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I hate Strong Female Characters

Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong.

I hate Strong Female Characters.

As someone spends a fair amount of time complaining on the internet that there aren’t enough female heroes out there, this may seem a strange and out of character thing to say.

And of course, I love all sorts of female characters who exhibit great resilience and courage. I love it when Angel asks Buffy what’s left when he takes away her weapons and her friends and she grabs his sword between her palms and says “Me”. In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I love Zhang Ziyi’s Jen sneering “He is my defeated foe” when asked if she’s related to Chow Yun-Fat's Li Mu Bai. I love Jane Eyre declaring “I care for myself” despite the world’s protracted assault on her self-esteem. My despair that the film industry believes the world is more ready for a film featuring a superhero who is a raccoon than it is for a film led by a superhero who is a woman is long and loud.

But the phrase “Strong Female Character” has always set my teeth on edge, and so have many of the characters who have so plainly been written to fit the bill.

I remember watching Shrek with my mother.

“The Princess knew kung-fu! That was nice,” I said. And yet I had a vague sense of unease, a sense that I was saying it because it was what I was supposed to say.

She rolled her eyes. “All the princesses know kung-fu now.”

No one ever asks if a male character is “strong”. Nor if he’s “feisty,” or “kick-ass” come to that.

The obvious thing to say here is that this is because he’s assumed to be “strong” by default. Part of the patronising promise of the Strong Female Character is that she’s anomalous. “Don’t worry!” that puff piece or interview is saying when it boasts the hero’s love interest is an SFC. “Of course, normal women are weak and boring and can’t do anything worthwhile. But this one is different. She is strong! See, she roundhouses people in the face.” Sometimes the phrase “not your typical damsel in distress” will be used, as if the writing of pop culture heroines had not moved on even slightly since Disney’s Snow White and as if a goodly percentage of SFCs did not end up, in fact, needing to be rescued

This is true, and yet it’s not all of the truth.

Are our best-loved male heroes Strong Male Characters? Is, say, Sherlock Holmes strong? In one sense, yes, of course. He faces danger and death in order to pursue justice. On the other hand, his physical strength is often unreliable – strong enough to bend an iron poker when on form, he nevertheless frequently has to rely on Watson to clobber his assailants, at least once because he’s neglected himself into a condition where he can’t even try to fight back. His mental and emotional resources also fluctuate. An addict and a depressive, he claims even his crime-fighting is a form of self-medication. Viewed this way, his willingness to place himself in physical danger might not be “strength” at all – it might be another form of self-destructiveness. Or on the other hand, perhaps his vulnerabilities make him all the stronger, as he succeeds in  surviving and flourishing in spite of threats located within as well without.

Is Sherlock Holmes strong? It’s not just that the answer is “of course”, it’s that it’s the wrong question.

What happens when one tries to fit other iconic male heroes into an imaginary “Strong Male Character” box?  A few fit reasonably well, but many look cramped and bewildered in there. They’re not used to this kind of confinement, poor things. They’re used to being interesting across more than one axis and in more than two dimensions.

“Of course I’m strong, I’m an idealised power fantasy, but the most interesting thing about me is that, on the inside, I’m a dorky little artist,” says Captain America sadly, sucking his stomach in.

“Does it still count as strength if I’m basically a psychopath?” inquires James Bond idly, lounging against the box wall and checking his cuffs.

Batman’s insistence that he can, must, will get into the Strong Male Character box comes close to hysteria, but there’s no room in there for his bat ears and cape and he won’t take them off.

The Doctor, finding that this box is in fact even smaller on the inside, babbles something incomprehensible and runs away. 

The ones that fit in most neatly – are usually the most boring. He-Man, Superman (sorry). The Lone Ranger. Jack Ryan, perhaps. Forgotten square-jawed heroes of forgotten pulp novels and the Boy’s Own Paper. If Strong-Male-Character compatibility was the primary criterion of writing heroes, our fiction would be a lot poorer. But it’s within this claustrophobic little box that we expect our heroines to live out their lives.

Let’s come back to Sherlock Holmes. A better question would be – “What is Sherlock Holmes like?”

He’s a brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, polymath genius.

Adding the word “strong” to that list doesn’t seem to me to enhance it much.

And what happens when we talk about characters that don’t even fit the box marked “hero”? Is Hamlet “strong”? By the end of the play, perhaps in a sense he is, but it’s a very specific and conflicted form of strength which brings him peace only at cost of his life. Richard II, on the other hand, is not only not “strong”, he’s decidedly weak, both as a human being and a king. Yet some of the most beautiful poetry in the language, the most intricate meditations on monarchy, are placed in this weakling’s mouth. He has no strength, but he does have plenty of agency. The plot of the play is shaped around his (often extremely bad) decisions. In narrative terms, agency is far more important than “strength” – it’s what determines whether a character is truly part of the story, or a detachable accessory.

And all of this without taking into account the places where the Strong Female Character may overlap with the stereotype of the “strong black woman”, when myths of strength not only fail but cause real harm.

Chuck Wendig argues here that we shouldn’t understand “strong” as meaning, well, “strong”, but rather as something like “well-written”. But I simply don’t think it’s true that the majority of writers or readers are reading the term that way. How else to explain the fact that when the screenwriters of The Lord of the Rings decided to (clumsily) expand Arwen’s role from the books, they had her wander on screen, put a sword to her boyfriend’s throat and boast about how she’d sneaked up on him? (It took Liv Tyler to realise later “you don’t have to put a sword in her hand to make her strong”). Why else did Paul Feig, as Carina Chicano notes here, have to justify the fact that Bridesmaids hinges on a complex, interesting female character who appeared rather weak?

And even if this less limiting understanding of “strong female character” were the common reading, doesn’t it then become even sadder and even more incomprehensible that where the characterisation of half the world’s population is concerned, writing well is treated as a kind of impressive but unnecessary optional extra?

Of course, there are characters who’ve clearly been written with SFC-compatibility in mind, who nevertheless come at least halfway to life.  Captain America’s Peggy Carter, along with Iron Man’s Pepper Potts, are much the best of the Marvel love interests. Peggy shoots Nazis. She never has to be rescued or protected by Captain America or anyone else. She has a decent amount of screentime. Her interesting status as a female British soldier in World War Two is not actually explored, but implies a compelling back story and an impressive depth of conviction and resilience, and her romance with Captain America is never allowed to undermine this. While her role is clearly ancillary to the male hero, it’s not so much so that she feels defined by his presence; it’s possible to imagine a film about her – a woman determined to overcome everything in her path to fight the evils of Nazism. Most importantly to the character’s success, she’s played by the superb Hayley Atwell.

She’s introduced briefing a number of potential recruits to the super soldier programme. This is the scene clearly written to establish Peggy’s SFC cred, and it unfolds like this: One of the recruits immediately starts mouthing off at her, first insulting her accent and then, when she calls him out of the line-up, making sexist, suggestive remarks.

She punches him to the ground.

Later she discovers Captain America being kissed by the only other woman with a speaking part in the film, who has no other role except to kiss Captain America. She outwardly maintains her composure until Captain America is handling his iconic shield for the first time, and its perhaps-impenetrable qualities are briefly discussed as well as the fact that it’s just a prototype. Peggy suddenly fires off several shots at Captain America, so that he must raise the shield (which does, thankfully, stop bullets) to avoid being killed.

Both scenes are framed as funny and impressive.

You can make a case for the punch, I guess – it’s wartime, she hasn’t got time to pussyfoot around with sexist idiots, she needs to establish her authority hard and fast – but it’s still escalating a verbal conflict to fairly serious physical violence within seconds, and it’s hard to imagine a male character we’re supposed to like being introduced in the same way. The second scene, though, when considered without the haha-what-a-little-spitfire framing of the film, becomes outrageous. Shooting a gun, without warning, at your love interest who has a shield you do not yet know can stop bullets (and what about ricochets?!), because you’re jealous? Or for any reason at all? What the hell, Peggy?

That a female character is allowed to get away with behaviour that, in a male character, would rightly be seen as abusive (or outright murderous) may seem - if you’re MRA minded, anyway – an unfair imbalance in her favour. But really these scenes reveals the underlying deficit of respect the character starts with, which she’s then required to overcome by whatever desperate, over-the-top, cartoonish means to hand. She’s in a hole, and acts that would be hair-raising in a male character just barely bring her up to their level. The script acknowledges and deplores the sexism the character faces in her very first scene – but it won’t challenge the sexist soldier’s belief that women don’t belong in this story by writing any more women into it. Not women with names and speaking parts, anyway.

I’m sure someone will claim here that this would have been simply impossible, because everyone knows there weren’t any women in World War Two, so, firstly – oh, PLEASE. Secondly, German women had done pretty well in the sciences before the rise of Hitler. Why couldn’t Erskine, the sad German scientist whose serum transforms Steve Rogers, have been gender-switched for the movie? Howard Stark, father of Tony/Iron Man, gets a cameo – couldn’t his future wife Maria appear too, grinding edges on that shield or something? What about the tower keeper who was guarding the supernaturally powered Cosmic Cube – did he have to be a man? Couldn’t the Red Skull have recruited a few evil women for Hydra, too? As it is, with when one recognises that sole responsibility for representing her gender and tackling sexism rests on Peggy-the-character’s shoulders, that her actions are outlandishly large to compensate for all those other women who simply aren’t there, some of the strain and hyperbole in her characterisation becomes more explicable.

***

The Strong Female Character has something to prove. She’s on the defensive before she even starts. She’s George from The Famous Five all grown up and still bleating with the same desperate lack of conviction that she’s “Every Bit As Good as a Boy”.

When I talk about this, people offer synonyms; better, less limiting ways of saying the same thing. What about “effective female characters”, for instance? But it is not enough to redefine the term. It won’t do to add maybe a touch more nuance but otherwise carry on more or less as normal. We need an entirely new approach to the problem, which means remembering that the problem is far more than just a tendency to show female characters as kind of drippy. We need get away from the idea that sexism in fiction can be tackled by reliance on depiction of a single personality type, that you just need to write one female character per story right and you’ve done enough.

Switching back and forth between Captain America and Richard II may be rather odd, but I want to do it one more time point out two things that Richard has, that Bond and Captain America and Batman also have, that Peggy, however strong she is, cannot attain. They are very simple things, even more fundamental than “agency”.

1. Richard has the spotlight. However weak or distressed or passive he may be, he’s the main goddamn character.

2. Richard has huge range of other characters of his own gender around him, so that he never has to act as any kind of ambassador or representative for maleness. Even dethroned and imprisoned, he is free to be uniquely himself.

It’s rare enough for a female character to get the first, and even rarer for her to get the second. Just look at the cast list of 2010’s Salt, say. Angelina Jolie plus dudes.

Nowadays the princesses all know kung fu, and yet they’re still the same princesses. They're still love interests, still the one girl in a team of five boys, and they’re all kind of the same. They march on screen, punch someone to show how they don’t take no shit, throw around a couple of one-liners or forcibly kiss someone because getting consent is for wimps, and then with ladylike discretion they back out of the narrative’s way.

On the posters they’re posed way in the back of the shot behind the men, in the trailers they may pout or smile or kick things, but they remain silent. Their strength lets them, briefly, dominate bystanders but never dominate the plot. It’s an anodyne, a sop, a Trojan Horse - it’s there to distract and confuse you, so you forget to ask for more.

Let us remind ourselves that the actual goal here is not the odd character who’s Strong or Effective or anything else. It’s really very simple, but it would represent a far more profound change than any amount of individual sassy kickassery can ever achieve, and would mean far fewer posters like those above.

Equality.

What do I want instead of a Strong Female Character? I want a male:female character ratio of 1:1 instead of 3:1 on our screens. I want a wealth of complex female protagonists who can be either strong or weak or both or neither, because they are more than strength or weakness. Badass gunslingers and martial artists sure, but also interesting women who are shy and quiet and do, sometimes, put up with others’ shit because in real life there’s often no practical alternative. And besides heroines, I want to see women in as many and varied secondary and character roles as men: female sidekicks, mentors, comic relief, rivals, villains. I want not to be asked, when I try to sell a book about two girls, two boys and a genderless robot, if we couldn’t change one of those girls to a boy.

Finally, when I think of what I want for female characters, I find myself thinking of what the performance poet Guante wants for himself, in this poem where he rejects the limitations of the insulting commandment “Man Up”. So if he’ll forgive me for borrowing and paraphrasing ...

I want her to be free to express herself

I want her to have meaningful, emotional relationships with other women

I want her to be weak sometimes

I want her to be strong in a way that isn’t about physical dominance or power

I want her to cry if she feels like crying

I want her to ask for help

I want her to be who she is

Write a Strong Female Character?

No.

Sophia McDougall is the author of the Romanitas trilogy, set in a world where the Roman Empire never fell. Her first novel for children, Mars Evacuees, is published by Egmont UK on 27 March.

THE PIERRE AND MARIA-GAETANA MATISSE COLLECTION, 2002/© 2017 ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK
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How Leonora Carrington fled privilege and the Nazis to live the surrealist dream

In this centenary year of her birth, Carrington is at last receiving the attention she deserves.

“When France sneezes,” the 19th-century Austrian chancellor Klemens von Metter­nich once said, “Europe catches cold.” France was no less contagious in the first decades of the 20th century, when Paris became the cultural capital of the Western world. Cubism, fauvism, Dada and surrealism were incubated in its galleries and cafés, where artists of various nationalities dreamed up new ways to blast away the past, among them Gertrude Stein, Marie Laurencin, Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce. But when the Nazis arrived, the City of Light went dark, and expats in Paris – as well as those such as the German surrealist Max Ernst, holed up in the French countryside and branded “degenerate” in his homeland – needed to escape, and fast. This was a European war, many decided, and salvation lay in the United States.

Portugal, facing the Atlantic and officially neutral in the conflict, offered the surest way to the Americas. And so Lisbon became “the great embarkation point”, as the film Casablanca described it in 1942. The British journalist Hugh Muir observed that the churn of diplomats, spies and refugees passing through left the local population “much as they were”; they inhabited not the Portuguese capital but a Lisbon of their own making that happened to share its geography.
Those with the means filled the best hotels. Those without scraped by in boarding houses, doing what they could to survive.

The hitherto sleepy seaport was transformed. By October 1941, the Irish Times was declaring Lisbon “the hub of the Western universe”. On the city’s news-stands, vendors sold the British Daily Mail alongside the New York Times, the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung and the Falangist Arriba, free from censorship and without segregation on the shelves by language. The newspapers were a welcome distraction for their readers, who had plenty of time to read. It could take months for the necessary travel documents to come through, and most people seeking safe passage to the US had little choice but to wait, and wait, and wait.

One of those waiting was a Mexican called Renato Leduc, who as a teenager had fought for Pancho Villa’s forces in his country’s calamitous civil war. Since then, Leduc had studied law and become a poet, before drifting into a job at the Mexican embassy in Paris, where he struck up friendships with the surrealists André Breton and Paul ­Éluard. At a dinner party in the spring of 1938, he met – and was charmed by – a young Englishwoman called Leonora Carrington, then Max Ernst’s lover. Three years had passed since that fleeting encounter in France and now Leduc was living with Carrington in the Alfama district of Lisbon, pressing administrators to confirm the date when they could be married at the British embassy.

Yet it wasn’t love that bound Carrington to Leduc. Born into new money on 6 April 1917, Carrington spent her childhood at Crookhey Hall, a mansion in Lancashire standing in 17 acres of gardens and woodland. Her father, Harold, was an ambitious textile manufacturer who, to the young Leonora, resembled “a mafioso” in his disciplinarian manner. When her mother, Maurie, gave her a copy of Herbert Read’s book Surrealism, published to coincide with the movement’s landmark London exhibition in summer 1936, Carrington was intrigued and visited the show. There she was exhilarated by the work of one artist in particular – Max Ernst – and, through connections at the art school where she was studying, she arranged an ­introduction to him at the Highgate home of the architect Ernö Goldfinger.

Carrington, an instinctive rebel who had been forced by her parents to “come out” as a debutante at Buckingham Palace not long before, instantly fell for the German artist, despite their age gap of 26 years. “From the second they set eyes on one another,” writes Carrington’s cousin Joanna Moorhead in her new biography, “the electricity is palpable between the beautiful, sparky young woman with her dark eyes, crimson lips and cascade of raven curls, and the white-haired, slim, middle-aged man with his lined forehead and kind-looking eyes.” That almost obscenely cliché-ridden description seems to have strayed on to the pages from a bad romance novel, but what is love but a big cliché we can believe in, and can’t help but do so?

Perhaps “cliché” isn’t quite the right word for anything to do with Carrington, however, because her life was an extended refutation of convention. The love between her and Ernst was more correctly of a mythic order, or, at least, it is presented as such in Moorhead’s account (“Max Ernst has met his bride of the wind, and Leonora Carrington has met her saviour . . .”). And mythic is the register that she explored as a painter and writer, first among the surrealists in France and then as one of a small group of like-minded artists in Mexico, where she moved towards the end of the Second World War. In striking works such as The Giantess (c.1947), with its towering woman tenderly guarding a small egg, she invented a kind of symbolic code that channelled the occult and the Renaissance masters to suggest a subliminal life larger than what tasteful language could reasonably convey.

Despite their obvious attraction, Ernst and Carrington seemed mismatched to her father. Ernst was twice married, German and, worse, an artist – one who delighted in flouting the social hierarchies that Harold had so studiously climbed. So, like the “old gentleman” in Carrington’s short story “The Oval Lady” who burns his daughter’s favourite wooden horse (“What I’m going to do is purely for your own good,” he says), Harold attempted to have Ernst deported to Hitler’s Germany on bogus pornography charges, hoping to end the relationship.

What followed was a family bust-up that left Carrington an exile for the rest of her life. The couple fled to Cornwall and then Paris to live among the surrealists, ignoring Harold’s warnings that they would “die without money”. He would stop her allowance, he said, but she didn’t care. She was leaving home – not just for Ernst, not just for the thrills and wonders of a new artistic milieu, but for “a whole new beginning” (another of Moorhead’s romance novel phrases but, again, perfectly true).

The Paris interlude was a blessed one. The couple took up residence in Saint Germain a few metres down the road from Picasso; he would drop by to dine and dance in their kitchen, a bottle of wine in his hand. Dalí was another friend, as were Man Ray, Elsa Schiaparelli and Marcel Duchamp. While in the city, the surrealists held an exhibition at the Galerie Beaux Arts featuring mannequins in a darkened room that visitors had to navigate using torches – one of the earliest examples of installation art.

Throughout this time, Carrington was developing her own work. She painted, she drew and she wrote, publishing a beguiling story called “The House of Fear” in 1938 in a limited edition with illustrations by Ernst – her first published writing and also, as Moorhead writes, “a kind of public acknowledgement of her relationship with Max”. His estranged second wife, Marie-Berthe, was understandably mortified by their romance;
to escape her scorn (and also that of the surrealists’ leader Breton, who had fallen out with Ernst over his friend Paul Éluard’s rejection of ­Trotskyism), the lovers moved south to the remote Ardèche region.

Their farmhouse was inhospitable and lacking in comfort, so they worked on the building, installing a terrace – but they also made an artwork of the building, adorning its surfaces with images of unicorns, winged creatures, lovers and horses. It was an idyllic and productive retreat but it came to an abrupt end. In 1939, Ernst was arrested as an enemy alien after France declared war on Germany. He was sent to an internment camp and released three months later; but in May 1940, after the Germans crossed the Maginot Line, he was arrested again. Unable to secure his freedom, Carrington fell into a deep depression and, by the time she was persuaded by friends to depart for Lisbon to escape the Nazis, she was beginning to lose all sense of reality.

Carrington later documented the decline of her mental health in Down Below, an extraordinary account of her life in a sanatorium in Madrid, to which she was committed after suffering paranoid delusions on her way to Portugal. Insanity, for her, took the form of a powerful “identification with the external world”, which somehow involved the hypnotic control of Europe by a Dutchman called Van Ghent (who was also “my father, my enemy, and the enemy of mankind”). In her introduction, Marina Warner notes that Carrington “had realised one of the most desirable ambitions of surrealism, the voyage down into madness”; yet, stripped of the playful intellectualism of the art movement, the “absolute disorientation” that Breton idealised is difficult to experience as a reader with much pleasure.

Carrington regained her freedom after reacquainting herself with Renato Leduc, who offered to marry her to facilitate her escape to New York: travel was easy for him because he was an embassy employee. In Lisbon, her mind slowly recovered and she prepared for a new life in the US. But, in that hub of the Western universe, it was hard to leave the past behind. One day, she glanced across a market and saw Max Ernst, who had been released by the French at last.

Carrington once said that she had only joined the surrealist group because she was in love with Ernst. However, being with him was never the sum total of her life. They travelled to New York together, but when Leduc returned to Mexico, she went with him, cutting ties with Ernst. Then she found a new love, a Hungarian expat called Csizi (“Chiki”) Weisz; they had two children (for whom she wrote stories, soon to be published by New York Review Books as The Milk of Dreams); she painted; she made new friends, most notably the Spanish-Mexican artist Remedios Varo. She lived, and on her own terms.

In this centenary year of her birth, Carrington, who died in 2011, is at last receiving the attention she deserves. Her shorter fiction, compiled in The Debutante and Other Stories, reveals an imagination that could transfigure horror into enchantment, and the human into the bestial. Yet her most significant achievement is her paintings. In Self-Portrait (1937-38), a wild-haired Carrington sits on a chair in front of a rocking horse, communing with a hyena. We see in the window behind her a real white horse, running free; our eyes are drawn to it by the room’s outlines. Surrealism prided itself in defying logic, but there is a logic here – one of emotional sense, if not literal meaning. Her life was made of multiple escapes. With that galloping horse, how vividly she evokes a longing for freedom. 

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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