Ms. Representation

An objection to Strong Female Characters reveals how well-intentioned discussions of gender politics invariably become divisive and unproductive.

On one of the NewStatesman blogs, Sophia McDougall wrote an excellent essay titled “I Hate Strong Female Characters.” The basic premise: in an attempt to counteract decades’ worth of depicting women as weak or submissive, popular media has just replaced one stereotype with another. Male characters are allowed to be multifaceted, flawed, or neurotic, while female characters all have to be strong.

McDougall’s essay has some fantastic passages — my favorite is “…the film industry believes the world is more ready for a film featuring a superhero who is a raccoon than it is for a film led by a superhero who is a woman.” But really, each of her main arguments, on its own, is pretty self-evident.

On the topic of “strong female characters,” Greg Rucka wrote a post for io9 in 2011 that goes into more depth about his process and why it’s important to write realistic characters, some of whom are women. And McDougall’s other assertion, that we need to have more roles for women and more diverse roles for women in popular media, is something that many of us already accept as trivially true. At least, those of us who are in the audience for a blog post about “strong female characters.”

I think the reason McDougall’s essay is genuinely insightful is that she doesn’t simply say, “be aware of the problem.” She offers a suggestion as to why the problem exists and how to fix it. She takes two ideas that we’d otherwise just take for granted, and she explains how they feed into each other and how they result in a larger, more nuanced problem.

That, I believe, is what it’s going to take to get genuine acknowledgement that a problem exists and earnest attempts to try and address it.

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I feel obliged to point out that I don’t agree with all of McDougall’s essay. I think that much of it veers dangerously close to the level of shallow, divisive list-making that qualifies as “pop feminism” on the internet.

When talking about Captain America, she laments that the character of Peggy Carter is one of the best in any of Marvel’s comic book movies, but is still only one of exactly two women with speaking parts in the entire movie. That’s fine, but then for some reason McDougall feels the need to argue against a straw-man suggesting that there were no women fighting in WWII. Would anyone really ever make that claim, anyone worth listening to, anyway? The more reasonable counter-argument is that of course there were women in WWII, but few women in WWII comic books, which had little if anything to do with reality. And Captain America was obviously, shamelessly an homage to the feel of pulp WWII comics.

McDougall also complains that the character is depicted as over-the-top and cartoonish for shooting at Captain America out of jealousy. Again, though: comic book. Unlike, for example, X-Men or Iron Man or even The Avengers, I never once got the sense that Captain America was going for anything other than over-the-top and cartoonish.

She acknowledges that the two problems are related, though. And while I don’t agree with either of her observations, I think her conclusion is dead-on: any problems with Carter’s character are magnified because Carter is having to represent her entire gender.

Later on, I think McDougall falls into the trap of feminism-as-listicle, which treats quantity and quality as interchangeable. She shows three movie posters (and two movie trailers) of male-dominated casts with a lone female character, and concludes that the ladies are there to provide just enough of a feminine presence that we don’t think to object.

The problem is that the way each of those female characters is actually portrayed in each movie varies wildly. In fact, it’s exactly the kind of variety that she spends the rest of the essay claiming should be our goal. I’ve seen more trailers for Elysium than the one McDougall links to, and they all have Jodie Foster delivering lines, although they’re the same two-dimensional, mustache-twirling lines of any action movie villain. In Pacific Rim, Mako’s silence isn’t a stereotype of the deferential woman, but a stereotype of the reserved Japanese soldier — the idea that there’s a tumult of emotions roiling under her quiet exterior is key to her entire storyline, such as it is. In Inception, Ellen Page’s character doesn’t represent femininity so much as youth; it’s Marion Cotillard doing all the lifting as the movie’s Lone Female Presence. (Which isn’t to defend Inception as not being guilty of the problem, just that the poster is a terrible example of it).

Most dramatically, the same list includes The Avengers and The Smurfs. In The Avengers, Black Widow is given as much screen time as any of the “powered” characters, and she’s given several scenes dedicated to depicting her as strong, sexy, smart, and human. In The Smurfs, Smurfette is quite literally the prototypical example of “The Girl One.”

You could say a lot about the depiction of women in general and Black Widow in particular in The Avengers and its marketing. But to include it in a list with The Smurfs — or any of the other movies listed, for that matter — is easily dismissible, and it threatens to derail the entire argument. It reduces an argument about the quality of female characters to one simply of quantity.

Babies, Bathwater, and “THIS.”

The reason I’m pointing out my objections to the essay is because of all the times I’ve been forwarded a link to an article, and been left wondering how much of it I’m supposed to agree with, exactly. It seems like it’s impossible for any progressive issue, particularly feminism, to make it through the internet without having something objectionable attached to it.

The formula, as far as I can make out, is to start with a premise that’s so trivially true that your audience couldn’t possibly disagree. And then include as much offensive stuff in the rest of the piece as you can get away with.

So you end up with a blog post that asserts that we should never make assumptions about a woman’s capabilities, and then says that my white male privilege means I didn’t have to work very hard to get what I have. Or one that asserts how harmful it is when we trivialize sexual assault, and then goes on to say that all men think like rapists. Or one that decries the misogynistic excesses of a TV series, then speculates that it could be because one of the series creators is gay, and a lot of gay men hate women. Or one that talks about how comedians need to demonstrate respect for and sensitivity to their audiences, and then makes a sophomoric interpretation of human interaction as being about people coming from differing “positions of power.” Or one that purports to be about equality but reveals itself to actually be about reparations.

Every one is a case of a good idea buried under a bunch of bullshit. Fighting sexism with more sexism, racism with more racism, and doing everything possible to keep the discussion in terms of Us vs Them instead of basic human empathy. It’s polarizing, because it’s not designed to actually encourage discussion. It’s designed to encourage page views. You’re not supposed to say, “I agree with the premise but disagree with these points.” You’re supposed to just link to the article and say “THIS.”

And it’s self-perpetuating. Because writers are too eager to address the low-hanging fruit — the morons and troglodytes who spew out bile, harassment, and dismissive condescension — wasting time talking to the ones who’ve already demonstrated that they’re unwilling to listen, and ignoring those of us who are engaged. I’m not asking for preaching to the choir, but maybe at least opening the discussion to the choir. As it is, it’s a lot of preaching to the atheists while reminding the choir to check their privilege.

As a chubby guy who remained closeted until his early 30s largely because he could never identify with any of the gay men depicted in popular media, I’ve been told that I don’t understand what it’s like to have negative body image, or how important it is to have a diverse representation in the media. After seeing the same thing over and over again, getting more scattershot and offensive with each go-round, I’ve pretty much completely removed myself from caring about discussions of gender politics on the internet. There are too many people willingly behaving like characters in a John Irving novel, who were supposed to be over-the-top caricatures 40 years ago.

For the past six or seven years, at least once a year, I’ve read another piece from a writer lamenting that discussions of feminism and equality are invariably cyclical. Years ago — far too long ago for me to be able to find a link — I saw a cartoon that was meant to show “What Discussions of Women’s Rights on the Internet Are Like.” And it was one panel with a woman making some vague but reasonable argument, followed by a panel with a bunch of male idiots saying easily-dismissible bullshit. Kind of like Plato’s Dialogues, if one of the participants was a drooling moron.

Of course you’re going to keep making the same arguments, as long as you keep arguing to the lowest common denominator instead of addressing the more reasonable counter-points.


I’m sometimesoften dense about these things; in the past I’ve objected to the idea that characters be arbitrarily made female. And I still object to that idea. But then, it’s all in the wording: who’s to say what’s “arbitrary?” As was pointed out to me in the comments, the flaw was that I was still assuming that characters are male by default.

If you start with the assumption that characters in games are typically male, and that the way you get female characters is by removing a rib, adding a beauty mark and a bow, and removing half her costume, then it’s always going to seem as if making female characters is some arbitrary requirement to fulfill some quota. It was never conscious on my part; that’s how institutionalized sexism works.

That’s why I think McDougall’s essay is so interesting: she doesn’t just sermonize about two ideas that most of us would accept as trivially true, “Invariably ‘strong’ female characters are unrealistic” and “Women are under-represented in media”, and present them as separate concepts, that we should just accept as dogma. She explains how one feeds into the other. Maybe it’s obvious to other people, but it was kind of a new concept to me.

If you’ve got a male-dominated cast with only one woman, that woman has to be strong. She’s got to represent her entire gender on her own. None of your male characters are going to be interpreted as representative of all men, because their gender isn’t the aspect that distinguishes them.

McDougall says that she wants to see the ratio of male to female characters in film to go from its current level of 3:1 down to a more realistic level of 1:1. I still say that numbers don’t tell the whole story; one Black Widow is worth at least three Hawkeyes, and to me, Maria Hill was much more interesting than Nick Fury was.

But if anybody complains that it’s a case of instituting a quota, you can ask why their characters are so fragile that the whole story falls apart if the demographics are the same as that of the real world. Seeing as how women are over 50% of the population, it seems that you have to present a good argument to justify their exclusion, not their inclusion.

And if anybody complains that making a demand over something as arbitrary as gender is violating the creative process, you can remind them about the Strong Female Character. And point out that there’s nothing creative about spending years spitting out minor variations on Emma Peel that still aren’t as good as the original.

I still don’t believe that doing a simple gender-swap accomplishes much of anything — but then, look at Ripley in Alien. I said before that her character in Aliens was a lot stronger because they incorporated her being a woman into the story. I still think that’s true, but it doesn’t diminish the significance of Alien, having a female character who’s taking command of the situation instead of just being a victim.

And if anybody still doesn’t get how all these things are inter-related, and why better representation for women in the media is important, ask him to imagine a world in which every single male character in every movie and TV show is Tom Cruise’s character from Mission: Impossible. If he claims he’s not horrified by the thought, he’s not being honest.

2 thoughts on “Ms. Representation”

  1. I really liked her distinction between “strong” characters and characters with agency, which is a real problem (and for what it’s worth, is more of a problem in movies than in games, because whatever else you can say about Lara Croft, she’s always had agency.) Also hadn’t thought much about the ways tokenism makes it nearly impossible to have your one female character be interesting.

    As far as quantity vs. quality goes, one thing that occurs to me is that if you fix the quantity problem, the quality problem will start to take care of itself. At least in the case of ensembles and genre films–the lack of female protagonists is more complicated (although as you noted, making Ripley female undoubtedly improved Alien, even if she’s a Strong Female Character). Make half of your superhero team female, and guess what: your story isn’t going to work if half of the team are SFCs with nothing else interesting about them. Superhero films are maybe not the best example, because they’re also full of Strong Male Characters, but, I don’t know, think about putting a quota on, say, a heist film. Or really any ensemble cast–didn’t the relationship between Bond and M become more interesting when they arbitrarily gave the role to Judi Dench? (Imagine Skyfall with Bernard Lee.)

  2. Yeah, I’m assuming that she was talking about genre movies & blockbusters, because romantic comedies and Tyler Perry’s movies are closer to a balanced ratio. (Even with Perry playing a woman).

    That’s actually a good point that I forgot to make: Superhero movies are both male-heavy and tend to have shallow characterizations. Even if you did get a 1:1 ratio of men to women, they’re not going to be super interesting female characters.

    The other thing about that blog post, but not the essay itself, is that they used a photo of Buffy, who’s become pretty much shorthand for “Strong Female Character.” But while the movie was all about just taking that premise and subverting it, the TV series did everything it could to avoid the Strong Female Character syndrome.

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