“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’.
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.