Femininity Is Not Weakness

Femininity Is Not Weakness

“Q: So, why do you write these strong female characters?
A: Because you’re still asking me that question.” (Joss Whedon)

I’ve done very little that was productive this weekend. Okay, so I finished a novel, did the ironing, and did the washing up, but I also watched six episodes of Robin Hood, one episode of Doctor Who, one episode of Supernatural and stayed up until one in the morning laughing at nothing with a friend who’d come to keep me company while I was alone in the house.

I watched six episodes of Robin Hood. Six.

That’s the BBC version, by the way, which ran for three series and then ended with everybody dying. It’s … well, it’s cheesy, and it’s historically inaccurate (especially regarding clothes and the use of the word ‘okay’), and it’s not a patch on Doctor Who, but what do you expect when it’s co-produced with BBC America? I kid, by the way. It’s just funny because pretty much all the other BBC shows I like are ‘BBC Wales’, and then there’s Robin Hood, and it’s not.

But despite all its numerous failings, there is one reason it’s a very good show: the female characters.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve had several conversations with people about the lack of female characters in the Hobbit, and why I’m pretty sure they’re making up random story lines for the movie in order to deal with this lack. Because there aren’t any. There are no speaking roles for women in the Hobbit, and there are precious few in the Lord of the Rings.

The thing is, a lot of people have one gender that they can’t write as well as the other. They’ll have a really convincing male narrator but a female narrator who is clichéd and unrealistic, or vice versa. I know that until recently, I found writing from a guy’s perspective almost impossible, despite not being particularly feminine myself. And frequently, writers (whether of TV or books or whatever) will be accused of being misogynistic when actually, they’re not.

And then there’s the phrase ‘strong female characters’. They turn up. They’re very masculine. They scorn dresses and wear armour and if they fall in love, their love interest will die and they will be spurred on to revenge. More often, they aren’t interested in men, either.

Apparently, to be a strong female character you have to be … unfeminine. You have to be unlike the rest of your gender, because that’s the only way a female character can be ‘strong’.

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff in The Avengers (2012)Because obviously, when Natasha Romanoff uses the stereotypes of women to appear weak in order to manipulate Loki into telling her what she wanted to know, that meant she ceased to be a strong female character. A character who falls in love and gets married isn’t ‘strong’ because they’re ‘relying’ on a man. Amy Pond is a weak female character because she needs the Doctor to save her. Er, no. [She needs the Doctor to save her because she’s HUMAN, like the rest of us, and he’s not. But I digress.]

A female character can be strong without being unfeminine, and I am going to use Marian as she was presented in the BBC’s Robin Hood as an example – and now the first three paragraphs of this post make sense and seem relevant. It’s like a Steven Moffat show. (It’ll all make sense later…) There are plenty of other examples I could use (why all the Sansa Stark haters? Seriously – why? She’s most definitely strong. I don’t get why people don’t like her) but I feel this is one that I’m most qualified to talk about.

I’m aware that many of you probably haven’t seen the show, so I’ll explain it in detail rather than just assuming you know what I’m on about.

In the stories, Marian is Robin’s love interest, but also a bit of a wild card herself. In the series, this is a little more developed.

While Robin was in the Holy Land fighting for the king, Marian realised that the system was rotten and started to help people, under the cover of darkness and always masked. The villagers dubbed her the Nightwatchman, having no clue to her identity. Once Robin returns he assumes that she is still naive and doesn’t understand politics, something she quickly proves isn’t true by helping people when he cannot. They frequently clash because she chooses to work within the system rather than publicly disobeying the Sheriff, taunting him as Robin does.

Despite Guy of Gisborne’s attentions, Marian retains her independence, agreeing to marry Guy ‘when the king returns’ only because she has no other choice – it’s her only protection against the Sheriff. She is also aware that this will take a long time and is probably planning some way out of it. However, there is clearly affection between her and Robin and we learn that they were betrothed before he went off to fight. In one episode, Robin is struggling to make a decision and after consulting Marian to see if she knows any more about it, he tries to kiss her. She pushes him away, saying, “That will not help you make a decision.”

She knows her own mind, and is not about to let Robin overrule that. “I am sick of people – and it is always men! – telling me what is and isn’t wise,” she says to Robin when he tries to counsel her against a decision she has made.

It becomes more dangerous, but she continues her actions as the Nightwatchman even though her father begs her to stop, threatening to leave home if he will not support her. Meanwhile, she is gradually convincing Guy that she really does love him, so that he confides in her, and so that he trusts her. She uses her feminine side to continue acting on the wrong side of the law, but never does she try and behave like a man. She is fiercely independent and, when someone suggests it’s strange she’s not yet married says, “Given that marriage requires a man, perhaps it’s not surprising,” but she never shaves her head and goes around in breeches, trying to become a knight.

Instead, she acts in a way that means she can help people from where she stands in society.

Lucy Griffiths, who plays Marian, is very beautiful. The character is supposed to be attractive, of course, or Guy wouldn’t be interested in her. But what I particularly love is that she’s not skinny like so many of the beautiful characters on TV. She’s a little plump – she has the hint of a double chin. (I am not calling her fat, by any means. She is not.) And yet despite not being the wraith-like creature we seem to consider attractive these days, she is still one of the prettiest actresses I have seen in quite a long time.

That sort of character is the kind of rolemodel we should be promoting. She is brave and independent and fearless while retaining her feminine side and never, ever allowing other people to make her decisions for her. She is beautiful but not stick-thin, which suits the privileged background Marian is supposed to have. All these kids growing up seeing models and bony actresses are going to think they’re fat when they’re not. We need more healthy-sized people on TV.

She is a strong female character. She does not appear strong because she behaves like a man. Instead, she is strong in her own right.

That’s the mistake people often make – they think that in order to be strong, a female character has to be masculine. Actually, that’s undermining the whole thing. In order for them to be a good female character, they need to have their own personality. Not someone else’s.

And that is why despite all its failings, BBC’s Robin Hood is AWESOME and you should all watch it. Also, it has a great soundtrack.

43 thoughts on “Femininity Is Not Weakness

  1. I’ve never actually watched BBC’s Robin Hood, but Marian sounds like a good character in this adaptation. In Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, they showed her as being a strong, independent fighter in her first scene, only to have her run around screaming helplessly for the rest of it (not meaning to denigrate the film or anything – I do still love it). You’re so right that a woman acting feminine does not mean she can’t be a strong female character. This was a really well-written and concise post on this topic. PS: I found out about your blog from http://musingsfromnevillesnavel.wordpress.com/. Hi!

    1. Thanks! :) Ha ha, funny you should say ‘concise’ – I was really worried that I was rambling.
      Yes, it’s annoying when characters are the ‘token strong character’ to start with and then … fail to continue with that.
      Ah, cool. I like it when I get referrals from other blogs – it makes me feel like I’ve achieved something. Ehehe :D

    1. I’d forgotten about Kate :D (I’m still re-watching series one, and we’re halfway through. I don’t own either of the other two series, though I’d like to, so I’ve forgotten what happens.)
      Djaq is of course a wonderful character too, but she doesn’t illustrate my point since she’s pretending to be a boy most of the time, ehehe.

  2. THIS POST IS AWESOME! I DECLARE THIS IN CAPS LOCK IN ORDER TO EMPHASIZE THIS MORE TRULY!
    It’s weird – Mum and i have been meaning to find a way to see the Robin Hood series, but we’ve just never got around to it. Really think we ought to now.

    Being effeminate and still strong is tough stuff – I think because girls sometimes scorn that part of themselves, they find it easier to criticise a female character for being that way when they have to compete with highly competent male characters. That, and being girls, we’re just generally more critical in general. We don’t hide our emotions as well as men do (they tend to cover up “weakness” with things like anger, we don’t do that so much as a gender).

    Finally, Sansa Stark. I used to hate her, until I realised how complex and deeply realistic a character she is. Now, I really empathise with her, and I’m rooting for her to come through and give Littlefinger a taste of his own medicine before too long. Brienne of Tarth is another good one – a strong warrior, but deeply insecure in her own way. They have to be my favourite female characters in the series, after Arya. Because . . . Arya.

    1. “generally in general”? I believe you may have been visited by the DorD.
      I almost said “I’ll lend you the DVDs” and then realised that, unfortunately, that isn’t exactly feasible while we still live so far away. This is tragic. DISTANCE WHY DO YOU EXIST?
      I never disliked Sansa, although I always preferred Arya because despite my love of ballet, I’ve always been a bit of a tomboy, and I could sympathise with her more. However, I’ve seen a lot of hate on her on Tumblr and stuff, which I don’t understand. She has, as it’s put elsewhere in the series, ‘a woman’s strength’. She endures so much crap and I can’t understand people who hate her.
      You used capslock. I feel honoured.

      1. THANK YOU. THE HONOUR IS ALL MINE.

        Yeah. I just used to wonder why she wasn’t disillusioned to Joffrey’s general disgustingness sooner – though now I think about it, you can see why she’d ignore the truth in her circumstances. And she is only 13, at the start. Poor girl.

        Yes, the DorD will be around to pick that phrase up later. I reported it last night, right after I spotted it :P

        1. I disagree, I think she always knew, but didn’t want to admit it. Because of his position, she would be afraid to say anything, and perhaps even to think anything, in case someone finds out. So she pushes it away to protect herself.

          1. Really? I honestly think she believed it . . . until her father lost his head. Because she’s such a hopeful character – kinda like me, I guess – she doesn’t want to believe it, she thinks that it’s all things she’s seeing just because others put it about. Maybe she thinks he really loves her, and she can change him.

            I don’t know. But either way, he’s gone splat and she’ll be up to her own brand of mischief in time. If GRRM writes faster, we might even find out how.

          2. Ehehe, I’m in no hurry for him to write faster at present, I’m hoping for a breather once I’ve finished Dance with Dragons.
            Hmm, maybe she didn’t seen it then, but I’m not sure. I don’t think she ever had any real hope that it’d be that easy.

          3. Hmm. Maybe. Maybe.
            Ehehehe, I’ve been waiting for over a year now . . . and once you’ve got to the end of Dance Part Two you’ll know why I’m so desperate to see what happens next. If he’s . . . no, I won’t say it. Horrible spoilers.

          4. … that makes no sense. It’s split in paperback for practical reasons, because you can’t bind over a thousand pages in one volume (although they seem to be able to bind 900?). It must just be a money making gimmick, to be honest … people are already paying more for the hardback.

          5. It came out in two halves on Kindle for some reason too . . . maybe because most books follow the format of the paperbacks. I don’t know. I was just as traumatised by the ending of Dance anyway.

  3. AAAAAHHHH YOU ARE SO AWESOME MIRIAM!

    xD Sorry if that sounded a little crazy there. But I really, really agree. When I was younger, I didn’t think this way – I thought either I should be girly or smart/strong/brave/etc. Not both. But I’ve changed my mind over the years…

    1. Ehehe, thanks! I appreciate knowing that you think I’m awesome :D
      Yeah, I used to look down on ‘girly girls’ because I thought they were all pathetic. Now I realise that caring about how you look doesn’t necessarily equate to being an idiot.

  4. This is awesome!! I haven’t watched Robin Hood, but Marian seems so amazing, from what you say. I only can think of one other character that’s like that, which is Kate De Vries, from Airborn. Perhaps you’ve heard of her? I think she’d fit well with Marian and Natasha.

  5. Great thoughts! I agree entirely… Now how do we go about getting mainstream authors and screenwriters to listen? :P

    Also, I concur on healthy-sized people… Fashion is a nasty thing some days, I tell ya. :P

  6. Love, love, love this post! So true that there’s actually a stereotyped strong woman as well as a stereotyped damsel in distress. As writers, we have to uphold the complexity of characterisation that shows that women are not as one-dimension weak-or-strong-only as they seem.
    Also, the two examples you chose are gorgeous *fangirling* <3

    1. Thank you! Yeah – stereotypes abound, and it can be very hard to break free of them, as when you’re surrounded by so many examples of the so-called ‘strong’ woman, you don’t have any other references to draw upon.

  7. Yes! I love how you put this and now I want to watch the show. This is actually a discussion I’ve had with a lot of people. Female characters can be strong and still be physically weak. They can be strong and still be emotional. They can be strong and still need support and companionship from others.

    We can’t all be Buffy or River, but we can still be strong girls. I want to see more of that in stories.

  8. Wow now here’s a post with lots of comments… sadly I only made half way through your conversation with Charley, Anywho…

    Joss Wheadon – amazing man, creating Amazing shows. Buffy, Firefly (with not jsut one, but THREE amazing woman characters, covering the spectrum of Tomboy to lady) and Dollhouse… to name the ones I know of. *grins*

    I think you have encompassed here what we should all try to strive for in our strong female chatacters. Not to mention the food for thought that Sarah and I will be chewing on. – Remind me to mail you what she looks like and how I discovered her twin. – Sarah might not be doing as Marion the way you’ve described her, but you’ve pointed out that interesting thing – being strong as a woman versus being strong by pretending to be male, which has given me insite (insight?) into the culture clash between Sarah and the society she’s landed in. :}

    1. Yup… lots of comments indeed. Many of them irrelevant thanks to Charley and I getting sidetracked :D
      I’ll confess, the only thing of Joss Whedon’s that I’ve seen is the Avengers. But my brother intends to remedy that with a Firefly box set next time he comes to visit.

      1. That’s right – he has the Jayne hat *grins*

        I seriously wish they hadn’t cancled that. And when you watch it – my character Rachael is almost a female version of Captain Mal – or at least she approves very heartily of his methods. Also keep in mind I wrote her before I’d ever seen Firefly…

        Anyway I love that show and could watch the whole thing over again. :}

    1. I’ll consider it. I don’t yet know how my schedule will end up for November, so I might be writing at really weird times and blitzing once a week before spending several days not writing or something. :D

  9. I should watch this. I used to love Disney’s Robin Hood when I was little (Robin was my first crush) and I still know all the dialogue by heart, but inaccuracy is a pet peeve of mine. I suppose if I can put up with sandwiches in Merlin, I should give this a try!

    PS: I know I’m a lurker, but I just had to say your blog is awesome :)

    1. Thank you very much!
      Ha ha, inaccuracy is a peeve of mine too. The clothing in Robin Hood seems pretty anachronistic but hey, I’ll put up with that. As you say, it’s no worse than Merlin.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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