Years ago, so many years ago the link is long gone and there is no evidence of this quote other than my memory, Scarlett Johansson was giving an interview because she was starring in The Island. I can’t remember the question but her response to it has (obviously) stayed with me.

She said how great it is to be playing a strong woman in a genre that was not known for strong women.

That always bothered me, that she’d make such a definitive statement about a genre she clearly knew very little about. Because if she did, she would have known better than to say that. I doubt she even remembers saying it. And then I went to see the movie and her character is far from strong. So it was wrong on several levels.

And I started writing this post about how sci-fi is full of strong women but then I stopped myself. Because, as true as that might be, it wasn’t what I really wanted to say.

The first female heroes in sci-fi movies were women acting like men. Granted, Ellen Ripley was originally written as a guy until they cast Sigourney Weaver. But James Cameron always intended Sarah Connor to be a woman. And even after all these years, John Connor’s story isn’t complete without Sarah in it. She’s that strong and commanding of a figure.

But something always rang false for me in these characters. They were ballsy and tough and women acting like men. Why wasn’t she allowed to be strong and fierce and not have to act like a guy? Why wasn’t being a woman enough?

The simple answer is because the films were written and directed by men and they created what they knew.

But I was always looking for that story that allowed her to be both powerful and feminine. There are plenty of them in sci-fi now – from Battlestar Galactica to Star Trek to the Sarah Connor Chronicles and Stargate.

See, the thing is, I’m not that impressed by strong women in sci-fi. I want interesting women and dimensional women. I want women with the courage to be vulnerable. I want men like that too, but that’s a different post.

And another thing – we never sit around discussing how men are handled in stories. We discuss if he’s a good character. Is he a jerk? Is he two dimensional? Is he daring or smart or funny? Men are allowed to be idiots. But women are not allowed to be helpless. The legacy stories now have to bear from fairy tales is that she cannot be a damsel in distress. Even if the whole story is about her, she can’t be saved by the hero.

(There’s a whole tangent here about Frodo taking the ring as far as he could, but that’s also for a later post.)

So why do we keep looking at stories and considering how they handle women? When is she simply bold or daft or funny or two dimensional? When is she allowed to be weak – because at some point we all are.

That’s a pretty scary thing as a writer in today’s world (unless you’re Joss Whedon). To have the audacity to let a her be weak, not helpless weak but vulnerable and fallible. Not because it’s the easy (and by easy I mean lazy) thing to do. Or because you’re a guy and don’t know what else to do with her. But because you’re telling a story with authentic characters and so if you are going to be honest then you have to be willing to let every character go as far as they’re capable and accept that as enough.

Because then the audience might stop looking to her to be strong and simply let her be.

Posted in: meme ~


10 responses to “the bane of strong women

  1. A thoughtful and thought-provoking post, especially where you stress how a male character is “allowed to be an idiot”, while everyone would point their collective fingers at that same trait when exhibited by a female character.

    Maybe the problem comes from the still strong genre divide and our need to escape from genre-bound characterization: once we leave that kind of prejudice behind, we will see characters that, as you say, simply *are*.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Annie

      Thank you. I actually just read a great article over at Tor where they made the excellent point that part of the problem is that there are so few women in stories (movies specifically) and therefore those few characters have the burden of standing in for all women. More women in stories allows more room for more dimensions – for weak women and idiots and geniuses and clowns and everything else men are allowed to be 🙂

  2. I loved reading this post – you make some great points about how unfairly female characters are judged. Of course we want strong female characters, but if they show weakness, it’s not a big insult. It’s reality. I’m sure there will come a time, when there is not such a spotlight on gender differences in stories, hopefully it will come sooner rather than later!

    Bless Joss Whedon for doing his part! 😀

    • Annie

      thanks! I think it’s interesting that we see fewer conversations like this around tv shows – because there’s so many varied and interesting women on tv. Maybe because they have the space to be more dimensional across multiple story-lines. Maybe because you need lots of women to fill a tv landscape. But Joss definitely is one of the best male writers of female characters and his tv work expanded a lot of what we see in women on tv, I think 🙂

  3. Definitely some food for thought there. I think I saw a post a while back about how we view “strong women” characters. I forgot who said it, but I remember that the gist of the quote involved writing dynamic/three-dimensional characters. Not just “strong” but a female character that has more to her than just acting tough and badass all the time.

    Great post!

  4. Wow. This is a very interesting read. I do have to say, however, that in terms of Sarah Connor for example – she is probably my very favorite female lead – in all of her incarnations (Linda Hamilton [takes 1 and 2] and Lena Heady [can’t wait to see what Emilia Clarke does..]). I think she is all that you describe above that many “strong” female leads aren’t allowed to be: weak, ballsy, vulnerable, damsel in distress, crazy, strong, etc. She actually seems to embody all of those things in different points of her story/journey. What always stands out to me about Sarah Connor is her huge capacity for love and where that takes her.

    The only thing she isn’t is “idiotic” like, as you say, men are allowed to be. I think that in actual life we forgive men for being idiotic, because they don’t seem to be as dimensional as women are anyway. That isn’t a crack or insult to men in general – it’s just something I’ve been taking note of as I raise my own stupid boy (and know MANY stupid boys). Women by default just …hold it together more often. And those that don’t are left behind.

    Sarah Connor embodies the worst and best of us all as the mother of the future of the world. And she is nowhere near perfect in her choices and actions. She tries to find love and time for herself. She tries to raise a boy – and a soldier – she doesn’t know anything about what is really ahead for her and yet faces it head on and grabs every tool at her disposal to do it. But not only by “acting like a man”. Gun or not – she doesn’t become a man. She’s a mom.

    I do see however, what you mean about so many of the others – for example Starbuck in her very mannish character. Ironically, my favorite from that series, Six – is ALL woman. Whaddya think about that!?

    Happy New Year Annie if I don’t catch before!

    • Annie

      such a great comment!

      I will admit I haven’t seen the Terminator movies in years, so my impression is based on a much younger version of me watching them years ago. But I did always see the Linda Hamilton character as more masculine than feminine and it was one that probably bothered me the most. I didn’t see her vulnerability or her weaknesses. I saw fear and anger and an unrelenting toughness that I couldn’t relate to. And I felt that she responded to that fear in a very masculine, aggressive way. I think now, though, I can see the femininity in that toughness, the way women *endure* in a very specific way and make sacrifices without apology. Which is why I loved the Lena Headey version so much. I see in her EVERYTHING you described above – the vulnerability and the strength, the motherhood and the weight of raising a boy and a soldier and making mistakes and having to deal with the consequences. The contrast between those two versions of that character has always been extremely interesting to me. I also think you make a really interesting point about her being a mother. Both Ripley and Sarah Connor were given that motherhood aspect to their characters and you do see how it affected them in specific ways.

      The funny thing is, I see Starbuck as more feminine than Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor. I do think in the first season especially she was more masculine but being a tv show she also had a lot more room for depth – for the moments where she’s very much a girl in her own way. And I think it helps that she also has a sense of humor and is teasing and laughs because it’s her smile that reminds you of that girl in her. I also think Katee Sackoff worked intentionally to feminize Starbuck as the series moved on. Six is totally ALL woman, true. And fierce and strong and totally weak and vulnerable. I think Athena (and very specifically Athena – not Boomer) has more of a balance in her characteristics – she’s like the mid-point between Starbuck and Six. That’s one thing I love about that show – so much depth and diversity and complicated characters. It’s really awesome 🙂

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