Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Strong Women

They say that every person, no matter the gender, has both male and female energy. I know this is true in my case ... I don't care about organized sports, I don't give a rat's ass about cars or motorcycles, and I do a whole lotta cooking and gardening. On the other hand, I do have a pretty serious crush on power tools and few things give me as much satisfaction as rough carpentry, especially if ladders and eye protection are involved. So you know, I go both ways.

It's a challenge, I think, to write an accurate character of the opposite gender, at least for me. I've said it before—ladies, i love you and all, but you confuse me. I don't understand how anyone can take Oprah seriously. I honestly don't. And the dense, predatory, tearful, supportive, heartfelt, shallow politics of your average cheerleading team or sewing circle would likely reduce me to a quivering mess. You operate on levels of which I'm only dimly aware.

So I'm writing a female now. She's about 15 and she's a thief. She's an orphan who claims she has no parents because all of her early memories are too horrible to confront. As I'm writing her, I'm thinking about what makes a strong female character. She could be a bad-ass—beating up guys, smart and sassy, brash. But I think that's a bit of a cop-out. That kind of ass-kicking Bruce Lee stuff is more a sign of typical male strength than female. The strong women I know are defined instead by consistency in the face of pressure and emotional and moral courage. And I know this is a stereotype in some quarters, but they are not self-centered. They have figured out a way to lift everyone around them, even as they lift themselves.

Maybe that's one of the features of female strength: it's extroverted, as opposed to introverted. By this I mean that male strength tends to be inwardly focused. Guys are strong when they crush the competition, gather tremendous resources to themselves, carve out their niche in the world and defend it against all comers. Women are strong when they are embedded in a complex web of relationships, feeding and being fed by this web and improving the lives of everyone in it (including their own—this cannot be underestimated because it seems that lots of women fall prey to the idea of doing for everyone else what they refuse to do for themselves).

But I'm just guessing ... I want to get this girl right. So I'm curious, what do you think makes a strong woman?

11 comments:

Jonathon Arntson said...

Whit will always seem stronger to me than muscle or a sharp tongue.

writtenwyrdd said...

Although you make very good points about extroversion in strong women and introversion in strong men, these ARE stereotypes in large part. But, that said, it isn't incorrect...there's a reason teh stereotypes came to be.

what I would suggest is to consider the cultural matrix in which your character resides. Once you define the 'typical' female role, you can put strong women's and men's roles a bit better. If you are writing spec fic like I do, it's *always* about the cultural milieu when you make worldbuilding choices about characterization.

LurkerMonkey said...

Jonathon,

I had to think about that for a while ... I dunno if I agree that wit truly is a form of strength or not, unless it's used for a particular purpose (like sticking it to the man, RIP George Carlin).

LurkerMonkey said...

Written,

Before I wrote that, I went through a furious little argument in my mind about using such stereotypes. I guess the truth is, I think people who object to stereotypes are often objecting to what IS in the hopes of changing it into something better. Noble to be sure ... but as writers, are we supposed to reflect what is or what we wish it could be?

And yeah, there's no way to divorce this character (or any of them) from this particular world and its rules and mores. That said, though, I don't think character is unique to situation—which is why so many character are transportable across cultures and borders. In the end, I'd argue for the existence of a transcultural definition of good and evil, strength and weakness. Of course there will be slight variations in the way it's expressed in Minneapolis versus Brazzaville, but is the core so very different?

Jude Hardin said...

Don't forget she's only fifteen. Much of her strength is probably going to be a facade right now, even if she's been through a lot.

Melanie Avila said...

I really like what you say about how they consistently handle stressful situations.

Erica Orloff said...

I disagree with Jude. Real victims of serious abuse can possess a grace and strength honed by the most brutal of teachers: Life. Even at 15.

I tend to think of strong women as having a sense of compassion and grace, and in the end, doing what needs doing. They come upon a hungry person and give them food (or go to a funeral bearing a casserole). A friend is grieving, they provide the shoulder. A neighborhood child is lonely, they pull them into the embrace of their own family and set another place at the table.

LurkerMonkey said...

Jude,

Hmm ... I tend to think that what we will become as adults is present during our formative years. If people are nothing but a facade during those years, then barring some serious personal work, it's likely they will also be facades as adults. I don't believe that it's impossible to be strong and be a teenager without faking it.

LurkerMonkey said...

Melanie,

Yeah ... to some degree, the same things that make men strong also make women strong (as my wife pointed out this morning). Grace under pressure is a bonus no matter what.

LurkerMonkey said...

Erica,

One of things that was pointed out to me (again by my wife) is that there is no such thing, really, as a singular "female strength." There are lots of different kinds of strong women, just as there lots of different kinds of strong men. Compassionate is one ...

Jude Hardin said...

Good points Jon and Erica, but I still think, everything else being equal, that a fifteen-year-old character is going to be in a different place mentally and emotionally than, say, a twenty-five-year-old character. She might project strength on the outside (even to the point of fooling herself), but I think if you really dig deep you'll find the fears and insecurities nearly everyone at that age has.