The following is a guest editorial by writer Kelly Stephenson and does not necessarily reflect the views of iFanboy.
As I was finishing up Gambit #10 the other day, I picked a fight with a straw man about strong female characters. Fortunately, he had the presence of mind to write down what we said. He’s cool like that.
IF YOU ONLY READ ONE PARAGRAPH BEFORE SKIPPING TO THE COMMENTS, make it this one. Strawman and I share this with you in the interest of having rational discourse from common ground, not to incite salacious comments from either “camp.” In fact, we’d really like it if the camps combined into a single camp full of people who want to read entertaining comics, because we think that’s at the core of just about every conflict. If, while you are reading this, you think our motives are otherwise, please refer back to this paragraph and consider that it might be our imperfect communication of ideals that is at fault, not our motives.
[Begin scene. Kelly has just finished reading a comic on her iPad. She closes the cover as Strawman walks up to her. He's bright green, with a sticky blue substance on the paddle end that serves as his face.]
Kelly: Eh. I guess. I’m still pretty cranky about #9.
Strawman: I thought #9 was a pretty good issue, wasn’t it? That bit with the Astonishing Avengers? Sassy girl power, speakeasies, and roguish heroes who make dumb decisions because they can’t help themselves are kind of your thing, I thought.
Kelly: It was pretty great until they did that thing I hate.
SM: You hate a lot of things. You really need to be more specific.
Kelly: They’ve spent a lot of time developing Joelle as more or less Gambits’s equal, and then they went and ruined it. He spent the whole book telling us she was in over her head despite there being no evidence to support that. And then he ended up right. Within 4 pages she went from strong female character who is the hero’s peer, to the standard “weak woman who has a baby in peril.” I thought #10 would make it better, but it didn’t. She mostly just followed him around while he did his Drunken Master thieving. Suddenly she can’t take care of herself at all.
I hate it when they do that. It’s like the female version of the guy motivated by the tragic demise of his lady love. Except that instead of spawning a life of heroic crime fighting, it reduces her down to a needy damsel in distress and little more.
SM: Maybe this story will end differently. It’s not over yet. She could be lying about the kid, even.
Kelly: It doesn’t matter, the damage is done. You can’t excuse bad storytelling by putting in a twist at the end. It doesn’t fix it. Why can’t they write strong female characters who stay strong? Why do they always end up so weak?
SM: Isn’t that a bit harsh? Maybe you’re overreacting and that’s the problem.
Kelly: Look it up. He decides with no evidence to the contrary that she’s in trouble. He spends the entire book getting in her way while she tells him to bug off. Exactly 10 pages after she tells him he’s patronizing (and he is), she’s in his kitchen in his undershirt sobbing and begging for help. And then she stays in the t-shirt the whole time they’re planning a raid in the next issue.
SM: That sounds kinda hot.
Kelly: Not helping!
SM: So you’re saying that the only good female character is one that doesn’t make mistakes, doesn’t ever need any help and has vague motivations that aren’t connected to her life or her past. Yaaaaaawn. You really dig the impulsive “bad” good guys who are always getting into scrapes. What’s the difference?
Kelly: I like that character type no matter the gender. And there are lots of quality female characters right now that are doing dumb things and dealing with the consequences: Captain Marvel, Black Canary, Sif…
SM: So go read their books and leave the guy books to the guys.
Kelly: So it’s okay to have bad storytelling in books targeted for men? Now that is harsh. You can find better written female characters in ensemble books or books where the female character is the big hero. Why can’t we have more of it in books where the big hero is male? I want to read and enjoy those books, too.
SM: Look, in the end, he needs to save someone’s day, right? It’s his name on the cover. Besides, you like a little romance and unresolved sexual tension in your stories. How else is he going to ultimately get the girl if she doesn’t need her day saved?
Kelly: That’s … That’s a fair point, actually. It is Gambit’s book, isn’t it?
SM: Exactly. I’m so glad we–
Kelly: Wait! There are some books where the guy gets to be the big hero without destroying the female character when he rescues her. Swamp Thing has Abby Arcane. Winter Soldier had that entire run with Natasha. She managed to be completely brainwashed and still stay a BAMF.
SM: Well, yeah. She’s the Black Widow. She’s always gonna be a …. Oh. I see your point. So, how can we fix the rest? You may be picking on Gambit right now, but we know he’s not the only one.
Kelly: Lets think about how it works in other books. Setting aside the baby-in-peril aspect because that’s a totally different can of worms and not going away soon… How do they make it work? How can a strong female character make a dumb choice and still be strong.
SM: You’re really oversimplifying, you know.
Kelly: I’m “generalizing.” Go with it. What makes it okay to show weakness without becoming weak?
SM: Well, in the good books, the female hero has more than one person telling her she’s doing something dumb. She also has more than one person to lean on.
Kelly: True. Even when there’s a love interest leading the charge, there’s still an ensemble that’s got her back.
SM: But those are books that are about an ensemble, or with her as the main character. You can’t do that as easily in a book like Gambit. He’s still supposed to save the day and you don’t spend the whole book following her to lunch dates.
Kelly: What if she asks him for help?
SM: Isn’t that what she did?
Kelly: Begging on the morning after is not the same thing as coming to him on her own and saying “You’re right. I could use some help.”
SM: Fair enough. Trust is cooler when you choose to give it.
Kelly: Way cooler. It legitimizes their attraction to each other, too. It would be nice if her weak spot shouldn’t be the entire reason she’s strong. Joelle could have been a master thief before this all started.
SM: She could also have a plan – a good plan that she came up with and not a plan from someone else that Remy helped her steal. Then it’s way less “Help me, Obi-Wan” and more “Here’s how you’re going to help me destroy the Death Star.”
Kelly: You know what? You don’t even need all of that every time. Just more of it. It leaves plenty of wiggle room to allow for some last-minute complications where his savvy improvisation saves the day.
SM: And he gets the girl. And rescues the baby.
Kelly: And I still want to give the creators my money because they’re writing interesting characters. Everyone wins!
Kelly Stephenson is a writer in St. Louis, MO where she can sometimes be spotted talking to herself. She calls it her “process.”