What Makes a Strong, Female Character?
Okay, confession time, I recently got done hate-watching Weeds. It started enjoyably enough, but very quickly, by the second or third season, I began disliking the main character, mother-turned-drug dealer, Nancy Botwin. Pretty soon the dislike grew to outright hatred of this character. There’s plenty of reasons to dislike her, most of which are very real human attributes, but the thing that started my hatred of this character was the way every guy wanted to fuck her.
Not only did every guy want to do her, but the only reason she gets ahead in her business is because guys think she’s hot and therefore help her. Season one, she screws a rival drug dealer in an alleyway, and suddenly he decides to not take her out. Meanwhile a DEA agent knows she’s a drug dealer, but helps take out her rivals. At one point she discovers a drug tunnel to Mexico which she is expressly forbidden from entering, but she does anyway, and the only thing that saves her life is the drug lord/mayor of Tijuana who falls in love with her. These examples just stack up, and I have a problem with it. Yes, the character has the occasional good idea, but the only reason things work for her is because of all the guys surrounding her.
It isn’t so much that she actively uses her sexuality to get what she wants. I have no problem with that in, say, shows like Game of Thrones, where women are forced to use what they have at their disposal. But this is an unrealistic character. Besides that, what kind of message does this send out? If you use your sexuality, you’ll get ahead? I suppose what has really bothered me is looking back at Breaking Bad and the fact that you never see Walter White (another suburban parent turned drug dealer) sleep with anyone but his wife. Of course, he has his superior intellect to get ahead, but that just makes me wonder, why, just because she’s a woman, does Nancy have to use her sexuality to get ahead?
Conversely, another version of the strong female character that we see a lot of these days is the superhero/gun-toting variety. Think your Sarah Connors, your Buffy’s, your River Tams. I admit, personally, I prefer this second type of heroine, because it’s always refreshing to see a female character who doesn’t need to be rescued. As a woman, I want to feel empowered, as though I don’t need anyone taking care of me. However, the super-powered heroine is not necessarily realistic either. Yet again, it sends an impossible message to women. Who can compete with a girl with super powers? Additionally, if you don’t know how to fire a gun, does that make you weak?
A third type would be the brainiac. Again, I prefer this type of character to the Nancy Botwins. Sometimes these characters are done well, a la Willow from Buffy. Sometimes they are done horrendously, take Denise Richards portrayal of Christmas Jones in The World is Not Enough. Great message there: In order to get ahead, you must look like a supermodel and have a ton of degrees.
Personally, I don’t like any of these ideals, because I can’t relate. I’m smart, but not genius-level smart. I basically know how to shoot a bow but I wouldn’t survive the Hunger Games. And while I get my fair share of guys hitting on me, it’s certainly not at the level of Nancy Botwin.
So what does it mean to be a strong female character these days? I guess for me, they need to feel real. Genuine. They don’t have to be crazy smart, hyper sexual or have super powers. Going back to Breaking Bad, Walter’s wife Skyler is an excellent example of a strong female character. In many ways, she is not a particularly likeable person a search online will tell you that much. But she does what she feels she has to. She sticks by Walt, at least initially, believing he will change. Even going so far as to let her son think she is the reason their marriage is falling apart.
Yes, she has an affair- after what Walt put her through, who can blame her? Yes, she becomes complicit in Walt’s meth business. But once she realises, I mean truly realises who her husband has become, she draws a line. She doesn’t have Walter’s intellect, yet she does everything in her power to keep Walter away from their kids, because she knows he is a danger to them. And when Walter keeps goading her, asking what she intends to do, she admits that she’s a coward. She knows she can’t go to the police. But she still resists him announcing that she will continue to use the last tool she has left: Waiting. She knows if she bides her time long enough, Walter’s cancer will come back.
I know some people see Skyler as a shrew, and that’s fine, but I admire her. I personally don’t care for Westerns and mob movies because I don’t much like the way these genres portray women. Breaking Bad has helped me reassess the way I see some of these female characters. Skyler I like because despite everything, including her own deep flaws, she remains a relatable character. She is terrified of her murderer husband, She has very little power in their relationship. Yet what power she has she uses to resist him. I gotta say, we need more female characters like that in geekdom.