12 Days of Meditations #5: On strong characters (who happen to be female)

Anime is fairly notorious for its treatment of women characters, and even women authors help perpetuate this. This has led some people to clamor for strong female characters in anime, but I’m afraid the term has become an oxymoron of sorts.

First of all, let’s dissect the term. Strong Female Character. Strong, female, character? There are three words–two adjectives that both modify the same noun. The character must be strong and female, a combination of the two. But in the first place we must have a character. I tend to think that not all characters are equal in make–some are types or caricatures, which are inferior. What makes a proper character, then?

I’d like to think that a character can’t be summed up in a word or two. When people say something like “a fat character”, then that’s a type. You take this fictional person and slap a modifier to it. What’s his character? He’s fat. That’s the extent of what he is. When you start creating characters with types in mind, you’ll quickly end up with a whole lot of nothing, devoid of any real personality. Start with “fat”, and you find yourself boxed in–if you try to expand the character, you’ll end up adding other stuff that you think a fat character has. (It’s also quite disrespectful to fat people if you think about it.)

Anyway. Something’s not right. Strong female character. The more I look at it, the more problems I see. It’s like the word female is a description of character. Have you ever described someone’s character, as in the whole draw of what makes them appealing, just by using their sex? This is Kamina. He’s male. This is Major Kusanagi. She’s female. Huh?

When you put strong and female together, it sounds like they’re modifying each other. Like the female is being made strong, or vice versa. It implies that character traits are gendered–men are strong, women are sweet; men are tough, women are kind. When somebody says “strong character”, usually the gender is male. By default. So we specify the “female” part. Strong character, but female–not male. We may deny such bias ourselves, but they come up all the time, often unconsciously.

This is where even the most well-meaning of writers get it wrong. They’re working to reverse the sexist treatment of female characters in fiction and end up making it worse. They frame the strong female character in male terms–said character acts and speaks like a man. The strong female character becomes someone oozing with machismo, who cusses all the time, and rains death on her enemies with a cold heart, misandry optional. Is this all there is to it? I’m not saying the kind of character mentioned above can’t be strong, but it gets old quick.

How do we remedy this?

When writing a character, start with the character, with the actual meaty stuff that people are more bound to remember. You could change the sex anytime, and it shouldn’t dictate what the meat of your character will be in the first place. If you do, then you’re gendering your character traits again. Don’t write women; write characters who happen to be women. “Woman” isn’t a character trait, for crying out loud.

So, to update the term, it should be strong character, who happens to be female. It’s unwieldy, yeah, but “female” shouldn’t be grouped in with the word “strong”, for reasons discussed above. Else we’re going to end up with the boring variety of “strong female character”.

With the female part solved, let’s go tackle the meaning of strength. What makes a character strong? The quick-and-easy answer is physical–he or she could perform feats of physical strength like lifting heavy weights or punching out someone. Fiction is saturated with such characters. And they are not very memorable, if that’s all that’s going on for them. (This is also why almost nobody gets the real point of Superman as a character–if by describing him you first mention his powers, then you’re part of the problem.)

What about characters who are mentally strong? I’m not talking about intelligence or street smarts, but the ability to cope up with pressure and react intelligently to such situations without losing one’s head.

What about characters who are emotionally strong? These characters get hurt in the heart, yet bounce back and recover while others are still wallowing in their own tears. They may cry, which can be a sign of strength on its own. They are full of empathy.

I would even go so far as to say that physical strength is the least important out of the three. In most situations, mental or emotional strength are more vital. There’s no lack of people who work out and become physically strong, but break down from the first crisis life throws their way. They’re not strong, they’re brittle.

How about an example? In Attack on Titan, I never considered Mikasa to be a strong character. She may be a combat genius and all, but she is also emotionally weak and brittle. Without Eren to anchor her, she quickly falls apart. She is attached to him in a very unhealthy way. I thought Armin was a much stronger character than her or Eren. Armin isn’t physically strong, but his quick mind and vast reserves of courage has saved many lives, and will save many more as the war with the Titans drag on, I’m sure.

How about a more classic example? Kenshiro, from Fist of the North Star. Kenshiro isn’t as good as Raoh when it comes to punching (Raoh bears the title of Ken-Oh, which literally means Fist King), but he has something his enemies don’t have: kindness and compassion. He is not afraid to cry, to express his grief when he is swamped by it. He uses his power not to oppress others but to liberate them. In the realm of emotional strength, Raoh is but a baby compared to Kenshiro.

Another thing with strength is that it should go hand in hand with kindness. Plain strength isn’t really interesting on its own–you get a Raoh, who is badass but is dumber than an otaku when it comes to the opposite sex. But with a Kenshiro, someone who is strong and kind, you can have so many interesting stories to tell. (Why else would he be the protagonist of the story, and not Raoh?) Kindness tempers strength, and makes it not a thing to be feared. We like being with the strong and kind person, because we feel that he or she’ll protect us.

For me, a strong character is mentally or emotionally strong. Not everyone can be in peak physical condition, but almost everyone can be sound in the head and heart. And those count much more, especially for stories that aren’t entirely made up of cheap thrills.

And when I consider all this, I realize that we have no real shortage of strong characters. Especially those who happen to be female.

PS: My favorite display of non-conventional strength (read: non-physical) is in Aoi Hana, where main character Fumi breaks up with her girlfriend Yasuko. Yasuko follows her for a while, and Fumi firmly tells her not to see her anymore, because she has already moved on. Throughout the show, Fumi has been depicted as shy and indecisive, but she displays a startling degree of emotional strength in calling her ex out for her behavior. She’s been hurt, and decides that enough is enough, I won’t let you hurt me anymore. And she tells her ex, who’s older than her, to grow up and move on, reducing her to a sniveling mess. Holy shit. That scene slayed me.

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7 Responses to 12 Days of Meditations #5: On strong characters (who happen to be female)

  1. machineslife says:

    I agree with people writing strong characters. When it comes to “happens to be female”, I think George Carlin said it best… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TDOZiwaueDM

  2. omo says:

    I have too many run-ins with people fascinated with the concept, both as a “thing” and as a dumb sjw thing that I don’t even want to touch the subject with a pole.

    As you say, just write characters, write gendered ones or not, whatever.

  3. Hogart says:

    I really don’t understand why this is so complicated these days. If you can write a “strong” male, you can write a strong female. Gender doesn’t have to come into it at all unless you’re intentionally limiting yourself to make a point for some reason. It’s not even something to think about, unless your story is about a gender issue (at which point you should question whether you have the chops to bring that issue to light before you start restricting yourself).

    Otherwise just focus on your story and the trivial details. If Shin Mazinger Z-hen could come up with one of anime’s strongest lead females AND one of anime’s strongest, um… Baron Ashuras, then it can’t be that tricky to pass the Bechdel test. Just ask whether it matters what the character’s gender is at the time, and why. If it doesn’t then you’re only setting yourself up for failure at worst, and pointless verbosity at best.

  4. The Aoi Hana reference is love <3

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