Saturday, May 4, 2013

Kicking the ass of kick-ass female characters

I know it's an old post, and I'm sure many of you have already familiar with it, but I just stumbled across this a few days ago and it's been on my mind ever since.

Please, if you haven't read it, go read it now before you continue because I'm not going to bother quoting large chunks of text.

I'm delighted to have regained enough stability in my own brain to read again, and in the last three days, I've torn through 4.5 books, three of which have kick-ass female main characters.

As in, they 'literally' kick a hell-of-a-lot of ass during the course of the book.

But looking at the 'figurative' kick-ass side of things, they sit at varying points on the whole "strong character, female" scale.

Total number of villains defeated does not a strong character make :)

In keeping with my policy of avoiding negativity, I'm not going to give you the names of the books, or the characters.

After all, I'm not interested in putting down things that I personally don't like, when I know lots of people do like them, and the authors worked long and hard to see their work published.

My opinion is only that. Mine.

Three of the books I've read are very similar: fantastical world building (meant as an umbrella term, including, but not limited to: magic, alternate world, steampunk, alternate history, dystopian, etc), clear villains with clearly evil intentions, each female is "amped-up" in some abnormal/extraordinary way, each female character is involved (to varying degrees) in a love-triangle with a 'good boy' and a 'bad boy', each is described as beautiful, and each wears a lot of pretty/interesting clothes during the course of each book.*

All three are also first books in popular series (I admit, I haven't checked to see if they are all trilogies/etc).

If we roll out the familiar notion that there are no 'new ideas', only recycled ones, these three books make a good example, because so many of the basic elements are the same.

I'm sure most of you are familiar with the Bechdel test? To pass/fail, the basic three criteria are:

1) If a work of fiction has 2 or more (named) female characters

2) If they talk to each other

3) If they talk about something other than a man

I'd like to throw another few criteria into the pot to determine whether a a female character is a "kick-ass female character", or a "kick-ass character, female":

1) If there isn't a specific comment/line about how the FMC (female main character) has never gotten along with, nor ever had any good female friends in the past

2) If she doesn't insult/belittle/put down 'regular' girls (as in, the ones she couldn't/doesn't get along with), often specifically referring to them as 'silly', or otherwise insulting their intelligence and choices (most notably, marriage)

3) If she doesn't feel an immediate kinship with the one other female character who is somehow 'different' from 'regular' girls.

4) If another (beautiful) female character vying for one of the FMC's love interests isn't deceitful, wicked, vain, a liar, or somehow morally corrupt and/or in league with the villain.

5) If the description ratio regarding the FMC's clothes isn't vastly skewed when compared to description of any other person, place, thing in the entire story

6) If the first introduction of male characters (notably, love interests) isn't dominated by physical descriptions of how attractive (physically) they are

7) If, during those introductions, the FMC's first thoughts aren't primarily about her own appearance and whether or not she's looking her best

8) If she can interact with either male lover, for any duration of time, and think more about his inner/good qualities than his outer/physical ones

9) If she can keep her mind on defeating the bad guy without being constantly distracted by a male love interest taking his shirt off (or some variation of that point)

Do those sound like reasonable things to look for? I can't tell you how many of these show up in YA novels, and let me say now that one of the three books failed on every single one of these points.

Now, I'm not saying books should never include any of these things, what I am saying is that when the main female character of a book spends more time thinking about her clothes, her men, and her appearance than anything else (especially saving the world), then it's time to have a good, hard look at whether that can be considered a "kick-ass character, female", or a "kick-ass female character".

What do you think about this subject? Do you agree with my criteria or not? Do you have any to add of your own?

*small, additional note: these characters almost all have amazing healing abilities so their perfect faces aren't permanently marred while they are kicking (literal) ass. Only one received permanent scars, but notably, not on her perfect face :)


  1. At least some of the kick-ass women who put down other women for not being them are called on it sometimes ... in fact, it was the only good scene in the last Anita Blake novel I actually bothered to read.

    I tend to read a lot of urban fantasy and can count on 1 hand the number of stories with female protagonists that did NOT end up being about getting a guy. I can't think of a series with a female protagonist offhand that doesn't become about Romance and often Choosing Between Two Guys. Which is fine in itself. But if I wanted to read paranormal romance, I would find and read it. I don't.

    I find the lack of such series deeply depressing. Someone pointed out recently that the same thing can be said about female comedians: their comedy is about being female, whereas men aren't limited to stand-up about being male.

    1. I agree, I felt I had been duped with that one particular book. The cover info looked interesting/exciting, and it wound up being about an insecure girl whining (in her own head) about which guy to choose... 'cause of course they were both in love with her 'cause she's so gorgeous and awesome!


      Yeah, romance has never been my thing ;)

      The other two books were tolerable. There's been a few completely riveting/amazing books I've read this week too, so not all bad ;)

  2. These are great points, and I know I'm guilty of a few of them. I do think it's important that female relationships in books be more honest and not "I hate all other girls and can only hang with boys because they're so much more real" because that's not honesty. Women have strong bonds with other women and I want that portrayed. Friendships go a long way.

    1. I think everyone's guilty of a few of them, and I don't think there's a problem with that... I guess I just have a problem with such an awful/selfish female character being considered 'strong' and a 'good character'.

      Putting down other females... that I have no tolerance with, especially with how easy and prevalent bullying is... but also the less physical abuse that comes from emotional/psychological abuse.

      Having a main female character who constantly ridicules other females for their choices... yeah, I have a huge problem with anyone who thinks it's fine (and good?) to stomp on another person's self-confidence.

  3. I'm reading the ASOIAF books right now (late to the party, I know) and one of the things I love about GRRM is that he's given so many different types of female character to choose from. There are a lot of ways to be strong, both within expected gender norms and outside of them, and that's pretty cool for a pseudo-historical fantasy like this.

    Which makes it all the more jarring when "modern" books can't seem to do the same thing.

    I admit I often avoid books about women for precisely that reason. I also tend to write more from a male POV than a female one in part because, as noted above, it seems like any time you write a book about a woman, you by default end up having to talk about *women*, and there's a lot of pressure there. It's frustrating, because no matter what you do, your character always seems to be viewed as an ambassador of woman-kind.

    1. I may be even later to the party since I have no idea what the ASOIAF books are :) If you pop back, please enlighten me? They sound pretty awesome :D

      Yeah, maybe that's one of the reasons I find writing a male POV easier... since I have never had a desire to put more effort into pretty clothes than treating the people around me like they're actually human.

      I've read lots of books with great female characters, but it seems certain genres (as Alcar pointed out earlier), are heavily skewed.

      Hmmmm... maybe that'll be my next personal challenge... write a book from a female POV where I'm not wanting to beat up my own FMC ;) I guess Project #5 was along those lines, before I got bored and wandered off ;)

  4. These are some really great points, something I have to consider since my next book WILL have such a female protagonist. :)


Type me out a line of Shakespeare or a line of nonsense. Dumb-blonde-jokes & Irish jokes will make me laugh myself silly :)