Real Female Protagonists Wanted, Inquire Within

This was spurred by a thread on Aimee Salter’s, Seeking The Write Life, I read a day ago at this link. Go ahead, read it and then come back. Okay. Now my two bits. Oh and if you read the comments, you have seen this already, just skip ahead to the Postscript (the P.S.) at the bottom. For those of you who were less dutiful, please continue.

“Laura Croft/Buffy Summers” Syndrome is a condition I have noticed in almost all female protagonists in the last twenty years in all forms of media not just in YA literature. LC/BS Syndrome has infiltrated movies and television as well, likely as a response to the previous hundreds of years of literature where women have been needing to be rescued to be viable in any kind of tale.

I do not have a problem with LC/BS Syndrome in and of itself. Women can be physically nearly as strong like men, fight as well as men and be as viable as main protagonists as any man. Yes, I said nearly as strong physically because pound for pound they are not. Not withstanding, women have lots of other capabilities that men are often less capable of developing and as such I consider them to be abilities that compensate for the minor difference in raw physical strength.

The problem lies in the way they have become these super-beings. They have done it by “becoming” men; solving problems the way men have done in literature. Women have different skills, different ways of thinking and solve problems in ways that men rarely do. I am saddened to see how things have turned out for women and finding this transition into “male archetypes” to be a lessening of the innate (and in my opinion, superior) capabilities of women’s considerable intuitive intellect.

I have seen this show up in the real world where women wear men’s suits trying to compete with men in the workplace only to find out men resent women trying to become men because, well, they aren’t men. Writers need to let female protagonist utilize ALL of the skills available to them, particularly those skills that are more suited to the female mindset. Women do not need to be men to be excellent protagonists. Women need to solve problems to be protagonists. Let them be the best women they can be, not second-class men.

And don’t get it twisted. I enjoyed Buffy, Serenity, Farscape, Battlestar Galactica, all with amazing women doing awesome stuff only men used to get to do. But almost all of these characters fell out of their true potential as female characters.

To point at a character who has maintained some level of “female-ness” I show the character of Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) from the TV show Fringe. She is a strong FBI Agent who takes no prisoners, fights well, shoots well, and is not to be taken lightly with any physical confrontation. But she does not win them all. And I respect writers who recognize she shouldn’t. Especially against much bigger physical opponents. But where Olivia shines is her very human, very female intuition which she uses to solve problems and arrive at solutions that the male characters may also arrive at using very linear-male problem-solving techniques. They do not underestimate her, they do not relegate her to a secondary position and often it is her intuitive, nurturing nature that brings a very different point of view to the Fringe Universe.

What we need are writers who are able to appreciate men and women as distinct and interesting beings who can develop skills from both sides of the physical and mental spectrum. This takes some skill to develop and often my personal belief is that protagonists who are strongly one way or the other reflect their author’s personal idiosyncracises more than any other single element of the character’s development.

Just my two bits. Your mileage may vary.


P. S. There are plenty of female characters who also reflect my idea of the ideal female characters, who do not become caricatures. Strangely enough, three of the four I am thinking of are FBI Agents. Clarice Starling (Jodi Foster) of Silence of the Lambs, Dana Sculley (Gillian Anderson) of the X-files, and the last is from a much lamented (from my point of view) Farscape, in which two of the female characters, Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black) and Zhaan (Virginia Hey) were physically awesome, mentally superior and yet still manged to be wonderful women with all that entails. Emotionally sensitive, sensual and aware of their power over men, and occasionally needed to be rescued with they got in over their heads, just the same way the male leads who showed comraderie, nurturing, love and supporting roles during the course of the show without being characterized as weak or feminine. Perhaps it is just the double standard rearing its ugly head again.

If you want to see a list of Sci-Fi’s list of awesome female protagonists (which also happens to agree with my picks) check out Sci-Fi’s TV’s Most Memorable Female Characters.

One day we will allow women to do the things that men do the same way men are allowed to do the things women do without any consequence or for that matter with anyone noticing anything at all.

Wouldn’t that be nice.

6 responses to “Real Female Protagonists Wanted, Inquire Within

  1. Thanks for a great post!
    She didn’t kick ass Shaolin-style, but Laura Roslin’s President character in Battlestar Galactica led with a different kind of strength. Perhaps because she was in a supporting role, she was allowed a multi-dimensional, multi-layered uniquely female power.

    • She is exactly the kind of character I was thinking about. Rosilin had a tough row to hoe in Galactica and her evolution as a character is one of the great ones of recent television. I only thought about her after I was done with the post and figured I didn’t need to belabor the point. Thank you for sharing that and enjoying the post enough to respond.

  2. Nice take on this issue. I’ve noticed that tendency myself. I’ve even seen the opposite, watching male characters that seem to swing too far over into “female” territory when you know a real man probably wouldn’t react that way.

    Is it male writers trying to create female characters, or female writers trying to write men? Ultimately, it’s learning to rely on observation instead of stereotype, I think.

    Watching female characters turn into some sort of hybrid version of men isn’t the answer, but in society the pendulum has to swing too far in the opposite direction before we find a happy medium.

    There are some better female action characters emerging on shows and in the media, like you said. I’m confident that writers will eventually get more comfortable with strong portrayals of women that don’t rely on a male pattern.

  3. First, let me say that I’m a working wife who happily raised my kids with a working husband. With that established, I’m going to say I loved the mother in the movie Win Win, played by Amy Ryan. She plays a pivotal role in the family, just the pivotal role that a strong mother would play. She doesn’t emasculate her husband, but questions him when she should and supports him when she should. The issue of her going to work with young kids at home is never even discussed, because that’s not the way this particular family operates, and operates successfully when all is said and done. She has a fierce motherly protective instinct toward a needy child. I loved her character.

  4. I would add Veronica Mars to your list. Although not a science fiction character, she uses her brain and her cleverness as her primary weapons against opponents and often (not always) comes out on top.
    In the SF world, I would say that the women on “Firefly,” not “Serenity” which went against the nature of the characters, were very fully developed. Kaylee, for example, was a brilliant mechanic, but utterly useless in a firefight. Zoe, on the other hand was a great fighter and very good at analysis. Each of the women on the ship had strengths and weaknesses that made them full and reasonable people.
    I would add “Stargate Universe” as a show with strong intelligent female characters who are full people and not just action figures.
    In books, I would point to the works of Patricia Briggs, Kelly Armstrong, Robin Hobb, Karen Chance and M.L.N. Hanover, as places to find strong female characters that are not just two dimensional fighters.

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