Monday, 7 March 2016

Help, my strong female character is an idiot!

Fair warning, this is a rant. It will use aggressive language and confrontational statements. There will also be biased opinions and it will be heavily coloured by my interpretation. In short, I'm very annoyed and being highly dramatic. HOWEVER: I firmly believe that when you dial back the emotion, there is a lot of truth in this piece and I will enter into debate with any party who wishes to oppose my point of view.

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What makes a strong female character? I'll be honest, I don't have a magic answer for you. But I can tell you one behaviour which is far too often gifted to the "strong female character" that undermines everything this character is supposed to stand for. I refer, of course, to the female character who does something spectacularly stupid under the guise of "strength" and "independence" that too frequently results in her becoming a "Damsel in distress".

Examples? Stephanie Laurens is rife with these. Her books are historical romances littered with female characters who rebel against the expected status of women of the period and partner off with men who respect their strengths. However, these women have a tendency to completely disrespect their men, assuming they don't know what they are talking about when they say things like "that place is littered with criminals who will do unspeakable things to you" and merrily prance to said location at the earliest opportunity, requiring the man to step in and rescue them. *sigh*

While I'm willing to accept that on the grounds that - well, let's face facts - those books are light fluff and don't need to be consistent or in any way plausible, there are other instances of this that have disappointed me greatly.

Consider the ending to Andy Weir's The Martian. He wrote a good ending and Hollywood... they butchered it because they wanted the commander to get more screen time. In the book, the commander is a very strong leader, excellent communicator and delegator. She takes charge of all situations without needing to be the center of attention and her team respect her greatly. In the film, as they are rescuing Mark, she suddenly (at the very last possible second) changes the game plan, without communicating it. Despite knowing both the length of the tether available and the distance they need to travel she launches herself out of the spaceship in an effort she knows to be futile. She behaves completely irrationally and unjustifiably and it totally undermines everything that she represents - strength, capability, professionalism - in the book.

In her debut sci-fi novel, Fluency, Jen Foehner Wells is very invested in her strong female lead - according to several tweets describing her as such. However, within the first few pages, said "strong" character has complained about a nickname one man bestowed on her at the very start of her time with NASA (as I recall, the phrase was "he called her doc although it didn't make sense, they were all masters or PhDs"). She didn't say this to the guy who gave her the nickname. Oh no. She just sits there being a victim for years.

Being charitable, I can find circumstances under which this behaviour would be justifiable, or that sort of fit with the strong female character archetype. Possibly she wasn't really complaining or bothered by it, maybe she was just confused. Perhaps, despite both reflecting on the nickname and not being able to understand why he's singled her out for years, perhaps she had still never found a need to clarify it with him. There are instances of this inconsistency throughout the book, but it's a debut novel, so I pull my punches.

However, the point the character falls apart is the moment you discover one tiny fact about her that actually serves *no* purpose in terms of plot, except to trigger a conversation that no strong woman would ever feel the need to have.

Before I tell you, here's some context:

  • she's in a capsule travelling to Mars for 18 months
  • the capsule has a single private toilet area covered by a curtain
  • bathing is not a thing
  • she's trained with NASA for over a year before going on the expedition
  • her preparation would have included cat scans and X-Rays to check bone density and internal organ health 
  • her doctor is female 


The woman has an IUD the doctor on her expedition didn't know about.

 An IUD.

She didn't take hormone pills that would stop her period entirely, thus eliminating a messy bodily excretion for the period of the expedition, despite having a female doctor on board who would have *no* reason to forget to take the tablets, even if they weren't in the habit of taking them with their breakfast vitamins.

She didn't have an operation at NASA to implant it (or her Dr would know), she didn't have it when she was scanned by NASA (or her Dr would know) and she obviously didn't ask anyone for advice on how an IUD would operate in a gravity free environment because if lack of gravity means it slips, what then? There's clearly no way it can be reinserted in the capsule given the lack of space.

She deliberately went out of her way to get a form of birth control she couldn't self administer and keep it secret from a trained health professional while operating in a completely foreign (and gravity free) environment. Not only is that not strong, it's the behaviour of someone who is deeply ashamed of a simple bodily function. They are too ashamed to speak even to a female doctor and, crucially, so ashamed that they take a huge risk with a dodgy choice rather than speak sensibly to someone about their options.

 And the conversation it triggered? "Oh, I don't want you to think I'm ready to have sex with you because I'm using contraception." It could even be interpreted as "I don't want you to think I have loose morals because I'm using contraception."

What. the. Hell.

I'm sorry, but really. How, as a strong woman, can you take a mental stance other than "I have the right to choose whether or not I want to have sex with you, and my wants have nothing to do with my contraceptive choices" therefore making that entire conversation utterly redundant? If it came up in conversation at all it should only be because he raised it (Hey. pretty lady, I see you're safe from unwanted babies, therefore let's get it on!) and her response is easy. Two words: Fuck off.

I'm conscious I've become slightly passionate, so I'll dial it back a little. Let's say that conversation was crucial and the only possible trigger for it was evidence that she was sexually aware. Let's claim all of the above is completely rational. This wasn't the only example of a time where an irresponsible, immature choice was made by this character.

A big deal is made of the fact that the main character doesn't like guns. OK, fine. I'm not fond of them myself. But think about any particularly dangerous or stressful situation when a small group works together. That group depends on each other for survival. Trust between them is critical, especially when entering completely unknown, possibly hostile territory. Any threat could come forward. Every member of that team is dependent on everyone else. One person fucks up, they all could die.

In Fluency, during their pre-flight training and in preparation for dangerous situations, it is more important to this strong female character that everyone knows her stance on guns than it is to ensure her teammates know they can trust her to take care of herself and them in a dangerous situation. She isn't willing to do that. She deliberately, as an intelligent, mature, capable individual who has been in survival situations before, chooses to undermine the strength of the team by making herself a weak point.

The guy who leads the expedition when her skillset isn't needed is portrayed as a bad guy for the way he reacts to her behaviour, but I'm totally on his side. Completely. I can understand exactly where he is coming from and I pity him. She had several options; the one she chose was the dramatic, reckless one, with no long term rationale behind it.

And that's the problem. In some fluff you can accept that the "Strong Female Character" is just a nod to modern sensibilities, or an excuse to bring sexual freedom into a repressed world. But when dramatic, reckless behaviour becomes the norm, and you can see it spreading across into genres which take women more seriously?

That pisses me off.

What is worse is that while the women are busy flouncing and declaring their strength an independence, the men are working away in the background getting the damn job done; except when they have to stop to rescue the idiot female.