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.
I recommend reading the whole article in the link. It’s long but good, and also points out the annoying trope of Hollywood thinking that as long as the female character gets a token “can beat people up” scene, then it’s totally fine that otherwise they still are filling very typical fictional roles women are pigeon-holed into, and usually are still just a love interest or plot device.
Also, to the above quote, this is about having that diversity in a single story, or even having many of those traits in 1 character, and not just plucking a few examples out of all of fiction and go “see, in this story, the woman was shy and quiet, and in this story, the woman beat somebody up, and this story the woman was mean. There! Diversity!” It’s about overall trends, it’s about not just having one or two women in a cast, it’s about how women are situated in the story, it’s about whether the women are protagonists or plot devices, it’s about all sorts of ways that women are marginalized, pigeon-holed, etc in fiction, and not simply just about one thing. There’s no easy fix where you go “see in my story, the woman warrior wears a shirt and she doesn’t get raped!” The problem is there are so many issues with the way women, and every other marginalized group, are portrayed in fiction (and even more so with the intersectional problems with characters who are part of several of those groups), and only so much that people can talk about in one go, so usually people are only able to address one or two issues at any time, and it leads to the idea that as long as you fix (or superficially) fix that element, then it’s all good, and it’s more than that.
From the standpoint of this blog, sometimes there comes the misconception that as long as a story has fully armored women, or has battle-ready posed women, then that’s something that’s necessarily a good story about women, or necessarily a good depiction, and it’s more than that. It’s a step forward, definitely, and I absolutely think it’s good for people to keep the visual portrayal of women in their minds when creating fiction and not just doing one thing over and over because it’s just how we’re so used to seeing women depicted visually. But it can’t stop at that. How many women there are in the story matters. Whether or not she’s portrayed as being “exceptional” for her gender, and therefore all other women in the fictional world are still flat stereotypes matters. What happens to her in the story, how she’s situated, presented, talked about matters. Whether she’s the protagonist, or if despite her armor, she gets kidnapped by the villain to anger the male hero matters. It’s about more than simply avoiding one single way women are portrayed, and then dusting off our hands and patting ourselves on the back for fixing how women are portrayed in fiction. It’s about examining the way we see women in our society, and being aware of how that affects the way we depict and situate them in our writing, often without realizing it.
Escher Girls, The Bechdel Test, Bikini Armor, etc, are all catchy terms, and great things to keep in mind when writing fiction with women in it, but it’s not as simple as just “not doing this one thing”. These phrases and ideas are meant to highlight specific issues about the way women are written and drawn in fiction and to open up a discussion about the larger picture of how women are portrayed. The Bechdel Test is meant to point out how few women have roles and how even fewer of them have stories of their own that don’t revolve around men. Escher Girls is about showing the prevalence of female characters being contorted or dressed in ways that maximize titillation over function. They are symptoms, not the cause, and addressing just one of them once doesn’t fix the underlying issue. Change comes by challenging ourselves to not just settle at “my princess punches people before being captured” or “the male hero’s love interest talks to her female friend about dogs at one point”, but to be willing to examine the overall way we’re depicting women in our fiction, how many there are, and how they’re situated. Centaur women, battle bikinis, and the boobs and butt pose are the beginning of the discussion, not the end.