So recently, James Cameron caused a hoopla by suggesting that Wonder Woman was a step back from the great advancement for strong female characters he’d created with Sarah Conner.
There has been SO much said about this online already that I don’t have much to add. I think that Chuck Wendig hit the nail on the head in his post a couple of years ago, where he suggests that strong is more about agency than kicking ass. (I was reminded of this when I read E. J. Wenstrom’s excellent post about the most recent kerfuffle.)
I do think that defining a SFC as one who dresses like a soldier and works out six hours a day is WAY off the mark. Because it defines strength only as a physical characteristic.
I want to talk here about two of my strong heroines: Maia and Marina
Maia is the main character of Whatever Else, a short story about a young woman learning things about her husband.
Now this story, back when I was subbing it to magazines, got one of two responses. Either it almost made it to the top….or they immediately dumped it. The problem? It’s hard to see the protagonist DO anything.
Maia doesn’t do kung-fu fighting to save her husband. She doesn’t do detective work, she doesn’t hire a detective. Instead, she sits in her room and closes her eyes and Watches events unfold. (She’s a Watcher, like Llelas Sevireiya in The King’s Daughter).
So why would I talk about her being a strong heroine?
Frankly, at the beginning of this story, she’s not. She lives in a very patriarchal society, where woman have few rights. She was traded off in an arranged marriage to seal a treaty. She loves her husband, and doesn’t question much about her life.
It’s only after the story starts that she’s forced to confront her situation…and make decisions about it.
That’s the whole thrust of the story. What will Maia decide?
It’s not whether Maia will pick up a machine gun and extract revenge for someone’s death. Or whether she’ll murder someone. Or whether she decides to overthrow a government.
She’s making a small decision. At first. But then a harder decision. And then another. And she makes those decisions, until at the end she’s making a decision she never thought she would contemplate in all her life.
It’s hard for her, even if it might not seem all that difficult for modern women and men.
And to me, that’s strength. Being able to step up and do that thing you need to do, to make that call you need to make. So even though a lot of people will read this story and think she’s weak, I like to think of her as one of my strong heroines…
Marina Arenias is one of the other women in my stories whom I think of as strong. She appears in both The Seat of Magic and The Shores of Spain, and is the younger sister of Oriana Paredes.
Now Oriana is tall and strong, she’s well-trained to use her magical gift (she’s a siren). Oriana is a spy for her people’s government, and later an Ambassador for a foreign government on her own people’s islands. She’s hunting a murderer, the one responsible for her mother’s death…and Marina’s.
Marina has lived all her life in Oriana’s shadow. Oriana protected her and practically raised her. To free Oriana from that responsibility, Marina fled, making her way to Portugal and finding their father as she’s always hoped to do. She’s a quiet girl, a bit shy, and she rather likes the conventional role of women in her adopted country.
So why do I think of her as strong? She’s not exactly the heroine type.
Marina has two strengths: her persistence and the conviction of her beliefs.
When she’s faced with the kidnapping of her husband, Marina immediately sets off to try to rescue him. Not by herself as Oriana would have done, but by finding help. That’s one of Marina’s skills. She knows her limits and knows when she needs help.
But when the moment comes that she can pressure a critical person into helping her, Marina balks. The leverage she has–that the other woman might face persecution for her religious beliefs–is something Marina knows all too well. She’s been persecuted herself.
And in the end, she realizes that even though this woman is the fastest way to get her husband back…she won’t betray the other woman…even if it means risking Joaquim’s life, and spending months trying to get him back. It’s a decision she makes with considerable anguish. (And it’s the one scene that made me cry every time I worked on it.)
It’s a decision to retreat. To save her soul, more or less, and because Joaquim wouldn’t want her to do it.
It’s such a ‘NOT A STRONG WOMAN’ moment. Marina feels weak and batters herself because she thinks Oriana would have done it. But it’s true to Marina’s character. It was stronger for her to stick with her convictions than do the thing that was expedient for the plot.
But the next morning Marina vows to herself that she’ll find another way. She will bother every government official in Spain if she must to get her husband back. She alters her plan and moves on.
And that’s a strength of its own. Not all things will go in the most obvious direction. Being willing to retreat and retrench is sometimes just as important as battling forward.
The point of all that is to say that I think Cameron is off base. Strength is like bravery, not absolute, but defined by one’s fears and needs and abilities. For some characters, stepping outside their own house is terrifying, and doing so takes great strength. Other characters are spies and carry guns.
Both can be strong.