Friday, August 17, 2012

Strong Female Characters and Lots of Questions

Something tells me that this blog post might get me into a lot of trouble.

I know that you, kind blog readers, certainly would not just start yelling at me, so I must hope that I am right when it comes to the general population of the internet. I've been mulling over a lot of these questions for the past few days and I would like to discuss them with you. I want your opinions, and I want to try and figure out my own by writing them down. So here goes.

As you know, I am a big fan of strong lady characters. I like nothing more than girls who can hold their own, whether that means in a swordfight or in a conversation.

I also like Disney movies. A lot. Like really a lot.

I was having a conversation with the lovely and talented Leigh Ann Kopans on Twitter the other day. (Seriously guys she's the best. She writes SUCH GOOD BOOKS. *fingers crossed for Leigh Ann and her books*) We were talking about Tangled and what a wonderful movie it is, and I said that it's the best Disney movie since the 90s. And then Leigh Ann said that she didn't like those much because of a lack of strong female characters. I didn't say much about it at the time, because the arguments are my least favorite things ever and usually I prefer to do the "oh, okay, different opinion. Fine. Cool. Good stuff. Moving on" thing. Leigh Ann is really really great and it was morning and I was tired and didn't feel like expanding upon this thought. But I've been mulling it over in the past few days and... I just don't see the problem.

No, the female Disney characters of the 90s are not Katniss. I've heard many an argument from my aunt to my classmates to the General People of the Internet that these movies are inherently bad for feminism... and I feel like I'm missing their point.

Granted, 90s Disney movies are the essence of my media consumption as a child (along with Bill Nye the Science Guy and Kratts Kreatures, but you get the point) so I am very much biased in their favor. But I also just don't see how those girls are huge red flags. Maybe they could be better, but are they as bad as all that, really?

See, I told you this was going to get me in trouble. I am NOT advocating for a lack of strong female characters! Hear me out here, please.

Beauty and the Beast is extremely high on my favorite-movies-of-all-time list. Top three, if not in the number one spot (I'm 21 years old, this may be problematic...). For one thing, the music is gorgeous. I love the animation. And I've always secretly (or not-so-secretly) wanted to be Belle. I don't think that she's actually dumb, or because the Beast saves her that one time it makes her incompetent. Yeah, she runs out of the castle in the middle of the night in the snow. I would be pretty freaked out in her situation too! A giant guy with claws is throwing furniture and screaming! I'd be out of there! But she knows where she's going, since she found the castle in the first place. And when the wolves show up, she doesn't panic or anything - she tries to outride them, then starts hitting them with a stick. She's eventually overwhelmed, yeah, but there are a LOT OF THEM. I always sort of saw this as understandable.

And yes, the Beast saves her, but in the end, doesn't she save him? In a less dramatic fashion, sure, but she does. She brings him back to life, essentially. And she doesn't do that really annoying "I'm going to change the bad boy" thing. She doesn't fall in love with him at the start (she doesn't like Gaston - why would she fall for another jerk?); she falls in love with him later because he turns into a nice person, for her.

I fail to see how needing to be rescued turns a girl into an instantly incapable character. Doesn't everybody need to be rescued sometimes? Girls, guys, everybody. Sometimes there are just too many wolves for you to take out on your own and you need a little help. Isn't that fair?

I'm also uncertain as to how this makes an entire movie unlikable. I LOVE The Princess Bride. It is an amazing movie. I've yet to read the book (I know, I know) but that movie is just so brilliant. And Princess Buttercup? Is the wimpiest female character EVER. She just stands there when Westley is getting attacked by the Rodent of Unusual Size. She nearly kills herself instead of trying to escape Humperdinck. She's completely pathetic. I acknowledge that. I love the movie anyway. Does that make me a bad person somehow? Because I am willing to overlook Buttercup's complete ineptitude to enjoy the jokes and adventuring of all the male characters in that movie, have I somehow failed at Being a Girl?

Another example: The Lion King. There are all of two female characters in that movie (which the musical attempts to rectify by making Rafiki a woman's part. It's awesome): Nala and Sarabi. If we're going off the "Lion King is actually Hamlet" theory, Nala and Sarabi are, I would argue, far stronger characters than Ophelia and Gertrude ever dreamed of being. After all, I'm pretty sure Nala could beat Simba up at any time if she felt like it, especially when they were kids. But, just like their Shakespearean counterparts, they are minor characters. They don't get large chunks of screen time. Nala is The Love Interest; Sarabi is The Mom. This has never made me love that movie any less. In fact, the Lion King soundtrack is my music of choice whenever I am buried in stress and need to not freak out so much. It never bothered me that Simba was the main character, and that most of the characters in that movie are male. I just think it's a good movie.

I am concerned, lovely blog readers. I am concerned for a lot of different and very conflicting reasons. There has been a bit of a media circus lately about how many women write YA and how many female characters there are and how many girls and women read it and how many boys don't. Those articles usually send me in search of something to bang my head against. So it's obvious that we haven't "gotten there" yet, in terms of being on a completely equal playing field. We NEED strong female characters. We NEED more of them.

We need movies like Brave, where Merida is a very skilled archer and wants to make her own way in the world, and her mother, I have to say, is just awesome (I can't tell you why without spoilers. Just trust me). We need movies like Tangled, where Rapunzel threatens people with frying pans and makes her realizations on her own.

But I think sometimes we get to be a bit overzealous. I think sometimes we are so intent on creating female characters who can be good strong role models that we forget to make them human.

Everyone needs to be rescued.

Everyone needs a good cry sometimes.

Everyone sometimes wants other people to make their decisions for them.

Everyone does stupid things sometimes.

Girls are people too. We should allow our characters to reflect that.

There are a lot of issues that get wrapped up in this. There's the issue of boys not reading books about girls whereas girls have little choice but to read about boys. There's the issue of girl characters being Bella Swan types with absolutely no decision making power of their own. There's the issue of marketing and pink covers and frilly titles for books written by women. There's the issue of boy characters being adventurous or smart while girl characters just like sparkly things. All of these things are significant problems in movies, television, literature, society... And none of these things have easy solutions. It's hard to even know where to start.

But I think a good place to start is to have a discussion about these issues. I want to know what you think of all this, dear blog readers. Tell me if you think I'm wrong about it, and why.

And I think we need to tell stories with the most human characters we can, both male and female. I want to see a book about a prince getting rescued. I want to see more books and movies about friendships rather than romances. And I want to see more strong female characters of course.

Being a strong character, male or female, shouldn't mean having to go it alone, though. Sometimes the hardest thing a person can do is to ask for help.


  1. I am a feminist.

    Now that I've got that out of the way, I agree with you. Yes, one of the reasons I dislike Twilight so much is because of the fact that Bella defines herself based on which guy she's with, makes no decisions of her own, and curls up in the fetal position when Edward leaves (among other things).

    BUT. The difference between Bella and someone like Belle is that Belle is smart. Belle isn't going to define herself based on her relationship status (see: rejection of Gaston). Does the Beast rescue Belle? Yes. But she definitely wasn't just going to sit around and wait for him to do it; he just happened to be there.

    I love The Hunger Games, and Tamora Pierce's books, and all those other books with ass-kicking characters. But I feel like there's also a line we have to be careful while navigating, between having those ass-kicking girls and rejecting other girls because they're not like that. I mean, there are other ways to be strong besides whipping out a bow or a sword; it's also okay for girls to be smart, and decisive, and be girly while doing it.

    For example, back when I had an early draft of my WIP posted on FictionPress, a reviewer commented that there wasn't enough action, that they wanted to see Calanthe go into battle. But you know what? That's not Calanthe. Calanthe survives because she's smart and socially savvy, not because she could hack someone's head off at the drop of a hat. She also survives, because she learns it's okay to trust people and ask for their help. And all of that is totally okay.

    I feel like where a lot of people go wrong with feminism is they reject anything that doesn't fit whatever narrow version they have of what it means to be a woman...which is ironic, because isn't feminism supposed to be rejecting a narrow version of what it means to be female? I think the key to being human - male, female, or otherwise - is choice. And since characters are supposed to be human...well, that's the key, right? They get to make choices. Katniss gets to decide to ask Peeta for help. Belle gets to decide to save the Beast from Gaston, even though the odds are completely against her. Bella gets to decide to curl up in the fetal position in the woods and completely shut down for months at a time after Edward leaves.

    Which sort of connects to your last point: Being a strong character, male or female, shouldn't mean having to go it alone, though. Sometimes the hardest thing a person can do is to ask for help. I couldn't have said it better myself.

    1. Thanks for your lovely, thoughtful comment! :D

      This exactly. I think what we need is the same sort of diversity in female characters that we see in male characters. Not all male characters are action heroes. Some are smart or good at getting people to do what they want them to, et cetera et cetera. Not everybody needs to be good at swordfighting.

      Something I think I meant to talk about but didn't quite say is that I also think it's okay for female characters to be minor characters. Not everyone can be the main character. Isn't that kind of how books and movies work? I can see that it's a significant problem when women ONLY get minor parts to play, but minor characters are important too.

      And choice is SO important. People should be able to be whoever it is they want to be. Good at fighting? Sure. Not good at fighting? Also fine.

  2. I totally agree with everything here, and I'm going to add my own two cents (kinda piggy-backing on what you're saying):

    Ever After - popular movie, redone fairytale, strong female. Should have worked for me. Didn't. Why?

    Because I believe the writers made her TOO strong, and in doing so, made the prince obsolete. If you're going to have a strong female mc, great. But who's going to like the male lead if he does nothing? If he's completely useless?

    I think there needs to be a balance, where the characters save each other. The male needs the female just as much as the female needs the male.

    1. Yes! This! Useless characters can be male too. And useless characters are no good. As in many things, balance is oh so very important. :)

      Thanks for your comment!

  3. Hi Caitlin!

    First, this is a terrific blog post, and I'm in total agreement with you. I'm a die-hard Disney fan, and like you, I always thought (and still think) Belle is pretty awesome - she is smart, thinks for herself, goes against the social norm on a number of occasions, is extremely loyal to her dad to the point where she sacrifices herself for him, and DOES save the Beast, by being open-minded and looking beyond his exterior.

    Like Stephanie stated above, what really bothers me is people thinking girls have to be Katniss/Katsa/Alanna/etc. (ie, physically bad-ass) to be considered 'strong.' Sure, it's fun to read about strong female characters kicking butt, and I totally admire and root for those girls. But that's not the ONLY way girls can be strong. In real life, are the women we consider strong the ones who have physical prowess? Sometimes, yes (gotta love those Olympic ladies) but most of the time, they're women who stand up for what they believe in and don't let other people dictate their actions. And I often wish the media and literary community would show a wider representation of these girls - girls who are strong because of their convictions and decisions.

    I think due to the recent 'media explosion' about female characters and boy vs. girl books (at least in part), I've stumbled upon a number of (YA) books where the author wants to beef up their female main character in the readers' eyes and thus over-emphasizes her strength, as though the reader needs a blinking arrow to find it. These female main characters are so determined to be 'kick-ass' they constantly use lines like, "I'm not helpless!" "I don't need a man to save me!" "I can do this on my own!" Not that I don't agree with their sentiments - but this sort of repetition feels so forced. I wish authors could find their own admirable qualities in their characters instead of stuffing their characters into pre-conceived notions of what a 'strong female' is. And usually, if a character is truly strong, well, the reader can figure it out without being told.

    That's why I appreciate Disney movies. Most of the time, they don't hit you over the head with how 'strong' their main girl characters are. These girls instead display a quiet strength, by being loyal to the ones they love and making hard choices which usually end up helping people. Prime example: Mulan. Mulan makes a difficult decision to help her family, takes a huge risk by disguising as a man, and works her butt off to do well in army training. Eventually, she shows some physical prowess, too, but we already admire her for other reasons before that, and she ultimately stops the Huns by being savvy on the battlefield, not necessarily strong. I think you can make similar arguments for other Disney girls, too - Rapunzel, Belle, Pocahontas, et cetera. I honestly think these characters have way more value and merit than people realize sometimes.

    Ultimately, I hope people will develop a broader view of what a strong female can be, because in my opinion, a smart, loyal, determined girl is just as valuable and cool and interesting as a kickass warrior girl. Really smart post!


  4. This is a great post. Thanks for sharing.

  5. YES. THIS. LOVE. I love strong female characters (and Tangled) but I also enjoy the classic Disney movies. Though, Mulan is by far my favorite with Beauty and the Beast a close second. Oh, and Aladdin. I love Jasmin for her determination to chose her own husband and see more of the world than just her palace.

    Princess Bride! I adore that movie. While, yes, Buttercup does drive me insane through some of it there are points where she at least attempts to do something brave like jumping overboard into eel-infested waters, or agreeing to go with Humperdink if he spared Wesley’s life (naïve, but she tried).

    I think the main problem people have with some of the classic Disney movies (Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella in particular) is the idea that a prince is coming to come into your life, sweep you off your feet, and make all your problems go away. Not just the idea of the princesses being saved by the princes.

    P.S. Have you seen Gnomeo and Juliet? Great movie and I absolutely love their version of Juliet.

    1. Mmm, yes. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White... largely absent princes showing up and fixing everything. Sigh. That sort of is what the fairy tale is, though. *sigh* That's what the story of Sleeping Beauty *is*. Not saying it should be a model for other stories or that it's good for girls to sit around and wait for princes to rescue them, because that's not the case, but I don't quite know how you'd change Sleeping Beauty to make it not like that, you know?

      And I have not seen Gnomeo and Juliet. I take it I should?

    2. I know. That rescue is part of the appeal of those movies and I'm not condemning them for it or anything. It's kind of a double-edged sword.

      You should! It's an adorable and funny movie.

    3. A double edged sword indeed. :/

      I shall see if I can find it somewhere! :)

  6. Hiii, it's Claire! This is a really interesting post, and I always love to hear about different feminist opinions on Disney films.

    I agree with a lot of your statements in this post, especially concerning the 'everyone needs to be rescued sometimes' parts. It's sad that many feminist condemn those parts of the films, the parts that are outwardly descriptive of each character's shortcomings or failures, instead of the truly dangerous parts, the subtextual ones.

    A lot of my problems with Disney fall outside of their depictions of women. They certainly do not do as well as they could when crafting a female character, however, no film or animation companies outside of Laika and Studio Ghibli really have. Anyways, my problems with Disney lie within their constant habit to adhere to subconsciously enforcing gender stereotypes, negative queer coding, negative depictions of ugliness and ugly-coding, utter lack of people of color, appropriating cultures, and lack of defined roles for female characters outside of princess ones.

    What's really bad about all Disney films depicting women is that, aside from Mulan, they're all portrayed as princesses. Or they *become* princess, and their lives are then fulfilled and wonderful. Which is harmful because it enforces this idea that women have no worth outside of being a princess, that there are no roles for us in society other than roles preset and designed for us by other humans.

  7. That being said, I do not think Disney is out to do this stuff consciously and try to hurt other people. It's just so accepted in our society, and all they do is try to sell society what is accepted and what it wants to see.

    Which is sad, again, because Disney is such a huge company and has the power to revolutionize how people feel about oppressed and marginalized groups.

  8. A really good website you might be interested in is She has really great reviews of Disney films and highlights all of the issues that are present within them! It's great because it's amazingly humbling.

    The best thing I like to remember though is that you can love something dearly and still understand that it has a lot of problems and flaws. Snow White is my favorite Disney movie, after all!