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Strong Women, Strong Men

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, Dec. 8, 2018

A ton of things have been written about “strong female characters”- how we need them in narratives, and what it means to have them in a creative work's cast. Tons of discussions and social media wars have been waged on what it is that makes a female character strong.

While I will discuss that a little bit in this article, I want to also discuss the “strong male lead”. Why don't we talk about them at all, as if they are in abundance?

And even most importantly, about the tendency to assume that they're mutually exclusive- as if we can't have one if we have the other.

Is it impossible to have both a strong male character and a strong female character in a cast? Is it impossible to have a strong male AND a strong female lead in a story?

What is considered a strong female lead?

Generally, from what I've gathered from most current mainstream narrative works (from movies to comics) it's a lady that breaks traditional norms about what constitutes a female. She may be less curvy and/or beautiful, she may wear a mostly male-coded outfit, she will dislike or reject things traditionally liked by women, she will not be supportive in an emotional way, she will be aggressive and/or rude… and of course, she will not know how to cook. Often, they're also almost infallible… With notable exceptions, I've noticed a trend of mass-production of ‘strong female leads’ that check a series of boxes without much more substance to them.

And while definitely there are many strong and powerful women in the world that have some or even all of the above things (and more), there's just as many that do and are not strong, and never will be. Just as there are many curvy, pretty, girly looking, beautiful ladies that give emotional support and know how to cook, that are also very strong.

My point is that traits and characteristics (and appearance) aren't the vital element that makes a strong female lead. Nor are traditionally female-ascribed things taboo for strong female leads.

What makes a female character strong is her personality and her capacity to make logical executive decisions whether she's the person in charge or not which advance the plot. She has to be someone people lean on and which the audience can also lean on and hope she will come through in the challenges presented by the plot. Lip service to such a thing without it being actually earned only makes the female character stand out like a sore thumb and attract the audience's frustration and rejection, while the story loses credibility and therefore quality.

And what about the male lead? What makes a male lead strong?

In my opinion, it's not the muscles, the guns and the rank he may have. It's not whether he's macho or pumped full of testosterone- and certainly not if he's the exact opposite either. It isn't whether he has never set foot in the kitchen (but grills and barbecues) or whether he's a 5 star chef that cooks for his lady or whatever (though that's always a way to earn brownie points with a female audience!). It isn't if he's center stage or at the sidelines. And it certainly isn't hinging on his being infallible (as many token ‘strong’ characters tend to be).

Again, it's his personality. He has to be able to carry through the stakes, give support to his allies and make proper executive decisions that drive the plot forward (whether the decisions are right or wrong isn't as important as they having to be logical for the situation and/or his personality AND driving the plot).

And what about a male and a female strong character coexisting together, carrying the plot forward without taking the limelight from each other? Is that even possible?

Of course it is. If they are truly strong characters, then they'll work off each other to propel the work forward. Whether allies or antagonists, they'll be powerful people that the audience will acknowledge and admire (or love to hate). The existence of the one will not overshadow the other, on the contrary, it will complement them.

In the end it comes down to the writing. Token ‘strong’ leads, whether male or female, will not convince the audience. They will not elevate a story and they will not get it engagement. Actual strong leads will become iconic.

What about you? Have you strong male and female leads? Only male? Only female? How come?

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Abt_Nihil at 4:16AM, Dec. 11, 2018

Sure, perhaps "objective difference" was putting it too strongly. I mean, if you put two pieces of pin-up art side by side, one "objectifying" and the other "celebrating the form", then what are the different criteria for those judgments? (These criteria may of course depend on the perspective of the viewer, but they have to either consist in something or be vacuous.)

Ozoneocean at 7:50PM, Dec. 10, 2018

@Abt- Most of the time that sort of thing is based far more on the perspective of the viewer than anything intrinsic in the art itself.

RobertRVeith at 9:03AM, Dec. 10, 2018

I designed Dragons and Civilized Lands around several strong characters. The male character, Jerrik Crevinn, appears early on as the obvious male lead; he closely follows the classic sword and sorcery warrior-hero archetype. I would argue, though, that Tahni Vey, the female character, is actually the strongest. She brings knowledge and wisdom to the story as well as the ability to think on her feet and creatively solve problems. To me, a strong female lead doesn't need to subvert gender expectations to be strong; she can embrace them as well… actually, what makes her strong is that she embraces and rejects gender expectations based on what *she* wants, rather than what her society (and her readers) expect.

Abt_Nihil at 2:49AM, Dec. 10, 2018

Coincidentally, I came across this part in an article about Olivia De Berardinis yesterday: "She took a medium driven by objectification and made it about celebration — celebration of female sexuality, of self-expression through seductive clothing, hair and makeup — and highlighted the appeal of female seduction, for both men and women. The artist enjoyed drawing assertive, dominant women, everything she thought she wasn't at the time..." Apart from the obvious (not using submissive poses and situations), I really wonder what the objective difference between objectifying pin-ups and these so-called "celebratory" pin-ups are, if there are any...

Ozoneocean at 7:50PM, Dec. 9, 2018

Agree fully Tantz!

usedbooks at 3:54PM, Dec. 9, 2018

I agree with JNP. One measure of a writer's success is when the readers are divided on the favorite protagonist. If I ask readers (or myself) who my comic's "main character" is, I hope to receive multiple answers. It means people can relate to different characters. I always loved that about anime with ensemble casts. You could see yourself in someone and your best friend in someone else. Me and my friends claim "our" character when we watch things.

JustNoPoint at 12:58PM, Dec. 9, 2018

Readers are expected to become divisive with favorites in these scenarios. To me that shows a success and all the chars are interesting. Heck some fans may hate one and love the other!

PaulEberhardt at 12:15PM, Dec. 9, 2018

Ok, point taken. Still, readers will usually pick favourites, and that has to enter the equation somehow - as it does in your examples, if I got that right. Either the two protagonists are such an essential support for each other that they work as one unit for all practical purposes (most of the time, that is), or they're associated with different storylines so there is really no way of accidentally ranking them against each other. But as I said: it mostly depends on the readers' perception, and this is just the way it appears to me.

JustNoPoint at 4:29PM, Dec. 8, 2018

It’s also not difficult to have more than 1 strong lead if your storytelling method allows flexibility. The episodic nature of my series allows me to change the main char for different stories. Some may have one char stronger than another.

bravo1102 at 1:21PM, Dec. 8, 2018

The Thin Man series. Two strong protagonists working as an equal team. Two strong protagonists works best when they complement each other rather than hero and sidekick. Nearly every male/female crime fighting pair that came later owed something to Nick and Nora.

usedbooks at 12:55PM, Dec. 8, 2018

I dunno, Paul. Strong paired leads work very well with some genres. A single protagonist is not the rule. The important thing is they must be distinct, complementary, and contrasting. The "buddy cop" dynamic is my absolute favorite protagonist set-up (doesn't have to be cops, but it's the best way to describe the partnership). And it works ONLY when both members of the partnership have equal presence as protagonists. If one carries the other without reciprocation, the dynamic fails. -- gender is unimportant (age, species, etc. is open too). It works with any combination. It can work with or without romantic subplot, between or outside of the partnership. I've been watching two-protagonist stories since I was a bitty thing.

PaulEberhardt at 12:15PM, Dec. 8, 2018

Btw. I thing including both a strong female lead and a strong male lead in one story would be at least extremely difficult. If you've got strong lead characters (no matter which gender!) you will always end up with some kind of hierarchy among them, one will always dominate the others. Even if you consciously try to work against it, your readers will start making comparisons - if only subconsciously. "Mr and Mrs Smith" is perhaps a good example where the writers come pretty close, but it only works because one of the two always acts as a foil to the other: strictly speaking you don't have two strong protagonists, but a strong protagonist and a strong antagonist who swap roles all the time.

PaulEberhardt at 11:37AM, Dec. 8, 2018

@JNP & usedbooks: You've got a point there. I remember how my comic was praised - by the way, it seems it's usually women with an academic background who say this kind of thing - for having a strong female lead, and I had no idea how I came to deserve this praise, actually. Granted, Gundula is a capable woman who (nearly) always keeps her head, but she does have a lot of weaknesses as well, if you look closely. The women who addressed this might just as well have accused me of using female stereotypes for gags, and could have easily made a case. From the way these talks went, I suspect they didn't because they secretly try to recognise these "strong" character traits in themselves. So, if you ask me, I'd say the mindset of your readers has a lot to do with it.

usedbooks at 5:32AM, Dec. 8, 2018

I think that comes not inherent with just one type of characters but with that mindset in character creation. Designing characters specifically to fit a demographic, role, or label will always fall short and create hollow people with no substance.

JustNoPoint at 5:26AM, Dec. 8, 2018

Yeah it feels that anything with an “intent” to create strong females loses all substance.

usedbooks at 4:06AM, Dec. 8, 2018

Used Books has two and a half really core leads (Yuki's story is the most important side arc, but Kaida and Seiko are more focus). I think of one as the "strong" character and the other as the "vulnerable" one. My strong character is small and peace-loving. The vulnerable one is aggressive and surrounded by weapons. I have some men in the ensemble who take the lead at times. I worry I don't write them as well as the women. I like to build contradictions into all my characters. Their outward traits are not the measure of their true nature. The weaklings are warriors. The badasses are fragile.

usedbooks at 3:57AM, Dec. 8, 2018

When anyone mentions a "strong female lead," I never think of modern work at all. My mind immediately goes to the 80s and 90s (or the 50s/60s), which had some of the best plot movers and decision-makers (and were also traditionally feminine). Financing the Stone, Get Smart, all those Hepburn movies MOrgan mentioned, Scarecrow and Mrs. King. Most of the crime dramas I grew up with were man-woman partners with equal screen time and equal saving each others butts. It never seemed like it was something you had to put effort into the creation of a "strong woman." At least in the past where they were simply part of things. And people who deliberately set out to focus on a "strong female" character seem to put all the effort into "strong" and/or "female" and fail at making them characters.

JustNoPoint at 3:40AM, Dec. 8, 2018

Prologue had 2 female leads and 2 alien leads. The alien leads were written more akin to male and I don’t think any came feeling inferior. While I haven’t got very far in my story proper, it currently has 3 female and 1 male lead. As I made most of the main cast up while I was in 9th grade back in 1996 I wasn’t actually considering representation. All the chars are very fallible and I feel they will all compliment each other well. One of my female leads are quite the opposite of what one would consider strong. My hope is over time it’ll make her feel so much stronger overall.

MOrgan at 3:37AM, Dec. 8, 2018

Impossible to have a strong male & strong female in a story??? Someone tell the Tracy/Hepburn films they are not allowed to exist! ;-)

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