Each Maid A Heroine

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I spent the weekend at ConCarolinas.  It’s a marvelous SF/fantasy con located in Charlotte NC.  It’s my home con since it’s only 20 miles from my house.  Let me tell you, there’s something seriously nice about getting to play with my friends all day and still sleep in my own bed at night.  Even if I only get four hours of sleep, it’s still My Bed.  But I digress…

One of the panels I served on was called “The Rise of the Heroine: A look at the best (and worst) female protagonists, past and present.”  When I’m assigned a panel, I always try to do a little reading up on the current wisdom, just to have something interesting to say.  But in doing the research, it suddenly occurred to me that I was somewhat bothered by the fact that we even had to have a panel about female characters.  There certainly wasn’t a panel called “The Hero: the best and worst male protagonists in speculative fiction”.  There never is.  Because we’re still all buying in to the idea that female characters are unusual and rare and endangered.  In 2009, 61% of fantasy readers were women.  In 2010, that number jumped to 85%.  Roc, one of the biggest fantasy publishers, has only one successful male series protagonist – Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden.  I’m told by someone who has the inside word that they’re not even especially looking for male series characters at Roc.  So with this kind of information at hand, why are we still looking at female characters the way we do?

Let’s look at some of the common problems that plague female characters. 

Women are too often used as catalysts to drive the hero into his mission.  Romance is an overused motivator – the hero’s lover is kidnapped/threatened/enchanted and the hero has to go out in search of whatever he needs to rescue her.  It’s great that love is the power, but I’m somewhat over the idea that there’s always a woman who needs rescuing.  Frankly, when I was a kid I played at princesses same as lots of other little girls, but that faded as soon as I realized that the boys got to run around the woods and shoot their bows and have sword fights.  Action’s always more fun than standing still, so it’s little wonder that female characters who twiddle their thumbs waiting for their salvation aren’t interesting.  That waiting makes the woman an object, not much different from the Ark of the Covenant.  Except that the Ark could, at least, defend itself once the lid was removed.  Many times the woman is unable to do anything except pine away in her tower (or sleep in a glass coffin in the woods.)  A better use of this catalyst would be for the woman herself to take a hand in her own rescue.  Chew through the bindings, slip out the tower window and climb down the wall before the villain realizes she’s gone.  I wouldn’t mind seeing that scene – the hero charges in, fights and subdues the villain, then the villain’s eyes widen in horror as he realizes the prize has run off and there’s nothing to bargain with any longer.  Not to mention the hero’s dismay at knowing he hasn’t really rescued anyone.  Hijinks ensue.

Then there’s the death catalyst.  The hero is driven by the loss of his mother/daughter/lover.  Bambi doesn’t toughen up until his mama becomes some shadowy hunter’s dinner.  It’s a little scary to think of how many mothers start out Disney stories already dead (and makes me concerned about Walt’s feelings toward his own mom.)  I’m reading a book right now in which the protagonist is searching for the man who killed his daughter, and while the story is very good, it’s still leaning on that age-old prop of the hero’s broken heart.  It’s a little discouraging to know that with far too many stories, the only value my gender has is in making the man miss me. 

What about woman as decoration, or reward?  In The Lord of the Rings, Arwen is not much more than a pretty prize Aragorn can win if he survives the war.  Queen Guinevere, in the musical “Camelot”, despite her saucy behavior and flirty talk, isn’t even tough enough to run away when she knows Arthur’s soldiers are coming to arrest her.  She instead lets herself be taken, certain that either Lancelot will save her, or Arthur’s heart will soften before any real damage is done.  I have to wonder what she was thinking as she stood on the pyre.  Oh wait, she wasn’t thinking – she was busy letting her hair blow in the breeze.   How much cooler was Rapunzel in the recent movie “Tangled”?  The handsome thief climbed her tower and tried to romance the seemingly innocent girl, but she konked him on the head with a frying pan and tied him up.  That’s the kind of heroine we need to see more of.

The audience for the panel agreed that we needed to shift the paradigm.  No more milkmaids sitting around waiting to be rescued, no more princesses in towers brushing their hair until the hero shows up.  No more letting the villain kill women just so the hero can feel empowered.  As writers, we can take care to create characters who are multi-dimensional and real – not just the women, but the men, too.  Men cry.  Women fight.  I wish for a day when the panels I see at cons have nothing to do with gender, and everything to do with character alone.  Drop the stereotypes and change the world! 

I know this can be a tough subject, so my loins are girded.  Tell me what you think. 

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35 comments to Each Maid A Heroine

  • I’ve already said this, but I’ll say it again: I thoroughly enjoyed meeting you, Misty, and the rest of the MW folks at ConCarolinas.

    I attended the Heroines panel and enjoyed it, though I agree with you that this specific topic really doesn’t need to be a separate panel. I think a discussion of protagonists and their types/qualities, regardless of gender, would be welcome.

    BTW, I thought Tangled was the most enjoyable children’s movie I’ve seen in a while, mainly because of Repunzel’s take-control-of-her-own-life attitude.

  • sagablessed

    I have a similar issue with gay characters in books. They are ususally sideline or killed ASAP, or stuck in stereotypes of effeminate or eunich for the men; or ‘butch lesbians’; or overall plain weak. Drives me bananas. While there are a few books out there with different storylines, your talk of strong women is also found with LGBT characters.

  • Isn’t it better to have a space where you’re invited to talk about your dissatisfaction with the status quo, rather than being forced to sit down and stay quiet? Right now, talking about things is the only way we have to create change, – talking, and writing! So Tangled is a great forward step. Let’s take more!
    Your disappearing princess story made me laugh – mainly because of its resemblance to one of the scenes in my current WIP. I think it might be something you’d enjoy.

  • My favorite version of Cinderella is Drew Barrymore’s “Ever After” — for exactly the reason you pointed out. And “Mirror, Mirror” did the same for Snow White. There are many movies with strong female characters, heroines that toughen up and make their own destiny. If books are lagging behind the changes society wants to see, it does not bode well.

  • Saga, you’re right. LGBT characters are still treated as either niche heroes or secondary window-dressing far too often. Another aspect of the change we need to effect!

    Cara, it IS good to have someplace to talk about my dissatisfaction, but I’d really rather not need it at all. I just hope that, as time goes by, panels based on gender become old-fashioned because we find our way to real character equality.

  • I think the issue is how we view men as much as women. THere is something seriously wrong with the idea that Harry Dresden is one of the few “successful men” in the fantasy genre. Should be more equal. I am reading a series now by Kevin Hearne with a male protagonist, and it is wonderful, but come to think of it, that is the first series in a while that has a male front man. Interesting thought.

  • YES. I totally agree with that! The main character of The Mark of Flight is a kidnapped princess who gets rescued by two men. Partway through the story, one of those men is kidnapped and she turns around and decides to save HIM, reversing the situation. But it isn’t a perfect opposite, because it does no justice to women to make every “strong female character” a boy in a dress.

    She’s not physically strong, but part of her character’s point was not to make a strong female character who exemplified all the things commonly derided about women. She’s tiny, she’s pretty, she’s naive, she’s feminine, she bursts into tears when she finds out she has fleas. Then she orchestrates the rescue of her own rescuer in a foreign country at the age of 14, even though he’s “just a slave”.

    In Lord of the Rings, I adore Eowyn. Recently, I adore Puck from the Scorpio Races and the main female character from Finnikin of the Rock.

  • sagablessed

    While times are changing, many of the big Publishing houses are mostly run by old-school men and women. “Women must be masculine to be strong”…yaddayaddayadda…
    This is changing, but as I see it, until the old guard completely dies out or is ousted, we’re just stuck with what they will let be published.

  • mudepoz

    I wouldn’t mind a heavier set woman in the books. I see those in erotica, but never as heroines in fantasy. Not out of shape, just robust.
    Sheesh. If women can deal with childbirth, then they can deal with a BBU.
    Well, um, perhaps with a time out for cramps. Can there be a timeout for cramps? Or do powerful heroines not get cramps? Or take really strong anticramp meds. That would be my heroine, the one that could fight through it. (Why did that come up heroin?)
    Misty is was wonderful meeting you in RL and attending your panels.

  • I’m really interested to see what happens in Pixar’s Brave later this month.

    I couldn’t find the link, but as I mentioned this weekend, a recent article came out about a female CEO who’s sick of being interviewed “because she is female”, that she just wants to be left alone to do her job. I wonder how much longer this is going to be an issue. I was a kid who ran through the woods and played swords and sorcery. I’m so over it, myself.

  • I remember having similar discussions when I was in college back in the 1970s–it’s pretty disheartening that we still need to talk about this. That said, however, I do find that now there are more strong female characters in fantasy and science fiction, characters who are perfectly capable of saving themselves and the rest of the world. We’re making progress, it’s just very slow.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Oh my but you’ve posted on a topic I could go on and on about. It seems like lately I’ve read a lot of people saying that they want to see more strong female characters. But with the rise of urban fantasy, etc., it seems we actually have a *ton* of strong female protagonists. I think the issue is really that they all fall into a certain type, and what we really need is a *variety* of good female protagonists. As Mudepoz suggests, what about robust women, or old women, or women who are trying to juggle family and heroism at the same time. I also feel like a decent place to start with this would be for books to include more strong female secondary characters. Secondary characters have always been allowed greater range and, with some notable exceptions, it seems like too many female secondary characters are there first as love-interests for the male primary characters – and are often largely absent when a woman is the primary.

    As to the topic of Disney and mothers!!! Have you noticed that in Sleeping Beauty, her parents are always referred to as “King Stefan and the Queen”? Every. Single. Time. Disney allows for strong female villains, and plucky heroines, but that’s about it. I think the main issue is the idea that a good mother must be defined by her children (hence, we are *told* that Rupunzel’s parents are good rulers, be we only ever *see* them grieving for her). Of course, this societal definition of mothers has implications *way* beyond the kinds of characters that show up in books…

  • mudepoz

    I can think of ONE TV series (and it started out Canadian) that has a strong secondary female character, a love triangle that includes another woman as well as a man, and a strong heroine. Lost Girl. Of course, she’s a gorgeous succubus, but you can’t have everything:)

  • One of my favorite kids’ movies that we got for our daughters was MULAN, for precisely this reason. Mulan “fails” at being the traditional Chinese daughter, but becomes the savior for her people and the guardian of her emperor through bravery and strength and moxie and brains. She was a wonderful role model and one my daughters loved. Great post, Misty.

  • Unicorn

    Interesting post, Misty, thank you. In my own novel(ish), my favourite female character is the general of the protagonist’s army. She’s harsh, imposing, cold, and utterly fearless, and my protagonist is absolutely terrified of her; in fact most people are rather nervous around the General. Secretly, though, the General worries all the time and has a (well hidden) sensitive streak that makes her my personal favourite.
    So how about antagonists being driven by grief over the death of a love interest? Vengeance for his murdered wife is the main motivation of my own villian, and up until now I rather liked it, but I’ve never given much thought to the fact that it could be a cliche. Clearly I have not read enough books.
    Thanks for the post!
    Unicorn

  • Oh yes, I remember that panel. And I agree completely with Misty–especially about how so many heroes are built on the backs of the broken and dead (or at least threatened) bodies of women (Luke Skywalker, Dirty Harry, Mel Gibson’s character in Lethal Weapon, the guy in Die Hard, Aragorn, Aneas from Virgil, to a small degree Achilles, Doc Oc in Spiderman II, Mr. Freeze, Bruce Wayne, etc…)

    I will say I liked Black Widow in the recent Avengers movie. I mean she (spoiler alert) totally manipulates Loki by pretending to be a traditional girl, saves Hawkeye by braining him, has Cap throw her up onto an alien speeder, confronts the Hulk a couple times, and remains fabulously snarky and sarcastic the whole time. She (to be fair, like Hawkeye) holds her own as a partner with guys with superpowers, even when she is only human!

    I will say this, though, about the number of female protagoists. Just because a woman character is the protagonist of a novel doesn’t mean she’s a strong female character. There are those who are just princesses to be rescued done up in leather with knives and guns. In the end, they still need rescuing, etc. They still roll over, weak at the knees, and bat their eyes for the hero, villain, or bad boy (or all three!) and step out of the way when the “real work” needs to be done.

    I also will say that “strong” doesn’t mean “never needs help.” Sure, sometimes a female protag needs help because she isn’t as physically strong, or doesn’t have the particular skill, or just can’t do it on her own (much like many male protags need help, too).

    The answer isn’t women who don’t need anyone. The answer is women who are PEOPLE first, and specifically women second. Samwise is compelling (for example) NOT because he’s a man, but because of his loyalty, strength, compassion, persistence, etc. Female characters (at least the main ones) need to be the same.

  • rebnatan

    DavidBCoe, remember that MULAN did her thing disguised as a boy. Hiding gender is often used to get a strong woman into a plot, but it is essentially a trick. Women as women heroine is more difficult.
    Kahlan in Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series is a feminine and a heroine. Brienne in Game of Thrones is a female warrior whose ugliness forces the reader to judge her on her deeds rather than looks. I don’t expect her to actually be the ugly duckling, revealed at the end as a beauty.
    Of course in cinema we have oodles of hot butt-kickers such as Salt, Charlie’s Angels, and Natasha in the Avengers.

  • rebnatan

    In my novel Quantum Cannibals, the heroine reacts to the murder of her husband and the need to protect her baby. Her challenge is to slaughter her enemies and save her people without becoming a psychopath.

  • ajp88

    This reminds why I love A Song of Ice and Fire. Martin’s writing a gritty, violent, realistically chauvinistic world where a feudal caste system reigns supreme and women are viewed as little more than property…and yet the entire series is full of independent, strong women that break rules, save lives, kick ass, and topple tyrannical kings. Spoilers:

    There’s Brienne, the maid of Tarth, a woman so monstrously huge and ugly that they mock her by calling her Brienne the Beauty. And yet, she strongly defeats one of the greatest knights in all the realm, becomes a member of the Kingsguard (for centuries only men have served), subdues another of the greatest fighters, slays robbers and rapists on her quest to find and save a lost child, defends an inn full of orphans, and holds true to the vows of honor she takes.

    Then there’s Arya, a girl who stops at nothing to stay out of the clutches of the people who murdered her father, leads her own pack of scared miscreants despite being 8 or 9, and trains to become an assassin so she can kill those who betrayed her family and murdered most of her loved ones.

    Or the Queen of Thorns, a prickly old family matriarch, mocked for her cutting tones and no bullshit way of communicating. Upon learning just who her granddaughter is set to marry, and how big of a monster he is, she orchestrates the full upheaval of a king’s court and the assassination of said king, going so far as to be the person who administers the poison. After all, who would suspect the wizened, hunchbacked woman with wisps of white hair and varicose veins?

    I guess I’ll stop there with examples, though there’s still Dany (who demolishes slave trade after being sold essentially as one herself at the age of 14), Asha (ship captain, warrior, and a true leader), Catelyn, Ygritte, Osha, Arianne and the rest of the Sand Snakes, Cersei, Sansa, Melisandre, the She-Bears of House Mormont, and on and on and on.

  • Susan

    One hundred percent in agreement with you, Misty. Strong female protagonists is something I look for in books and yet another series to mention with strong women is Jim C. Hines fairy tale books.

    You really would think that with a demographic of over 50% women in this country things would change faster but it still really is a patriarchal society in so many ways. (I love Bitch magazine for their skewering of this POV.) OTOH, I suspect in the future, history may say that change did happen quickly, it’s just not quickly enough for those of us living through it. Only reason I say that, when I was a teenager, I never thought I would see a strong female character in anything or any genre where female authors dominate.

  • A. R. Gideon

    That panel was a good one, especially when we had our own heroine bravely face the red eyed man next door to get them to turn it down xD. I think we need our men and women characters to be more real. Every man can’t be the strong strapping hero, or the big burly soldier, and every woman can’t be the helpless little girl, or as it was said at the panel “a guy with tits.” We need to make the characters more real. In reality men and woman are much more equal, at least in our society. A series that does this amazingly is Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series. There are just as many woman as men in the story, and the majority of the women stand right along side of the men, and they’re normal. They aren’t overly masculine, and they aren’t the type that want to fight but are actually helpless. They’re just determined. Losing means enslavement, for everyone not just the women. but something else to think about, because of this issue sometimes we don’t want to write the weak female, but we have to. They exist in the real world just as much as the sissy male exists. We want our fantasy to be as real as possible, and making all of our characters strong isn’t very real. we need our strong women just as much as we need our strong men, but we need our weak men and women as well.

  • A. R. Gideon

    That heroine was Faith by the way lol.

  • bonesweetbone

    Unfortunately, I missed the heroine panel because of work, but I feel like a few other panels touched on this topic as well, which made me very happy. And while I know this post focuses on the heroine, I feel that female characters in general need some more breadth. It seems like in a lot of fiction, the woman’s either the virgin (heroine) or the harlot (villain). It seems like female villains only know how to use sex and seduction as their weapons, which is disappointing because a gun is far more practical.

    Personally, even though I’m a woman, I’ve always found it easier to write male characters. I feel like there are so many more options when you write male characters and I honestly worry whenever I write my female characters because they seem to be either badass guys or meek ladies. Of course with female characters becoming more popular, I think we’re getting more diversity, but there’s still a ways to go.

    I’m disheartened to hear about the reduction in male characters. I’d much rather have a 50/50 option with my fiction.

  • I’m with Mud on wanting more realistic female protagonists, antagonists and secondary characters…so much so that one of my secondary characters is a woman in her 50s, a bit overweight but still fit, and suffering through many of the unpleasant aspects of menopause – like hot flashes, nightsweats, insomnia, the crankies, etc. She’s a fun character to play with because she’s a retired soldier and a grandmother, too. She provides sense and stability to my ofttimes impulsive main character – a young woman who has been thrust into her role all unwilling and only wants to go back to being the stereotypical “fall in love, marry, have babies, support her man” woman.

  • Thanks for all the great comments! I agree with you that not just our women, but ALL our characters need to be layered and real.

    Emily, Black Widow was completely amazing! I hadn’t remembered that she was in Iron Man 2, so I had to watch it again this week, and wow! What a great character.

  • Razziecat

    Couldn’t let this topic pass without a comment as this is one of my pet peeves. There do seem to be more women characters now who are not only capable, but three-dimensional…not just fighters, not just the hero’s lover, but full participants in the story in all the ways that count. I agree very much with Pea Faerie’s comments. I find 100% macho male characters as boring as the simpering, whimpering “little girls” who need to be rescued. I also wonder if we’re not falling into a new stereotype–kick-ass female who destroys evil but can’t find lasting love. I think publishers, like Hollywood, tend to gravitate toward whatever’s popular (and can’t blame them if they want to make money) and tend to shy away from anything that doesn’t fit into a neat pigeonhole. Still, it’s an interesting time to be a writer, with so many non-traditional characters out there.

  • Great post, although disappointing to here that Roc is less interested in male protaganists (for me at least). Makes me wonder what the odds are of someone writing a series not their own sex is. In other words, is a male writer in urban fantasy handicapping himself by choosing a male protaganist?

    Adrian.

  • Adrian, that’s a good question. I know that Jeremy Lewis writes under the initials JF, because he writes urban fantasy and the publisher didn’t want to make his gender quite so obvious. The folks who come here to MW are some of the most well-read people I’ve ever had the pleasure of spending time with, but there are lots more people out there who think all urban fantasy heroines should wear leather all the time, know fourteen different martial arts styles and have sex with all the good-looking male characters, sometimes at once. And publishers are responding to what the market demands. If there are enough readers buying the same-old-same-old, that’s what will continue to show up in print. If we want more male urban fantasy protags (or gay protags, or protags of color, or female protags with a little more girth to their hips), we need to purchase those books when they do appear, showing publishers we’re willing to give all kinds of characters the same respect.

    Lillian, I’ve got Kevin Hearne’s first book on my TBR shelf, and I’m excited to try it! For really good male protags, I can recommend Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift series (the first is A Madness of Angels) and Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series (the first is Midnight Riot.)

  • Kevin Hearne’s books are AWESOME. I have all of them in both Audio and paperback. He’s coming to town next week (I will get ALL the signatures.)

  • Megan B.

    “The answer isn’t women who don’t need anyone. The answer is women who are PEOPLE first, and specifically women second.”

    That right there sums it up perfectly. I have nothing to add to that!

  • LScribe, apparently he’s coming to Charlotte the day before he hits your town, so I may have to go see him!

  • A little late to the party, but am curious: Misty, have you read Tolkien’s The Silmarillion? From the same mind that gave us Arwen, we have Luthien. I love that woman!

  • Alas, no. I was given a copy of The Silmarillion for Christmas the year it came out, but I just couldn’t plow through it. It sits on my bookshelf, next to Foucault’s Pendulum. I couldn’t get through that one, either. Every so often, I try reading them again, because hope springs eternal. -smile-

    But your point I agree with – Tolkien did come up with some awesome female characters.

  • Alan Kellogg

    What about the story of what a milk maid goes through as she waits for her boyfriend to come home? I mean, the goblins can’t be loitering around the den waiting for the heroes to arrive, they’ve got villages to pillage and maidens to ravage.

    BTW Misty, Tolkien didn’t write The Silmaogillion as fiction, he wrote it as history. Try reading it as history and see how that turns out.

  • […] then, in another similarly-themed piece, author Misty Massey on the Magical Worlds blog also pines for more independently-willed female […]