Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Girls: Choose Your Own Adventure

I thought the next epic blog post I wrote would be a return to the discussion of girlwashing, but the last few days a number of articles have caught my eye regarding females in literature and film.  These discussions coupled with the hostile current climate of American politics have my WGST back all up.

In case you didn't know, and really why would you, I have a fancy degree in English and Women's Studies, so I like to think I have some valuable perspective on the subject.  But that does not mean that I do.  You have been warned.

I've recently read a few pieces that attack the concept of strong female characters.  One I felt drew a thought-provoking conclusion.   Another felt more like a rant.  But each took exception to how women respond and react in various novels and films.  The underlying theme of the pieces was in regard to women, or girls, existing within masculine cultures of violence, politics, and power.  In one it was claimed that Katniss Everdeen is not the "badass" heroine people proclaim her to be because she lacked agency.  In another Princess Leia came under attack because, although she can handle a gun, sometimes she gets saved and - while I can't remember if the piece explicitly stated it - there's the issue of the metal bikini.

The pieces set my mind on fire, to say the least.  Pardon the terrible metaphor, but I've been too consumed with my thoughts on the matter to come up with something better.  Is it a winning argument to say Katniss lacks agency because she does not kill?  The author of that article goes so far as to imply that because she avoids killing, she lacks agency.  Of course this set me off on a tirade about how on earth someone could argue that trying to avoid killing someone in a death match shows a lack of agency.  But what really got me going was that the author of the article went so far as to call it a fairy tale, and it's clear from her* writing she loathes fairy tales, that shows women are settling for something the author deems as less than feminist.

Another writer chose Princess Leia to dissect, pointing out that giving a woman a gun was not enough to make her a strong female character.  She goes on to say that the problem is such damsel in distress characters, like Leia, failed because they were saved in the last act usually after being trapped and objectified by the villain.  In the end, Mlawski is arguing for more strong characters.  Women that have strengths and weaknesses and insecurities and eccentricities.  Basically, that we can't just shove a gun in a girl's hand and call her strong.  There has to be more than that, according to Mlawski.  I respect that, even if I had a really great argument brewing about mutually beneficial relationships across genders (aka why its okay when a guy saves a girl or a girl saves a guy) and how such symbiotic partnerships encourage mutual respect and progress.  Fine, I won't go that route.

Back to the agency thing.

Disliking the actions a female character makes does not justify refuting the character's agency.  It just means you think she should have acted differently, or that you believe you would have acted differently.  Indeed the greatest injustice we do to any character - male or female - occurs when we project our own belief system on them.  When we do this, we  believe we are more or less capable than the character rather than accepting the nature of the character.  We proclaim a character as weak or stupid, imagining we could do better, or, alternately, become enamored with a character, wishing we were the ones on the other end of Edward Cullen's lips or racing across an arena.  The problem with either scenario is that we begin to remove agency from the character by rejecting their actions or by replacing them in our own fantasies.  As a reader I am guilty of such projection onto characters, but as a writer I am more cognizant of the actual nature of my characters.

Critics, and as a former academic I believe I can say this, are often guilty of committing the worst grievance of all - robbing a character of agency and then lambasting the author or novel as lacking.  That is not to say that all novels are perfect works of art, but when I start to see repeated references to author's failure to provide realistic or strong female characters coupled with scathing criticism, I sometimes wonder if the critic is missing the point. Some novels are meant to divert.  In fact, the history of the novel lies within this.  A novel was merely that - novel.  Hence the name.  Don't say I never taught you anything.  Some seek to enlighten or elucidate either through great answers or great questions.  Some do both.  Too often the fault in criticism is when we seek to place a novel that is trying to do one thing into the camp of the other and then the characters in a commercial romance become too trite and the plot of the literary novel too obtuse, and the poor novels attempting to do both generally fail miserably all around to the critic.

Further, the general aim of most academics, scholars, and critics is to find something new to say about that which everyone has already talked about.  Case in point, I started my graduate career studying Shakespeare but lost heart when I was repeatedly told there was just nothing new to say about his works.  This pushed me into 18th century studies, which was rapidly growing in popularity but still had plenty of books to dissect and topics on which to latch.   Let me tell you that when you found a new topic or a new angle you clung to it like a life preserver whether or not you truly believed it.  This is my cynical way of saying that a small part of me views many of the articles on books like The Hunger Games as attempts to jump on a hot topic from a new angle rather than really providing compelling, well-conceived discussion on the topic.  Is it thought-provoking to point out that Katniss never plots and carries out  murder (although I wonder if this scholar has read all three books - she might be surprised*)?  Perhaps. Unfortunately the article quickly digresses into rhetoric rather than analysis, and thereby loses much of its credibility with me.  In the need to remove Katniss's "badass" status, the author overlooks much of her character arch over the course of the trilogy, focusing instead on the film and the marketing and hype surrounding it and then projecting her own concept of feminism onto what is largely background noise rather than the character herself.  I'm not terribly interested in a character who learns everything in the first book - where can she go from there save for total enlightenment?  But it's not really about her growth in the books or in the movies or even how we perceive her.  No,perhaps ironically, it's about our own agenda.

Again when a female character, or, hell, let's just go there, a woman does something against our concept of what is right or best, intelligent or proactive, we begin to project what we would do in the situation.  Just as one might argue Bella Swan is too in love with Edward for it to be healthy, a friend might whisper to another friend "her husband is so abusive, and she's too stupid to leave."  This results in the worst kind of sexism, one which stems from projection and judgment, masquerading as feminism.

I planned to close this piece there, but when I went to link to the article I saw the author had reiterated her point and further illustrated what she saw as the problem.  It is not just that Katniss lacks agency but that everything "badass" she does is in relationship to male expectations, or lack thereof, of her.  The author's entire grievance has now shifted to how this just teaches us that if we try hard "someday we might surprise a boy."  Long tirade short, it ends in a cyclical argument that the story resonates with 15 year-old girls because they get sexist signals from 40 year-old women, and that everyone claiming to be a feminist is lying to themselves because we only perceive ourselves in relationship to men.  I'm not saying that's not entirely without merit, but, unfortunately, the argument loses water with me, considering that in the last couple of months a state has repealed an equal wage act, increasingly invasive laws regarding female reproduction are being debated, and senators are equating women with cattle.  It seems the issue of women and men and inferiority is alive and well.

But what really bothers me about it is that it reeks of a something far more insidious - a prescriptive feminism that seeks to strictly define itself in narrow, unforgiving terms. One in which there is a right way to be a feminist, just like there is a right way to be a badass or a woman in general.  It harkens back to the concept of judgment and projection.  The feminist career woman who turns down her nose at the stay-at-home mom.  The stay-at-home mom who determines the career woman is unfulfilled and empty in corporate life.  The conservative woman who deems the stripper a crackwhore with daddy issues.  The stripper who assumes the wife of her best client is a prudish, old-fashioned woman.  Perhaps The Last Psychiatrist was right about one thing, it is women doing this to other women - all too often choosing to engage in judgment after projecting their own value system on another woman.  But the overall argument from the articles on The Hunger Games tastes too much of the politics of Second Wave Feminism to me.

What I would leave you with, dear readers, may not be what you expect.  It's just this: empowerment is about choice.  Personal choice.  You cannot choose for another woman anymore than you can choose for a character.  If we're to rise above the label os strong and weak, we must view choice in autonomous terms.  We must respect that another's choices are not are own.  We must do more than tolerate it, and then deride it later.  We must affirm that within choice lies power and that our greatest duty to one another as feminists - as humanists - is to empower one another's choice.

The choice of the girl who takes her sister's place in a deadly arena.

The choice of a girl who marries her vampire sweetheart.

The choice of a girl who chooses a different faction.

The choice of a girl to defy her stepmother and go to the ball.

The choice of a girl who wants to lose herself in sex.

The choice of a girl to have the baby.

The choice of a girl not to have the baby.

The choice.  The choice.  The choice.

It is our only hope.


*My apologies to The Last Psychiatrist if I am engendering you incorrectly.  I can't seem to find out much about who you are or what your credentials are from your website.


  1. Great post. I had not thought much about whether or not Katniss seemed to be an empowering character. But after reading both this and The Last Psychiatrist's posts, I do see her as completely empowering. If we really are going to say that she didn't have agency (yes, she had to be in the game, fight to the death, wear the make-up) then how did she, as you said, have the power to make the choice to save her sister? to save Peeta? to band with Ru? to pretend to eat the berries? In this way, the story is very much about a girl who had many choices made for her, but in the midst of that, she found the ability to make some of her own, very painful, decisions. If a girl in such a confining world can find the strength to exercise her feeble power of choice and create such a difference, then imagine what the power my choice holds in my own world.

    Or did I totally miss the point? I may have had a glass of wine or two before reading/writing this.

  2. This is such an awesome post Gen. I'm a women's studies major too. I so agree that it's all about having choices. I'm older--in my 50s--and when I went to school, it was the first time women really had the choice to have a career as well as family. We take some of these choices too for granted now and it's scary how some of these rights are being taken away.

    And I agree that how girls (and guys) are strong characters doesn't mean they always save the day and like all of us, they show their strength in different ways. Thanks for sharing this.

  3. Melissa Brady KingApril 11, 2012 at 5:15 AM

    I really enjoyed this. I too believe a character, male or female, can show empowerment and autonomy in ways other than "saving the day" or "killing." For me, the reaping scene spoke loudly about Katniss's strength, and the fact that she avoids killing/death because she feels it is wrong only made her a more sympathetic character. Thanks for sharing.

  4. So it is entirely too early for me to be as coherent as I'd like to be, but you are so right on with this post. The term Strong Female Character can be a bit misleading, and I've seen many writers interpret it solely as physical strength. (The same writers generally have a habit of making the character repeatedly proclaim how strong she is, without bothering to give her a personality beyond that...)

    As for me, I love female characters who can kick a little ass, but it definitely goes beyond that. Some of my favorite female characters are tomboys, but just as many of them are traditionally feminine, and even more of them occupy a space in-between, just like many of the women I know. In the end, a character will appeal to me through the strength of her convictions, not the strength of her right hook.