Women in Story

Hello, I’m Leah G. Alfonso. I write so that I may speak.

You know what I love? Disney. The company’s animation is beautiful in almost every animated movie they make, the songs they come up with are catchy, memorable and timeless, and some of the stories they tell are really top notch. But even as a Disney fan I have to admit that, from a sociological standpoint, Disney is pretty messed up. It’s gotten a bit of backlash in the last several years with its portrayal of ethnic and racial stereotypes, alleged subliminal messages, Disney Channel and— something that will haunt me to the day I die—the Disney princesses. But to be fair, I think Disney’s thinking behind the films they come up with is a reflection of a) society’s reaction to it and b) society in general.

Unless you’ve been born and raised under a rock, you probably know that women haven’t been viewed as strong, independent people throughout a majority of history. Even in the Bible, man was the superior species of humanity. Granted, women in the US of A have gained a lot of power and independence in the last century alone: we’ve earned the right to vote, we’ve joined the workforce, and we’ve made it pretty clear that we can live our lives just fine on our own. But just because we’ve proven our point, that doesn’t mean that the rest of society has gotten the idea. There have been dozens upon dozens of essays, books, editorials, reviews and—as I pointed out earlier—movies that not only reflect society’s view of women but also touch on what it means to be a woman. And when we look at women in the stories we’ve told in the last several years, two stereotypes of heroines have come up again and again.

The first stereotype is the naïve, quiet woman who lets someone else solve her problems rather than solve them on her own, and this is the stereotype that riles people up very easily. Cinderella, for example, I stand by as one of the worst fairy tales in history. I know that she’s often portrayed as hard working and optimistic, and I know that a lot of people like this fairy tale for one reason or another. But what irritates me the most about this fairy tale is that people keep saying that she saved herself and that she changed her own future by working hard and staying hopeful. No, the bland unnamed prince saved her because of a Victorian beauty pageant that proved she was the best looking lady in the entire kingdom who also happened to have a fairy godmother that wouldn’t do anything about Cinderella being a slave in her own home but made such a big fuss when she couldn’t go to the ball. There have been variations of this fairy tale in the last few decades that tell the story in a more tasteful way, but they don’t take away from how messed up the original fairy tale is.

The second stereotype has only come up recently and it might actually surprise people: the strong, independent woman who will take chances, explore and do her own thing whether she has anyone’s approval or not. And yeah, it is surprising to see this as something to be criticized. A lot of female characters who are portrayed in this way are praised by a lot of people in the world of media. Heck, some of my favorite female characters are shown with this stereotype, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that way. As far as Disney goes, Belle from Beauty and the Beast is definitely the most praised, popular Disney princess ever. She’s intelligent, brave, kind, independent and she’s not afraid to do her own thing. I have yet to meet someone who hated her. Even Ariel in The Little Mermaid, as criticized as she was for being a selfish prima donna with little to no character development, was the first Disney princess who took matters into her own hands to get what she wanted and be praised for being more proactive before the criticism took over.

So why has the strong, independent woman become a stereotype? What is it about the phrase ‘strong female character’ these days that can get people almost as upset as the naïve, passive female character? I didn’t even think much about it until I read a blog post by Sophia McDougall called “I hate Strong Female Characters,” where McDougall raises the question of what it means for a character to be strong. She talks about the fact that in recent years, story has shown that men have more personality and are more humanistic than women. What really hit me as I was reading this post was the end where McDougall expressed what she wanted to see in female characters:

“I want her to be free to express herself. I want her to have meaningful, emotional relationships with other women. I want her to be weak sometimes. I want her to be strong in a way that isn’t about physical dominance or power. I want her to cry if she feels like crying. I want her to ask for help. I want her to be who she is.”

And…yeah, I can see why even the strong female character can be a negative portrayal of women. I mean as much as we love characters like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Black Widow, and Disney’s Belle, we don’t always get to see what it is that makes them human. We don’t get to see what they struggle with as women or human beings. If there’s any character development, we don’t always get to see it. And a lot of times when we do see them, those portrayals are very negative. But that’s not to say that no one has written a story about a girl who becomes a strong female character, in fact I’ll share two of my favorite stories with this plot point.

One is in Gail Carson Levine’s book Two Princesses of Bamarre. The story features a shy, timid princess named Addie who in the beginning is the kind of girl who’s afraid of her own shadow. But when her sister and guardian falls ill with a sporadic disease called the Gray Death, Addie decides to go find the cure despite the fact that she’s afraid of nearly everything. Along the way she discovers what it means to be brave and fight for something you know is important, and the adventures, experiences and dangers that she exposes herself to really shape the woman she becomes at the end of the novel.

The other story is in Robert C. O’Brien’s novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. Like Addie, the main character in this novel—a field mouse named Mrs. Frisby—starts off as a timid character who finds courage through her adventures. But instead of a princess who’s trying to save her sister, she’s a widowed mother who’s trying to save her son. Addie and Mrs. Frisby have something in common: they don’t start as brave characters, but they are put into some pretty scary situations and the determination they have to help their loved ones is what gives them bravery, and their bravery allows readers to experience their adventures right along with them.

So if these are incredibly great stories with poignant, praiseworthy female character development, why don’t we get more of those? Why do we have dozens upon dozens of solid, commendable coming-of-age stories featuring boys as the main characters, but not girls—or at the very least, why haven’t we heard that much about them? Now don’t get me wrong, there are some really good ones such as Jacob Have I Loved, Ella Enchanted, Jane Eyre, and Anne of Green Gables by Katherine Paterson, Gail Carson Levine, Charlotte Brontë and L.M. Montgomery respectively. But why don’t we hear about books like these as much as we hear about books for boys? Well, I have a few theories about that.

1) Women are the most scrutinized, exploited characters in history. More often than not, men get away with more than women do. A man can get away with flirting around, sleeping with a wide variety of girls and really not giving a damn about the person they’re talking to. But if a woman tries to do the same things, we look at her like she’s the devil reincarnated. Taking a look back at the Cinderella fairy tale, the prince hardly received any criticism while Cinderella herself received a lot, and the prince is basically falling in love with a woman based on physical appearance, vows to marry her despite the fact that he knows nothing about her, and doesn’t take her desires into consideration. He just wants to marry her, never questions why she runs away from him at midnight, and that’s that.

2) There really aren’t a lot of people who know what it means to be a female person in society beyond physiology and beyond feminism. A girl’s struggles are very different from a boy’s struggles, and for some reason it’s easier for people to talk about a boy’s struggles than those of a girl.

3) The portrayals of women are, again, a reaction and reflection of society. In some ways we’ve changed a lot, but in others we haven’t changed at all. Before, women were just stay-at-home mothers and housewives, who were polite, smiled at appropriate times, looked pretty, kept the house neat and tidy, and in many cases suffered from damsel-in-distress-disorder. But as feminism grew in the last several years and more complaints were heard, people tried to create stories that showed off exactly what a woman can do beyond physical appeal and beyond organizational skills. One reason for why we take a shining to characters like Kim Possible, Belle, Hermione Granger, Buffy and Carmen Sandiego is that they showcase exactly what a woman is capable of, that they don’t need to be physically strong in order to be strong.

Again, a lot of times when we do receive a story about an ordinary woman put into extraordinary circumstances we have to criticize it somehow. Katniss Everdeen is a perfect example of this. She’s shown as an analytical, intelligent huntress who fights more to survive than to conquer. She’s loyal to the people she cares a great deal about, and she’s a decent judge of character. But some of the things she’s been accused of are that a) she’s manipulative, b) she doesn’t know what she wants and doesn’t have a lot of motivations beyond her family, and c) she doesn’t really have a lot of control over what happens to her or what other people do to her.

But again, despite our weaknesses as a society and despite what we can and can’t do, there should be a way to portray women as human beings. If we’re going to have strong female characters (and we should, don’t get me wrong) then we may as well talk about how we get to that point. We may as well talk about what makes us who we are, the struggles we face both as men and as women, and how we handle the high expectations of society.

Until next time, this is Leah G. Alfonso saying “So long.”