Monday, August 22, 2016

Female Protagonists: Hearts of Fire

Photo credit: Photo via VisualHunt
 Recently Jo Eberhardt wrote (Problems with Female Protagonists) about her surprising discovery when, after counting the books in her personal library, she found that only a mere 27 per cent of her books had female protagonists, despite “her conscious intention for a 50/50 split.” Further researching female protagonists in other media, she found that over 70 percent of lead characters in popular movies were male. And even in those movies that feature female protagonists (Divergent, Hunger Games, Twilight), male characters speak more than female protagonists, and thus still dominate the story.

The protagonist of any story, the hero if you will, acts as a window inviting the reader into the story. The reader is drawn into the narrative because, just as the protagonist searches for his/her identity, the reader is engaged in their own search.

Yet, if the hero is always male, and the journey is always his story, what recourse is left to young adult women and adolescent girls? What is her story?

The profound truth, and primary function, of adolescence is the separation from parent, the search for uniqueness and the triumphant integration into wholeness. It’s the essence of the archetypal hero’s journey. Boys and girls look for their own hero to identify with. Both seek guides – protagonists – to show them how to begin their journey.

But that doesn’t mean their journey is the same. Even if the heroine’s journey follows a similar path, toward a similar purpose, there is a difference between his journey and her journey.

Megan Leigh (Dispelling the Myth of Strong Female Characters) offers interesting insight into the “myth” of strong female characters. Among many stories (and movies) claiming to have strong female characters, one overriding issue seems to be distinguishing between strong and weak, and passive and active characters. A female who is caring, vulnerable, even emotional tends to be considered a weak character. Yet, a strong female who is aggressive, abrasive, even with difficulty connecting emotionally, is considered negative. Both types are flat, negating their own flawed, complex humanity. As such, both types are reduced to a stereotype. In contrast, male characters are often allowed to play the full emotive spectrum. Says Leigh, in too many stories, the strong female protagonist is considered “special,” the exception or chosen one. If only one woman is ever shown to be capable and complex, and is presented as the exception, the “very framing of the narrative in a way that has men writing off most females as incapable, is an issue unto itself.

Tasha Robinson (We’re Losing All Our Strong Characters to Trinity Syndrome) considers Valka, the long lost mother of Hiccup in the movie How To Train Your Dragon 2. Valka is complicated, formidable, wise and damaged, and she is fully capable of taking care of herself. For decades she had successfully avoided capture and death at the hands of the bad guys. Yet, within minutes of coming onto the scene, she becomes suddenly inadequate and needs to be rescued – twice. And for the rest of the film, she does nothing except  tell Hiccup that he is the chosen one. She has become superfluous.

Likewise, the “strong” character of the elf Tauriel in The Hobbit 2 demonstrates “elven archery king fu” when killing evil spiders and orcs, but only “shows any personality when she’s swooning over dwarf Kili.”

In my classes, we study gender identity and gender profiling, surveying several top rated TV shows that feature strong female protagonists that dare to tackle male-dominated jobs. These include super smart spies, corporate lawyers, political leaders, even homicide detectives. Despite the implied power positions, these jobs are often in the background. Their story-lines are often dominated by the unhappy state of their private life. Despite being labeled as capable, they are often rescued by their male counterparts. While their male counterparts are dressed in practical clothing that allows them to run, jump, and maneuver themselves effectively, the female protagonist tends to wear form-fitting clothes, with shirts buttoned down suggestively, and high-fashioned heels. Even their boots have heels. Meanwhile, those who weld their power are considered manipulative, shrill, even overly cold and emotionally disconnected, and usually it is because they are unhappy without a man in their life. I could go on, but you get my point.

It would seem, according to Robinson, that “strong female characters – someone with her own identity, agenda and story purpose – has become more of a marketing term than a meaningful goal.”

The heroine’s journey embodies its own language, ordeals and symbols that are uniquely her own. Strong female characters are not merely spunky spirits with backbone. Nor are they – think superheroes -- female impersonators let loose on the unsuspecting world.

Returning to the mother of Hiccup, Valka. As an ancient symbol, the dragon (according to Jung) is “the wildness of spirit,” which escapes and destroys the artificial order of oppression. Valka, however, had her wings metaphorically clipped just as she was becoming interesting.

Ursula Le Guin once stated that a storyteller’s mind does not work with archetypes not individuals. Says she (in personal correspondence), “I can think about what journey [my character] has to go in order to be what she can be … but [cannot] generalize about the feminine heroic journey.”

I would argue that, in fact, that is exactly how a storyteller’s mind works. Such storytelling is inherent in our thinking process. These ancient symbols have been a part of the human condition since before time. Storytellers have drawn upon these very images to tell their stories.

So the question remains, where is her story? Who are your favorite strong female protagonists?

Bobbi Miller 

P.S. Don’t forget to join the fun! Enter (HERE)  to win an autographed copy of Amy Cattapan's middle-grade mystery Seven Riddles to Nowhere (Vinspire Publishing).
The giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and ends August 31. That happens to also be the day of Amy’s Facebook Launch Party, where you can win lots of other great prizes, including a copy of Carmela's own book, Rosa, Sola.


Vicki Palmquist said...

Rissa Kerguelen and Zelda M'tana. Do they ring a bell? I read them a long time ago but I remember being pleased about how real they were (in spite of the cover art). Maybe I'm not remembering correctly, but they're two of my favorites. And how about Vonda MacIntyre's Snake? I don't know that female characters need to be strong ... they need to be identifiable.

Bobbi Miller said...

Hi Vicki! And I have to look up those characters. I think one of the on-going discussions in regards to female characters is having a more well-rounded definition of "strong" and how it relates to fully realized characters. As we've discussed, strong doesn't mean "not emotional" or infallible. Some of my favorite characters are strong, yet complex and realized. Scout (To Kill A Mockingbird) is unpretentious, outspoken and not at all anxious to learn the southern genteel ways of those "fragrant ladies." Ella (Ella Enchanted) doesn't accept her fate, and goes on a quest -- literally and figuratively -- to break the curse of obedience. There's a few out there, but not enough.

Christina Banach said...

This article is utterly brilliant, Bobbi! I remember being interviewed for my last headteacher's post and one of the interviewing panel (a man) said that I mistook assertiveness for aggression. Fortunately, the rest of the interviewers thought otherwise (the panel consisted of both males and females) and I was offered the job. It's sad to think that some people perceive strength and assurance in a female as negative and undesirable qualities.

As for literature, Scout from To Kill A Mocking Bird's is also one of my favourite characters.

Bobbi Miller said...

Thank YOU for your kind words, Christina! And, what an experience you endured at that interview. I'm glad you got that job!

Yvonne Ventresca said...

A thought-provoking article, Bobbi!

Anonymous said...

This is fascinating research and I'm surprised as I would have guessed there were more girl leads as of late. p.s. I've always loved Scout, too!

Laurie J. Edwards said...

Another thought-provoking post, Bobbi.

Bobbi Miller said...

Laurie and Yvonne: Thank you for your kind words, and for stopping by!

Marcia: It IS a surprise, isn't it? Especially in these "so-called" progressive times. But then, as we watch the election campaign, and the on-going media shuffling surrounding Hillary Clinton and other female politicians, and we watch the Olympics, and how the media frames gender in its reporting, we begin to see just how far we have yet to go...Thank you for stopping by!