Can a woman be strong yet still need a man?

So, the computer has stopped fritzing out. I’m not sure if it is a permanent state of affairs, since all the husband did was swap out my memory for his, but neither of us are blue-screening, so I’m cautiously optimistic.

Of course, this means that I no longer have an excuse not to cough up a post, so it’s lucky that I have something to talk about today.

I have been pondering the subject of strong women for a while, but two things have happened this week to make it particularly pertinent. The first one was this article on the New Statesman website. It is a very good post (probably a lot better than mine will turn out to be), and it once again highlights the ongoing battle for equality which women have to fight, often on a daily basis.

The second thing that happened was that I received another review for The Ritual from one of the winners of my Goodreads giveaway. It is the first review I have received without a rating attached, and I found it very interesting. Let me start by saying I have no problem whatsoever with the review – I can’t for the life of me remember what I put in the giveaway description, but it sounds like I wasn’t clear enough on it being a romance in a fantasy setting, rather than a fantasy with romance elements. As such it was too romance-heavy for this particular reader, and he did not finish the book. It happens, and I am grateful to him for not rating me at all rather than rating me down. There is one line in the review however, which most interested me: “The female lead was interesting with a strong personality. She meets up with a guy, who treats her badly and is mean to her, but he had dreamy eyes and attractive so she falls for him. It annoyed me to read about a strong woman acted like this.”[sic]

I’ll come back to the New Statesman article in a minute; let’s look at the review first. It is not the first time I have received this particular criticism, and I know it is all opinion and such, but it does irk me a little. I like to think of myself as a strong woman. I am intelligent, I know my worth and I am assertive when I need to be. That said, if you put a dark, handsome (young) man in my field of vision, will I swoon and drool? Hell yes! If I am also in his field of vision I’ll probably be circumspect about it, but I’m a sucker for eyecandy, and I don’t think I’m any less strong because of it.

Example #1: the handsome dark male. (Image courtesy of photos.lucywho.com)

Ah, you say, but what about the treating her badly part? Well, there’s the clincher. Yes, Zash is a dick when you first meet him, dreamy eyes notwithstanding. Rin’s reaction is therefore annoyance – she hates finding him so attractive when he’s an arsehole underneath. However – and this is the important part – I have tried my best to gradually make him less of a dick, and to let Rin’s attitude adjust accordingly. Of course, I don’t know at which point my reviewer stopped reading, but I’ve tried very hard to make that balance, and I’m just a little disappointed that in this case it didn’t come across.

Let me repeat though: ultimately it all comes down to opinion, and I know I can’t win them all. I asked all my winners to be honest with me, and I’m glad this reviewer has done exactly that. The bit that irks me is the assumption that a woman isn’t strong when she swoons over a man, because I just don’t see how that is the case. Is a man not considered strong when he lusts after a woman?

Which brings me back to the New Statesman article, and the ongoing problem with female characters in books. ‘A good, strong heroine’, a review might say, and as a writer you go ‘yay!’ because that’s a good thing. But the point is well made that such things are only ever said about female characters. Men are never praised for being strong, because that’s the default state. It’d be nice if it could be the default state for women as well, but then there is the opposite problem as well: no one will bat an eyelid if a book contains a weak, snivelly, weaselly scumbag of a man, because men are allowed to be anything they want. A weak, snivelly woman, however, will cause the author to be berated and downrated. Yet when you look at the real world, I’m sure that there are just as many weak-willed women as there are weak-willed men.

Of course, such characters are unlikely to be protagonists, but in that case the equality should be a given – whether your protagonist is male or female, one should always assume they are strong, and a remark should only be made when they turn out not to be. Even then you’re limiting yourself though, because there are so many different personalities you can put in your character, and not all of them fit into the ‘classic’ strong bracket. Is a woman weak when she chooses to follow the man she loves in order to be a housewife and the mother of his children, giving up her own life in the process? The gut reaction might be to say ‘yes’, but as long as it is her choice, and she has made it while knowing the full consequences, why would that make her weak? I’d say she was strong for having the guts to leave everything she knows behind and start anew.

It’s odd for me to get involved in this eternal debate, because usually I’m not actually all that bothered about the whole men vs women thing. I am lucky in that I have experienced little to no gender discrimination, either professionally or privately, so most of the time I don’t even think about it. But every now and then I read a story about a woman being on the receiving end of vitriolic abuse by misogynistic men (young or old), and I despair at the world and our ability to move forward.

When it comes to my fictional world, in The Ritual men are quite firmly in charge, and women are mostly subservient. I could be told off for prolonging (or reverting back to) the status quo, but I see it more as another instrument in creating conflict, because when it comes down to it, conflict is at the heart of every book, whatever form it takes. By having a world in which women are seen as second-rate, my female characters can use that to their advantage (and have definitely done so), and since my male protagonists are perfectly happy to accept women as equals, I don’t think I’m doing my women any disservice.

So, what does everyone else think of this subject? I’m always interested to hear your thoughts!

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6 thoughts on “Can a woman be strong yet still need a man?

  1. H. Anthe Davis

    We’ve already talked a bit on this, but I think one of the points brought up in the linked article is really important: a variety of women. When there’s only one woman (or just a few) in the story, they don’t have the leeway to take a variety of roles; it either becomes a Strong Woman story or a Somebody’s Girlfriend story, pretty much, with Strong Woman being defined as a-woman-who-isn’t-just-a-girlfriend. Depressing, but that just means adding more, and more varied, women into the tale so that no one woman has to carry the Token Woman mantle.

    Reply
    1. Erica Dakin Post author

      So true. The thing is that I don’t even think about these things, I just write stuff, and I have no idea whether I’m prolonging the status quo myself (or whether I even care). I’m too pampered probably.

      Reply
      1. H. Anthe Davis

        I think something to look at is whether you have a woman who NEEDS a man, or a woman who WANTS a man. If she needs a man in order to be a complete person/a useful character, then she’s mostly an accessory. If instead she wants one, then she’s operating with agency, toward a goal — hopefully a relationship rather than a prize, but still, she’s acting on her own behalf. And I think your characters have that Want, rather than the Need, which is good.

  2. tktrian

    “Men are never praised for being strong, because that’s the default state. It’d be nice if it could be the default state for women as well, but then there is the opposite problem as well: no one will bat an eyelid if a book contains a weak, snivelly, weaselly scumbag of a man, because men are allowed to be anything they want. A weak, snivelly woman, however, will cause the author to be berated and downrated. Yet when you look at the real world, I’m sure that there are just as many weak-willed women as there are weak-willed men.”
    Loved this bit! This is exactly how we feel as well. What is interesting to us is a wide array of characters; snivelly women (oh we write those), independent, brave women (those too), loser and asshole men, and muscle-bound good guys. The important thing is to write characters, not some tropes to make some feminist statement that “a real woman doesn’t need a man” or to appease an audience (“no one will ever love a difficult person!”).
    Good post!

    Reply
    1. Erica Dakin Post author

      That’s very true – it’s all about the characters. I like to think I have good characters, be they male or female, and I don’t really tweak them just to appeal to an audience. Frankly, most of them don’t let me anyway!

      Reply
  3. tktrian

    And actually, I see no problem in writing a character who feels they NEED a partner (be it man or woman), and the obvious development for a character like that would be to realize at some point that another person can’t complete them, and it won’t fix their problems and make them truly happy. I agree that writers shouldn’t tweak their characters to fit some feedback. Many, many, many men and women fall for unpleasant individuals; some make it work, some fall apart. Perhaps in your story they made it work, then? 🙂

    And let me tell you, not one beta-reader has been annoyed about our relatively strong male character (in the sense that he fends for himself at the age of 15) who’s hopelessly in love with a girl who treats him badly and is mean to him, but she’s attractive so he falls for her. Double-standards? 😉
    -K.Trian

    Reply

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