Monday, August 19, 2013

SFCS -- "Strong Female Character Syndrome."

I believe it was Stuart West who told me in private correspondence that he appreciated how many strong female characters I have. I was a little thrown there because it took me a moment to figure out what he was talking about.

In my novels, I have Manana Shushurin, who's a spy that's more James Bond than George Smiley.  She reads, likes music, has a degree from Wittenberg university .... has no social life, and technically, lives with her mother (technically, I say, because she really lives in her office). She also has a secret that's eating a hole in her life.

I also have Maureen McGrail.  She's an Interpol detective, local Dublin cop, relentless, tenacious, and she knows about three martial arts.  She's also pining for a guy who came into her life, swept her off of her feet (just by being himself, really) and disappeared, without showing even a hint of romantic interest in her.

Then there's Wilhelmina Goldberg, who is 4'11", computer nerd, daughter of two esoteric languages nerds. She likes science fiction and fantasy, programs her computer to talk like characters out of Lord of the Rings, and has a subscription to Security magazine.

In context, I should point out that Stuart was using the strong female character comment as a segue into a completely different point, an issue he found in my writing. (Apparently, I shouldn't be putting in bust size as far as describing a female character.  I neglected to tell Stuart that if I knew anything about clothing, I would probably include men's jacket sizes to paint a clearer, more accurate picture of them, too. But I don't know any men who are the sizes I need. Me? OCD?  Nah....)

In any case, the SFC term struck me, and stuck with me.

And then there was this article, entitled I hate Strong Female Characters.  If you read through it, you might find a few points to agree with, and a few problems.

Now, I agree with the author on the initial point.  I also have problems with the SFC label. I really do, because it tends to detract from, oh, the point. In the example they used of Buffy-- she was smart, witty, with outside the box solutions to non-vampire problems (shall we start with the fertilizer bomb in the high school, or the rocket launcher?).  But "Strong" is the only descriptor one can come up with?

In my own work, I spent so much time on developing characters like Manana and Wilhelmina, their quirks and habits and hobbies, that I feel a little awkward if the best description anyone can come up with about them is just "strong."

Though you want my problem with this author?

1)  "I want good complex characters!"

.... And then, let's focus completely on Buffy, because she's the STRONG character.... and ignore Willow, who saves the day repeatedly, but is physically as strong as your average anemic? Faith, who's as physically strong as Buffy, but a broken character? How about Cordelia, who starts out a vacuous California mean girl, and becomes more interesting within the first half of season 1? Anya, who goes through a fairly strange character arc of her own?

And, while they're talking about complex characters, they boiled Buffy down to only "SFC." How about witty? Smart? Creative? The example used in the article was the end point of a two-episode arc exposing just how vulnerable Buffy really is. Yes, she's got superpowers, but she's still a teenager, with all the problems that comes with it, in addition to waging a constant war against everything that came to kill her, swallow the Earth, etc. The author managed to ignore the entire point of a two-part story!

Who demands good complex characters! and then ignores them when s/he gets them?  If this article had said that the "SFC" label shoved a character into a box and left them there, then I could agree to some degree.  But this author seems to be guilty of doing just that.

2) I want a 1:1 ratio of complex characters, male and female! 

The author prattles on about Peggy Carter of Captain America: The First Avenger, complaining that she was unbalanced and cartoonish, making a lot of assumptions.

The author mentions that Peggy Carter shooting Captain America's shield is a temper tantrum that no guy would have gotten away with. Obviously, this person never saw the 100 generic Stupid People Tricks that are on cable, and mostly male.  The author assumed that in firing, Peggy had been too stupid to not be listening to the toymaker Stark prattle on about his cool toys for however long she'd been in his general orbit. The author also assumed that no one in the entire room knew that the shield was bulletproof-- which is kind of like people in Q's lab not knowing to duck on a regular basis.

The author then insists that this "over-the-top" reaction is because she's one of two women with a speaking part, and there be more women on screen to counter stuff like this. (Which is odd, since I counted four -- which included a grandma with a tommy gun, and a SHIELD agent at the end of the film).

My real problem?  First, the author makes these above assumptions and then kvetches that they could have shoe-horned in more women. Why? Just to shoe-horn in more women. So we could have a 1:1 ratio of women in the film. Really?

Hey, maybe we could have put in more cardboard cutouts. Besides, if you really want equality, then Captain America: The First Avenger, was perfectly equal. There were only two complex characters in the whole film.  Tommy Lee Jones was playing....Tommy Lee Jones.... Zola was Mad Scientist #2 ... The Red Skull was Psycho Villain #6 ... Eskine was "Dr. Littleoldmun" from Mel Brooks' High Anxiety. And Stark was very much "Howard Hughes Carbon Copy #1."  Outside of the sidekick Bucky (Plucky Sidekick #9), are any of Captain America's team referred to by name?

In short, Carter and Rodgers were the only two characters of any substance in the film. This isn't a complaint. I'm sure they were plenty deep in character design, but there was little enough of it on the screen. Not to mention-- it's a movie. If you're Peter Jackson, you get nine hours of films for develop all of your character. If you're a Marvel film, you have, at most two hours and thirty minutes.  If you have two well-written and developed characters, you're ahead of the game.  I feel fortunate to have one, some days.

But for the 1:1 ratio this author wants?

Maybe this author would have liked more 2D characters. As she suggest, let's gender swap.... Dr. Zola?  So we can have a weak, simpering little woman be bullied by Tommy Lee Jones? Dr. Erskine? So we can have a little grandmother figure play the martyr?  Hey, we could gender swap Tommy Lee Jones, and have him played by Kathy Bates!  Why not have the Red Skull played by Angelina Jolie?

Now, a reasonable argument I got from Karina Fabian is from the point of view that, there were certainly a heck of a lot more women in the WW2 military than were seen in the film. There were secretaries, WACs, women who transported planes, codebreakers, nurses, etc.  That way, we could have had a lot of women.... but they would have been in the background, and probably would have completely boiled away this author's argument.

3) Women are at the back of the, movie poster, like Black Widow.

"Strong women are supposed to kick ass and keep their mouth shut." Really?



How about the fact that there were maybe five deep moments in the entire film, and Black Widow was in two of them (The five moments were Stark and Banner in Lab, Stark and Rodgers reconcile, Coulson, interrogating Loki, and Black Widow and Barton, post-brainwashing....six scenes, if you count Black Widow and Bruce Banner in India, giving her half the deep moments in the film).

Oh, hey, how about Sam Jackson? Maybe we should say The Avengers was racist, because he was in the back of the poster?

I'm sorry, but unless you're Iron Man or Thor, you're in the back of this poster.

4) Where's Thor?

Seriously, where's the movie Thor in this discussion?  You know, the movie that was mostly Kat Denning and Natalie Portman handling Chris Hemsworth as he was enduring culture shock? With some occasional exposition from Mr. Skaarsgard? Portman's character, astrophysicist Jane Foster, isn't "strong," in this sense, is she? Because last time I checked, most of my female friends could break her like a toothpick. Foster is instrumental in Thor's change from prick to hero, but is she thrown on the bonfires of the blogger's vanity because she doesn't come with a complete bio and genealogy?

Or does this author consider her merely as a damsel in distress?  Which would be odd, because if you were in the New Mexico town in Thor, you were in distress, up to and including the three beefy supporting characters and the Valkyrie that (quite literally) drop down out of the sky.

Or does this not count, because the end of the movie involves the Warriors Three, Odin, and Loki? Making it three more male characters on screen than women?  Do we count Freya, who tried to stopped three assassins coming to get Odin? Or because she wasn't on screen that often, should we throw her aside?

While not physically strong, I thought Jane Foster was very well written. She was the love interest, sure, but that love motivated both of them to be better.  He was motivated to be a better person, and she was motivated to continue pursuing interstellar/inter-dimensional travel.

Am I wrong? Or, as I asked, does she just not count?

Conclusion: Equality!

As I said at the beginning, I don't like the SFC label.  If you can shove my characters into a nice neat little box, I'm going to be pissy -- either at you for demeaning my characters, or at myself for making them cardboard cutouts.

I would have liked this article more if it were less obvious. It's clearly pushing an agenda -- not about creating good characters, but numerical "equality!" for "equality's" sake. By the end, I felt like I was reading a review of 300 that insisted that there should have been 150 female Spartans at Thermopylae (this is not a joke, I did read one of those).

I honestly couldn't tell you the ratio of my characters if you dared me to.

In A Pius Man, I've got Maureen, Manana and Wilhelmina named above as main characters. Is the ratio 1:1 if I include Giovanni Figlia's wife, the forensic specialist?

Is the ratio no longer 1:1 if I count the three priests in the background?

Is it all right if I have Scott "Mossad" Murphy, who can't shoot, is pale, anemic-looking, and pair him up with the sexy gunslinger Manana?  Does that make him weak, even though he will take gunfire and is a pivotal part of the book?

Does Wilhelmina Goldberg not count if she doesn't shoot anybody, but is a key part to hunting down the bad guys by the end?

At the end of the day, the SFC label is too simple. But so is reducing "equality" to numbers of people on screen and counting lines.  If you're keeping score with 1:1 ratios, exactly what will satisfy you? I have no idea.

Now, if you'll pardon me, I have to go write a scene where Manana has to save Scott. Again.


  1. That's what I think we need. Good Writing. Not ratios. Good writing means good stories and good characters.

  2. I believe this article addressed the heart of the problem very well. I'm absolutely sick of hearing about people pushing for more heroines in, say, Marvel films just for the sake of having them there. I realise that women require role models as much as we guys do, but forcing them into every single film isn't the way forward. I'm currently writing a story of my own which prominently features female protagonists alongside the male protagonists, and I found this article to be very helpful.


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