Archive for June, 2011

What makes a good female character? Because I have now done several posts on potentially good female characters undermined by various factors (in my opinion), I’ve decided to try to map out what I think makes a good, solid female character. To be honest, it’s a difficult question. There may be some characters I bring up as good examples that you will disagree about, but I will try to pinpoint the actions and characteristics that bring them to a realistic and strong level.

Original book series

She accepts or ends up accepting herself for everything that she is and isn’t. 

Great example: Yoko Nakajima from The Twelve Kingdoms by Fuyumi Ono

“A young girl who is pushed beyond her limits physically, emotionally, and mentally” –Tokyopop

Yoko Nakajima is a 16-year-old honor-role student from Japan who tries to please. She tries to please her parents, her teachers, and her fellow classmates, but in the process,  isn’t really honest with herself or others. But through a series of events, Yoko is taken to another world where suddenly, she is under attack by demons and confront espionage, terror, betrayal, and herself on a harrowing journey.

Yoko’s story is a brilliant mix of action and psychological adventure. She is lost in this new, strange world and travels alone for good stretches of time where she has a lot of time to think. She’s forced to confront her fears and doubts, not to mention how she behaved previously. However, instead of letting that destroy her, Yoko becomes stronger by realizing her mistakes and not letting her fear defeat her.

The other great thing about Yoko is that despite being utterly lost in this other world, she isn’t helpless. She figures a lot out on her own and, although it’s a skill bestowed upon her, Yoko fights off the demons after her by herself.

Here’s how the author of The Twelve Kingdoms series, Fuyumi Ono says she created the story and character of Yoko Nakajima:

Many of my readers end up writing to me and they often share their personal

Anime adaptation which I also recommend

problems. I was never able to write back to them, so instead, I wrote Sea of Shadow. As for the events that befall Yoko, I feel that all people end up experiencing, to a greater or lesser extent, the kinds of mental and emotional trauma that Yoko does as they grow and establish themselves in the world. – Fuyumi Ono (Interview with Tokyopop)

She can think and decide things independent of the influence of society or other people, is intelligent, and an equal.

Great example: Elizabeth Bennet from Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen

“Do not consider me now as an elegant female, but as a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart.” – Elizabeth Bennet

Elizabeth Bennet is her own person and not afraid to show it. She’s intelligent and witty and isn’t wholly concerned with marriage. She also “demonstrates her intelligence by acknowledging that marriage does not always bring happiness.” (College Term Paper) That’s part of what makes Elizabeth Bennet different to me compared to other heroines in romance novels, but that’s not all.

BBC adaptation which I highly recommend

Whenever I pick up a romance, whether it’s just my bad luck or a trend, the heroine rambles on about how she’s not worthy to have such a fine man, etc. While there is a point when Elizabeth realizes Mr. Darcy is a better man than what she first judged, she never wallows in feelings of inferiority. Even when they were picking at each other, it was an enjoyable banter of equal wit. Also, I appreciated that the two become friends first before it turns into a romance.

As for Darcy coming to Elizabeth’s family’s rescue, it’s a period piece written at a time when women would not have the financial power to handle that issue even if they wanted to. It just wouldn’t be realistic. Furthermore, the way Darcy handles it is not with a big ego and sense of superiority, but with love and a bit of awkwardness or embarrassment.

She plays an important role in the story (whether she’s the main character or not) and is not limited to love interest.

Great example: Hermione Granger from Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

“Just because you’ve got the emotional range of a teaspoon doesn’t mean we all have.” – Hermione Granger

Hermione is a wonderful character. She’s not the main character of the series, but she holds an important spot in the story. (Can you imagine a Harry Potter without Hermione?) She is the last of the threesome to be introduced and is initially a bit conceited when it comes to her knowledge (because, let’s face it, Hermione could beat even that computer on Jeopardy). But soon she becomes one of the group and the real brains behind the operation. She’s also the only girl in the threesome, but that doesn’t make her the weak link nor just an object of awkward flirting. Sure, there is a bit of romance later, but the romance doesn’t become the essence of Hermione and consume her completely (Look! She still has friends!).  

As Kathleen Sweeny notes in her article Supernatural Girls, “Harry Potter provides a consistent storyline of cross-gendered teamwork that is not trivialized as flirtation. Harry not only encourages Hermione’s role in the acquisition of power–he depends on her.” Depend he does. There are key things that Hermione figures out and moments when Harry may have been lost without her.

She’s human.

All three of the examples above show a sense of realism that really anchors them in my mind as complete and strong. They all have aspects everyone can relate to and/or admire. None of them are superheroes in the sense that they are supremely better in every aspect than all the other characters and certainly, none of them are the weak female character that borders on ridiculous. Each has her own personality and her character is wonderful and able to stand on its own. I’d also like to point out that her strength isn’t necessarily physical or limited to physical strength.

These are what I would probably consider some of the most important factors in strong female characters and only three examples of female characters that reach this level for me. This is obviously all just my opinion so I would love to hear what you think makes a strong female character and/or who some of your favorite female characters are.

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!!Spoiler Warning!! If you don’t like spoilers and plan to read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, don’ t read on. 

Lisbeth Salander, the main woman in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. The name has circulated like wildfire amongst book readers and pops up often in conversations about strong female characters. But rather than sparking great inspiration in me, the name Lisbeth Salander leaves me feeling cold. Of course, this is only my opinion and I have only managed to read the first book, but this is why Lisbeth Salander, despite all the hearsay, is not a strong female character in my eyes.

  1. Her chillingly cool demeanor.

Lisbeth Salander from the movie based on the book.

Lisbeth Salander has not been treated well, has a troubled and (apparently) violent past, and does not connect well with other people. She’s also a hacker and doesn’t particularly think it’s a good idea if people find out about that little secret. In short, she doesn’t let people get too close.

But her coolness toward other characters goes further than that, extending past the normal aloof character that just takes a little more time to warm up to. People often complain that female characters are too emotion, but Salander has almost a total lack of emotion and a no mercy attitude. In reviews I have read on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, this is one of the aspects that many readers link to her supposed strength as a strong female character. For me, however, it reminds me of a male archetype of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s characters: unrealistically emotionless (maybe they were trying for stoic?) and shoot-the-gun-then-asks-questions type. Actually, I felt I couldn’t connect to Lisbeth Salander as a realistic female at all. Sure, she’s supposed to have psychological issues that may play a part in her borderline sociopathic behavior, but that still doesn’t make her a strong female character. Lacking emotion is no better than having too much emotion in the strength department and the only emotion Salander shows best is anger.

2. Her reaction (or non-reaction) to a woman’s worst nightmare.

Perhaps a moment of emotional attachment was supposed to come when young Salander is taken advantage of by a guardian of hers. Since she is seen as being unable to take care of herself, especially her money, she has a guardian to keep tabs on her. Thus, when Salander’s pervious guardian passes away, the new guardian, a man, decides to force the attractive charge to perform sex tricks on him for her own money. This is shocking and has the reader on edge; how is Lisbeth going to handle this? Fall to pieces or find strength to do something about it?

Of course, she does what any woman would do; cold, hard, violent revenge and blackmail. There is seemingly no feeling over what happened besides Salander’s anger over knowing she’s been used by some sick monster. She tortures him, giving him a taste of his own sadistic nature, and thus solves the problem. But where is the empowerment in that? To me, this act does not eliminate feelings of victimization, but rather just makes Salander an angry victim. That is not strength and definitely not empowerment. Perhaps if I knew what was going on in her mind it would make me feel differently, but there is nothing given to me as a reader but hollow revenge by a hollow character.

I believe we as a society are a little confused about what makes a strong female character. There are Kill Bill types: deadly women who know how to sling a weapon and take cold revenge, but have little or no realism and, frankly, remind me of a common, Dirty Harry male character stereotype projected onto a female character. Or the Elizabeth Swan (Pirates of the Caribbean) types: tough women (either mentally, physically, or both) placed into a damsel-in-distress position who have the strength not to cry about it (whoopie), not to mention are attached to a male character in some way (who will no doubt save her). (Let’s not even get into undermining “strong female characters” by sexualization.) Neither of these are truly strong female character types. Perhaps I am the only one who sees this in this particular character, but I feel that when I look at “strong female characters,” I should not think of the man she is in love with nor of an unrealistic male stereotype, but a person, whole by herself and fully able to take care of herself whether that means living on a prairie in the wild west or saving the world.

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On my never-ending journey in search of strong women to read about, fiction hasn’t always come through for me. Sure, they exist, like some kind of beautiful, fleeting dream, but these elusive characters (borderline myths) just don’t appear as often as they should. But with the easy switch of a genre at last this starved woman is beginning to find the satisfactory story she’s been looking for. Forget fantasy, bring on the fact!

The women of history; do we really know them? We met some of them in school, of course. Queen Elizabeth I, Marie Antoinette, Mary Washington, etc., but behind the dry pages of high school’s history textbooks lie amazing, daring women with lives that play out as well as any drama or romance. But unlike Pride & Prejudice‘s Elizabeth Bennett or True Grit‘s Mattie Ross, these women were real, starring in stranger than fiction lives!

For example, remember the story of the mysterious Chinese warrior, Mulan? Based on a poem about soldiers who later realize their friend from the army is a woman, the adventurous tale was brought to most of us through Disney. The pretty young woman who doesn’t fit in takes up the guise of a man and enters the army in place of her frail father. There she eventually finds comrades, action, and after her gender is revealed, comfort in herself.

Sarah Emma Edmonds

Now meet Sarah Emma Edmonds whom I met recently in Laura Leedy Gansler’s The Mysterious Private Thompson: The Double Life of Sarah Emma Edmonds, Civil War Soldier. At seventeen, this Canadian farm girl vanished to become Frank Thompson in order to avoid her father and an arranged marriage he had planned. Unlike Disney’s Mulan, Emma was unaided as she fled to the U.S. and made her own living until the Civil War began in 1861. Out of love for this country (and perhaps a large sense of adventure), Emma joined the Second Michigan Infantry.

For a woman who loved a good tale, Sarah Emma Edmonds’ life could beat even the best adventure novel, something so full of action, cunning, close calls, friendship, and even a bit of romance that it couldn’t have been made up half as well.

"Frank Thompson"

There are good, strong fictional female characters out there, but, if you ever get a bit tired of searching for those needle in the haystack girls, don’t pass up a good chance to get acquainted with inspiring and entirely real women. So, let me leave you with a quote from Emma, who was herself inspired by a fictional heroine as a girl:

“I felt as if an angel had touched me with a live coal from off the altar. All the latent energy of my nature was aroused, and each exploit of the heroine thrilled me to my finger tips. I went home that night with the problem of my life solved. …I was emancipated! And I would never again be a slave.”  -Sarah Emma Edmonds (The Mysterious Private Thompson: The Double Life of Sarah Emma Edmonds, Civil War Soldier)

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!!Spoiler Warning!! Contains some spoilers for those who are not up to date with the American release of Bleach. 

Does having a fairly strong female character automatically equal a character freed of sexist bondage (aka harmful stereotyping)? That was the question I started to delve into  the other week when I decided to look into Tite Kubo’s ever popular manga Bleach. Obviously, while some fans seem to skim over the fact that a majority of Kubo’s female character’s are slinging around (most times very openly) breasts the size of an adult human head, but when the strengths of the character are eclipsed by mammoth-sized physical attributes, how inventive is that character really?

Disregarding the physical appearance of Kubo’s female characters (not all of which have bursting bosoms), the ladies of Bleach leave much to be desired in the matter of strength.

Take Bleach’s two main heroines. Rukia, the tough, almost mentor-like character turned trusted companion, and Orihime, the cute, naive, and at times (especially at the beginning) airhead with a compassionate and surprisingly resilient nature. Rukia has more of a natural Japanese look (short, smaller chest, and black hair) while Orihime could perhaps be called the manga dream girl (long orange hair and a very large chest). These girls are very different from each other yet, somehow, both girls play damsels in distress at some point.
























It doesn’t take long to get the ball rolling. In the first chapter of the manga, when Rukia, a sort of grim reaper (or shinigami in Japanese), tries to protect the protagonist, Ichigo (male) from a monster, she ends up wounded. In a last-ditch effort to save them both, Rukia attempts to give Ichigo some of her powers and accidentally is stripped of almost all her powers while Ichigo gains incredible strength. As a result, Rukia must mentor Ichigo to do her job until she regains her power.

While she is put in a position of authority in a way, it leaves Rukia on the side lines and in danger at more than one time where she must depend upon Ichigo or one of the other male heroes to get them all out of peril. So, while Rukia is no push over (especially when she finally regains her power), she remains, throughout the story thus far, dependent on men to pull her through hard times. Admittedly, Ichigo and other male characters do fall into serious trouble and others must come to their rescue, but they also get more glory moments to show that they’re not helpless.

On the other hand, Orhime begins in a more passive, helpless role and gains power later (although not enough to escape the damsel role). She starts off as the spacey classmate of Ichigo’s who Rukia and Ichigo notice is being hunted by an evil spirit. After some fighting and drama, Ichigo manages to save the damsel Orihime. Through this event however, it is revealed that Orihime has been living on her own and taking care of herself for years now after the death of her guardian, making her less helpless than it seemed. Later, Orihime is even given a very incredible and mysterious power that can be used offensively, defensively, and for healing. Be that as it may, this power is almost always used for the latter or defense and when actually used offensively, doesn’t usually work very well.

Then comes the most horrid part for these heroines. In two separate story arcs, Rukia and then Orihime are placed in blatant damsel in distress roles. Rukia is stuck in this role for 14 volumes of the manga and, thus far in the volumes released to America, Orihime has been stuck for 9! In the meantime, whichever girl is not stranded in the sorry work of being a damsel is able to demonstrate some of her abilities as she tries to assist in rescuing the other. Sadly, in many cases, even the active heroine ends up needing aid.

Blurred so that you can see Orihime playing damsel in background.

Does that mean that Rukia and Orihime are completely helpless? No. There are glorious moments within the manga when these strong girls get to show their stuff, moments that really shine. Tite Kubo didn’t make any complete Cinderallas or Sleeping Beautys after all. Unfortunately, what he has done is hold back his great female characters and does not show off their true glory often enough.

This doesn’t mean that Tite Kubo is consciously sexist. It could certainly be that Kubo has simply picked up and left unquestioned the roles and setbacks we give female characters nowadays. It could also be that he is just playing along with the stereotypical scenarios associated with this genre of manga. Even in this modern world where we have come so far, we all still need to be aware of underlining stereotypes.

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