Monday, January 3, 2011

Men With Breasts = Strong Female Characters?

I want to talk about a couple books as a lead in to my subject. First, because they're great books, and I read them after my post highlighting some of the great books I'd read in 2010. And they deserve a shout out! Second because they got me thinking on a particular subject, which I want to explore today. Topical lead in! Yes, I've written too many academic papers in my life. And, yes, it's ruined me for most other things.

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The first book is Far North, by Marcel Theroux, a post-apocalyptic novel set in the far north of Russia in an area settled by Western pilgrims looking for a harsh new utopia. The apocalypse that struck the rest of the world led to an influx of refugees and conflicts that doomed the way of life the pilgrims had created.

The story follows Makepeace, the last peace officer in a town without people. She leaves in search of others, but is eventually betrayed by those she finds and enslaved. Yet the slavers need people to search through plague-struck ruins for the technological remnants of the powerful civilization that once was.

It's a wonderful story, and I see why so many people compared it to The Road. It's only natural, I think, after reading it. They share a bleak view of the world lit only faintly by hope and possibility, and yet a beautiful humanity still exists amidst the darkness, burning embers in the ash and dust. It lacks the vibrancy, perhaps, that comes from McCarthy's prose (but then who else has that?), but it is beautifully written - a great "voice" novel, a first person narrative that leads you firmly along, a mix of rough lyricism and the ever so practical common sense of Makepeace herself.

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The second book is True Grit, by Charles Portis, a sort of literary western in which a fourteen-year-old girl, Mattie Ross, hires a U.S. Marshal to catch her father's killer... and decides to go on the hunt herself.

As the title suggests, it's a gritty novel, but also an extremely funny one. You have to be careful while reading, as some of the lines are sharp enough to cut. This, too, is a "voice" novel, a captivating first person narrative driven by the perfectly pitched tone of Mattie Ross, offering to the reader this captured sense of a true human voice.

(And, no, I haven't seen the movie yet! But looking forward to it, certainly.)

Both books are worth reading. But after my own exprience with them I started thinking about female characters and what makes them strong. I started thinking about the Men With Breasts Syndrome.

The heroic male is still a high convention across many forms of literature, but I think there are a lot of writers seeking female heroes as well, and in so doing they're trying to craft strong female characters. And yet I sometimes find this idea of strength problematic, because what I often see is a female character who gains "strength" by rejecting traditional feminine roles, habits, hobbies, beliefs, experiences, histories, etc., and adopting traditional masculine ones.

Now, there isn't necessarily anything wrong with this in a specific, individual sense. Gender constructions can be varied and can certainly run against the grain of the norm. But I find it a little troubling as a trend (and by trend I'm merely going, of course, on my own subjective experience - I'm broaching a topic for exploration, rather than trying to provide answers. Hopefully everyone will bring their own view to the discussion). What it does is place the idea of "strength" firmly within the masculine norms, and denies the possibility of strength within the feminine. For a female character to be strong, in this sort of construction, she must in fact become masculine.

Now, this masculinizing trend is often disguised by having the female character aggressively heterosexual. Sexual orientation adds a whole new layer to the discussion, but is probably too much to go into here. So, with a straight heroine, we have someone overtly hetero, often with passionate love affairs with men, and thus overtly feminine in the traditional sense. But beneath that mask lies a gender skew toward the masculine - it's the only way strength is available, to out-patriarch the patriarchs.

There's an element (particularly among male writers, I think) of a sort of male fantasy in all of this. The ol' We can drink beer, watch sports, bash a bad guy -- and then have sex! Yippee! The strong female character who is seamlessly one of the guys... and yet so often denies female contact. No female friends, no traditionally feminine hobbies or interests. This would reduce "strength"; this would be "soft". It's the kickass heroine who also happens to be eternally full of sexual smolder. Sexual relations can either go further in showing the gender skew, with the woman taking on the dominant and traditionally masculine role, or it can subvert it at a base level: yes, she's a hero and can kick ass, but, you know, she still does what I want her to do in bed. Oh yeah. Who's the man.

Power is appropriated by the masculine. To be "strong", you have to be like "us", the men. It's the old patriarchal structure, only with a twist: we'll let you in... if you meet the criteria. If you're a woman who's man enough for us.

Obviously, this idea of strength is fraught with problems. Strength has many forms and human patterns, and this denial of possible forms can't be good for the richness of characters, of literature. We don't necessarily need more Men With Breasts, but strong female characters. Characters who find strength on their own terms.

I think both the novels I touched on are interesting for this reason. In True Grit Mattie Ross is fourteen, and forces her way into a manhunt, bringing her father's old gun. And she's willing to use it. And yet one of the wonderful things about her character is that she's not predictable. She certainly confounds traditional gender norms, and certainly some of the things she does would be considered "masculine". And yet she's not trying to be a man. She's not secretly yearning to be a U.S. Marshal herself, to be as manly as the men. She has a purpose -- to avenge her father. She doesn't care a lick about guns or any of this outside her purpose. After that, she's going to get on with her life as she sees fit, bound by her own ideas of self.

Makepeace, in Far North, is even more masculine, in some ways. She often tries to hide her own sex, though this is partly for safety, or lets others misjudge her without correcting them. Many of the things she does would be considered traditionally masculine, and yet her actions are based on the specific influences of her own life -- trauma in her past, the need for survival, the practical bent of her own nature. And there are contrasts, her love of metal-working (learned while making bullets) played out against her love of gardening. There's a depth to her character that makes it hard to pin her down within simple gender constructions, and this is wonderful.

What is immportant, I think, about both characters, is how their strength does not come from an adopted gender role, but arrives as a result of their own unique natures and the pattern of their own unique experiences. Their strength is personal and individual. They can both shoot a gun... but this isn't what makes them strong. They are strong because of their conviction, their sense of their own place in the world and what they want, and their willingness to risk and sacrifice to reach their goals.

Reading these books I had the sense that this was important, the idea of finding a character's unique strength within him or her, rather than merely grasping at biased cultural notions to prop up character actions. Strength is not something defined by external props, by a created facade, but something interior and personal.

Yet this certainly isn't easy. I think of my own characters, and wonder how many of them meet this criteria. Do I avoid "weak" female characters? Do I avoid them only to make Men With Breasts? Do I have to do a better job of finding and understanding female strength in my own stories? Or perhaps I simply have to find what's uniquely human in each character...

I would love to hear some thoughts about your own writing, your own struggles and successes with characters. How do you navigate strength? Power? What is it to be strong and female, particularly in the context of literature?

Edited to add: I had this in the comments, but maybe it should go here.

"And I should add, as an addendum, I was a little nervous of the Men With Breasts thing - it's a fun bit of rhetoric that summarizes the point... but it could also be misapplied as a slight against a certain gender construction. Which is not what I want, obviously. Traditional male actions are certainly valid within a female identity - even a solely masculine gender performance. The person may not be any less female for that, which is why I'm leery of Men With Breasts - which could be construed negatively in that situation.

Hopefully its use as a bit of verbal rhetoric is clear. If not... mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa."


Scott said...

Very interesting topic, and not one I dare say too much about. Just this: if I see one more leather-clad Keira Knightley effortlessly taking out fully armored 200 pound men, I'm going to give up fiction forever.

Steve said...

My favorite strong female character is all woman; Oedipa Maas from THE CRYING OF LOT 49. Nothing unladylike about her actions or reactions, and the vulnerability she tries to mask shows through. The girl in Jennifer Egan's THE INVISIBLE CIRCUS is all girl too, and remains so in her Mattie Ross-like quest to find her big sister.

Funny you mention McCarthy; he seems incapable of female characters. This is supposed to change in that long-awaited New Orleans novel he is going to publish.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

@ Steve

Yeah, I agree on McCarthy. I just read Cities of the Plain, which was brilliant. But not exactly a feminist novel.

I'm kind of addicted to his prose, though, so I can't stop myself reading.

Emily White said...

Yes! Perfectly stated! It's so troubling that femininity isn't considered a strength. I've read so many books that have attempted to portray strong female characters merely by having them reject everything that is feminine about themselves.

Elena Solodow said...

What a great post to ring in the New Year!

I have found this problem again and again. We all have.

I think the most salient point here is that the character must be a character by their own right. It should have nothing to do with gender.

Matthew Rush said...

I can't remember her name, but Llewellyn Moss's wife in No Country for Old Men is pretty smart. I don't suppose you can actually call her strong though since she puts up with Moss's treatment. I agree about Cormac, but then I've only read two of his novels, so I can't really say.

I thought Suttree had a female MC though? Am I wrong on that?

Matthew Rush said...

So I looked it up and I am totally wrong about Suttree. Oh well.

In my own writing (I should point out that I am surrounded by femininity in my own life: two daughters, and their mom, and I grew up with two sisters and essentially little to no dad, though now that I pointed it out I'm not sure why it matters) I try to discover all different sorts of strong female characters. The two traits I consider the "strongest" are courage and honesty, which are most certainly not exclusively masculine. I try to write characters who display varying levels of both.

How well I do it remains to be seen.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

You wrote this post for me, right? Ok, then. :)

Strong female characters certainly seem to be "the buzz" lately, and I'm sure there's some appeal to the Lara Croft style heroine (especially to men). But I want to see female characters that are strong because of who they are - their unique presence in the world, their singular challenges that bring out their feminine strengths. I agree with Matt that these include courage and honesty, but also emotional strength, the ability to endure hardships, the strength to love boundlessly in the face of disaster.

These are all human traits, and I would love to see more stories (especially for children) that allow characters to have the full range of human expression - physical courage as well as emotional courage; physical strength as well as emotional strength; values that include family and love as well as righteousness and justice. This is how we teach our children what it means to be civilized (and adults as well).

I don't consciously write feminist characters. But I am stubborn in ignoring gender "rules."

Anne R. Allen said...

As a Feminist, I could not agree more. This has made me crazy for years. There's been a trend in mystery writing for some time for the "plug-in" female detective: basically Sam Spade in drag. It's all based on the primitive assumption that a capacity for violence=strength.

In terms of real female power, Miss Marple had more.

It's time for a new type of female heroine who bears some resemblance to actual females--and wields power with self-confidence, but not brutishness.

M.A.Leslie said...

This really makes me think of the manuscripts that I have been working on. Most of the main characters are women and while they are written to be feminine, they in truth are still as you say, "Men with Breasts."

And even though I think that part of the problem is the fact that I am a man and can never fully understand the mind of a woman, the other issue is that that is what the world expects in literature. I have read several books about women that were written by women and even they don't fully encompass the feminine qualities that make a woman strong.

Great post, it really got me thinking in a positive way.

IanBontems said...

Wow, good point Bryan. You've got me paranoid about my female protagonist now, and she's only twelve.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

Thanks for chipping in, everyone!

And I should add, as an addendum, I was a little nervous of the Men With Breasts thing - it's a fun bit of rhetoric that summarizes the point... but it could also be misapplied as a slight against a certain gender construction. Which is not what I want, obviously. Traditional male actions are certainly valid within a female identity - even solely male gender performance. The person may not be any less female for that, which is why I'm leery of Men With Breasts - which could be construed negatively in that situation.

Hopefully its use as a bit of verbal rhetoric is clear. If not... mea culpa, mea culpa, mee maxima culpa.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

And Miss Marple! Very interesting. Indeed, her skills, which allow her to solve crimes, are often traditionally feminine. Intuition, social perception, social contacts and history, etc. Her strength, I think, is very non-masculine, which is particularly interesting when compared with that of Hercule Poirot. The logic of the little grey cells...

Interesting food for thought!

M.A.Leslie said...

I love the disclaimer comment. I would hope that everyone would get that you weren't trying to be demeaning.

Anonymous said...

Happy New Year Bryan! Wonderful post. Gave me lots to think about in my own writing. SciFi & Fantasy books seem to dwell on female characters that kick butt (and likewise in these types of films) or the females are strong, but usually evil, like Morgan Le Fey. I have to confess, I can't think of a novel I read recently that featured a female character that was feminine and strong. So I thank you for the book recommendations!

Jessica Bell said...

I write literary women's fiction, so have thought about this A LOT. So I'm just going to leave you with my motto which is posted on my website:

“My ultimate goal is to break into the women's fiction market and steer it away from the stereotypically glorified woman that is most commonly portrayed today with pure honesty instead. Not every women in this world lives without regret, knows exactly what they want, and has the courage to put every essence of their being into achieving their dreams. Not every woman is inspirational to others. Not every woman can leave their comfort zone to better their future. But, so what? Does that mean a less strong-minded woman doesn't have an interesting story to tell? Definitely not.”

This is strength to me. Honesty.

Brilliant post by the way.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Now that's something to think about. I just finished the first draft of the sequel to my book and wrote my first ever female character. When I do revisions, I will be watching for any masculine characteristics that might've crept into her personality.
And go see the movie - it is amazing! Both leads deserve Oscars.

Lindsay said...

Good article, well articulated. I'm more a reader than a writer, but I've been thinking abut this recently. There's nothing surer to make me second-guess a fantasy these days than that sense that the world is made up exclusively of super-badass female mercenaries fighting to be recognized above their overtly housewifely sisters. Really? ALL the women are warriors, except for the useless ones who prove the others' point?

Lois McMaster Bujold has written a lot of female characters I really appreciate, who are politically or morally or emotionally strong, as well as the occasional amazon asskicker.

Oh, and True Grit the movie is a superb adaptation, very true to the book.

Emily said...

This is such a wonderful post! I am too happy right now to post anything coherent, so please forgive this comment.
I think about this often when people tell me that the book they are reading (usually YA action) has a "strong female character" and then back it up with "because she fights and stuff." Making a character more traditionally masculine does not make them strong. And I love what you said about male fantasies as they pertain to kicking butt and being sexy. Is there any real woman who spends all her time killing people and smoldering with lust? No, and to have this be the stereotypical "strong" female character is basically saying that real women aren't strong. I would love to see people being strong in a real human way, by enduring hardships or caring for others in the midst of a crisis.
I think I'm going to link to this post on my blog. Thank you so much!

Emily @ Reading While Female

Lucia said...

This is a brilliant post, I couldn't agree more. I love the point you made that 'their strength is personal and individual. They can both shoot a gun... but this isn't what makes them strong.' I'm reading Edmund de Waal's memoir The Hare with Amber Eyes, and there is an incredible female character who I believe is strong for that reason. Thankyou!

Anonymous said...

I know I'm far behind this conversation but I found the article while in frustration looking for "Truly strong female characters." I just went to see a bad movie with a girlfriend which we believed to be about tough gals.

I had to keep biting my tongue throughout because every other detail made the movie seem to me, very misogynistic. But I overlooked most of it hoping in the end all would be redeemed. I'm sorry to say I didn't feel good in the end.

But the thing that stood out most to me was that in this movie and in just about every other movie and book I've read with a female protagonist, I realized there's always a man to credit. Even if the female character is strong and complex, there's always some allusion to the man that "made" her or at some point she'll actively seek out his advice or follow his orders. Or sacrifice all she's built and accomplished to be with him or help him.

For once, I want a female character to be strong like you've mentioned in your article. Not just a busty man! BUT I want that strength, resolve, passion, knowledge etc. to be legitimately hers OR learned or cultivated by another strong female. I think it's awful that it's 2011 and even the "modern" woman needs to turn to a man when it's time to get tough!

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