“I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like” ~ sexism and the strong female character

“I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like” ~ sexism and the strong female character

When Jane Austen wrote Emma, she could not have predicted how popular the book would still be two hundred years later, or that she was quite wrong about Emma herself being unlikeable. Critics of the character complain of her meddling and her lack of true self awareness, but the reality beyond this is that in Emma, Austen created a female character that many of her readers envied. Wealthy, attractive, and with sufficient leisure to pursue her own interests, Emma was a woman of substance and relative independence. I say relative, because at that time, truly independent women in Georgian/Regency Britain were few, far between and entirely demonised. Emma was a safe compromise in many respects; Lady Susan, in the incomplete novel of the same name, was much more of the kick-ass who would suit more modern tastes, and was considered entirely a rotter.

Since the 1970s, there have been great strides made for equality, yet in the last few years, I’ve seen indications of backwards movement. In the USA, a worrying number of states have legislated in ways that affect women: some have now not only made abortion illegal, but have given parental rights to men whose victims of rape have carried their babies to term. Birth control, miscarriage, abortion, all seem subject to legislation that very much reduces women to incubator status. Leaving aside employment issues, it feels as if much of the hard work of feminists for the last century is being eroded at such a fast rate.

In literature and in film, the need for strong role models for young women and girls, could not be stronger, yet we get Bella Swan and Anastasia Steele. Leaving aside the merits or otherwise of the original books, surely neither of these is remotely the kind of role model I’d want for a daughter of mine? Thank goodness for Hermione Grainger, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena Warrior Princess, Black Widow, and a host of other kick-ass women who didn’t wait for anyone else to save them!

There’s a whole other post involved in analysing those famous strong female characters, not least discussing why it is that they’re all pretty women and those who don’t fall into that category are disparaged for it, like Brienne of Tarth   (who is described as being pig-like.) But what is also interesting is the reactions of others TO strong female characters; it’s not uncommon for readers to intensely dislike such a female (as Austen expected people to loathe Emma) because the character somehow flies in the face of what is expected of a woman in their society.

Chloe from Square Peg (and to a smaller extent, Isobel from Fairies) has divided readers. The majority see her as fiery, take-no-nonsense (I’d use kick-ass for the third time this post) and strong. But on occasions a number of people have said they don’t like her; they see her bluntness as rudeness. Women of my generation in particular have been brought up to somehow sugar-coat things, to be polite when rage is the only sane reaction, and to put the needs of others ahead of our own. Chloe’s grandmother (whom I hope to write more about in the sequel, provisionally entitled Rough Edges) grew up in harder times, lived through war and loss and being a single parent when that marked her as a fallen woman; her upbringing (plus some probable Asberger’s) meant Chloe doesn’t mince her words. But put Chloe’s words and actions into the mouth and hands of a man, and you get a very different feeling. It comes down to this: people often see a strong female character as one who highlights and calls attention to the basic inequality that underpins much of our so-called modern society. If a man can say or do it, people still have a problem with a woman saying or doing the same thing.

Joss Whedon, creator of many famous strong female characters, was asked why he still writes strong female characters. His answer? “Because you’re still asking me that question.”


( Square Peg is on a Countdown offer this week; for three days it will be just 99p, then for another three £1.99)

5 thoughts on ““I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like” ~ sexism and the strong female character

  1. Most needed and valid post. In a way Emma’s meddling was on behalf of a simple girl without the ‘wisdom’ to recognise what was good for her ( a similar access to leisured independence) or that was Emma’s mistaken reading. It is not only in literature that intolerance of ‘kick ass’ women occurs! But it is in literature that criticism of them is legitimised! I totally agree that what is happening is the erosion of equality, but perhaps that might be because men (and kittenish women) feel threatened by the erosion of the roles in which they feel safe.


  2. I’ve ended up with strong female characters in a lot of my writing. Not with any intention of making a point, it’s just that they emerged as they were from the story itself. And in writing an authentic character you have to develop both their strengths and weakness’s, whatever their gender. Any who come across as all strong or all weak just seem unreal to me.


  3. Good points Vivienne: I really rooted for Chloe, while also willing her to moderate her remarks enough to survive! We have ‘strong women’ in our family, and it is a mixed blessing. I am horrified by Anastasia whats-it and the very idea that women enjoy being baby-fied, in fashion, in expectation, etc. It does indeed make a woman un-popular with both genders not to conform to the little-girly stereotype, giggly, saying ‘I cried’ at movies, TV, etc, and so on … yet that stereotype is surely from the time when the middle classes got enough money for wives to stay home – artisan families & working class families were full of strong women, but they were too busy to be reading those books about the leisured wrapped-up ones – I am using a broad brush of course. It is appalling that the USA is even thinking of de-legalising abortion etc, since sadly it is necessary to have legal abortion available, and happily we have effective contraception and it is not frowned on now, so please don’t anyone try to interfere with that! But I do like a strong woman to be a woman – not an imitation man with the sex drive of the male, which actually is different. We do have differences, and men can be very weak in their own inimitable ways …


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