‘Strong Female Characters’ and Embracing Femininity

One of the delightful features of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series is that it featured a smart, athletic, female lead who also loved all things ‘girly’.  As a tech worker who throughly enjoys the performance of femininity– makeup, cute shoes, the works– I have had a hard time finding fictional women who kick ass, tackle intellectual challenges, and aren’t afraid of being outwardly and inwardly feminine.

Now, there are approximately as many definitions of what ‘feminine’ means as there are women in the world, and many cultures also include gender identities that fall outside the male-female dichotomy (which deserves its own post). However, in the context of this post, I will focus on behaviors, interests, and personal grooming that the relevant culture codes as ‘feminine’. I’m also differentiating gender expression– that is, the outward behaviors that a culture codes as gendered– from the person’s actual gender (male, female, two-spirit, etc.)
Describing the interaction between gender roles, gender expression, a character’s personality and gender identity, and their culture requires a lot of nuance. Unfortunately, there are a lot of books that tromp in with unexamined assumptions about ‘feminine’ gender roles being boring, wimpy, and only suitable for nitwits and ‘masculine’ gender roles being cool, badass, and intellectually challenging. Assuming that your character lives in a society which makes these value judgements, it may be that they believe this as well, and it’s completely believable that a character would, independent of her personal gender expression preferences, reject ‘feminine’ identity, behaviors and characteristics in order to be taken seriously, have an otherwise off-limits career, or achieve greater personal autonomy. It makes sense for them to sneer at people who enjoy feminine expression because that’s what society has taught them to do.
Where I’ve seen this become problematic is when the author buys into the ‘not like other girls’ syndrome. Symptoms include in-universe confirmation that the character is special and a badass for taking on masculine gender, in-universe confirmation that women who enjoy feminine things are nitwits, lack of other awesome women (especially more gender-conforming ones), and in-universe confirmation that masculine things are so much cooler than feminine things. Luckily this is fixable with narrative suggestion that while the characters have internalized these values, those conclusions aren’t necessarily supported by objective reality.
As it is, I would love to see more:

  • Settings (real and imagined) with more than two traditional genders/gender roles;
  • Settings (real and imagined) where the traditional gender roles are different than Anglo-Western norms;
  • Female characters who turn gender stereotypes to their advantage (for example, Harriet Tubman often operated in broad daylight simply by carrying a basket or otherwise ‘looking busy’– a middle-aged black woman doing a chore was ignored by people on the lookout for the swashbuckling badass who must be the one freeing all those slaves);
  • Female characters who do awesome stuff while still enjoying traditional feminine gender expression (depending on the culture at hand, this may require the expanding the definition of ‘awesome stuff’ beyond ‘HULK SMASH WITH SWORD!’);
  • Male characters who want to participate in ‘feminine’ activities as a major plot point.

There are so many opportunities to explore gender– particularly expressions of femininity– in fiction, and the world can always use more interesting and diverse female characters.

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One thought on “‘Strong Female Characters’ and Embracing Femininity

  1. You should check out Robin Hobb, the Farseer books particularly. Her female characters are just as well developed and un-steriotypical as her male characters (her character development all round is exceptional!) would thoroughly recommend 🙂

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