Guest blog: What Makes a Female Protagonist “Strong”?
by Elisabeth Elo, author of North of Boston
We’ve all heard discussions about “strong female protagonists” and how important they are to a book’s success. I confess that the term makes me uneasy. Because if one female protagonist is strong, what are all the others? Are they weak?
In sexist societies, women are routinely separated, classified, and judged. Often they are set in opposition to each other — madonnas vs. prostitutes; working women vs. stay-at-home mothers, and so on. It doesn’t seem right, at this point in history, to divide female fictional characters into groups as well, with one group being privileged over others.
There are about 3.6 billion women living on the earth today, and only a tiny fraction of all the possible stories about them have been told. Why should we waste our time judging how well a female character adheres to a limited number of socially acceptable attributes? Think about it. What could be more backwards-looking and conventional than a writer setting out to create a female character that other people will approve of? It’s even sadder if a writer does this to gain approval for herself.
What we need isn’t so much strong female characters as more female protagonists. The emphasis here is on protagonists, as opposed to secondary characters. Because whenever you put a character – of whatever gender – at the center of his or her own story, something fascinating happens. They struggle and change. They can’t help it. They have to deal with the things the world (or the novelist) throws at them. So they act and react; they think, choose, and decide. They become actors on the novelistic stage, and every action they take, even if it’s avoidance, creates new conflicts and situations, which leads to new results. And so it goes. Character, action, plot. Without even intending to, you end up with a protagonist who is, if not strong, then at least interesting because she or he is creating before your eyes the destiny they will reach at story’s end.
So if we want to make good stories about women, we should start by putting a three-dimensional woman in the middle of her complex world, and then stop caring whether she’s “strong” or whether she “wins” in the end. Anna Karenina is a great iconic character, and she throws herself under a train. Novels put characters in context; that’s one of the important things they do. There are all kinds of contexts – familial, social, economic, political, historic – and they can be helpful, malicious, and/or inescapable. We all know that in real life not everyone gets to win. Some people stagnate or fail for reasons that are mind-bendingly complex. Novels reflect that fact.
I think we clamor for strong female characters because we want to be inspired. We need the infusion of energy and optimism that comes from witnessing a character succeed, especially when she embodies all the attributes we’ve been taught to cherish, such as hard work, persistence, common sense, and courage. When Alcott gave us Jo March in Little Women, she did something incredibly valuable for nineteenth-century women and girls. She showed them how to push the envelop of social norms without losing the good opinion of others. Basically, she showed them how to get more of what they wanted, how to be happier. There’s nothing wrong with this. You can never have too many positive role models.
But I will confess here to a bit of literary heresy: I never liked Jo March. I thought she was insufferable actually. She seemed to have sprung from the cradle with every heroic attribute intact. Her so-called flaws – such as her quick temper and “pluckiness”—were obvious shams. And when she got into so-called trouble, it turned out to be just another way of showing off her wonderful, special self. Even as a child, I smelled the propaganda, and I kept my distance from Jo March.
I think if we want to be inspired by strong female characters, we ought to read biographies. What some women in history have actually accomplished surpasses most novelists’ imaginations. There’s an endless source of intelligent inspiration there.
Fiction at its best is meant to do a different kind of work. It’s meant to show the struggle of a specific character or characters embedded in all their contexts, facing specific challenges. In that way it brings us closer to understanding ourselves, others, and the world.
A skilled storyteller can and will get a good, important protagonist out of anyone from Joan of Arc to Minnie the Mouse. What matters is that both the character and her contexts are fairly shown, that she is looking for something important – more justice, more truth, more freedom for herself – and that she is truly struggling with whatever is opposing her, whether it be an invading army or an inner demon that no one else can see. What draws us to her story, and compels us to keep reading, are the uncertainties in her character, and of course the vagaries of plot. Will she conquer her naïveté or continue to be mislead? Will she put herself at too much risk or not enough? Will fate be cruel or kind?
Good storytellers create good characters. So let’s tell lots of stories about all kinds of women, and let our characters speak for themselves.