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 is the 2004 re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica. And Olivia 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 they offer a benefits package that includes health and dental coverage.
When we try to pinpoint what 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 weaknesses in both fiction and IRL. 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 bitchy to lead.
These paradigms are so prevalent in our social psyche it’s 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 a 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 powerful female-identifying leads, we often get it wrong.
Real feminine strength often gets 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 frequently get 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 Olivia Dunham’s in science fiction. So, how do we write them?
To find the answer, I asked the internet, naturally, and found loads of 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 robust character. One article even suggested writing your female hero as a man and then change the pronouns! DO NOT DO THIS! Sigh. Anyway, 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 character’s internal sense of being.
To create a robust and nuanced protagonist exemplifying female power, we can take inspiration from the feminist perspective of power and give our female-identifying heroes empathy, confidence, and resilience. But that isn’t enough. They need to use these traits to lead us somewhere; into battle, into public office, out of an abusive relationship, into a parallel universe, on an internal AND external journey. 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 flesh out our characters, we might just end up with the coveted, multi-dimensional feminine power players that will never need saving by anyone other than themselves.