Writing (and Valuing) People as People





“All those things could exist in the same woman. Women shouldn’t be valued because we are strong, or kick-ass, but because we are people.”

[gifset + quote]

I wanted to respond to David’s post, “How Strong Is Strong?”, and the point about why Strong Female Characters resonate (correct me if I’m reading your post wrong, David):

The supposedly redemptive quality of SFC’s and “bad-ass women” is that they serve as a correction to dominant narratives of strength being an exclusively masculine domain, which is in turn an attempt to correct exclusively (or dominantly) masculine narratives of subjectivity in general, i.e. the man is the subject of our imagination in media, literature, philosophy, etc. Subjectivity denotes complexity and desire, a multifaceted and often contradictory experience, which is the human experience.

Men are represented as such, as the example of Sherlock Holmes (sociopathic, abrasive, tormented, brilliant, etc). But women, by contrast, are represented as two-dimensional characters — or not even characters, actually, but stereotypes: the mother, the whore, the virgin; the hysteric, the irrational. Women are represented as ideas/puzzles to be understood or dismissed, not as people to be empathized with. This ties to the fragmentation and sexualization of women’s bodies in mainstream culture: in that case, the woman is reduced to an object of lust and voyeurism.

But it’s not a problem that stereotypes or objectification exist in and of themselves, not exactly. The problem is when this is almost exclusively the only way in which women are represented. That leaves no room for women’s subjectivity. In fact, I’d say, there’s barely any conception of woman as subject in our mainstream culture: she is always an Other, always a curiosity, and everything about her is tied to her biological femaleness and everything she does has to answer to that.

Stories about women are (almost always) stories about women — that is, the representation of women is not of women as people, but women as exclusively biological female and all that connotes in our culture.

That’s where Strong Female Characters come in, because this is a representation of women as something other than just a woman — or is it?  First of all, a problem with SFC’s as the prescriptive correction to the dominant narrative of exclusive male subjectivity, is that it normalizes strength (and violence) as subjectivity. Hence, the gun-toting girls, the bad-ass women, the masculinized representations of women. This is a central question of “girl power”: what does it mean that a girl’s “power” is her appropriation of masculine signifiers of power? I think it means that we haven’t shifted the terms of the debate at all, that instead of trying to re-imagine the human, we’re just re-imagining the woman as a man. That’s not feminism, to me; that’s a re-inforcement of the masculine as the exclusive locus of subjectivity and, more importantly, agency.

The point of McDougall’s article, and others like it, is that writing Strong Women only reifies strength and violence as our dominant narratives of subjectivity and agency. A truly humanizing narrative would be one that values people as people — not people as Strong or Violent or Man-like, because that just traps us in the original framework.

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3 thoughts on “Writing (and Valuing) People as People

  1. I don’t really have a substantive reply, but I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed this post! I’ve seen that gifset floating around tumblr, and I couldn’t agree with it more – sometimes the focus on having “a strong female character” (whatever that is) stops us from having a diverse range of female experience on screen.

    • Thanks Meg! I absolutely adore that gifset (yay tumblr!). And I think maybe the most redemptive thing about this call for writing complexity rather than strength, is that it means we have to write complex men as well as women. Just as women shouldn’t be only portrayed as feminine stereotypes, so men shouldn’t all have to be chivalrous knights/super-macho Rambo types. Sherlock is a great example in that case (the sad thing about Moffat’s writing, though, is that he only knows how to portray men as complex, and all his female characters are sad caricatures of femininity).

  2. Pingback: Sharing: “Where’s My Dang Black Widow Movie?” | Girlpower

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