Characters, criteria, and causation: where the problem lies.
Meanwhile, the New Statesman has posted an article titled "I Hate Strong Female Characters," taking the position that male characters are allowed to be flawed, complex, and infinitely interesting, while female characters are expected to stop at "strong." Woo! That character is strong! Flawless feminist writing!
I've talked before about the concept of "the Mary Sue," and why I think she is both unfairly maligned and non-existent. You can find that post here, which I think officially makes this the post with the most "required background reading" thus far this year. A lot of people have pointed this out recently—it is not an original thought—but I'm going to put it here anyway, because I think it's salient:
1. Mary Sue is the best she is at what she does.
2. Mary Sue has a mysterious and tortured past, and is probably an orphan.
3. Mary Sue is physically attractive.
4. Mary Sue is either rich or somehow never has a problem with money.
5. Mary Sue develops powers to suit the situation, because she always wins, unless she needs to lose for the sake of beautiful angst.
6. Mary Sue doesn't have to follow the rules of the story she's in. Ergo...
7. Batman and Wolverine are both Mary Sues.
(Pointing this out to people who are piously explaining how only female characters can be Mary Sues, because only female characters are ever that unrealistically written, is hysterical. And by "hysterical," I mean "a really good way to get yelled at by enraged nerds who don't want to admit, even a little bit, that their magical dick-lords could be just as much wish-fulfillment as all those violet-eyed sixteen-year-old ensigns flying starships.")
So. Let us begin.
October "Toby" Daye was in many ways my first "real" protagonist. She was complicated, she was sad, she was bruised and refusing to break, and she was not afraid to put her duty ahead of her desire to be liked. She bullied her way through the world she was created to inhabit, looking at every complication that stood in her way and saying "No, you move." After a lifetime spent moving dolls through stories, it was like I finally had a real person to follow and document. I started writing her adventures, and sending them out to people I trusted to read and review. Midway through either the second or the third book—I don't remember anymore—I got a note from one of my proofers saying "You can't have Toby do this, she's always been a little bitchy, but this makes her a total bitch. No one will like her if she does this."
I panicked. I couldn't write a series about an unlikeable character! I'd never get published, no one else would ever meet my imaginary friends, and everything I'd worked for my whole life would be over, all because Toby was unlikeable.
Then I took a deep breath, and wrote back to the proofer requesting that they do a find/replace on the .doc, and plug in the name "Harry Dresden" for every instance of "October Daye." They did, and lo and behold, what had been "bitchy" and "inappropriate" was suddenly "bold" and "assertive." A male character in the same situation, with the same background, taking the same actions, was completely in the right, justified, and draped with glory. He was a hero. Toby? Toby was an unlikeable bitch.
The proofer withdrew the compliant. I have never forgotten it.
Female characters are expected to be perfect without being perfect, a contradiction that is as nonsensical as it is impossible. There's a full list in the article I linked above ("I Hate Strong Female Characters"), but these are the ones that really frustrate me. Female characters have to be:
* Thin and conventionally pretty, but eat only junk food/eat constantly, and never, ever worry about gaining weight;
* Incredibly sexy but unaware of their own sexuality ("You don't know you're beautiful!").
* TOTALLY SURPRISED when a push-up bra or pair of leather pants changes the way people look at them.
* Convinced that every woman around them is a bitch, slut, or whore.
That last one...yeah. See, there's this huge narrative of "I'm not like the other girls" that runs through a lot of these critiques, and it's not "I'm not like..." the way that, say, Harry Potter is not like the other wizards in his year group. No, it's "You Belong With Me"-level "she wears high heels, I wear sneakers" shit, totally denying that the other girls could have anything of value to bring to the conversation. It's like being a member of the Disney Princess collection. You can't let those other princesses steal your spotlight, no! Ignore them, shame them, refuse to make eye contact. Call a girl who wears the same thing you do a skank, it's okay. Call a girl who's had two boyfriends a slut, even as you dance at the center of your own love pentagon. It's all fine, because you're not like those other girls. By creating a single focal point of "not like" that it's okay to care about, you place the rest of the world's female humans in a box labeled "icky." Not-like girls are great. They're strong female characters, they kick ass and take names and eat cheeseburgers and don't give a damn what the world thinks of them. All other girls are gross.
The amount of slut-shaming, fat-shaming, you-name-it-shaming that I see coming from these "strong female characters" is horrifying, because it requires that othering aspect be front and center. Your character must be above reproach, and since everyone knows that women are disgusting, horrifying, alien skin lizards wearing pretty makeup and hair dye to deceive and entrap men, she can't be like them. She can never be like those other girls.
I flip out when I meet a female character who's allowed to have female friends, because it's so damn rare. The upcoming Disney film, Frozen, has sisters in it. Sisters. Who get to be the same age and talk and stuff. I am ecstatic, because even if the movie turns out to be a sack of problematic eels, we got sisters on the goddamn screen, and that's even rarer than friends.
Where does this come from? Well, in part, it comes from the things we surround ourselves with. Books and movies where the Smurfette Principle is in full effect, which means that one woman must stand in for all women, and thus can't have a personality beyond "the girl." Series where you have the one sensible, sympathetic female, and every other female character is there to cause trouble or gasp no oh no panic, steal her man. Series where the female characters are killed off to further male pain, or because the male characters are "easier to write" (a statement that often matches up to an all-male writer's room).
It needs to stop.
Female characters should be people. Flawed, glorious, interesting, enthralling people. Let them dye their hair and pierce their ears without going "wah wah wah I'm so bad at being a girl wait hey look suddenly I've gotten a makeover and I'm gorgeous." Let them have female friends. Let them fuck up. Let them have bad days, and swear, and be snotty, and be people. Stop shoving them into these boxes where anything less than perfect adherence to a set of ticky-boxes means failure. They are better than that. We are better than that.
It's time for everybody's standards to look the same.