Strong and Femme

I’ve never bought into the argument that dismisses a certain kind of female character as badly written because “she’s just a man dressed up in women’s clothing.” I myself am not terribly feminine in the stereotypical sense: I rarely wear skirts, prefer action movies to romantic comedies, don’t readily share my feelings, etc.

But that’s not the same thing as saying that I have a problem with skirts, romantic comedies, and talking about your feelings.

I’ve seen a bunch of conversations lately around the whole Strong Female Character schtick — and I capitalize that for a reason, because a Strong Female Character is a specific archetype, not just a character who happens to be female and in some sense strong. You know the type: she wears leather, carries a gun, doesn’t take anybody’s shit, et cetera and so forth.

I like that character just fine, when she’s done well. What I don’t like is the sense that she’s the only type of female character who is strong. I don’t like watching her spit on the women around her who do show conventially feminine qualities, as if that somehow makes them lesser.

Which is why it’s made me so happy that lately, I’ve seen a number of female characters in media who are strong and still girly, feminine, femme, use whatever word you prefer for it. Characters who are allowed to like lipstick and still go to Narnia. Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsis, and Mrs. Which in A Wrinkle in Time are in-your-face femme, and they’re amazing. Vice Admiral Holdo is a badass in a quasi-Grecian gown. Etta Candy is one of my favorite characters in Wonder Woman; Cassandra the math genius on The Librarians is 100% girly (and a useful counterbalance to Eve the ex-NATO counterterrorism expert). Having these things pinging on my radar led to me writing this passage in the sequel to the Memoirs of Lady Trent, after Audrey’s sister Lotte apologizes for writing her a letter full of gossip about her Season:

Never apologize for writing to me about frippery and husband-hunting. I might not have any interest in that for my own sake, but I care about it a great deal for your sake, because it makes you happy.

I used to not, you know. I thought I was obliged, as Lady Trent’s granddaughter, to sneer at all things feminine and frilly. I made the mistake once of saying something about that in Grandmama’s hearing, and oh, did she ever set me down hard. She didn’t raise her voice. She only explained to me, very calmly, that if any obligation accrued to me as her granddaughter, then it was to acknowledge the right of any person to pursue their own dreams instead of the ones I felt they ought to have. By the time she was done, I wanted to crawl under the rug and die. But I’m glad she did it, because of course she was right.

I’ve written Isabella as someone who, while not a Strong Female Character, is also not terribly interested in traditional femininity, and her granddaughter Audrey is in some ways the same. And I looked at that and thought, I don’t want my readers thinking I’m writing them this way because it’s the only good way for them to be. So Lotte is very conventionally feminine, and Audrey thinks that’s wonderful, rather than looking down on it.

I’d like our society to stop looking down on such things. If I could boil all the problems that worry and frustrate and upset and anger and baffle me right now down to one point, it would be the breathtaking failure of compassion that has overrun conservatism these days. The attitude that says, I’ve got mine, and if helping anybody else get theirs — or even just get by — costs me so much as a single penny or an ounce of effort, then they can go hang. The mentality that says, my ways is the only way, and everybody else’s way deserves to get paved under. The worldview that says, men and women are Totally Separate Things, and women’s side of things is stupid and unimportant and far less valuable than the men’s side, because it’s soft and soft is the worst thing you could possibly be.

We need the qualities that have long been labeled “feminine,” like compassion and caring and nurturing and empathy and kindness and a love of beauty for its own sake. We need to see there is strength in those things, too — not just in the willingness and ability to gun down whatever’s in your path and trample the corpse to get what you want.

So bring on your ladies. Give me more opportunities to revel in the awesomeness of women in skirts, women with lipstick, women who like all the girly things and that’s just fine. And while you’re at it, show me your Strong Female Characters painting their toenails and your badass men comforting small children and just people in general acknowledging that hey, being nice is a good thing. Solve some problems with compassion and understanding instead of violence.

It might just work in the real world, too.

One Response to “Strong and Femme”

  1. X

    Ah, I appreciate this point. It’s nice to have more variety in our protagonists. Another character like this I enjoyed was Terry Pratchett’s Lady Sybil Vimes. She’s an aristocratic lady, rather enjoying many feminine things, though she’s not very good at it, and also breeds swamp dragons.

    To finish up this comment, I have a bit of a critism of your language (which turned out a fair bit longer than I intended, sorry.)

    Would you please refrain from using ‘femme’ in this manner in the future? It refers to 1. A specific type of bisexual or lesbian lady, also known as a ‘lipstick lesbian.’ 2. More generally, it refers to feminine LGBT+ people. Sometimes, as I’m sure you can appricate, words need to be specific. (And I doubt that’s quite what you meant!)

    I’m not attempting to be rude, I imagine you saw many people use this word and misunderstood the meaning. I do it all the time. I just thought you’d like to know. Many people misunderstand that term, after all. (After all, everyone misunderstands the Bechdel Test!)

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