On the need for feminist heroines

I will begin by saying this. I can't stand when a film or novel by a certain kind of man depicts females as cardboard-flat male fantasy figures. Currently I am watching the Tudors, and after every episode I think how much better the show would be if it concentrating on understanding the female characters, instead of figuring out more and more contrived ways to unlace their bodices.

What I am interested in is a well-drawn female character. One that shows understanding of what it's actually like to be a female. One that shows psychological insight. What I don't want is a political prop.

I come across questions and arguments like this all the time. The question is roughly: is X a feminist heroine? is Y a strong woman? If not, then the artwork is suspect.

There are a few problems with this question.

First, look who is doing the asking. Usually, it is someone with already-feminist leanings, who already has a notion of what it means to be a strong woman (which really is a nebulous concept). So why do they need a strong female heroine? Because they have such paucity of imagination that they cannot watch a fiction who depicts someone different from they? I assume why they are demanding feminist heroines is so that other people, a fortiori less informed than they are, might have a guide on how to behave. On the day the entire goal of fiction is actually to teach the less informed how to live, I will give up books and movies and take up mahjong. There's nothing wrong in noting that people learn from literature. They do. But there is something seriously condescending in the plea for a yet more feminist heroine from people who are already feminist.

Second, even supposing that one goal of fiction is to teach people how to reset their gender notions, one should not underestimate the power of the negative example. One learns what to be not only seeing what is admirable, but also by seeing less-than-admirable behavior.

Third, there exist less strong-willed women in the world. Should we not depict them? Sometimes, they have other sterling qualities that some strong-willed woman lack. Is a female admirable only insofar as she is a rootin' tootin' badass?

Here's a more nuanced take from Meryl Streep. She discusses how she judges men based on which character of hers they find appealing (seems reasonable), but also notes the value of portraying a more beaten-down female character. A psychologically real female will and should elicit a variety of responses, but is more truly valuable than a piece of propaganda.

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