Abi Godsell

Gender roles, story stereotypes and Strong Female Characters in Speculative Fiction

Abi Godsell

Abi Godsell

By Abi Godsell

When I was first learning to write, I would show my stories to people and they would laugh at me. This is not an uncommon experience for new writers. In between the jokes about typos (a character with a knot of disease rather than unease in the pit of her stomach, for example) however, I began to notice something strange.

“Feminist leanings huh?” they would say. When I asked what they meant, they’d laugh again and reply: “All your characters are girls, even the male ones!”

It was, and still is, true that my stories have a mostly female cast. Back then, the few boys I did include tended not to be very, well, macho.

I wrote meticulous tailors and soft-spoken secretaries, young cousins to be babysat, and gaumless comic-book geeks to be rescued.

This was not to say that I didn’t write macho characters. I had a lot of them, they just happened to be female.

You see, I was in high-school when I was first learning to write and then, (as I still do) I tried to link my stories in some way to my lived experience. The basis for my characters were drawn from my peers and because of monastic education, those peers were all girls.

They were not just demure, academic, self-effacing girls, or pretty, popular, loud girls but tough girls, reckless girls, macho girls too. There were strong, physical girls, who got into fist fights in the corridors, handy girls who’d strip a plug or fix a teachers cupboard, girls with short tempers who could be terrifying in a bad mood, girls who would play silly buggers and almost fall out of trees sawing down branches for a neighbour.

In the world I lived in then all the roles traditionally represented in stories by men were played by girls: the stalwart paladin, the quietly disciplined warrior, the rampaging barbarian, the charming shyster who could always talk their way out of trouble, the artist whose hand were more eloquent than their tongue. Sometimes they played these roles looking sleek and beautiful but mostly they played them with greasy hair and acne and grubby fingernails.

I tried to represent this in my writing, partly because it was just the way my world worked, and partly because it provided such rich writing material. These characters were so interesting, so complex, who wouldn’t want to write them? That’s why I was so surprised when people thought it was unusual. Surely I couldn’t have been the only person writing in an all-girls’ school?

I looked for girls like the girls I knew in books and films and graphic novels. Sometimes I found them, but those times were few and far between.

That’s why I was so excited when trends in the things I liked to read, science-fiction, fantasy and horror began to change,  started focusing on gender diversity. Roll on the Strong Female Character, I thought, because surely under that title, I’ll find the young women that I can recognize. All those girls who were complex and unexpected, whose power, physical, mental, social came from somewhere deep in their personalities. The girls who were strong in character.

That’s why it was such a let down to discover that what that term actually meant was women like Lara Croft or Susan Storm, ladies whose effect on the story was directly proportional to their cupsize, and inversely proportional to their realism. Ladies who are here to kick ass and provide shots of it as eye-candy for those so inclined and who have all the emotional depth of a soupspoon.

It is changing, slowly, more of the women on page and stage and screen are becoming more recognizable. Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Captain Marvel or Diablo Cody’s protagonist Anita Lesnicki from her film:  Jennifer’s Body. However, this is exactly the time that we can’t let up those calls for change. We, as readers and writers, creators and producers have to keep emphasizing that transformation is about more than the number of skirts on the starship. Not only because the Strong Female Character has been usurped and diluted by the remnants of a patriarchal society but because the actual strong females, like those that you and I know and knew, are just so much cooler.

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2 thoughts on “Gender roles, story stereotypes and Strong Female Characters in Speculative Fiction

  1. genderneutrallanguage says:

    I hope you keep writing. By your description of your own writing you are not very good at portraying members of the opposite sex. This is a very common problem for all writers. Men write men and women write women. This is not so much a problem as the number of authors. Sci-Fi and Fantasy are dominated by male authors. Dominated by male authors only really able to write male characters. If you want change, BE THE CHANGE. Write a book, even one where “All your characters are girls, even the male ones!”, work on getting it published. This is much easier today with e-books and Amazon (though I’m not quite sure how that all works). This problem can not possibly be fixed by bringing attention to it. It must be fixed by fixing it, people like you stepping up and writing books with your version of strong women.

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  2. Foghorn The IKonoclast says:

    This is just my opinion but it is not beneath a woman to be a housewife or too feminine. The problem becomes when a man literally believes that bit about ‘barefoot and pregnant’. To me feminism means that overbearing male stereotypes do not diminish women and they are called out when they do. I say all of this because my own mother suffered the vagaries of abuse and as children we felt that. To this day, I better not hear a man denigrate a woman, either by nouns or pronouns or subtle or not so subtle mental abuse. I call out any man who does this because women have a certain greatness even in their femininity.

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