I’m a big fan of stories. I absolutely love good books and television and films, and luckily I’m in a profession where I can write off time spent doing all of these things as ‘research.’ Naturally as an avid consumer of stories, there is little I enjoy more than discussing (in sometimes what is frighteningly too much depth) what I enjoy about a particular novel or series, which characters I fall in love with (Caroline Forbes, Vampire Barbie!!), which plot points seem a little loose, etc. And lately I’ve been noticing an interesting trend when it comes to the discussion of female characters.
No doubt it is due to series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Hunger Games that when we now refer to a female character, she is either ‘strong’ or ‘weak.’ In a way, this is really great; our lives are saturated with kick-butt female role models who aren’t just designed to be sexual icons for men. But in a way I wonder if this hasn’t also skewed our perception of what it actually means to be strong—that a woman can be independent and empowered without whipping out tae kwon do or putting an arrow through someone’s heart.
To be fair, most of the discussions I’ve had on the topic usually stem from TV shows and books where the main female character’s sole purpose seems to be acting as the acute angle for a love triangle (see my previous blog post Love Triangles: Or The Art of Leading People On for my feelings on that), and where the two main male characters are so in love with said angle that they don’t seem to realize she doesn’t actually have much of a personality. To that, I say—writers, write responsibly. If your protagonist isn’t very interesting when you take the men out of the equation, then she isn’t very interesting, period.
A good example of one of my favorite strong female characters who doesn’t use any weapons aside from her wit and rhetoric and who isn’t solely defined by her love story? Miss Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice (did you really think I could make it through a blog post without mentioning P&P at some point?). Now granted, yes, part of why I love her story so much is because of that snobbishly dashing Darcy, but Elizabeth more than holds her own. She’s clever, she’s sharp-tongued, she’s loyal, (even when Charlotte marries that awful Mr. Collins and Lydia is… well, Lydia), she subtly defies convention (like muddying her skirts and walking by herself to get to her sick sister at Netherfield Park), she makes rash judgments (even though, as we quickly learn, her first impressions of people are not always correct—I’m looking at you here, Wickham), and she can be a bit of a snob (though she’s much quicker to find that fault in others than in herself). In short, she is a fully rounded human being who is both weak and strong, with or without a crossbow.
Which brings me back to the Spice Girls. Now, love ‘em or hate ‘em, part of what makes them so iconic is that each has a distinct personality. Baby is cute, Ginger is ballsy, Posh is savvy, Sporty is energetic, and Scary is… well, scary. Unlike certain girl bands of today where costumes and personalities blur together in a mass of stilettos and spray tans, the Spice Girls are individuals equally awesome because of their differences. We all know that Sporty is probably the one most likely to win an Olympic medal and that Scary could probably take them all in a fight, but that doesn’t make these two any stronger or better, just different.
This isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy me some action. There is a time and a place for a girl beating the trash out of somebody who’s supposed to be bigger and tougher than she is, and a time and a place when that is flat-out awesome. But maybe it’s time to broaden our minds a little bit. Let’s not trick ourselves into thinking that the only way for a woman to be strong is to bench press 200 pounds and know the difference between a glock and a Beretta. For every Sidney Bristow, we need a Lorelai Gilmore. For every Buffy, we need a Willow. For every Sarah Connor, we need a Dr. Quinn. There’s room for all of us at the table. As the Spice Girls so aptly put, If you wanna be my lover/you gotta get with my friends… or something like that. Girl power!