For, both a woman and a slave have their particular virtues even though the former of these is inferior to man and the latter completely ignoble… [sic] Character must be appropriate. For it is possible for a person to be manly in terms of character, but it is not appropriate for a woman to exhibit either this quality or the intellectual cleverness that is associated with men.
It is the performance of a feminine masquerade that promises but never unveils itself to its unseen producers, its audience, the men screened by the veils to the point where they are no longer the masters of presence and absence, no longer the markers of difference, the choreographers of the masquerade but rather, those whose expectations are constantly defied by the force of the spectacle to which they are now being subjected. S[cheherazade]’s genius was not only to make them want her by precisely never giving them what they wanted, but to do this in a way that made them only want more of the same.
Linda Singer, Erotic Welfare*
A while ago I was conversing with one of my best friends, fellow feminist and all-round marvellous human being Josie Martin (http://takeitonthechin.tumblr.com/). She has a multitude of her own merits but one of the reasons I love her so is that not only do I feel safe to say anything that comes to mind out loud, but she also actually listens and contributes without judgement. With the kind of confidence that arises only through feeling that security, I said-aloud-as-I-thought, “Do you feel like a woman all the time? Do you walk around thinking, ‘I am a woman’, and approach things as a woman, or even as female, or, like me, do you actually consider yourself, ‘I am me’ and approach things as a person, as a human? If the latter, do you become aware of your ‘womanness’ or ‘femininity’ when other people treat you in the way they think ‘women’ or ‘females’ should be treated?”
Pretty lucid for me considering the depth of the hangover I had given myself. A discourse lasting an entire city break to Zagreb followed. Josie felt much the same way. ‘I’ appeared to be gender neutral to both of us. Our inner voices are our own, odd individual sprigs separate from the different labels – including class and race – that we inevitably fall under but are not conscious of every second of every day. Thinking on it more, I began to theorise that we both somehow became women if other people – men and women – behaved towards us in a women-specific manner. There are certain ways that one should behave towards someone perceived to be a woman, a set of questions to ask or expectations that are reasonably held, and that that person should respond accordingly, i.e. as a woman. If that person does not respond accordingly, why is it that that is somehow their fault, with no room for manoeuvre or cause for correction on the part of the person who holds the expectations? Simone de Beauvoir is right in that one is not born a woman, one becomes one – but who is doing the becoming? The beholder?
This, to me, is the paradox of any liberation movement. Every person on the planet considers themselves, first and foremost, as a human being. However, some people consider some features of other people to a degree that causes them to behave towards them purely in virtue – and not always virtuously, I might add – of those features, rather than as a fellow human being. To me, this seems to lead to a very dangerous practice, aiming to cure oppression with a hair of the dog mentality. If an oppressed person simply assimilates the features from an oppressing person, they are thereby cured. In culture, for feminism, I have noticed this being manifested in the strong female character trope (hereto referred as SFC) being professed, not simply as progress, but a solution for representation of female characters.
Bandied about by plenty of writers – typically male from what I have seen but if anyone has any other sources of female writers doing the same, please get in touch – these days, which drew my attention to the trope, the phrase of SFC is in itself troublesome. I initially balked, seeing strong as a binary opposite to female but then can I really argue with strong being the binary opposite of female character? Given current representation? To me, the real difficulty with SFC is in strong. Far too often this is seen as stereotypically male strengths, based in physical strength, ability to fight and a grip on one’s emotions as to almost appear, well, emotionless. I will excuse you from bearing with my lazy Freudian girls-with-a-gun-to-substitue-penis rant. Below is a very important example considering the stratospheric rise in Joss Whedon’s profile, brought to my attention on the recommendation of Lashings of Ginger Beer (http://lashingsofgb.blogspot.uk):
The famous exchange between Whedon and a reporter – Why do you write these strong female characters? Because you’re still asking me that question – is bandied around the internet on a frequent basis. (Although this exchange was of his own imagining.) He’s praised for his interesting and multiform characters. Why, in these very pages, I’ve given him a share of credit myself. He’s earned the moniker of feminist seemingly through just the creation of strong female characters alone. But, as friend and scholar Jake says, “Having a girl beat up guys is not equivalent to a strong female character when they ALWAYS, CONSTANTLY depend on men.”
And do we see men who constantly depend on women? Outside of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl? Do we see, are exposed to, hear about strong male character tropes where men assimilate stereotypically feminine strengths – such as emotional awareness, beauty, child rearing…? No. Simply, because men aren’t oppressed – not in the same sense that women are – or if these films do manage to slip through the cracks, that is the only way they will get out because they are not the norm, the concrete in which the cracks can form. If a male character were to exhibit these stereotypically female qualities, he would most likely be seen as weak. Men can’t cry and be strong – unless they have an excuse, like a friend dying in their arms. And then even that is often derogatorily termed homosexual.
Sometimes typically male and female character qualities are swapped to great effect. In Strange Days (Kathryn Bigelow, 1995) Angela Basset’s Lornette is tough, head to toe in black leather, sensible, always available to rescue Ralph Fiennes’s Lenny, who gets himself into trouble whilst wearing an array of silk shirts in soft pastel colours. This doesn’t mean that neither of them are impervious to their attraction – that thing about opposites, I guess.
Any the characteristics I’ve mentioned are strengths in their own right, regardless of attachment to gender. Male characters are at a risk of becoming very dull very quickly if these valuable character possibilities are not unearthed and mined for all their worth. Besides, if SFC are simply female characters exhibiting stereotypically male strengths, then all characters regardless of gender will end up being exactly the same. Just from a business point of view, give us something different or you risk boring your audience to tears – or to some other form of entertainment, or distraction. If female characters can’t exhibit feminine traits and be seen as strong, if male characters can’t exhibit feminine traits and be seen as strong, there is a way to go before the actual solution. Not right here right now as Lornette says to Lenny…But stranger things have happened.
*Do yourself a favour, read this book.