Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Female characters: Equal opportunity flaws

This post started as a rant against the use of the phrase “strong female character”, that meaningless buzz phrase trotted out when comic companies deign to advertise one of their female properties. It can mean anything: that the character is physically strong, that she's emotionally resilient or that the writing is going to be of consistent quality. You just don't know and some clarity would be nice. That's bad enough but it occurred to me there's a second problem with the phrase:

Strength ain't that interesting.

What's more we know this: the standard template criticism of Superman is that as a physically invulnerable, emotionally perfect individual there's not really anywhere to go with the character. Superior interpretations of the character (at least the ones I've connected with) introduce a flaw of some kind: All-Star Superman confronted him with his own mortality; New Krypton turned him into an unwanted lone peacemaker between humans and Kryptonians; and For Tomorrow presented him with a genuine crisis of faith.

To break this down to pure theory: a character's flaws, whether they get over them or fall prey to them, generate more plots than their strengths. If Hamlet weren't a ditherer his uncle would have been dead by Act 2 and we'd be missing some of the best speeches in the whole Shakespeare canon.

As to female characters probably one of the comic writers most praised for their female characters is Greg Rucka who, you may have guessed, is a man. I'm choosing to highlight him over, say, Gail Simone or Kelly Sue deConnick because when a man writes a woman its put under a huge microscope by female fandom and often (unsurprisingly) found wanting. Rucka, though, has not one but two female characters who are regularly held up as a sort of gold standard for writing women in comics: Renee Montoya and Tara Chase.

In Gotham Central and later as The Question, Rucka put Renee Montoya through the emotional wringer: combating alcoholism; the death of her partner; the ethical dilemma of avenging his death when the law proved insufficient; and, not least, being forced out of the closet and having to confront the reaction of her staunchly traditional Catholic parents. There was also her use in setting up Batwoman's past in which she was both the love of Kate Kane's life but by being closeted also represented an act of deception Kate had made the active moral decision not to engage in despite it robbing her of her lifelong dream. These issues drove the personal evolution of the character for close to a decade between Gotham Central #1 and the character's disappearance following Flashpoint and the New 52 reboot.

With Tara Chase in Queen & Country, Rucka went further, and we have a character who is almost entirely made of flaws. Tara is a genuinely competent, even gifted, MI-6 agent but as the series progresses we learn that not only does she have significant emotional flaws but that she was selected as an elite “Minder” agent because of them: they make her a more effective weapon in her handler's arsenal but cause her enormous pain as a human being.

Both of these characters are praised, not universally of course, and under certain interpretations of the phrase they could certainly be called “strong female characters” but that's not what makes them most interesting. I'd rather have meaningfully “complex” over meaninglessly “strong” any day. 


Saranga said...

As good as ever. It's always a pleasure to read your posts James.

James Ashelford said...

Thanks, Saranga, always nice to hear.