Recently on Fanlit we had a discussion about “strong women.” It happened in the Comments section of John Hulet’s review of Islands of Rage and Hope.
The book has a nubile, bikini-clad 13-year-old super-powered girl in it. A couple of people besides the reviewer found this character to be over-the-top. Instead of being a “strong woman” she’s an implausible fantasy.
I’m a huge fan of super-powered teenaged girls in fantasy fiction, from Vin in The Mistborn series to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to River Tam in Firefly. That said, I realized while reading the comments that maybe we don’t define “strong women” very well. Strike that. Maybe I don’t define “strong women” very well.
When I think of “strong women characters” I usually don’t think first about physical strength. Honestly, I don’t usually care about any character’s physical strength unless it is the basis of the book. Often, by “strong” I mean strong-willed, effective, in control of her own destiny.
Thinking about strong women in history, the ones I’m drawn to, anyway, they tend to be intellectually or politically strong, surviving by wits, creativity, leadership and strategy. They are not physical prodigies. This doesn’t mean they aren’t brave; it means they don’t bench-press 350.
There are exceptions. Joan d’Arc was a military leader (although, apparently, not a great one, necessarily), there were plenty of powerful pirate queens and bandit queens. Genghis Khan included plenty of women in his mounted army. Many (most) of them were archers, and they were fearsome. Archery requires some strength but relies mostly on reflexes and accuracy.
Women in history I consider strong though, include (far from a complete list):
- Cleopatra (the famous one)
- Queen Elizabeth I
- Empress Maud. (I said strong. I didn’t say nice.)
- Matilda of Boulogne
- Joan d’Arc
- Florence Nightengale
- Charlotte Bronte
- Elizabeth Warren
- Ursula LeGuin
Far and away the majority of them are political leaders (although it appears that Matilda of Boulogne was a better military strategist than her husband Stephen of Blois, since when he was captured, she was the one who mounted the military siege that freed him, and who also brokered a treaty with a Scottish king that didn’t hurt Stephen’s chances, at all, of getting the British throne.)
In fiction, often when I use the term “a strong woman character” I’m being lazy. I mean that I want a developed, nuanced character. I also mean that I want the author to define her by her own traits and characteristics, rather than in relationship to male characters. I want her to be more than A Guy’s Girlfriend, A Guy’s Wife, A Guy’s Mother, a Guy’s Daughter; more than the student, the secretary, the assistant, more than the prize to be claimed or the object of the quest. I’d like it is she, to some extent, directs the plot through her actions instead of being acted upon by the plot. A recent book The Word Exchange, which has a fascinating premise, was basically ruined for me as the first person female narrator waited passively for each thing to happen so she could react to it.
I just finished Doctor Sleep, by Stephen King. It features a kickass super-powered thirteen-year-old girl. I liked the book but I thought she was too powerful and perfect. Through the second half of the book, even though she is powerful and perfect, she is acted upon by the points of the plot. The one time she makes a decision and acts, it is only so that she can make a rookie mistake, and the next part of the plot can happen.
Even a writer as good as King can succumb to the power of the fantasy thirteen-year-old. We never see her in a bikini, though, so that’s good.