits aren’t feminine? 😉

  • deuce says:

    Moore very much follows A. Merritt in her male/female dynamics. In fact, if someone were to tell me — not knowing any better — that the Northwest Smith tales were lost Merritt SF stories, I wouldn’t necessarily disbelieve him.

    Personality-wise, Jirel is somewhere between Sharane and Narada from THE SHIP OF ISHTAR and Lur the Wolf Witch from DWELLERS IN THE MIRAGE.

    • Jeffro says:

      Thanks, deuce.

      And of course, Leigh Brackett and E. C. Tubb maintain that tradition as first publishing and then later television and film repudiated it for political reasons.

  • Dare I even tackle this one?

    Deep down we all know what makes a woman feminine and a man masculine. That programming is put there by the ultimate cast-iron bitch: she goes by “Mother Nature.” And her game is survival and she doesn’t care if your opinion or your interpretation or your worldview or your rose-colored glasses are trying to override that. When it comes down to it, survival will win out over all those things. And it’s only in a world where we’re NOT worried about survival that we can sit back and philosophize. BTW, to the men that made that happen, thank you.

    A woman IS NOT less feminine if she’s physically weak. She gets a pass. But a man does not, because if he’s physically weak, he IS less masculine.

    This is about redefining the strong woman as a “female” who can fight as well as a man. She’s just as fast. She’s just as mean. She can make the same decisions a man would, preferably without emotion, and in fact, better still if her decisions are totally devoid of emotion, as if men were machines. Who would even think this? Let me see. Women who hate men and masculinity, perhaps.

    IRL while feminists have been knitting pussy hats and whining about patriarchy, biological men have shown that when they compete physically with biological women, they are stronger and faster—as if this is something new. That we’re “discovering” this biological fact speaks to epic proportions of willful blindness that require us to ignore biology and pretend anyone can claim to be a woman if they “identify” as such. It takes tens of thousands of dollars in plastic surgery to get the features right (breasts among them) and that evil symbol of patriarchal oppression (the corset) to get the feminine waist-to-hip ratio, but that still doesn’t make you a woman. It just makes you not-a-man.

    It’s the same with these SFCs. They only exhibit masculine virtues and shun feminine ones. They may look like women, but they’re not because if they’re physically weaker, they aren’t “strong.”

    • The rise of Waif-fu and what Moira Greyland Peat calls “vorpal XX chromosomes” actually weakens female characters, in my opinion.

      When an author writes a character who knows and accepts that she will be outclassed in any physical confrontation with a man that forces the character to think ahead and work strategically rather than relying on a can of magic whoop-ass to get her out of trouble.

      One of my favorite examples is Betty Sorenson in Heinlein’s “The Star Beast.” Betty is a ward of the state, without money, influence, or even much education, and she manages to get the leaders of two vast stellar empires to work together and incidentally give her what she wants for herself and her man.

      She does it by being smarter and by working inside her limitations (the novel is from the late 1940’s, as I recall, and Heinlein’s future America has very traditional sex roles). She doesn’t use sexuality to do it, either, she does it by arranging events to put other people into a position where their own best interests lie in going along with her plans.

      • I’ll tell you another thing that makes makes men different. They’re not whining about appropriation of masculine culture without proper representation of their point of view. And yes, that’s one of the thing I loved about Heinlein’s women characters. Even Friday. 🙂

  • deuce says:

    “Dare I even tackle this one?”

    I think you tackled it and tackled it well.

    Was that a mic I heard hitting the stage, Monalisa?

  • Anthony says:

    I would tend to agree with Jeffro, btw. The damage Buffy did on the culture was very great.

    Days of Future Past’s fight scenes with J-Law are laughably dumb.

  • baduin says:

    The best description of strong feminine women can be found in the works of the forgotten mad prophet of sf, Richard Shaver

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Sharpe_Shaver

    In addition to being a bit schizophrenic, he also liked Amazons a lot. The bigger the better.

    http://sacred-texts.com/ufo/irl/irl06.htm

    Richard Shaver, I Remember Lemuria

    “Soon I became aware of an aura of complementary forces that I knew came from the Nor Chief Elder, Vanue, whom we were undoubtedly now nearing. Her force scent grew stronger as we approached a mighty door set across a corridor. In glowing letters of hammered metal above this door was the legend:

    VANUE
    Elder Princess Of Van Of Nor
    Chief Of Nor On Quanto

    The great door, I discovered, was an airlock; to hold in the ionized and nutrient-saturated air of the chamber. These chambers the Elders seldom leave, since all evil is restrained from entering.

    As we passed through the lock, the terrific stimulation of this conductive electrified medium seized us in a mighty ecstasy. We were drawn as by a powerful magnet toward a huge figure which was an intense concentration of all the vitally stimulating qualities that make beauty the sought-for thing that it is.

    Within me I could feel the compass of my being swinging toward its new center of attraction. I was no longer myself. I was a part of that mighty being before me. My thought was her thought; I was her ro until she chose to release me.

    Could she release me? I could not even wish it, nor ever would. Within me I knew that, and I felt no resentment, no regret—only joy.

    All of eighty feet tall she must have been. She towered over our heads as she arose to greet us, a vast cloud of the glittering hair of the Nor women floating about her head, the sex aura a visible iridescence flashing about her form.

    I yearned toward that vast beauty which was not hidden for in Nor it is considered impolite to conceal the body greatly, being an offense against art and friendship to take beauty out of life. I was impelled madly toward her until I fell on my knees before her, my hands outstretched to touch the gleaming, ultra-living flesh of her feet.

    Beside me the other youths from center Mu were in the same condition of ecstatic desire.

    As our hands touched her flesh, a terrific charge of body electric flowed into us. We fell face downward in unbearable pleasure on the floor.”

  • deuce says:

    Probably the best example — in 21st century literature — of a strong, utterly feminine woman is Lady Carla in the Tannhauser novels:

    https://books.google.com/books?id=7U28o7zG68YC&pg=PA121&lpg=PA121&dq=tannhauser+carla+messina+carriage+-flash+-caitlin&source=bl&ots=X_92ybbGrk&sig=sIfn7ZDKoEai79TjAub83m6wZ1Y&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwibzamsuanTAhXoilQKHeHpAj4Q6AEIJTAA#v=onepage&q=tannhauser%20carla%20messina%20carriage%20-flash%20-caitlin&f=false

    Carla has kindness in her marrow, but she is also strong-willed. That kindness — coupled with her beauty, wit and faith in God — allows her to persuade powerful, violent men to do her bidding. Fletcher Vredenburgh is cognizant of her feminine power in his review of THE TWELVE CHILDREN OF PARIS:

    https://www.blackgate.com/2017/01/17/the-killingest-book-i-know-the-twelve-children-of-paris-by-tim-willocks/

  • roo_ster says:

    “There Are No Good Masculine Female Characters”

    Got to agree with that. They end up being “men with tits” at best or just a plain mess.

    Now, a truly great “strong female character” is that of Rose Sayer in the film, “The African Queen.” Strong, heroic, and 100% feminine. If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and do so.

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