The curse of the strong female

A rather attention-grabbing title there, but it seemed appropriate to today’s topic. I’m into week 15 of my 26-Week Book Challenge, and this week I am discussing my favourite female character. Predictable, after last week’s favourite male, but I never claimed to be terribly original.

Just as last week this is a pretty easy question to answer, and it brings me back to Terry Pratchett, because my favourite female character is Granny Weatherwax.

How this ties in with the title of this post is me jumping on the bandwagon a bit. There have been numerous posts by other people on the subject of strong females (and I even did one myself before, here), and I often hear the lament that in order for a woman in a book to be perceived as strong she needs to be able to kick ass, she can’t cry and she can’t be feminine, because that’s too soft. Ultimately you end up with the generic ‘chicks with dicks’. Now I don’t have anything against a kick-ass female who swears like a trooper and feels more comfortable in combat trousers, but variety is the spice of life, and strong women, just as in real life, come in many various shapes and forms.

Enter Esmerelda Weatherwax. My personal opinion is that Granny is one of the strongest females I have ever seen in any book, and it’s due to the many different layers in her personality that make her a fantastically realistic character. Esme’s unbending will allows her to stand up against elves and vampires, but it also makes her rigid, uncompromising and stubborn to a fault. She is very intelligent, but that same trait makes her somewhat intolerant of the less intellectually gifted members of Lancrean society (and oh, do I find that trait recognisable…). She understands the burden of responsibility, which weighs heaviest on a witch, but this also wearies her so much that at one point she is ready to jack it all in. And due to her sister Lily she understands like no one else what power can do to a witch.

What it boils down to is that a strong female doesn’t need to be physically strong. I would argue that mental strength is more important, but even that may not be completely true. The witch Magrat may generally be seen as a bit of a wet lettuce who constantly doubts herself, but when push comes to shove she too finds her inner strength. To me that says that it’s fully possible for mental strength to be lacking for the better part of a book, as long as it comes out when it counts.

As readers, authors and reviewers I believe that we should try and step away from this notion of ‘strong’ characters. Characters (male or female) should be layered, complex, believable. Likeable is a plus, but you could argue that Granny is anything but. She’s a cantankerous old crone who takes compliments as nothing but her due and seldom hands any out herself. She will chide people for being stupid even as she helps them, and she doesn’t help them because she particularly likes doing so, but because it’s her responsibility, and if anything touches on her pride it is her responsibility as a witch. Granny is about as soft as a granite slab, and equally as flexible. So no, I’d say she is anything but likeable. So why do I admire her so much? Because she’s so bloody clever.

One of my favourite scenes comes from Wyrd Sisters, where the witches summon a demon to find out what’s wrong with Lancre. What follows here is a slightly abridged version, but it perfectly illustrates Granny’s attitude and approach to matters.

‘I always say you can’t go wrong with a good invocation,’ said Nanny. ‘Haven’t done one for years.’

Magrat said, ‘Oh, but you can’t. Not here. You need a cauldron, and a magic sword. And an octogram. And spices, and all sorts of stuff.’

Granny and Nanny exchanged glances.

‘It’s not her fault,’ said Granny. ‘It’s all them grimmers she was bought.’ She turned to Magrat. ‘You don’t need none of that,’ she said. ‘You need headology. You just use whatever you’ve got.’

(Then the ritual itself.)

We conjure and abjure thee by means of this-‘ Granny hardly paused – ‘sharp and terrible copper stick.’

The waters in the boiler rippled gently.

See how we scatter-‘ Magrat sighed – ‘rather old washing soda and some extremely hard soap flakes in thy honour. Really, Nanny, I don’t think-‘

‘Silence! Now you, Gytha.’

And I invoke and bind thee with the balding scrubbing brush of Art and the washboard of Protection,’ said Nanny, waving it. The wringer attachment fell off.

‘Honesty is all very well,’ whispered Magrat wretchedly, ‘but somehow it isn’t the same.’

‘You listen to me, my girl,’ said Granny. ‘Demons don’t care about the outward shape of things. It’s what you think that matters. Get on with it.’

(And then the demon appears.)

Well?’ it said.

‘Who’re you?’ said Granny, bluntly.

My name is unpronounceable in your tongue, woman,’ it said.

‘I’ll be the judge of that,’ warned Granny, and added, ‘Don’t you call me woman.’

Very well. My name is WxrtHltl-jwlpklz,’ said the demon smugly.

‘Where were you when the vowels were handed out? Behind the door?’ said Nanny Ogg.

‘Well, Mr-‘ Granny hesitated only fractionally – ‘WxrtHltl-jwlpklz, I expect you’re wondering why we called you here tonight.’

You’re not supposed to say that,’ said the demon. ‘Youre supposed to say-‘

‘Shut up. We have the sword of Art and the octogram of Protection, I warn you.’

Please yourself. They look like a washboard and copper stick to me,’ sneered the demon.

Granny glanced sideways. The corner of the washroom was stacked with kindling wood, with a big heavy sawhorse in front of it. She stared fixedly at the demon and, without looking, brought the stick down hard across the thick timber.

The dead silence that followed was broken only by the two perfectly-sliced halves of the sawhorse teetering backwards and forwards and folding slowly into the heap of kindling.

The demon’s face remained impassive. ‘You are allowed three questions,’ it said.

The rest of that scene is well worth reading, but I’ll stop here. Still, it’s a perfect example of how Granny thinks. Headology is still the single best concept ever introduced in any book, ever.

Anyway, let’s all collectively step away from this concept of ‘strong’ characters. Let’s move to calling them compelling instead. Not likeable, because I can name any number of total bastards in Fantasy, but you need to be invested in them. A good, compelling character is one where you truly care about what happens to them, regardless of whether they’re likeable or not, and regardless of whether they cry when they’re sad, or whether they wear their dresses well.

Do you agree or disagree? Please let me know in the comments below!


11 thoughts on “The curse of the strong female

  1. Green Embers

    Oh I need to read this book. My Terry Pratchett reading has been lacking. I pretty much agree with you. The only contrast I would make is when people reference a woman being “strong” in the real world it isn’t physical prowess they are talking about but strength of character, a certain confidence that they exude and a level of charisma. Great read, thank you for sharing your thoughts!

      1. Green Embers

        Yeah, I’ve read Going Postal which is one of my favorite books but I always get confused on where to start for some of his other books, because some of them are series within the overall series, lol.

      2. Erica Dakin Post author

        It’s never a bad idea to just start them in chronological order, just keep in mind that he needed about three or four books to really get into his stride. If you’re interested in particular characters let me know and I can give you the right books in the right order for just those characters. =)

      3. Green Embers

        Yeah I failed to mention I read the first couple. My friend who went to an author signing mentioned that he advised to not start with his first books, lol.

        I am currently listening to Thud on audiobook, enjoying that. I really liked um… the Soccer one, lol. I forget the name but that one was fun.

        What’s the first one in the Witches you mentioned that I should start with?

      4. Erica Dakin Post author

        The first book featuring Granny Weatherwax is Equal Rites, but the first ‘proper’ witches book is Wyrd Sisters. You’re probably better off reading that one first, it’s definitely better.

  2. Aequanimitas23

    I definitely understand what you and many like-minded readers/authors are saying about the now almost archetypal “strong female” character, but I don’t think the terminology is so narrowly applied by all (or maybe even most) readers. Considering that we have ideas about the historical place of female characters in fiction (whether or not those ideas are wholly accurate) as largely unflattering as well as uninteresting, in my experience, what many people (particularly fellow female folks) mean when they say a “strong female character,” is something more like “character I don’t feel is a really problematic stereotype of women” or “character that doesn’t embarrass/disgust/pidgeon-hole/degrade me as a woman.”

    Strong characters can have flaws, can experience and express emotions, can make mistakes and not always perfectly slay every dragon. They can even wear pink dresses and shop on the weekends with their friends. The reason why “strong” continues to feel like an accurate term for what I’m looking for in certain characters has nothing to do with sword-swinging capability, but it does have rather a lot to do with a character’s distance from certain still-prevalent portrayals of women that are steeped in sexism. And, yes, sometimes characters that should be classifiable in that “strong” category in theory, fall short for me because they’re clearly just props for the branch of sexism that dismisses and demeans femininity as something inherently less-than, weak, etc. It is always going to be the case that these terms will be imperfect when trying to group things together, but I don’t think that means throwing the terms out improves our odds of finding or creating what we want.

    “Compelling” feels a bit general to me. All the characters I like are compelling to me. And most characters I find fascinating are, likewise, by definition compelling. When I say that I want a “strong female lead” in a show or a book, I’m looking for a particular sort of compelling character – a female character who is complex and multilayered, yes, but also built to challenge sexist representations of women, just by the nature of her existence and the way she lives in the world that’s been created for her. Why would we have a problem applying the word “strong” to a character like that when we have little issues applying such a word to real life women, presently and historically, who walk tall in the world, push boundaries, and get things done without bowing to what society says they must be or by subverting it and making it a new thing, wholly their own?

    Michelle Obama doesn’t have to defend the White House against zombies with a machine gun while cursing at people, wearing bloodied camo pants, and smoking a cigar to be a strong woman (though I have no doubt she’d defend her family and anyone nearby to her last breath). I don’t want to call her “complex” or “intriguing” and I wouldn’t call a character like her simply compelling. Maybe I’d consider “dynamic,” but I like “strong.” It works. If strong is allowed to include complexity (and I think it is), then … what’s wrong with just calling them strong? It doesn’t have to refer to a caricature anymore than “compelling” does.

    Just my opinion,

    1. Erica Dakin Post author

      Wow, that’s got to be the longest comment I’ve ever had! I agree with a lot of what you’re saying, and if every reader (reviewer?) were like you there wouldn’t be the need for a rant at a too narrow definition of ‘strong’. The problem is just that I’ve seen so many bloggers lament the fact that a lot of people equate strong with physically strong, tough and un-feminine, that there appears to be a generic problem with the terminology. Sad but true.
      Also, I am generalising here. People like you should be the majority. They just appear to be the minority.

      1. Aequanimitas23

        Maybe. I would be really interested in who the “lot of people” are who theoretically “equate strong with physically strong, tough, and un-feminine” that said bloggers are working to counter. Sometimes I feel like the blogosphere explodes with a particular conceptual enemy for everyone to critique and comment on even when there isn’t necessarily a lot of evidence supporting that the enemy even exists.

        Are these assertions based on surveys of multiple books that feature female main characters? Do we know who’s reading those books and why? Do we know who’s categorizing said characters as “strong female characters” and why? Are the assertions based on surveys of authors who say things akin to “yes, strong means tough-as-nails WWF champions”? Surveys of readers who say “if she’s in a dress and it’s not to camouflage her gun, I’m not reading it”?

        I guess I think, yes, there are absolutely tons of interpretations of “strong female characters” as weapon-toting, frill-hating, alpha types – and there’s nothing wrong with that (I think it’s really important to say that, these don’t have to be caricatures, they can be complex!) – but I haven’t seen any hard evidence that suggests assuming that this interpretation ALONE is what readers mean or want is any more reasonable than assuming that said readers are more like me. If you have resources to share, I’d really appreciate them, because I genuinely have a hard time believing that this isn’t a kind of straw man scenario sweeping through the Net right now.

        Even the iconic strong female character Buffy the Vampire Slayer was complex and layered, feminine and with real emotions as well as a badass. And Buffy’s been off the air for like a decade. We can’t possibly imagine that readers/consumers only want Rambo with boobs when they say “strong female character.” That seems incredibly presumptive and suggests we’re dealing with a lot of very behind-the-times readers, which I have a hard time imagining.

        Just saying,

        P.S. Yes, I’m a bit verbose. I’d apologize, but I don’t believe in apologizing for things I don’t intend to fix, LOL.

      2. Erica Dakin Post author

        Oh, I wasn’t complaining! It was more of a ‘squee, someone took the time to write a really long comment!’ kind of thing.

        Anyway, the best example I can find of someone complaining about this is this article:

        There’s also this one:

        And yes, neither of those articles give much hard evidence, I know.

        Have I ever encountered this particular attitude myself? Happily, not much, but I’m a little self-pubbed author with only a handful of reviews to my name. I guess we’re both lucky we’ve not come across many blinkered people yet. =)

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