Friday, September 14, 2012

Easy, "Strong," Female Characters

  Hey there, Meat-Heads...oh boy...I really should have put some more thought into that headline...that's going to get me in trouble...


  So you're writing your story, coming up with some great characters, but you get to a point where you say "HEY! This comic is a sausage fest! We need some chicks up in this bitch!" Well hopefully you didn't say it just like that, otherwise you have some other problems to address first, before your writing...but want a female character, but you don't want just any female character. You don't want a damsel in distress, or some vapid eye candy, you want a confident female who can stand toe to toe with the boys!
  You want a "strong" female character, right?
  Well she's gonna have to be tough!
  And she's gonna have to be sexy!
  And she's going to have to have been raped at some point in her life!
  "YEEEEEEE--wait, what?"

  For some reason, probably because 90% of mainstream comics are written by men, rape has become sort of a storytelling shorthand when it comes to crafting "strong" female characters, or exploring the backstory and history of pre-existing ones. If you don't believe me, here's a list of female comic book characters who have rape or domestic abuse in their backstory that I can think of off the top of my head:

Catwoman - Batman
Black Cat - Spider-Man
Jessica Drew - Alias
Huntress - Batman
Wasp - Avengers
Karen Page - Daredevil
Ms. Marvel - Avengers
Elektra (metaphorical rape) - Daredevil
Batgirl (metaphorical rape) - Batman
Michonne - Walking Dead
Abigail Arcane - Swamp Thing

  Now I know you're thinking "you really like some weird crap, eh?" but the truth is, most, if not all of these characters appear in mainstream comics published by the top few publishers in the biz, and many of these characters appear in those respective companies' biggest, most widely appealing titles, some written by the best writers and in the best stories in comics' history.

  So why is it used so much? Well, rape is horrible! It's probably the most horrible thing that can happen to a woman, and it takes a great deal of strength to deal with such a tragedy, so what's a more perfect thing to throw in to a "strong" female character's backstory to show that she's tough and can overcome adversity, right?!

  Ehhhhh...not exactly. Remember this clip? I used it in my post about guns, and I think it can also apply to what I'm talking about today:

  Rape, for the most part, is another form of lazy writing. It's the "guns" of psychological trauma. Does it work? Sure. Is it necessary? No, not at all! What's worse is it's actually pretty offensive, and shows a gross lack of knowledge about women in general to assume a character can't be complex without a background of sexual abuse.

 Here's a few strong female characters from movies, comics, and tv that were crafted that way free of sexual abuse:

 Jean Grey of the X-Men
Dana Scully of the X-Files
Sarah Connor of the Terminator films
Buffy Summers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer

 These are strong female characters who have completely rounded strengths and weaknesses as legitimate and dramatic as any of the most well-written male characters out there.

  Let's look at Sarah Connor for a moment:

  Wait...that's not....ugh hold on....wrong clip.

   Ok, Let's look at Sarah Connor for a minute
**Clip contains some naughty words, beware!**
Best of Terminator: Sarah Connor

  Through the course of 2 movies, Sarah goes from just an everyday girl into someone burdened with a horrible knowledge of the future who will do anything she can to protect her son, and is so consumed with what she knows that she will sacrifice herself and kill others in order to prevent the oncoming apocalypse. Some pretty out-there stuff, but completely compelling and without a shred of cliche backstory to muck things up.

  Now does that mean you can't use rape as a backstory or subtext? No, not at all--look at the movie Alien.
 "But there's no rape in Alien!"
  No? In the original script the character of Ripley was a man, but it was later changed to a female who was famously portrayed by Sigourney Weaver, and became one of film's most powerful women. Why is this change significant? Well if you get past the space monster overtones of Alien, and think about what it is the alien is actually doing to people...I'll wait...ok, got it? Alien has a strong sexual subtext in it that just wouldn't be as effective if the protagonist was a male.

  Writing isn't easy, so when trying to craft relatable scenarios or characters, it's much simpler to throw around something that's as universal as "guns are dangerous," or "rape is horrible," as a shortcut in storytelling instead of taking the time to come up with something much more dense and unique that will make your stories all the more engaging and ultimately more entertaining for your readers/watchers/whathaveyous.

 I hope this was helpful, and I look forward to your angry letters.

 Now don't even get me started on the "he/she killed his/her parents," backstory. Yeesh.

 Until next time, EAT DEAD MEAT!

**Update on 9/14/2012**

I would just like to add that the trend of excessive violence toward females is so prevalent in the Comics world specifically that there is even a term for it: "Fridging," which references a scene from an issue of Green Lantern where GL comes home to find his girlfriend's dismembered body stuck in the refridgerator.  This term was originated by comics writer Gail Simone, who first talked about it here: Women In Refrigerators

While my post deals specifically with rape, I do think you have an entirely different discussion as far as fridging in general goes, as there are plenty of people out there who would say "there have been just as many horrible things done to male characters as well," and while I wouldn't necessarily disagree with them, I still think it's worth a look, a consideration, and even an argument!

Stay Scared!


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