by J.Ember Hintz
Seriously, if you haven’t watched the OA on Netflix yet, GO BINGE IT RIGHT NOW.
Don’t worry; you’ll find no spoilers here, so by all means, read on.
I loved everything about this series, especially the unforgettable lead character, Prarie Johnson, played by Brit Marling. Marling, who also created and produced the show – talk about girl power – delivers the elegantly nuanced role to perfection. In her recent New York Times opinion piece, I Don’t Want to Be the Strong Female Lead; Marling explains her motivations for creating a very different kind of female hero. The article was a welcome reminder for me, as an author, that we need to rethink and redefine how we develop and portray our female protagonists.
It’s so rare that we see the feminist perspective of power; the strength of character built on empathy, personal sacrifice, and empowerment, show up in a science fiction series. One of my favorite examples of Sci-fi turning the traditional notion of power on its head can be found in the 2004 re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica. And Oliva Dunham, the primary protagonist in Fringe is one of my favorite characters of all time – mostly because I wish I had her job. There should be a LinkedIn category for Government Special Agent Paranormal Investigator. Sign me up. I’ll do it for free as long as there’s a benefit package that includes health insurance and dental coverage.
When we try to pinpoint what it is that makes a hero powerful; we first need to dissect the definition of power itself. The word power infers masculine modalities of strength, social dominance, physical prowess, action, and purpose, typical attributes of most fictional and real-life role models. Converse characteristics, creativity, sensitivity, and intuition, are all too frequently portrayed as weakness and are actively attacked in both fiction and real life. Just look at the way we treat female politicians. If they embrace their femininity or, God forbid, their sexuality, they’re not “electable” or taken seriously. But if they portray uncompromising values and ambition in a smart pantsuit, they’re too “b*tchy” to lead.
These paradigms are so prevalent in our social psyche that it can be challenging to write a strong female character without conjuring one or more modalities of male power. Often we end up with a masculine protagonist inside an female flesh suit. Don’t get me wrong; I love a good female superhero that kicks serious butt – Storm, Black Widow, and Jessica Jones, for example – and these characters indeed sell books and movies. However, they also reinforce the notion that feminine modalities of power are a lesser-than commodity. Our cultural heritage has ingrained these narratives so deeply into our brains that even when we try to write strong female leads, we often get it wrong.
Real feminine strength is often delegated to supporting roles regardless of character gender – the nurturing parent or spouse, the encouraging mentor, the BFF, or quirky sidekick. These helper characters are usually imperative to a hero’s success and are frequently sacrificed along the way. But, if done correctly, they can make compelling secondary protagonists of their own. However, adding token feminine characters or even strong secondary female protagonists isn’t enough. We need more Prarie Johnson’s, Kara Thrace’s, and Oliva Dunhams in science fiction. So, how do we write them?
To find the answer, I asked the internet, naturally, and found numerous how-to articles on this exact question. Their advice? Give your hero flaws, inner strength, a good back-story, individual goals, and a defined story arc – all excellent suggestions. These are also mandatory mechanisms for creating ANY strong character. One article even suggested writing your hero as a man and then, merely changing the pronouns! Sigh. While pronouns are essential to defining how your character identifies themselves, adding she/her cannot invoke the essence of feminine power when used alone. It has to come from the soul.
To create a robust and nuanced protagonist exemplifying female power, we must go back to the feminist perspective of power. We need to give our female-identifying heroes empathy, confidence, and resilience, and they need to lead us somewhere; into battle, into public office, into a parallel universe, on an internal AND external journey of some kind. They also need to empower others, both on and off the page. And if they can do all of this while embracing their sexuality, even better!
As writers, we have to dig deep, explore, and understand who our characters are and how that correlates to the world in which they reside. If we do the research and thoroughly flush out our characters, we might just end up with the coveted, multi-dimensional feminine power players that will never need to be saved by anyone other than themselves.