My Twitter-wife Holly Smale has brought to the attention of her Twitter-followers, of which I am one, this here magazine article entitled "I Hate Strong Female Characters" — http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/08/i-hate-strong-female-characters — and I have to say I agree with it wholeheartedly.
For those of you too time-constricted/lazy to read it, it basically holds up a hand in the classroom and has the temerity to ask "Why are vibrant female characters called strong?" Why are they limited to such a thing? More to the point, however, is why is the word "strong" slung in there at all? If you take away the strong bit, that leaves "female character"— but isn't a female character just as inherently strong as a male character? Why do they need "strong" in there at all?
People say to me all the time "Derek, you're great," and I can't argue with them. They go on to say "I love your black shirt/blue jeans combo" and I nod wisely, agreeing with them but not needing to put it into words. Then they say "It's so cool that your books have strong female characters" and I shrug, and say "Hey, I'm a pretty awesome guy. Now go get me some Skittles."
Valkyrie is a strong female character. As in, she's strong, she's female, and she's a character. But she is not a Strong Female Character. She's not a role model — not really. She's deeply, DEEPLY flawed. Over the course of these eight books, she's done some outstandingly heroic things, but she's also done some downright mean and nasty and selfish things. She's hurt people. She's become arrogant (and not in the cool way that I am).
Here's what Holly has to Twitter-say about the subject:
"Strength" is one dimensional. It's saying "women can be strong like men", NOT "women are flawed, complex, brilliant, weak LIKE MEN."
I love it when readers don't like Valkyrie. I love it when they actively dislike her for the things she's done and the way she's behaved. But it's like they're surprised. It's like they can't compute. "Okay, wait, so... she saves the world but... but she's cheating on her boyfriend?? How is that POSSIBLE?"
Valkyrie is a character. She's as messed up as any male character I could ever write. That's what makes her real to me.
Having a girl as the protagonist in an action/adventure/horror/fantasy/whatever means things are going to get physical, and you all know how much I love my fight scenes. But having her kick ass is not why she's a good character.
Years ago, I was yapping to my mother about Buffy and Xena and talking about how great it is that we now have these TV shows about such strong female characters. My mother, who admittedly has never watched either show, asked me if these really WERE strong female characters, or if they were merely male characters with boobs.
Having a blonde cheerleader save the world with her martial arts skills doesn't equal feminism, she said. That's a male tactic. How about her saving the day using tactics that aren't all about punching and kicking and killing?
I didn't have an answer for her then. I still don't, even now. There's a whole debate to be had that I'm just not ready for, that I may never be ready for. My mother is a pacifist. I am not. We see the world differently, we operate differently, even though we want the same things. We both want equality and peace. My mother is the sort to talk her way to equality and peace. I'm the sort to talk to the point where I reckon more talk won't do any good, and then smash my way through to an understanding. It is not an enlightened viewpoint I hold. It is a crass, brutish viewpoint — but in a crass, brutish world, I believe my way is the way to go. Mum believes otherwise.
And that's the difference, I think, between us. We live in a world carved by men, where fear and oppression and violence are a part of our lives. I can't even IMAGINE a world sculpted by women, where other values have taken hold. I'm limited in that way. I could try not to be, but I honestly wouldn't know where to start. That's kind of sad, when you think about it. For all my imagination, I can't even imagine that...
... (turns to stare hauntingly out the window).