Guest Editorial: Keeping Strong Female Characters Strong

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.]

Gambit_9Strawman: Why the heavy sigh, Sunshine? Gambit #10 was downright harmless and it ended with Rogue ready to knock some sense into him.

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.

Gambit #9

From Gambit #9

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?

From Gambit #9

From Gambit #9

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.

From Gambit #10

From Gambit #10

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!

[End scene]

 


Kelly Stephenson is a writer in St. Louis, MO where she can sometimes be spotted talking to herself. She calls it her “process.”

Comments

  1. optic00085 optic00085 says:

    This was quite nice.

    Particularly this bit, which really is a great question:
    “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.”

    While I dropped Batgirl due to my general apathy towards the plot, I really enjoyed the way Gail writes Batgirl. Barbara is always shown as character who has physical strength and a sharp mind, but she still makes poor decisions. She would occasionally get herself in trouble in either her personal life or as a superhero. Sometimes she would find a clever way out, or fallback on her supporting cast(her roommate or someone from the bat family), but sometimes she just plain lost. Her faults never made her seem weak, as a reader I respected her for acknowledging her mistakes, and making an effort to fix the problem(that is strength!)

    …I may have started babbling there, but yeah, nice article. Kudos!

    • Alexa D. says:

      “Barbara is always shown as character who has physical strength and a sharp mind, but she still makes poor decisions.”

      Exactly, I always prefer stories with character of some psychological richness– which is to say, I can glean from their behaviors general patterns and attitudes that make their actions believable and defining a character in which to BE in-character.

      So when writers try to create conflict and/or show characters in some kind of distress, it makes a better story as well as better characters if it’s because of some human error, mistakes we all make. Is she naturally stubborn? Or underconfident? Or hubristic? Or anxious? Look inward to your own weaknesses and the root causes of your own problems– and then extrapolate them to fantastic situations. “Stolen baby” is a weak plot device and IMHO needs to be strongly justified by the story.

      It’s also beneficial in an indefinite story-telling genre like superhero comics– give characters traits that are not mere problems to be solved, but deep motivating factors. Magneto is a Holocaust survivor who has become the very thing he hates out of fear for his “people’s” safety and liberty. You can write 50 years of stories about that character and that “problem” will never go away– it’s just a matter of putting him in different situations and how his issues manifest around them. A stolen baby problem is solved when the baby is found (alive or dead)

    • Kelly Kelly (@annaluna) says:

      Yes and Yes. I think there’s a disconnect between what we (generally) say, what people hear (generally) and what we mean when we want strong female characters (and by “strong” one usually means “well written”). We complain about weaknesses, but it’s not that they have weaknesses, it’s how they’re sometimes depicted and how they’re sometimes used as plot points.

      A perfectly flawless character is just as boring as an obviously flawed one, I feel.

  2. lazorwulf says:

    Amen! I think the industry is moving in a good direction — toward better storytelling and away from soft porn — and conversations like these are a positive sign. Every once in a while, I try to persuade my wife to try reading comics, and it’s embarrassingly hard to find titles with actual female characters instead of male fantasies marketed as female characters.

    As far as the “baby in peril” plot device, I think it’s only the character’s weakness that makes me lose interest. Look at Saga — the baby is in peril, but the mother is a strong, dynamic, developed character who can defend her baby and isn’t afraid to kick her man in the nuts.

    • Kelly Kelly (@annaluna) says:

      I think there’s a very real difference between what Saga is doing where baby in peril and her family are the core plot (which I heart and think is a brilliant way to incorporate family values into thrilling heroics without it being an “all ages/kid book” ) and “surprise, that woman is only making bold, dangerous choices because there’s a kid involved, now please go and rescue them” (which I feel is the female version of the refrigerator girlfriend).

      That’s probably a different Strawman ;)

    • kzap kzap says:

      Pretty much agree with everything you said and the article in general. I think in the case of Saga (there haven’t been a huge number of flashbacks yet but) I’m under the impression Alana has been a bad ass, empowered female character since before her child was in danger (or even conceived).
      The issue I have myself is that I love broken characters, I wish comics had more strong female character but I personally love characters (male or female) being broken and weak.
      I’m not really a fan of super-heroes but rather dark, noir stuff and even I’m getting sick of the same female characters all the time.
      When you compare a broken female character to a broken male character, the latter is almost always shown as dark, brooding and independent, while the former is there to be rescued or pitied.

  3. Would the panel where Joelle is asking for help have a different feel if she was not wearing the clothes she has on (or lack of) and positioned the way she is (shoulders slumped and head down)? In other words, if she was in gym clothes and actively wailing on a punching bag in the basement, yet still asking for help, would this panel have a different take on her vulnerability?

    I’ll admit I don’t always catch the underlying message patronizing of female characters in scenes like this.

    • Kelly Kelly (@annaluna) says:

      Well, in this case, you can he’s being patronizing because she tells him he’s being patronizing ;)

      I think there are several things that would have made the last page less of a slap in the face to me as a reader. It really felt like a 180 on the story they’d been telling at that point. The visuals were as much a part of it as the words.

    • Kelly Kelly (@annaluna) says:

      “…you can TELL he’s being…”

      don’t you just hate it when typos take all the wind out of your clever sails?

  4. Ali Colluccio Ali Colluccio (@WonderAli) says:

    I want Kelly’s inner monologue on iFanboy ALL THE TIME!! This is awesome!!

  5. ohcaroline ohcaroline says:

    Great article, Kelly!

    I haven’t been reading this book, so I’m only familiar with the plot and the Joelle character from your description, but the dialogue goes through a lot of the issues that come up when reading these kinds of stories.

  6. Cubiclecide Cubiclecide says:

    Why doesn’t everything ALWAYS happen the way I want it to happen! Pouty Face Pouty Face. The inablilty of comics fans to drop books they don’t like is mind boggling to me.

  7. TheFyl TheFyl says:

    Marvel has a good number of strong female characters in team books. Young Avengers, X-Factor, and FF all have some gals that I’m quite fond of right now, but I love Lady Hawkeye in Fraction’s Hawkeye the most.

  8. asmus asmus (@jamesasmus) says:

    As much as it stings to read words unfurl about disappointing and cliche choices I’ve made as a writer – I sincerely appreciate the thoughtful approach and earnest discussion.

    I honestly try to do right by all my characters and readers, but I value honest and kind responses like this when someone feels I missed the mark.

    It’s illuminating and invaluable to hear how people experience what I write. Hopefully discussions like this help me (and other writers?) become better, more in-tune storytellers.

    I’ve long said – and since Gambit in particular – how badly I want comics to be a more welcoming community for female readers (especially hearing my wife Mara’s experiences with the material when she began reading comics these last few years). So I am especially sorry if anyone feels I’ve contributed to the problem with a particular character’s story.

    The rest of this story is already in its finished form. So, sadly, I won’t be able to steer Joelle’s ship in a wholly new direction on this. But hopefully, this improves my contributions to comics going forward.

    +james asmus (penitent writer of GAMBIT)

    • Kelly Kelly (@annaluna) says:

      Wow. Thank you so much for your response. I’m struggling with the idea that spouting my opinion on the Internet may have affected change. I didn’t think that was allowed. ;)

      Seriously, though. I really appreciate your comments. I hope it was clear that I was using the scene as an example of a thing that is happening everywhere and not “why Gambit’s creators are ruining everything I hold dear.” Also, and this may not have been clear, I’ve been really enjoying the series so far, and plan on continuing to read it.

      Otherwise, I wouldn’t have cared so much.

    • kzap kzap says:

      Awesome response, it’s good to see writers being humble, taking criticism and looking to improve their work. Just as it’s good to see constructive criticism online and not just hate.
      I guess that’s what iFanboy does, it’s the comic book site that improves the world of comics.

  9. DirkFeelgood says:

    This is really similar to my feelings on Skyfall. In that film Bond spends a large portion of the film telling Moneypenny she’s not cut out for field work and that she would be better suited to a desk job. The sole reason seemed to be she missed that one really difficult shot with the sniper rifle, despite all the other awesome stuff she’d done to get herself in position to take that shot. To make matters worse she seemingly agrees with him and becomes a glorified secretary.

    I really liked your discussion about how characters stay strong whilst still making mistakes, and the humble response from James Asmus too. Thanks for your thoughts.

    • kzap kzap says:

      It’s interesting you got that from Skyfall, I re-watched the film last night with my family and thought it had some of the best examples of strong female characters in the franchise (I know that’s not saying much).
      It was the first time I can remember that a Bond girl held her own in a fight/chase and was more than just eye-candy or a damsel in distress.
      At the end she chose to take a desk job but it was her decision and Bond only mentioned it earlier in the film once (as a suggestion not an instruction).
      Sure, I still think the Bond has a LONG way to come in it’s portrayal of women but it was a step in the right direction.

    • Grandturk says:

      Yeah but is that really a desk job? Or a security duty. You know – like killer disguised as an admin for last chance security purposes? Obviously that’s not been Moneypenny’s role to date, but this could be a new direction.

    • Alexa D. says:

      Bond made the suggestion that “fieldwork’s not for everyone” once (which sounded to me like him assuring her there was no shame in wanting to stay out of the field– something he tried to do but couldn’t stay out), but then she helped him beat up those thugs in Macau, and he kicked her a gun during the shootout at M’s hearing. When she said she declined to return to the field, I thought he seemed surprised. And besides, she’s now assisting the head of MI6, that’s a hard job to turn down no matter how much you’re into the thrill of fieldwork.

      I agree with Grandturk that we’re probably going to see more of Moneypenny from now on than just a flirt behind a desk. But there’s nothing inherently not-strong about a woman leaving a dangerous job for a desk job.

  10. ThePanel says:

    This was a fantastic post and such great dialogue ending with James’ response. It has me planning to pickup a book I haven’t been reading on the next arc. Thanks to Kelly, James and all the commenters.