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Monday, September 19, 2016

Strong Women and Likable Characters

I was thinking about the fictionalized strong woman, recently. I consider myself to be a fan and supporter of strong women and humbly count myself among their number. I even have a Facebook group dedicated to strong women, so strong women—real and fictional—are near and dear to my heart.

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The other day I was watching the movie Leap Year, and didn’t find the lead female to be particularly likable. I thought she was determined and spirited, but did I like her? Having seen it before, I knew by the end she'd be likable. Same with several Meg Ryan characters, notably Kate in Kate & Leopold, or Kate in French Kiss. And even Kristen Bell in When in Rome, Katherine Heigl in The Ugly Truth, or any number of Rom-Coms. Which right there is saying a lot. These strong women characters are so often portrayed in the romantic COMEDIES! (Okay, maybe I just notice it the most in Rom-Coms, when viewers are expected to root for the couple to end up together.)

I was wondering if I'd be able to tell when the gal in Leap Year became likable. What happened in the movie that made her relatable to me as a viewer? I think it was when she was running to make the train, in the rain, and fell down the hill and got covered in mud. This bedraggled woman showed me her humanity. She was torn down to the worst physical representation of a strong woman, and she broke down, but she still pulled herself together and moved forward. That made the respect I felt for her blossom into full-blown admiration, and from there I grew to like her.

Isn’t that what we do as strong women? It isn’t that we’re never down, never afraid, never broken. It’s that we get back up and move forward, often by ourselves, and make whatever has happened work for us. 

I just realized that a common factor in the movies I mentioned is that the women don’t have that bevy of girlfriends they can turn to for help and encouragement. These women are on their own, by their own design, and they deal with life on their own. They fall in love in spite of the men, and they don’t let the fact of that love get in the way of being strong. We like them by the end, and feel like they deserve the love of the man. But is it because of their strength, or their humanity and flaws?

This brings me to another question. Why does the strong woman have to be likable? How many times have you said, “Now there’s a woman I love to hate”? I’ve said that about plenty of male characters, and the actors who portray them. But women? At the moment, I can’t think of many. Mags Bennett in Justified. Cruella DeVille in 101 Dalmatians. I know I run into it more in novels. I like to think I’ve written a couple strong women villains, myself. (Angelisa in Last Second Chance, and Tawnia in the Bonnie Isles Trilogy.) But they're villains, not anti-heroes. Why aren't we expected to like strong women characters in movies and on TV?

I think we’ve been trained for it as a society. This great article by Caroline Siede on BoingBoing.net talks about this training as it relates to female politicians, specifically Hillary Clinton, and I won’t try to say it better than she does, or again, but I strongly recommend reading the article—whether you care about the politics of it or not.

I also challenge you to watch movies and read books while keeping your eyes on the female characters, and try to identify specific characteristics—not just physical traits. If she’s “strong,” what makes her strong? Do you like her? If not, why not? If she’s “weak,” how do you feel about her? Do you like her, or just feel sorry for her? Consciously look for the plot device that's designed to help you come around to liking her. See if you can recognize the manipulation. (Yes, the art of a good storyteller is in manipulation, so I guess I'm asking you to look at the "man behind the curtain.")

I would love it if you came back and engaged in a discussion with me about the likability of strong women. Do you see a disparity in how we look at men vs. women? Should we "get over" the bias against strong women?

In the meantime, I’m going to continue creating strong women characters, and challenge myself not to force them to be likable.

(Full disclosure: Most of the links in this post are Amazon affiliate links, and any purchases you make after clicking through on them will net me a tiny kickback.)

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