Thursday, April 12, 2012

How To Write Empowering Female Characters

Nonsensical design, or empowering ideal?
A few months ago I posted an article called Project: Representation asking for people (primarily women and minorities) to provide descriptions of what they thought would be an idealized representation of their race, sex, or other status identifier. This was in response to two major things. The first was my own uncertainty about my already-established idea of "to write female characters well, just write them like men". This was the idea of characters being defined not by their sex or race, but instead by their personality, career, etc. The potential problem with this was that "have everyone be like white men" might not be the best option, and actual women and ethnic minorities might have some traits that they thought were important or central to their identity.

The second issue was one of idealization. It had been argued by some that a busty, beautiful female character was to women what a buff, handsome male character was to men - a tool for escapism, and a representation of the ideal figure or body type. I had heard this argument be challenged due to the underlying issues surrounding representations of men and women, especially in comics. Men are there to be "awesome", women are there to be ogled. The designs of female characters are not appealing to women, because their figures, appearances and personalities aren't actually their "ideal". Many women seemed to be uncomfortable with the representation of women in comics because it felt like they were there solely to be sexy, and they didn't have the agency or justified representation that most male characters were assumed to.

Empowering, or bland?
In Project: Representation I tried to get a sense of what attributes would define a good female character, or a good minority character, besides being a "good character" in a neutral sense. Each issue raised its own question that I wanted answered: firstly, "is it better or worse to make a minority character devoid of any cultural traits in the name of avoiding stereotyping", and secondly "what sort of character or traits would you find empowering?" Unfortunately I only had a few respondents, none of them female, so I wasn't really able to get a good sense of what people actually wanted. The few people I asked directly gave me the relatively common-sense answer of "it depends on how it's used in context".

This article by Vivienne Chan (click this link it is the basis of the rest of the article) answers a lot of my questions more directly, at least in terms of one person's perspective:

"Everyone – and I do mean EVERYONE, male or female – is going to have a different answer to “what makes a great female lead in a video game."

The things that Miss Chan describes as being her own ideal are things like:

"...shamelessly beautiful, almost to the extent that it can be offensive.  She would have long dark hair, she would be tall, and she would be athletic with slamming curves."

"...her ability to beat down enemies – women and men alike – without breaking a nail, and she would do so wearing whatever the hell she thought was the best thing to wear at the time, whether it be a skimpy catsuit unzipped to her navel or full body armor."

"She would be charming and intimidating at the same time, and will make no goddamn apologies for who she is or what she stands for."

"Screw the “muted” attractiveness that Jade from Beyond Good and Evil brought to the table – I want a lady who is unapologetically gorgeous and is comfortable in that skin."

What's funny about these examples, to me, is that it feels like if I saw this character in a game or a comic, I'd assume it was designed by a man, and ergo assume it was sexist. The classic idea of an ostensibly empowered female character who is drop-dead gorgeous and "kicks ass" and is charming and capable and powerful and self-motivated...well, that seems kind of cliche in a shallow quasi-feminist "Joss Whedon" way, doesn't it? But it's something that a woman wants in this case, very specifically in fact. It's her own terms for what would define a character that she would want to be like. There must be some element that separates her desire from the offensive cliche. Let's examine each element of what Miss Chan wants in order to come to an understanding of how their context and presentation can influence the end result.

Issue A: Character Agency And Self-Determination
One of the most easy-to-identify things in this description of an ideal character is that the character exists on her own terms. She is not subordinate to anyone, she is not weaker than anyone, she is not chained by anyone or anything. The things she does are under her own terms: she "wear(s) whatever the hell she wants", she "will make no goddamn apologies", she is "unapologetically gorgeous and is comfortable in that skin".

These are traits that exist in many sexist characters, but the problem with those characters is that it doesn't feel natural for them. It feels like a justification, because the actual issue is that they're like that because it's something that the author finds attractive. The influence of authorship creates a scenario where a character with such a design cannot be considered neutral, because there's so much obvious justification there for shallow, sexist desires. When Starfire talks about how great being nude is, it's difficult to address that as a legitimate character trait because it feels like an empty excuse for the artist to draw a nude character.

In such a scenario, the character's agency - even if it exists in-universe - is unpleasantly overtaken by the author's control. A female character who kicks ass and chews bubblegum and does a billion slow-mo kills in a slinky nightgown or catsuit (Aeon Flux, Resident Evil, Ultraviolet, etc) is not traditionally thought of as empowering because behind that concept is the lurking terror of a creepy, objectifying male writer or director. Even though "the writer" or "the director" don't exist in-universe, their presence is felt strongly enough that it's nearly impossible to think of such characters as being "a woman exhibiting agency". When a female character wears immodest clothing, or has large breasts, or is attractive, it's attributed to a male designer.

As a result of this, there's been a feminist cultural backlash against characters who possess those traits no matter what the conditions are. The real problem is why they're showing skin, or why they're attractive - something I've tried to illustrate in many of my previous articles. Alyx Vance is praised because she's somewhat plain and dresses modestly, which ostensibly makes her feel more "real" and "empowered", but in terms of her behavior she's still a sycophantic second fiddle to her silent protagonist companion. Saber from Fate/Stay Night is praised because she wears a modest dress and armor, but her design is still a very blatant "kawaii anime girl". The Last Psychiatrist wrote multiple articles on how Katniss from the Hunger Games is ostensibly empowering because she dresses modestly and has a bow and arrow, but in the actual narrative she does almost no "empowering" things. How characters dress or look isn't the problem - it's why they dress and look that way, and what it means in a meta-sense. Miss Chan identifies this fallacy by noting that she doesn't want to be someone who possesses "muted" attractiveness, she wants her ideal character to be legitimately attractive.

Miss Chan wants her ideal character to be attractive because "being attractive" is something that makes her feel more powerful and more capable. This reasoning is perfectly sound and accepted when discussing male characters. Nobody says that Snake or Dante or Batman are objectified because they're attractive, since the greater context of those characters is that they're attractive on their own terms. It gives them social power and influence, rather than making them objects of potentially undesired attention. Namor hangs around in a speedo because it makes him feel powerful and desirable, not because he feels obligated to do so by society. Nobody will ever accuse Namor of "asking for it" because of the way he dresses. Nobody will drug Namor's drink and call him a slut. Miss Chan's description of her ideal character's attractiveness has the kind of meaning to it that an empowering male character's attractiveness has: it gives them more power, more control, and more self-esteem. These are the things that define the difference between "sexy for one's own purposes" and "sexy because someone else forced me to be".

There is a very fine and indistinct line between "being sexy because I want to be" and "being sexy because you want me to be"; many women dress attractively and revealingly and find it to be perfectly empowered, while many others feel forced and uncomfortable with it. The issue is not what is worn, or how someone looks, but why they look or dress that way. When female comics characters are almost unilaterally made into gorgeous women with unrealistically large breasts, it doesn't feel like it's empowering them, it feels like "that's what the male artists want them to look like". When Miss Chan says she wants her ideal character to be drop-dead gorgeous, that's because it gives her character more control, more influence, and more power - the kind of things that make a character "escapist" to begin with. They are part of the central concept that a character who is empowering should have agency, should be in control of their own fate, and shouldn't be shackled by other people's desires or demands.

Issue B: Masculine and Feminism, and the role of Diversity
One of the issues that was present in Project: Representation is the fact that the standards used to determine a sensible character seem to be very masculine in nature. A character who is depicted as being capable of agency often does it in very masculine ways because the traits we think of as being "empowering" are traditionally associated with masculinity. What I wanted to get at with some of my questions was "how would you make a female character who exhibits agency while still possessing feminine traits that you think positively of?"

We get characters like Vasquez from Aliens who are "empowered" because they're total badasses. They're physically strong, they curse openly, they kill things and enjoy the hell out of it. They exhibit almost entirely masculine traits, but just happen to be women. That's great, because it breaks down gender lines: nobody's gonna say Vasquez can't do the job, look how tough she is. However, the inherent problem in this is that characters who are "awesome" or "badass" are basically masculine-by-design, whereas characters who are "weak" or "submissive" are showing largely feminine traits. The pre-existing roles show their influence by glorifying behaviors associated with masculinity and vilifying behaviors associated with femininity.

Now, if we were going to get truly gender-neutral, the traits we value aren't honestly that bad. It's the grouping that's potentially problematic. Masculinity includes power and strength and self-determination, but it also tends to include less desirable traits like aggression, denial of emotions, and abrasive personalities. Similarly, femininity in its classic definition implies submission and physical weakness, but also positive traits like empathy and care. It's easy to draw up lines based on assumptions of gender, but the actual issue is that the traits themselves need to be addressed individually as positive or negative traits.

Miss Chan attempts to balance these traits by taking the best of both - her ideal is "caring but ferocious", "charming but intimidating". While this might seem somewhat cliche for a "badass female character", I can think of male characters who've pulled it off without a problem - with Chris Redfield in RE5 being the most obvious example. Chris is not rough, abrasive, rude or crass. He's thoughtful, he's caring, he's empathic, he's emotionally available, and he's also a huge muscled-up badass who punches the hell out of boulders. Nobody (or nobody I know) thought less of Chris for not being an asshole, yet "be an asshole" is sort of implicit in the idea of a tough, manly, masculine soldier-man character - the gruff, power-armored anti-hero who takes no shit from anyone and is totally badass and does all the stuff you'd wish you could do if you were also a jerk.

I like characters, male or female, who take things seriously, and are taken seriously. I like characters who dress like they actually have a reason behind it, who are pragmatic and logical when it comes to decision-making, who behave professionally when the time comes. Part of why female characters like this are a big deal is because it feels like many "female badasses" ultimately aren't taken seriously, or aren't actually that capable. When a female character puts on utilitarian armor, it feels empowering because it's their choice. They have a reason to dress like that, and it's a professional one. The aspect of "the author wants them to look sexy" is removed, and it's replaced with "the character wants to protect themselves", which gives the character a greater sense of agency.

But at the same time we need to acknowledge that many women do, in fact, choose to dress attractively of their own volition (though separating them from women who feel forced to dress in such a manner is difficult). The issue is that when such characters show up in fiction, it could be either their own reasons or the author's reasons. Again, going back to Starfire, if you take her seriously she's pretty empowered - she doesn't care what other people think, she's extremely comfortable with her body - but at the same time she feels hollow because those things seem to be more like justifications for the artist rather than actual character traits.

When feminine traits are made part of a feminine character, the part that it's crucial to identify is: "is this what the author believes all women are like?" In many scenarios it seems like the answer is "yes", because there's not enough diversity to offset it. If you have a reasonable number of strong, capable women, then a female character who is weak and submissive feels more natural because it's her as an individual, not her as a representative of her gender. The same is true of all "feminine" traits - if you have enough diversity that such traits don't feel forced, the resulting product is more natural. It's part of treating women like "people", instead of some weird subset of humanity who all somehow behave the same even though there's over 3 billion of them.

Heck, you can even go back to the complaint with League of Legends that sparked my article regarding it. It wasn't that "sexy women" existed in the game, it was that nothing but sexy women existed in the game. While male characters were diverse in size, shape, and background, the accusation being made was that the female characters in the game had a much smaller design range, which strongly suggested an agenda. This idea was backed up by the artist's rebuttal: making a character too strong or muscular would make them "not like a chick", which is outright fallacious. Of course it would make them "like a chick" - the only thing that makes someone "like a chick" is whether they're of the female sex. Women range from skinny to fat, from undefined to super-muscular, from supermodels to bodybuilders. That diversity is shown for the male characters, but the problem is that the female characters don't have it, and that's bad design. It shows that the designers implicitly associate "female" with "sexy", and that's straight-up biased.

Case Study: Kharma
I would like to conclude by telling you about a female wrestler in the WWE named Kharma, because Kharma's design uses and illustrates a lot of the points I just discussed.. This is Kharma.

To explain to you why Kharma is great, here's the rest of the WWE women's division. Please keep in mind that while male wrestlers in the WWE are "superstars", female wrestlers in the WWE are "divas".

Divas are not taken seriously. They don't have to wrestle as well as their male counterparts because "wrestling ability" is not why they're hired. Kharma is the first female wrestler in a long time to be taken seriously. When Kharma's music hits, bad things happen. She is one of three female wrestlers in the history of the Royal Rumble to actually participate in the event, and one of the other wrestlers (Beth Phoenix, who is very capable in her own right) tricked The Great Khali into kissing her so she could pull him over the top rope. Wrestling is not normally great for women's rights, is what I'm saying.

Here's a clip that basically illustrates the difference between Kharma and every other diva:


So first there's the normal Divas match, and it's a mess. The wrestling is bad, the selling is bad, and all the announcers care to talk about is "lol look how hot they are". The crowd doesn't care, because the match is terrible, just like all Diva matches are terrible. Then Kharma's music hits, and the crowd is ecstatic. The announcers go out of their way to sell the audience on how powerful Kharma is, not how attractive she is or how cute she is. That's the kind of reaction that a male wrestler gets; hell, even her music is a man's music, because Divas tend to get peppy pop themes, not ominous, rumbling rock. The reaction she gets is "oh shit", not 'aww, how cute". She comes out with badass music, she cleans house, and she leaves, just like a badass male character would.

This is empowerment. She's a female wrestler, and she's taken seriously. She's powerful. She's in control. She doesn't feel like a person who got her job as a wrestler because of her irrelevant attractiveness, she feels like a person who got her job as a wrestler because she kicks ass. And the crowd loves her. The problem with the Divas division isn't just that it's shallow and sexist, it's that every Diva is like that, and so it turns into "if women are going to wrestle, this is what it has to be like". Kharma is different in every way and she's still positively received, and if there's ever been a sign that the WWE can expand their women's division to include actual serious competitors on the same level as their male counterparts, she's it.

And the thing is, it's not just a question of how people dress or act. The WWE Superstars are a diverse bunch, and their clothing (like superheroes) ranges from full-body suits to basically a speedo. So it's not a question of skin, it's a question of why the skin is there. There's not really a suggestion that Randy Orton wears a speedo because he's trying to appeal to the huge male fanbase, he wears it because he wants to wear it, just like Namor. The real problem with the Divas is not that they're sexy or that they're scantily clad, but that they're not taken seriously by anyone, and wrestlers like Kharma are a way to try to undo that. If the WWE wants to follow up on this they should hire a bunch of female MMA fighters and have them start doing clotheslines and dropkicks and other high-velocity, high-impact moves that can be sold well.

Conclusion
The key to writing a female character well is to make her make sense in-universe. The more diverse and multi-faceted your universe is, the more believable she will be as a character. The more believable she is as a character, the more easily she can be accepted as being an independent individual with some sense of agency and self-determination. There are no traits that specifically make for a good female character, because "good" is a manner of representation and context, not a manner of who or what they are.

The same is also true of writing good male characters.

10 comments:

  1. This is a great article.

    Vasquez is a good example of a strong female character but for an even better one I would look to Ripley. She is a perfect example of an independant, strong willed physically capable female who is also feminine and caring, M41a in one hand and Newt in the other.

    This is also why I love Alyx Vance as a character. She has a role to play and takes names doing it. Yes, she is the love interest and plays 'second fiddle' but she is not a throwaway annoyance in any way. She has to be second fiddle because she is not the protagonist - Gordon is - but he could not complete his objectives without her support.

    Also Kharma looks like a complete badass.

    Oh and that reminds me of the female priest woman from Fable 2, the one with the giant hammer thing. She was cool.

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  2. Thanks for reading my article and, more importantly, for taking the time to speak to it. I'm (unsurprisingly) in almost total agreement with what you're saying in this article. The intent of my article was to highlight that aiming for a single female ideal is unhelpful: a strong woman can take many forms, which I find men in media tend to forget. Your article took this point and explored it with precision; in a world dominated by men writing about men, women become "standardized." Your LoL example was spot-on: the men came in different shapes and sizes, but the women DON'T, and that's speaks to a tremendous failing, because as you way, the women looked that way not because it was true to their character, but because it was that a dude wanted her to look that way and LATER came up with a story that justified her design.

    You're also right that it's so hard to figure out what came first: the audience or the individual. Is a woman dressing for herself, or because it is expected of her to dress a certain way? As an individual, I'm very comfortable in acknowledging that my answer is "yes" to both. And I think it's okay to sit with that complexity - we aren't black and white beings, after all, and so our "idols" of femininity shouldn't be either.

    Like I say in my article, when writing female characters, it ultimately boils down to what the message is going to be. A highly stylized, hyper-sexy female lead who is written not to justify her appearance, but instead with her appearance being a BYPRODUCT of the message her character is intended to send: that's the kind of stuff I want to see. I'm also completely comfortable with a woman who is subtler, whose femininity isn't as in-your-face but is a silent strength of her character... I just think that in today's world, what you say is right: being sexy is somehow looked at as DISempowering, and I rail against that with all my might, because in my context, I can't stand the idea of an "unfeminine" woman being defined as an empowered one.

    The duality you describe is also spot-on, where being less feminine actively make you MORE masculine - that is something that I would like to see change. The duality existing in itself is fine, but maybe we shouldn't have to act like men to be "strong"... we should act like women - and what that means is different to each of us.

    Ask a Chinese person (like myself) what it means to be Chinese, and you will get a different answer from my sister, my mother, and my father. Within my own family, we have different definitions of what it means to be a part of our cultural group. This is largely similar when you ask different women what it means to be a woman.

    Women as archetypes in comic books and in video games is inescapable - the boys have it rough in that area, too. But I agree with you that as these genres evolve, there is a requirement for the "universe" to become more realistic... to start stepping away from archetypes and start looking at complex, multifaceted characters that accurately reflect the truth of what it means to be female, male, or just human, which is that in all cases, it's a highly individual experience.

    Thank you again for this very insightful and well-written article. I truly enjoyed reading and you've given me much to reflect on!

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  3. WWE is a joke. The women of Strikeforce or other MMA shows are the real deal. Although even these women often sell their looks, do promotions or bikini shoots for example; but when they're in the cage the fight is REAL! All of them are highly trained in their respective martial arts/combat styles.

    And also, good article!

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  4. Very good article.

    I really enjoyed reading this.

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  7. For the record, being of the female sex is not the definition of a woman. Gender is. Good read otherwise, though.

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  8. Great post on journaling, Carrie. I have only tried this after completing my book, usually for character blog posts. Most times my books evolve from an idea or story question, and the characters evolve from that...except with Renner. He was Trey's partner in Journey's End, and I knew as soon as he hit the page that he'd star in his own book.
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  9. This is a wonderful article. Really you hit all the marks. You can design your characters in any way, make them look and dress in any manner as long as the audience takes them seriously. Because taking someone seriously means being invested in their story, and once invested in their story you care what happens to them. Their fears and their happiness become your own because you care about them. If your audience loses interest in your character, it's because you didn't make them care, because you didn't take their character development, their traits into serious consideration. Because really, if you, the author, don't care about your character then why should we, the audience?

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