The debate on what constitutes a “strong female character”, whether having “strong female leads” or “feminism” is tanking “woke” films these past few years, is ongoing. There's accusations of toxicity on both sides. Misogyny, misandry, wokeness and brokeness, all of these terms and hot takes are fired and take no prisoners.
I've talked in other articles before about how to write a strong female character, but I think that's been overdone. The more current day writing for big corporations develops, the more I see a strident approach on how male and female characters are written or are expected to be written. The more movies or comics tank or are blasted on social media and rating sites, the more both “sides” to this debate buckle down and radicalize.
And I'm all for politics (if you know me even a little you know I'm enthusiastic about political discourse) but I feel that there has come an impasse and people on both “sides” of the argument on how to write men and women (and everything in between) miss the forest for the trees. Yes I put “sides” in inverted commas because I think they're both after the same thing, but take different paths, and both of these paths end up being wrong because of anger and stereotypical thinking.
And what is that forest then?
In my opinion, the problem lies in the stereotypical categorization of traits as “female” or “male”. Being nurturing, supportive, emotional, is being “female”. Being aggressive, dominant, and prone to lead, is being “male”. Just take a look at this gem from one of Britain's top tabloids:
They mention only in passing that there are studies with millions of participants that debunk this attestation done by one single study without any mention of method or limitations
This is where the problem is. When you classify traits by gender, you inadvertedly will be faced with a problem as a writer or creator: how do you make a strong female character if all female traits are soft? How do you make a strong male character that doesn't come across as a douche if all supportive and nurturing or communicational skills are female?
So you end up with “strong female characters” that come across as rude, entitled, and very one-sided, and “progressive male characters” or “strong male characters” that either come across as half-wits that are a burden to the plot and the female characters, sly backstabbing twats, or unapproachable one-trick ponies.
And this happens because the creator mixes “some man in the woman” and takes away the “power from the man” (i.e. all the traits that are coded masculine) so the woman can shine. It's not done out of spite, I don't think. It's done out of desperation and possibly because both genders look at each other like they're aliens (another trope imbuing the general zeigeist).
The truth is completely different. Society is what codes male and female traits, from personality to clothing.
Manly. Frilly. Fabulous. What woman want.
Manly. The skirt has pleats. The tights are tight. Women love it.
As manly as it gets! Ladies can't get enough.
Did you read my captions as sarcastic or factual? Because they're both. Looking at these decidedly male-coded outfits (some were forbidden by law for women to wear or severely discouraged depending on the era) through our modern society's lens, my captions are sarcastic because skirts, dresses, and high heels are coded female. But if you look at these outfits within the context of the society that created them, then my captions stand as factual.
It's the same about personality and behavioral traits for men and women. Society is what dictates the categorization, but that is as relevant to what traits men and women possess as what is hanging under the dresses and skirts in the pictures I posted.
Both male and female people have the entire spectrum of traits whether they are coded masculine or feminine by society. What happens is that these traits MAY (and that is a big ‘may’) manifest in different behavioral patterns that are socially appropriate for the society these individuals are in. So if society codes “aggression” as masculine, female people that are aggressive will express this aggression indirectly or in ways that are acceptable for women. That doesn't mean they aren't aggressive through and through.
And that is only in some contexts- when there are a lot of people watching, for example. In private, aggression in female people (depending on their personality) may manifest exactly as it would in male people, or even more severely exactly because it's being stoppered and restrained.
Leaders exist in male and female people alike. Leadership has no gender. Aggression has no gender. Nurture and caring has no gender. Society likes to assign genders, which creates a ton of problems and makes the interaction between genders toxic. Not only between a man and a woman, but also between a mother and a daughter or son, or a father and a daughter or son.
It's even more unfair for men in certain situations, because female traits are coded as potentially emasculating for men. So if a man cries, there will be the douche that tries to stop him with the adage “men/boys don't cry” (or laugh him into quiet). Men can be scared of being called out as emasculated if they display the traits they have that code female in society. And I'm not even touching upon assumptions about the person's sexuality. This is severely toxic and creates a hotbed for a ton of emotional and mental problems to develop.
Doesn't mean women have it easy. Male coded traits manifested by women can code for ‘defiminization’ if you like (i.e. that women lose their gender identity as women if they display male-coded traits). Women can be ridiculed or ostracized if they are considered “too masculine” by their peers. Again, not even touching upon assumptions about the person's sexuality. This is also severely toxic and creates, you guessed it, the exact same hotbed of emotional and mental problems risk.
Add into the mix individuals that refuse to identify as male or female, and society panics at the need to categorize them without the necessary categories. The go-to catch-all for those individuals is the abusive, unfair, toxic category of “unnatural”.
To take this back to character design, another toxic byproduct of this situation is that somehow there's a misconception that there can only be a strong female character lead or a strong male character lead. There can't be both, they can't coexist, they can't share the spotlight of the story.
Which, of course, is utterly wrong, together with the idea that a single hero is all that's needed for the plot goals to be accomplished (another fallacy that seems to be propagated by the average pop film or comic). Even worse, there is a concept that “gender wars” are a thing that is normal and totally okay to have.
Would you like a bit of genocide with that?
And thus, often “strong female characters” are pitted against “the male oppressor” who is written like the most cliche antagonist that was ever written: either supportive until the twist villain moment of backstabbing the female lead in some way, or a complete buffoon that creates problems because of his ego until the plot crashes down on him and proves the female lead was right all along. Or alternatively, the “strong male character” is bogged down by the “girlboss” that is basically an angry female caricature until situations reduce her into a screaming mess, and the “strong male characters” swoops in to save her, even though she made his life hell.
And this is what I generally call gender toxicity, which is found in real life and in fiction.
But how does one write strong female characters alongside strong male characters in a story?
I'll tackle that next time.
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Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, Aug. 19, 2023
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