Interviewer: So, why do you write these strong female characters?
Joss Whedon: Because you’re still asking me that question.
To be perfectly honest, as much as I love Joss Whedon, I’ve never really liked his answer to that question. Now, in fairness, if you watch the video (and you should, because Whedon is awesome and literally nothing bad will happen to your day from watching him speak), the context is that Whedon is continually and obnoxiously asked this question, and so this response is sort of his final straw after many, many attempts at being more nuanced. But it’s this line that everyone remembers, and it’s never really sat all that well with me. I mean, it’s a fine answer, and it definitely speaks to something very problematic at the way we treat women in fiction, but what bothers me is the way that it ultimately politicizes female characters in a way that’s not particularly productive.
Look, Whedon’s female characters are awesome (more on that in a bit). But so are his male characters, and his ambiguously gendered demon characters, and his genderfluid brainwashed characters. Whedon doesn’t write Strong Female Characters; he writes strong characters, and some of them happen to be female.
Am I quibbling with semantics? Obviously, but it’s an important distinction. Because the problem with calling them Strong Female Characters is all those capital letters – in other words, how are they supposed to just be characters, parts of a story, if the entire future of feminism is riding on whether they rescue the male lead or he rescues them? I know that a lot of people who are much smarter than me have gotten into this in much more detail, but to vastly oversimplify, if we want interesting, complicated, compelling female characters, we’re gonna have to let them fail. Or, put another way, we’re going to have to let them not be strong.
Because not to rag on Whedon (oof, the very thought pains), but you know who’s a strong female character? Natasha Romanov from The Avengers, and she’s boring as watching someone paint grass on a wall. She checks off all the boxes – physically imposing, doesn’t take shit from no man, psychologically manipulates the villains – but holy cliche I was falling asleep just typing that out. I mean, there’s a reason the best scene in the movie was the morally ambiguous duo of Iron Man and Loki snarking at each other, and that’s not something a Strong Female Character gets to do.
No, don’t give me a strong female character; give me a good character, and make her female. Like…
Starbuck – Battlestar Galactica
You know the one reason (and, believe me, it’s hard to choose) Kara Thrace is one of my favorite female characters of all time? Because when she punched her love interest in the face, he didn’t even hesitate before punching her back, and that, my friends, is what feminism looks like.
Kara Thrace is arrogant, abrasive, and quick to anger; she’s made some mistakes in her past which come only from her own weaknesses. But the thing is, she earns that arrogance by being the absolute best at what she does; she makes up for her abrasiveness with a wicked sharp sense of humor and a smile that lights up a room. She takes responsibility for her actions and is more than ready to show respect to those she believes deserves it. Obviously, we don’t mention the massive character derailment of the last few seasons, because those seasons didn’t happen, but Starbuck is the kind of character who commands the attention of any room she walks into.
Fiona Glenanne – Burn Notice
Oh, we’re gonna have some contention over this one. Mostly, that’s because Burn Notice is not a very good show (she declares, having watched six seasons of it in the space of one very regrettable week last summer), but it’s also because Fiona does tend to fall into the “Stop Having Fun Guy” role, especially in the later seasons, which, again, we don’t talk about (it’s a bit of a theme in this post). Regrettably, she does often act as the obnoxious love interest to our hero, impeding him from being a no-regrets superspy.
But. But. There is nothing that is quite so much fun as the combination of Fiona and C-4, and she brings a wonderful sort of insane pumpernickel fuckery to the role. Fiona’s a diving-feet-first badass, and I like that she’s allowed to have a softer side, even when the show might not present that in such a good light. The best part about Fiona is that you implicitly trust her as a character, and that’s a quality female characters don’t get very often. What I mean by that is…well, take another less-than-excellent show I inhaled last summer (I’m seriously losing so much street cred with this post). In White Collar, when Neal Caffrey is in a pickle, you know that he will figure some way out of it, some crazy, unexpected, borderline suicidal but inevitably successful solution. You don’t get that with – jeez, just pick a love interest from that show, it doesn’t really matter. The point is, with most female characters, there’s always the potential that they’ll need to be a damsel in distress in order to prove how awesome the male character is. With Fiona, putting her in danger is never used to boost up Michael; rather, it’s only ever used to demonstrate just how dire the situation is. If Fiona couldn’t handle it, it’s time to bring out the big guns (which you can usually find stored somewhere in Fiona’s apartment).
Olivia Dunham – Fringe
So here’s the thing about Olivia Dunham. They did literally everything they could to her that you do to a female character you want to derail. They gave her an evil love interest, a history of abuse, magical powers – seriously, if there’s a character trait you can think of that works to reduce a female character to a mystical pixie dream girl, Olivia probably got it. But good lord can that woman rock a gunfight, and she continues that theme of competence I’ve sort of been developing as something I love about these characters. But what’s awesome about Olivia is that she is fairly often put in distress, and it doesn’t screw with her character at all. I mean, okay, the bad guys in this universe should probably have learned to stop leaving convenient sharp things where they have Olivia tied up, but she’s frequently put in situations where she’s confused or without resources or downright wrong. But – and I’m willing to ascribe a lot of this to Anna Torv’s acting – Olivia needs to not be a robot. It’s the vulnerability that makes the badassery so much more compelling.
Also, she takes the “Do I want to be best friends with this character?” test and turns it into a chocolate chip pancake. Like, dude, I want so badly to just find a bar and sit in it with her.
Abbie Mills – Sleepy Hollow
Okay, let’s get this out of the way. Sleepy Hollow is insane. Like scribbling on the walls in your own blood insane. Like skydiving from space insane. Like rooting for the Mets insane (repeating the same thing and expecting different results…I’m sorry, guys, it’s not going to happen). I might argue that it’s the kind of show that sounds better when you describe it than is the experience of watching it, but when I’m telling people about it, I usually have them won over by the time I get to “Headless Horseman in a redcoat uniform with a machine gun.”
But we’re here to talk about Abbie, and how much I love her, which is quite a lot. To be fair, when it comes to this show, my critical faculties are still slightly impaired from the shock of having this much diversity on a primetime network program (of the 8 characters who could be considered “main,” only two of them are white, and they’re a Revolutionary War-era witch and her husband, so I’m not sure how much that counts). But you know…I really like Abbie. I like that she’s smart, doesn’t take shit, makes bad decisions and owns up to them. I like that at least as much time is given to her relationship with her sister as to her relationship with the male protagonist. (Excuse me for a moment. HOLY ADORABLENESS I KIND OF WANT TO JUST SCREAM AT HER AND ICHABOD TO MAKE OUT ALREADY BUT ALSO I KIND OF LIKE THEM AS PLATONIC BECAUSE THERE ARE SO FEW STRONG PLATONIC RELATIONSHIPS ON TELEVISION AND IT WOULD BE NICE TO SEE IT RECOGNIZED THAT THAT KIND OF RELATIONSHIP IS MEANINGFUL AND COMPELLING BUT SERIOUSLY IF WE HARNESSED THE CHEMISTRY BETWEEN THOSE TWO WE COULD POWER NEW YORK FOR THE NEXT CENTURY SO I’M SUPER CONFLICTED ABOUT THIS AND I HAVEN’T BEEN THIS ANNOYED BY A COUPLE SINCE PETER AND OLIVIA.) Look, it would be very easy for this show to make Abbie the one who knows all about the modern stuff, and Ichabod the one who knows all about the mystical stuff, and that would quite frankly be terrible, since there’s no allure for the audience in someone who knows how to work a microwave. So by making Abbie realistically competent (there we go again; it’s almost like I like seeing characters who are good at stuff), we keep her interesting but still flawed.
Buffy Summers – Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Obviously, it was always going to come back to Buffy. It’s such a simple idea – what if the blonde cheerleader who dies in the first scene of the horror movie was the hero? And what if that hero was kind of arrogant, and occasionally selfish, and annoyingly self-righteous, and really, really bad at picking boyfriends? There have literally been books written about how great Buffy was for feminism (it’s not too hard to argue that every character on this list is living in her shadow), but the great thing about Buffy is that that’s sort of beside the point. She’s fun and smart and caring and protective, but only to the point of reality, and the reason her vulnerability never impedes her ass-kicking is because she makes the constant, continuous decision to not let it. I just…look, here is, in one word, why I love Buffy:
Angelus: No weapons…no friends…no hope. Take away all that and what’s left?
(Buffy catches a goddamn sword between her motherfucking hands.)
“Becoming, Part 2”
And, well, that’s really it, ladies and gentlemen. Buffy doesn’t speak for every female character, but that’s because she doesn’t have to, because she’s good enough to stand on her own. Buffy is this awesome jumble of quirks and foibles and characteristics, and the fact that one of those characteristics is female is no more important than any of the other ones. And that’s why it’s always going to come back to Buffy, because the very existence of this character proves that Whedon didn’t really mean what he said. Buffy doesn’t exist because of some patronizing social justice obligation; she exists because he wanted to tell this particular story, and Buffy was the character best suited to do it. So, yes, give me strong female characters, but more importantly, give me strong characters, and make them female.