Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Sunday Salon: Female Characters in Literature

Ana has a great Sunday Salon post today about women characters in literature. And I’d like to carry on the same conversation she asks. How would you answer today’s query:

There is quite a bit of debate about a woman’s strength versus weakness. How do you define a strong or weak woman character? Have you ever unconsciously or consciously taken a specific character and read her as a representation of all women. Do you think female archetypes accurately reflect the shortcomings and strengths of our gender? Ana asks, “Do you find that you tend to be more critical of female characters than of male ones? What are some examples of heroines or female villains that you think were well-written? What about ones that you felt were not?”

I read predominantly women's literature or books with female leads and that is because I am actively seeking out our voice and role in the larger society.

I am by nature a critical reader; I am always asking questions like the ones Ana poses. Am I doing harm? I don't think so. If I am, then at some point because of my circle of peers, I expect I'll be corrected or challenged when I get it wrong. Getting it wrong isn't a bad thing; it's an opportunity to get it right.

I don't like weak female characters but flawed characters do not bother me. If we are going to examine our humanness then I expect the character to have flaws.

I don't have a problem with a female character having weakness when it is examined against strengths. What I do object to is the idea of women needing men to be whole, to function, to be fully woman. That is an entirely different message from a woman who finds love fulfilling or a woman who had not recognized her own strengths and later does.

I think the literary critics just as historians in general have failed women. However, the recorder documents the world as he sees it and experiences it and by large, the world has been seen through men's eyes. I think men can get it right and I think women have responsibility to speak up when men or women get it wrong.

How you define wrong is subjective, it is fluid and it requires a constructive and open dialog.

I read a quote once that said paraphrased, you might not know how to build up your self-esteem but you know how to stop lowering it.

I think with women characters, you know what is wrong for you. I think we need to be actively engaged in defining what is right.


Literary Feline said...

While you will often hear me say that I prefer strong female characters, it really does come down to context and the evolution of a character throughout a book. Like you, I like flawed characters--I find them to be more realistic and 3-dimensional.

I think you hit the nail on the head for me when you wrote that you "don't have a problem with a female character having weakness when it is examined against strengths. What I do object to is the idea of women needing men to be whole, to function, to be fully woman." I couldn't agree more. I see this played out in real life all too often, unfortunately.

Trisha said...

My thoughts are well expressed in the line: "What I do object to is the idea of women needing men to be whole, to function, to be fully woman." When I see the term "weak female character" my immediate assumption is that weak means "in desperate need of a man". For me, weak women are those who refuse to or assume they can not control their own lives without the assistance of a man.

Lu @ Regular Rumination said...

I tried to come up with a good response to Ana's question, but really couldn't articulate as well as you have here what I thought. "I think we need to be actively engaged in defining what is right." That for me is the best sentence of this whole post. Or rather, the sentence that best defines my approach to changing the world. There are a lot of things that are wrong, and they should be called out and identified, but I love to focus on the books/movies/whatever that are doing an excellent job of portraying woman or POC.

Nymeth said...

I love what you said about how getting it wrong is just an opportunity to learn to do better next time. I don't like how I forget that sometimes. And like Lu, I love the line about defining what's right together. I sometimes worry that when I critique a female character, I'm just setting more limits to what women are or are not allowed to be, and that's the last thing I want to do. But we learn by trying, after all. It's honestly a pleasure to learn in your company.

wdjenkins1 said...

My favorite female character in a book I've read in the last year (or so) is Aminata Diallo in Lawrence Hill’s “Someone Knows My Name.” Especially in books about slavery, I look for characters whom I could picture as a part of my family. I would take Aminata as my great, great grandma any day.

Gavin said...

Thanks for this post and the link to Ana's Sunday Salon. As usual you both have great things to say about a very pertinent topic.

I value what you say about being actively engaged in defining what is right but I also find the judgments I make about a character to be very interesting. Why do I judge that character "weak" and that one "strong"? We all have our own definitions and connotations of the meanings of these words.

As for a women needing a man to be whole, that is just hogwash. Someday we should all have a discussion about where that idea came from. Have a great week!

Jessie Carty said...

i love a good strong female character but a flawed one can work as well. i, however, have a pet peeve - ones where part of the character's transformation and/or coming to terms with self is that they go out and have an affair. it just happens too much!

Jodie said...

Sometimes I can get really caught up in expecting a woman to represent all of womankind and I ahve to step back. Pretty much any kind of female character is going to be in some way stereotypical because of all the cultural baggage women have put on them. Sometimes it seems impossible to do 'right' when you're a woman and of course it is, so we just have to concentrate on being us and it's the same for female characters, they have to feel true, even if the truth of their personality isn't entirely pleasant or positive. I really liked what Sarah Brennan had to say on this subject last year, that paraphrasing there's never been anything wrong with characters written who are slutty, or tomboys, or good girls - as long as they're full characters alongside that one character trait.

I want to talk about historians a bit because you mentioned at the end that all historians have failed women. I guess you're referring to pre 20th century historians, as there was a pretty significant movement of feminist history in the second half of the last century. Recently (after say, what thirty, forty years of womens history being a major force compared to the male version of history that lasted unchallenged for centuries) I'm hearing whispers that womens history is taking over, that it's becoming too revisionist, that there are no bad women left in history anymore. It's something to consider - are historians pushing too positive a version of some women in history to further the feminist cause, or are these whisperings just bitter backlash? Is it a mixture of both?

TheEnglishist said...

Have you seen this essay? It pretty much says it all.

susan said...


I say 'in general' not all. Tricky when you get into 'alls.' :-)

If women are taking over, where's my invitation to the party. We're as close to women taking over as we are a post-racial society. Just my opinion.

Thanks for the link.