STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS ARE FOR THE WEAK

Greetings, and a happy International Women’s Day to everyone! I kept going from one idea to another for today’s post. I’d either write on Kiki’s Delivery Service (because I’ve read an interesting book chapter on a break down of kiki through the lens of womanhood, witches, and Irigaray) or on a brilliant webtoon called Woman World or revisit a very old post. First required more reading and a rewatch of the movie and I didn’t have the time or the energy to complete it in time. The second went down the drain for now because, although I was happy to hear that it was released as a physical copy here, the incidents related to two women here over the weekend drained my already low and suffering mental strength. And I am going by my third option. 

Back in 2015, I wrote a post on what the “strong female character” phrase means, or what I think it should entail. I had fewer of the language skills and depth I had today, so I’m going to save you the torture and revisit those ideas today once again and more. My thoughts haven’t changed much since then and women’s (and overall, minorities’) depiction in media and the gatekeeping in fan spaces hasn’t changed drastically either. While I know that gender is not binary but a spectrum, for the sake of argument, and lack of a representation in anime/manga, I’ll keep to the binary. 

Historically speaking, feminism is not one straight arrow from past to future. When we are talking about the waves of the movement, while it’s possible to pinpoint certain ideas, dates, and places, it’s impossible to say one period of feminism is over and we are in the next. We do say, for example, first-wave feminism dealt mainly with equal pay and rights, especially the right to vote, this certainly doesn’t mean we’re way past that discussion and moved on to tackle more complex problems. We do everything at the same time now. 

These discussions include the gender identity itself and require some dismantling. Womanhood, at times, feels like a heavily tangled yarn of expectations. And contradicting ones at that. Be a respectable mother to your children, be alluring to your husband, look 30 at most even if you’re nearing 70, speak here, shut up there, wear that, know your place, smile and nod whatever you’re going through. All these gendered behaviors and expectations may manifest themselves in adopting the opposite. If feminine traits are to be ‘fixed’ and masculine traits are the norm or ‘how it should be’ we end up with a straightforward assumption that women are strong, whatever that means, only when they behave in a way their male counterparts do. 

Source: Hark! A Vagrant

Hence the reason why this phrase doesn’t make much sense to me. Especially because the word ‘strong’ is used in a more literal, power-related sense. We don’t have a corresponding ‘strong male character’ phrase. A male character can be clever, abusive, clumsy, neurotic, flirty, or rude and we’d only discuss whether the character had a depth to him or not. As for female characters, we celebrate them if they can physically fight, use heavy machinery, or basically do tough guy stuff. Otherwise, they are just adorable things to look at with no substance.

Hence, on the character basis, the demand should be rephrased as “We want fully realized or explored female characters, with the same variety as others,”. Rather than one type being good and the other is bad, more diversity that more women can empathize with them, and feminine traits that are looked down upon or mocked in a more positive light. In the old post, I talked in detail about Kimi ni Todoke and Sawako. I won’t repeat all of that but want to point out a more recent example I enjoyed seeing: Bottom-Tier Character Tomozaki-kun. The series approaches certain behavior that is coded more as feminine in a positive light such as grooming, interest in fashion, socializing in a certain way, attention to detail, and being attuned to others’ feelings and characteristics.

Just demanding better characterization isn’t enough and it doesn’t automatically let you off the feminist hook. I’m sure you all know or at least heard of Bechdel Test at one point. For the ones who didn’t; there are 3 rules that Alison Bechdel talked about in her comic, which later on became a test to indicate the active presence of women. 

Rules are simple:

  1. There will be at least two women.
  2. Those two women will talk to each other.
  3. Other than a topic on men.

These don’t look much, yet quite a lot of shows fail in this regard. I don’t think the issue here is that writing female characters are hard, but a combination of not having enough people who are not cis-men as creators* and in decision-making positions, not actively trying to be aware of unconscious biases and gender norms, and thinking of a different audience not as a bunch of cis-men but a diverse range of people. And not only on production but in translation and licensing we need more diversity. So that we can avoid gendered translations or get more variety in the licensed titles.

I wanted to get into gatekeeping and what we, as women, are allowed to be a fan of or allowed to consume. Especially these past months, there’s a huge ‘anti-ship’ and ‘anti-fujo’ pseudo-discourse going around. These people carelessly throw around words like ‘fetishization’ without knowing what they are quite talking about. Although, when you have proper arguments and trusted references instead of what someone wrote on their Facebook feed back in 2010, the relationship between media, the consumer, and its effects is a very good and interesting conversation to have. I think all of this is partly due to people spending too much time in front of their computers that they start these discussions that have no constructive effect whatsoever. As you can see, I have a lot to say about it so maybe a separate post to explore just that would be better.

The last thing I did before the lockdown was joining the Women’s Day march here and can’t believe it’s been a whole year ever since. I’m a bit sad that I can’t physically be out and about and celebrate it with others. However, I’d like to once more offer my sincere thanks to women and non-binary people in the blogging community for bringing joy and fascinating points of view. It’s a delight to create alongside you and belong in the same space. Have a festive day, and see you tomorrow!

(*) I had this preconception that if a shounen series has a good female cast, both in terms of characterization and design, then the creator is definitely not a man. I wasn’t sure if this was a more ‘Western’ approach or maybe it wasn’t a very wide-spread assumption. But Akutami Gege, the manga artist of Jujutsu Kaisen, recently had an interview and as you may know, they haven’t disclosed themselves physically. And the interviewer said the exact same thing that lots of people, including himself, thought that Gege must be a woman to create such a well-rounded female cast.

Header source: Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton

3 Replies to “STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS ARE FOR THE WEAK”

  1. This was a fascinating post and I’m glad we can have this discussion. I’m certainly familiar with the Bechdel Test and how it really made me think about different movies or shows. Funny enough, I used to work at a summer camp where I helped teach media production to teens and we brought that up as well as the Deggans Rule/Deggans Test when it comes to racial representation.

    Thank you so much about the “strong female character” point. I want to see characters with their own complexities and personalities. I felt like if I were to call it out where it’s being used in such shallow ways, then people would strawman what I said or didn’t say as problematic. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there shouldn’t be let’s say a female powerhouse or a woman with a tougher personality, but it does annoy me when some creators make characters into Mary Sues who are always right, never lose, or using them for anti-male rhetoric in some way, shape, or form. Variety is the spice of life and I want to see characters from all shapes, sizes, and walks of life presented well. Hopefully what I said made sense.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. When we are watching a show/movie we might think we are getting ‘representation/presence’ but when I tried to apply the rules to the shows a great of them failed to my surprise. It’s probably worse for racial representation.

      “Variety is the spice of life and I want to see characters from all shapes, sizes, and walks of life presented well.”

      Yes! It’s not an either/or situation and more about diversity male characters easily get. In the end, there’s no definite answer for a good female character, as there shouldn’t be. Thank you so much for the reply and I’m happy the post was to your liking!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That is so true. As much as I give grief to mainstream works, even the indie stuff is guilty of this, too. Yeah, it’s pretty bad with racial representation and characterization even to this day.

        Thanks! I’m happy you feel the same way. No problem and this is an awesome conversation to have.

        Liked by 1 person

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