Go on nearly any website related to reading and you will find entire discussion groups dedicated to books with strong heroines. It seems kick-ass female characters are popular in commercial fiction right now, and not just in books for young women, but in books for a variety of audiences. As an independent female and moderate feminist, this trend is pleasing-to a point.
I love reading about and writing about female characters who are self-sufficient, confident, and who every now and then kick a little ass. But I also love when those same characters admit (at least to themselves) to being afraid, insecure, and sensitive, because, as a woman who also struggles occasionally with these emotions, it makes these characters easier to relate to. Real women, strong women, still have feminine qualities that don’t make them any less kick-ass, yet it seems readers and viewers of fictional females are quick to criticize a character who displays too much emotion. I understand wanting our heroes and heroines to be a little bit stronger than the people we interact with in real-life, but a woman doesn’t have to suppress all emotion to be strong. For that matter, despite what society might say to our young boys and men, guys don’t have to either.
A few years ago I was writing a paper about the females in the Harry Potter series, and was discouraged to see so many critics, often females themselves, arguing that J. K. Rowling was exacerbating female stereotypes in her books. Their reasoning often focused on the fact Hermione cried and displayed emotion too often and Molly Weasley coddled her children and was a stay-at-home mother, as if a teenage girl who didn’t hide her feelings and a mother who cared deeply for her family couldn’t also be strong female role-models. Hermione’s emotions didn’t get in the way of her using her logic to save her two male co-characters any more than Molly’s love of her family kept her from fighting evil (while also providing the best line in the entire seven book series, just before killing another female character: “Not my daughter, you bitch!”). These female characters’ compassion, morality, and sensitivity occasionally made them vulnerable, but not weak.
Shortly after writing my paper defending the females in Rowling’s works, I began writing my own novel. I wanted my protagonist to be a strong independent female, but as my story progressed, I realized she cried or wanted to cry almost as often as she verbally or physically kicked ass. On one of my earlier drafts I scratched the question, “Does Alex cry too much?” in a corner of a page. I worried readers might view her as weak. I was tempted to edit out a majority of her emotions in order to keep her the kick-ass heroine I had set out to write. It wasn’t until I took a step back and looked at the piece as a whole, rather than hyper-focusing on scenes where Alex cried, that I realized I had created the female I wanted to. She was smart, sassy, and both mentally and physically strong. She was also capable of feeling compassion, having her heart broken, and falling helplessly in love. If I edited those parts out I’d be left with a character who looked like a woman, but acted, spoke, and thought like a guy. I didn’t want a dude with boobs or a pit bull with lipstick; I wanted a woman with guts, brains, and a heart. I’m hoping for my sake and my readers’ that I got it right.
It’s a shame that in fantasy, action, and adventure books, guys got all the glory for so long, and it’s great that female characters (and writers) are fighting their way to the forefront of these genres, so long as we’re not doing it by simply slapping heels on our heroes, renaming them heroines, and calling it a day. It’s not stereotypical to admit there are distinct differences between the genders, but it is sexist to deem certain qualities of either gender as weak. Most readers will appreciate a writer who’s willing to embrace and celebrate all sides of a female character. After all, there’s plenty of room in most women’s handbags to pack both a Taser and some tissues.