Monday, June 15, 2015

Does Your Heroine Want to be Feminine?





Last week we talked about Zoe Washburn and why she makes such an amazing female character.

This week, I’d like to go to the other end of the scale and look at a heroine who is just as strong, but as opposite from Zoe as you can get.

This week, I want to talk about Inara Serra, another character from Firefly.

First of all, for all of you out there who have avoided this show because of the content, I will say I do understand where you’re coming from. And, I agree with you. I felt like it was all right for me to watch it (skipping a few parts). But, if you have avoided it for content, I respect that and please don’t watch it on my recommendation.

That said, let’s get back on topic.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the show or Inara’s character, she’s a young woman who makes her living as a companion.  Which is, essentially, a prostitute who is respected. Her business, in this world, is considered a respectable one and she is well known in many rich and well off circles.

She’s incredibly diplomatic, soft-spoken, and feminine. But, she doesn’t let people walk all over her and she is more than willing to stand up for herself when she feels it is necessary. She’s a business woman and a very shrew one.

I may not approve of her profession, but the interesting thing about the show is it’s her choice. She’s not a victim, no one is forcing her into anything. She chose to do what she does. So while I may not respect what she does for a living, I can still respect her.

I love Inara because she’s feminine. She wears fine clothes and knows how to serve tea and make small talk at parties. She can connect with people on an emotional level. She’s not afraid to be feminine, to be at her core, proud of her gender.

I think, so often, girls are afraid to be girls. We are bombarded with the idea that strong equals physical strength. That we have to know how to fight to be independent. That we can’t like girly things or desire to be gentle-spirited.

Or, we think that means submissive. Subservient. A victim. We think we need to let men take advantage of us, that we need to let people walk all over us in order for us to be truly female. After all, a girl can’t stand up for herself and still be feminine. She needs to wait for her knight in shining armor to do that.

But Inara is a great example of a woman who can be strong and feminine at the same time. She can dress up in fine clothes, dance and make small talk at a party, and exude an air of peace and grace. But if you try to hurt the people she loves, she will fight you. She won’t let you walk all over her and take advantage of her. She’s feminine, not because society tells her to, but because she chooses to be. Don’t ever mistake her gentle spirit for weakness.

I would like to see more heroines like Inara. Woman who revel in their femininity but never allow it to crush their spirit. Women who value diplomacy over brute strength. Women who strive to bring peace to the world around them by exuding peace themselves. Women who are strong and fearless but love fine clothes and dancing and things like sewing and tea parties.

Not because I think this is the superior woman, but because I think this is the oppressed woman. This type of female character has been stereotyped as the useless, ditzy blonde who can’t do anything but scream and wait for her white knight to save her.

There are girls all over the world who want to be the picture of stereotypical femininity. And they are constantly told by society that they’re wrong. That they have to conform into some strong, warrior woman who can fight and shoot and isn’t interested in tea parties.

These girls are being lied to. They are being told that they can’t be hero, they can’t be strong, unless they conform. Their femininity is being stolen from them because people aren’t willing to denounce these lies. We’re too busy complaining because Disney princesses are too skinny or too weak to care about what our outcries tell girls. We never complain that the Black Widow isn’t feminine enough. Because a girl can be anything she wants, right?

So, why are we not complaining that girls aren’t allowed to be traditionally feminine? Are you telling me I can’t save the world if I want to wear skirts while I do it?

There are so many stories about heroes whose girlfriend is kidnapped and he has to save her with much strength and bloodshed. I would love to see a counterstory, where the heroine’s boyfriend is kidnapped and she has to save him with diplomacy and cunning.

Or, why do the girls always have to have the problems in romances? Why do the guys always have to swoop in and save them, change their lives? Why can’t the girl be the one who is there for the guy in his darkest hour? Why can’t the girl be the one who sees he has problems and challenges him to be a better man?

There are many different kinds of strength. I do not need to be physically capable of taking down men twice my size in order to be a strong, independent female.

A girl should be taught to embrace her emotions, not suppress them. She should not let them rule her, no. But she also shouldn’t be ashamed of them.

Is it wrong if a woman wants to change the world because at her core she loves people? Because the plight of humanity saddens her? A woman is allowed to care. She’s allowed to be emotional. I would love to see a female who is saving the world because her heart is broken for it. I would love to see a female who cares not too little, but too much.

A woman who cries over a loss, who cares so much her heart aches for people, is not weakness in my mind. She is, rather, a woman to be respected. Emotions are bed when they cloud our judgment, when they’re selfish, when they hurt people or push them away. But when they spur us on to do good, when they inspire us to act, to change the world, they are nothing to be ashamed of.

A confident, capable woman is not defined by her emotions or situations. She is defined by how she reacts to them, by what they cause her to do. She is a doer, knowing when to take action. She refuses to sit by and let the world go on without her. She has something to do and she is going to do it. She will give it her all, whether it is colonizing a planet, liberating a country, or raising a child. Whatever it is, she will put everything she has into it.

Depending on the woman, those actions might be fighting off dozens of men with nothing but her fists. Or, if might be liberating a country nothing with her words. One is not better than the other. And both need more representation in the world.

About a year and a half ago, I read the Dear America book about the Women’s Suffrage, A Time for Courage. It wasn’t necessarily a particularly spectacular book, and there are other Dear America’s that I like better. But, I’d never read anything much about that part of history before. And so, in terms of that, it was very eye opening.

See, the thing I didn’t know, was that these women wanted to make sure they did everything legally and by the book. They have a right to peaceful protest, as promised in the Constitution. So, they stood outside the White House with their signs, single file, signs held high so that they didn’t block anyone else who might want to use the sidewalk. They were quiet while they stood there, no calling out, no screaming, no demanding their rights.

They were simply a presence, asking for them in such a way that they could not be ignored.

A lot of these women were supported by their husbands. And, I don’t mean financially. I mean, their husbands were okay with them doing this. And, they weren’t abandoning their families. The women made sure to schedule it so that they at least tried to see that every women was home with her family when she needed to be, if possible. They still ran their households, raised their children, made time for their husbands.

So why then, did it cause others to riot? Why then did it cause other people to make a scene, why did they feel the need to scream and block the sidewalk and cause trouble?

Why were these women ultimately brutally arrested and thrown into prison for their peaceful protests?

Because a women doesn’t need a gun to be scary.

A women is scary because of what she fights for.

Just because she carries a gun, doesn’t mean people will fear or respect her. People can ridicule her just the same way people ridicule women without guns. The sandwich joke is just as likely to get made.

Zoe Washburn is awesome because she’s a fighter, yes. But what she fights for is what makes her a heroine. She’s fighting for what she believes is right. She doesn’t wear it on her sleeve, like Captain Reynolds does, but she fought alongside him in the war. It’s easy to forget that, to forget she’s on Serenity because she believes in something too.

Inara can be just as scary because she fights for something, she believes something. I think she scares a lot of Christians because she thinks her profession is respectable. She scares a lot of people because she’s so diplomatic and sweet, but she’s also a fighter.

What struck me about the Dear America book, is the fact that peaceful protest brought about so much violence. That people thought women were too weak to have the vote, to have their own rights, but not too weak to be beaten or to be thrown into horrible prison conditions.

Because, ultimately, what these women proved, was that they weren’t too weak to have rights. They were proving how well they could handle themselves, how well they would handle any rights they were given. They were proving, with their peace, that they deserved their rights.

And that scared people.

They didn’t want their world to change. They wanted to hang onto the ideas they had been raised with, that the world had been seeped in for a very long time. It wasn’t about whether women deserved rights or not, not in the end, not when the women were being persecuted.

It was about whether women had the right to change the world.

And the answer to that is always yes.

We have not only the right, but the power. And we need to be making sure that we are using that power to change it for the good. For the better. That we are using whatever God has given us to make this world a better place.

And, as writers, that means giving girls another type of heroine to look up to. A women with big ideas, who changes the world with peace. With her femininity. A strong, independent female, who is, at her core, a girly-girl.

Do not be afraid to make your heroine talk things through instead of fighting it out with fists. Show a women who tries to find a peaceful solution. A women who is interested in changing the world, but also in things others might consider trivial, like dances and parties and tea. Show the world a woman can be both strong and feminine. Show them that the two are not mutually exclusive.

Show girls that they can save the world while wearing a skirt, if they want to.

Not every heroine has to be super feminine. As I said last week, Zoe Washburn is my favorite heroine ever and she is more inclined to duke it out than talk things through.

But I am at my core, a girly-girl. Part of me wants to learn to fight, because Black Widow is so awesome. But, I also know, I could never truly hurt someone. I’m not saying that it’s good or better, I think it’s even, but I also feel like the world is telling me Black Widow is good or better because she can fight.

So many Middle Grade books are about tomboys. The girls who like dolls are portrayed as girls who can’t do anything. They’re the dumb girl nobody likes.

But, I like both dirt and dolls. I still love to run around outside barefoot, but I'm also searching for the perfect pair of red heels. My favorite TV shows are action-driven and I squeal with delight every time there's an explosion but I still look at the dolls when Mom and I go shopping, and yes, I consider buying them. I wear jeans almost every day I’m home, but having a reason to dress up every day is the best part of having a job.

So, for little girls who love dolls and for teens who like to wear dresses, give them a heroine who shows them they are good enough. Show them that strength doesn’t equal physical strength. Show them that there is another kind of strength they can strive for.

Next week we’re going to talk about writing heroines with weaknesses. I hope you stick around for it.


How about you? Do you agree or disagree with this post? Who is your favorite “feminine” female character?

4 comments:

  1. Oh, I love this post! I myself was something of a tomboy, I climbed trees, and I wrestled my brothers, I went fishing and it was always my job to gut the fish. I wore overalls with the pant cut short so as not to restrict my movement, I was always sunburned and scratched from running through the tall grasses behind our property. I would ride my bike around and around our house for HOURS. But I also adored the girly things. I liked (and still do) sparkles, and rainbows and butterflies and dolls and long skirts...your name it. I still prefer skirts to pants, they are more comfortable in my opinion. I like reading about tomboys and warrior princesses, but I wish there were more real ladies in modern literature. I am one of those few people who don't think 'lady' is a curse word. I enjoy a heroine who wears skirts without thinking them a terrible burden, one who can wield a fan as well as a sword, one who uses the rules of etiquette to her advantage. I do so love a graceful heroine, but I can rarely find one. This post is encouraging. Thank you for your insight.

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  2. I love this. I've abandoned many a book because it's protagonist is
    an aggressive and rude girl who despises dresses and long hair. That doesn't automatically make a strong, brave, or heroic character. I agree with your article completely.

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  3. This is a great post. It actually goes hand in hand with one of my biggest pet peeves in historical novels, the heroine who eschews all "girly" jobs. She doesn't cook or sew and she's proud of it - and we're supposed to be impressed by it. Sorry, sweetheart, but - male or female - if you didn't cook, you didn't eat. There wasn't a McDonalds just up the road, there was a campfire and you cooked what you caught be it fish, fowl, or rodent. There were almost no clothing stores, either, and the clothes they did sell were expensive. You repaired them yourself - again, male or female - and if you couldn't sew, you'd soon be naked. And no female, no matter how tough the author has made her, would be safe walking around naked. Besides, this country was built on the backs of pioneering women. They worked just as long and hard as the men and still cooked and cleaned and raised the children. They were the most amazing and strong women and anyone who makes out that they were somehow weaker because they did "girly" things instantly loses my respect and my readership. Wow. That turned into a rant. Sorry. Great post.

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  4. Wow. That was beautiful. I love Firefly, although I do skip some parts, and I especially love the variety in its female characters. My favorite one was Kaylee. She's a tomboy who loves tinkering with machines and knows more than Wash or Mal about how that ship works, but she also loves getting dressed up in a frilly pink gown and going to a fancy party. She wears pink flip flops and a teddy bear t-shirt while she's tinkering with her beloved engine, and she swoons after the handsome doctor and wonders if he thinks she's pretty. If Zoe and Inara are the two extremes of heroines, Kaylee is the perfect balance. I get the feeling she was the kid who loved digging in the mud but also made tea parties for her dollies.

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