Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Heroine Problem

For those who don't spend most of their days sitting in front of a computer crunching data, it may be hard to find an hour and twenty-two minutes to listen to a podcast, but the five-way discussion of Heroines, Past and Present over at JulieD's A Good Story is Hard to Find is worth listening to. Julie and Scott bring on guest contributors Rose, Joseph and Heather to discuss what makes a strong female character in books and movies ranging from Hunger Games and Twilight to Jane Eyre and Bleak House. Much of the discussion centers around whether too many (particularly YA and TV/Movie) heroines these days are shown as "strong" only by taking on traditionally masculine roles (such as running around with weapons killing people) rather than displaying actual strength of character.


Otepoti said...

Mrs D is currently making a good fist of building a fictional heroine with little to no physical strength. It's an interesting enterprise, hard to swing but worth trying.

Xena and Buffy et al. have a lot to answer for, and I think it's filtering down to boy-girl interactions in the playground. My son recently had a stoush with a girl who dared him to it, and, of course, it ended badly :-( But it's devilish difficult to instill the old rules of gentlemanly conduct (neverneverneverlayhandsonalady) with absolutely no social back-up and no good role models, in fact, with every role model militating towards female militancy, in every way. Which is why one of the NZ soldiers recently killed in Afghanistan was a woman, or rather, a girl of around nineteen, and a Reformed Christian. Lord have mercy. Mother Mary pray for us.

Clare said...

I feel rather defensive of all those hooligans who act "masculine," because I was one of them. I grew up wrestling and playing football with my brothers and cousins, and other denizens of the playground, and got in more than my share of fistfights.

That's just who I was, and in many ways who I still am. I liked stories about girls who went off to fight or explore the high seas, because my own imaginative play was all about being a knight in shining armor.

I was penalized for this in nasty ways by conservative Catholics, and I can see my own sister starting to get some of the same flak.

So I'm chary about backlash against all these "strong heroines," because strong women are different from each other, and it's not helpful to set up one narrowly constructed model of femininity that all girls must aspire to regardless of actual interests or abilities.

What concerns me more about the strong female character trope is that:

--The strong female characters are usually highly sexualized. Sure, tell me how feminist it is to have your woman whirl around in some ridiculously constricting outfit that has nothing to do with being capable or serious and everything to do with the delectation of fanboys. There are exceptions, like Mattie in True Grit.

--Like I said, strong woman are different from each other. Profoundly unhelpful and lazy to have one set of traits become a kind of cinematic shorthand for female excellence; conveniently lets you off the hook from actually developing interesting individual female characters.

--Speaking of lazy shorthand, this trick of having in one woman in an entire ensemble cast and making her the token Hot Warrior Chick. Never mind that she's completely two dimensional and the only female with lines in the film.

--I think it's a very bad thing aggression and dominance are conflated with courage, moral strength, or admirability. This is especially bad for men, who are sold a hyper macho persona much more constantly and insistently than women.

Darwin said...

The particular trope that was being complained against (originated in Rose's beef with Katniss in Hunger Games) was the attempt to pass of a character as strong because she had a couple of traditionally masculine physical skills (fighting, hunting, etc.) while not actually imbuing her with any moral or character strength. Rose's complaint(I'm a bad judge, as I didn't like the book for other reasons, but I'd tend to agree) was that Katniss has few moral or political opinions of her own, tending to get them from the male characters instead, and seems both unobservant and overly focused on her "which guy should I end up with" love triangle, thus in most ways making her a weak female character, except for the above mentioned physical skills.

So it wasn't "female characters shouldn't do 'masculine' things" but rather "doing 'masculine' things is not what defines one as having strength and character".

Clare said...

You know, I really liked Katniss in the first book--her intense love for her sister and her determination to protect her family.

But by the second book it had become all about the love triangle, so I never finished it.

BettyDuffy said...

Speaking of fighting skills, this IS a quandary for mothers of boys. I liked to fight with boys when I was younger, mostly because I knew they wouldn't strike back (except for my brother who was very mean indeed). But we've tried telling our boys they should never ever hit a girl and they really are confronted with mixed messages on this front. There are girls on the wrestling team with whom they're supposed to practice--and you can see them doubting how to proceed.

At their age, the girls really are about equal in strength, if not a little stronger, so it could be an equal match. But they do seem to apply some inherent holdback against exerting their strength on the opposite sex. I'm happy to see it. But why--for the love of God--are there girls on the wrestling team? Wrestling has been kind of a rogue sport for as long as I can remember--it attracts an interesting crowd. Lots of hoods (to use a dated term), and the girls on the team are almost inevitably coaches' daughters. So the odds of assembling a whole team of girls who can practice on their own are pretty slim.

But I think it's a really bad idea to to give girls our blessing and send them into a ring with boys in a test of strength and speed--all the while whistling the tune that any act of male on female aggression is assault.

Clare, you say "strong women are different from each other, and it's not helpful to set up one narrowly constructed model of femininity that all girls must aspire to regardless of actual interests or abilities." I get that, and that some girls really like fighting--I certainly did too.

Would you then say that boys should or should not fight back against a "strong female" of any character? How can you discourage male on female aggression while encouraging female on male aggression?

Clare said...

I would just say that fighting is a legitimate skill that we can channel properly and use for good ends, but the legitimate exercises of that skill become and more and more limited as one attains one's full strength.

I think there's a big difference between children fighting on the playground and grown people fighting--even when one takes sex out of the equation. It becomes much more dangerous and much more undignified.

For me, taking boxing and karate was really helpful--having to discipline and channel aggression, submit to authority, abide by the rules of sportsmanship, hone technique. And yes, I've sparred with men, and won. Squaring off with them in a controlled and respectful environment made us respect each other, and the dangerous power of the human body, more, not less.

The rule I was given, and will probably be giving my kids, was that you never, never, never hit anyone weaker or smaller than you. This applied to boys hitting boys, girls hitting girls, older kids hitting younger kids, kids with physical disabilities. Once that was sufficiently drilled into our heads, it became easy to apply to women once physical sex differences started to manifest themselves.

My boy cousins and I used to beat on each other all the time, and now that they're grown, I've seen them rush to offer aid to women being harassed on the street, and happily give off their seats to pregnant women.

It seems to me the relevant point in their upbringing was instilling respect and protectiveness towards vulnerability, whatever form that takes.

BettyDuffy said...

"the relevant point in their upbringing was instilling respect and protectiveness towards vulnerability, whatever form that takes."

Makes sense to me.

MrsDarwin said...

"The rule I was given, and will probably be giving my kids, was that you never, never, never hit anyone weaker or smaller than you."

I don't disagree with this as a statement of principle, but I do object to the implied sentiment that it's okay to hit someone simply because they happen to be bigger and stronger. That makes strength itself vulnerability (and also makes a supposition of charity and restraint on the part of the bigger and stronger), not to mention contributing to a mindset where it's okay for a woman to hit a man but not for a man to hit a woman. (And I know that you're aware that there is such a thing as male spousal abuse, which trades on this very idea that as long as the bigger man doesn't hit the smaller woman, nothing's really going on.)

I wouldn't allow my daughters to go into wrestling because even allowing for the strength equality in youth, I don't really want to encourage the idea that it's okay for boys and girls to grapple physically, in a sport in which that's the only object. Even with coaches and referees and spectators there to assure the neutrality of the contest, I don't like it. Physical actions have meanings. For the same reason, I discourage tickling at my house -- something that can start off fun can cross the line into attack or domination, and that's only accounting for the asexual nature of sibling relationships.

MrsDarwin said...

In regards to Hunger Games: I very much liked the protective nature of Katniss's relationship with her sister, and how her sacrifice in volunteering for the games wasn't a big point of drama for her. She just did it. It was a telling character moment, and an admirable one.

What I didn't like, though, was the thought of teenagers, who are often so lonely and desperate for any connection, reading how Katniss manipulates her relationship with the guy in games, whose name I can't remember now, and turns a legitimate desire for companionship into an anything-goes emotional game. It seems like this line of thinking could lead teenagers searching for acceptance to think, "Well, I'm genuinely lonely and he's genuinely lonely, so whatever we do to fill that loneliness must be valid, right?", and become entangled in unwise bonds.

Also, we talked about Hunger Games for a week, and then completely forgot about it. When the next volume came in and the library, we weren't even interested enough anymore to go pick it up.

Clare said...

"I don't disagree with this as a statement of principle, but I do object to the implied sentiment that it's okay to hit someone simply because they happen to be bigger and stronger."

I agree that a zero-tolerance policy for violence is much the better way, but since we're talking about hierarchies of inappropriate violence...
I don't think it's any worse than saying "you can't hit a girl." Indeed, I think it's better.

Clare said...

"Physical actions have meanings. "

Indeed they do. And the physical action of much rough-housing and sport seems to carry the meaning of camraderie and respect.

I agree that we need to be more aware of how destructive violence and domination and assault is--whether woman-woman, man-man, woman-man, or man-woman.

But I do think there are helpful and legitimate ways to channel aggression. Not least because I would be a much worse person had I not found a few.

Clare said...

Wrestling in particular seems problematic because of the intimacy of many of the holds. In a perfect world an adolescent boy grabbing an adolescent girl's genitals in the context of sport might be totally innocent and free from horrible associations, but it's not something I could ever see encouraging.

BettyDuffy said...

A side note: in the dog world, smaller breeds are actually more prone to acts of aggression than larger ones. You're far more likely to have your face ripped off by a schnauzer than by a Great Pyrenees.

My children follow suit.

entropy said...

You're far more likely to have your face ripped off by a schnauzer than by a Great Pyrenees.

That is a result of people allowing aggression in little dogs to slide because it's seen as cute, the same aggression in larger dogs cannot be tolerated simply because they can cause so much damage.

Most boys, when they grow up, can cause much more damage with a single blow than a woman can. I don't see the harm in admonishing boys not to hit girls. We should teach them while they are young to control themselves. Not that that lets girls off the hook, we need to teach them not to manipulate and take advantage because it's wrong and it's definitely not cute.

Darwin said...

I was brought up with a strict 'never hit a girl' code, and do my best to rear my son the same way -- though it's tricky as everyone around here is a girl except him and me. I think it's a good and civilized rule.

In high school, when I fenced, I certainly sparred with women. But that's entirely different. Fencing is a fighting sport of a highly stylized kind, but it's not fighting (and those who get into the fighting mode lose) and it doesn't carry that same prohibition.

Aside from all the basic civilizational and moral elements of the thing, there's a certain way that boys react to a good fight. It's stereotypical, perhaps, but there were a couple times at the age of 7-9 when I had fairly bruising fights with other boys, and then once we'd cleared the air with that we became good friends. Boys can certainly be pals with girls, and I did tend to play with girls more than many other boys did at that age, but I don't think the have-a-fist-fight-and-then-be-good-friends ethic works between opposite sexes -- certainly not when it comes to fist fights. Guys just relate to physical violence differently than girls do.