Feature: “Strong Female Characters”? No thanks.

The Iron Ship coverK.M. McKinley resides near Inverness, in Scotland, not too far from Loch Ness, but not too close either. You never know what’s going to come out of the water. McKinley’s first novel, The Iron Ship, has just been published by Solaris, a terrific fantasy novel that begins The Gates of the World sequence in style… But does it include strong female characters?


“Strong female characters”? No thanks.

Ha! Did I catch you out there? Let me explain.

I don’t like the term “strong female character”. Books use it as a positive marketing tool, but far from being a sign of equality, it does nothing for me but highlight male bias in fiction. We rarely talk about “strong male characters” as if they are somehow unusual and therefore worthy of comment, but we do it for women all the time.

Maybe the worst is past, and the SFC has become a bit of lazy shorthand. There are a lot of well realised female characters in genre fiction. They’re no longer dreaming of their prince charming, worrying they are ugly when in fact they are beautiful, or taking backseat roles while the men are the very acme of direct agency, nor do they exist only to be “fridged” in order to impel our (male) heroes into action – although this is still a disappointingly prevalent character motivation. On the other hand, the mere fact of the phrase’s continued existence suggests we have some way to go in achieving parity.

“Strong Female Character” often indicates a woman who behaves in a traditionally male way, often with a hopeless boyfriend, and is totally cool because she kicks ass. Don’t get me wrong, kick-ass heroines can be cool; they’re a bit one note, but then so are kick-ass male characters. My issue with them is that they basically represent a man’s view of what a strong woman should be (e.g. basically one of the boys). At their extreme such masculinised SFCs become an exemplar of the sexism the label seeks to undermine, because so many of them are kick ass and hyper-sexualised, waging war in skin-tight body suits with low cut décolletage, or practising kung-fu in thigh-high leather boots. The wish-fulfilment wimpy boyfriend doesn’t help matters either.

I’m not going to bash them. Men and women alike enjoy power fantasies where artfully applied force is the simple resolution to complex problems. And you know, sexy is just sometimes sexy and fun, and not an evil tool of oppression. All this stuff is fantasy, after all – it’s kind of the whole point, for both sexes. Most women don’t look like Emma Frost, and most men don’t look like Conan either.

The problem is that lot of this stuff in the genres of SF, horror and fantasy, even if it is popular with females, is largely originated and moulded by males. The SFC is a very restrictive vision of what being a capable woman means. The range for female characters is too frequently either “male character motivation” or “better at punching people in the face than even men and really hot with it (optional subtext: and she might even date me”).

One thing I wanted to do with The Iron Ship was examine how women exercise power and will in situations where their ambitions are trammelled by cultural norms. I did not want to ignore the issue as some fantasies with nominally patriarchal set-ups do. Some of the societies (not all, worlds are complex places, after all) in The Iron Ship are similar to Western European culture circa 1800. It’s easy to look at such a time period and assume women had no power at all. This was not true. It is also easy to think men had no limits on their actions. This is also not true, although their opportunities were invariably wider.

There are a number of characters of all kinds in The Iron Ship. Several of them are female. Each of them makes their way in the world in a different manner. None of them are perfect. Some of them are not very nice. Some look free but aren’t, a lot of them are socially advantaged and take it for granted, some will succeed in their ambitions, some fail. All of them will one day die, because that is the lot of humankind, and that motivates our actions more than anything. Most, but not all, are people of purpose.

I hope people believe in them, love them and hate them. I sincerely hope, however, that if they are successful, they are not labelled “strong female characters” but simply as strong characters. That’s the way it should be.

The Iron Ship by K.M. McKinley is out now


2 thoughts on “Feature: “Strong Female Characters”? No thanks.

  1. Steven Erikson here. Well said and I’m looking forward to reading The Iron Ship.

    Posted by Steven Erikson | July 1, 2015, 1:24 pm

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