“Are You Ready to Be Strong?”

Today is International Women’s Day and to celebrate I want to share a bit about reading as a girl/woman and the woman characters from books and media that have (and do) inspire me.

Since starting this blog and diving into literature in the last year or so I have been thinking about my life experiences with fiction and imagination. As a girl I loved to read. I can remember keeping a flashlight under my bed so that after my parents tucked my sister and I into bed (oh the days of sharing a room!), I could continue to read under the covers. 

At that point I loved mystery novels. I devoured every yellow hardcover Nancy Drew in the public library and even started ordering missing books from the series through inter-library loan. I wanted to be a detective, independent but loyal…always with friends by my side and a special someone who was supportive but not dominating. Equality. Freedom.

In addition to Nancy Drew, I loved the Baby Sitters Club series, which also illustrated a group of girls who were smart, supportive, and independent. Madeleine L’Engle books circulated in and out. My favorite book being A Ring of Endless Light which dealt with death, faith, and navigating teenage relationships. Also, one of the “boyfriends” was a marine biologist and so main character Vicky swims with dolphins. At this point in life I thought all marine biologists got to swim with dolphins… So I was going to be a marine biologist.

By teenage-hood, reading started to drop off for me. Being a teenage girl did a number on my self esteem and body image. I become more interested in dreaming about a relationship than I did most other things. Using your brain was stupid. Math was hard. But English teachers are relentless and I had to at least read a little bit. I can remember being fascinated by Shakespeare’s more tragic woman characters. Reading Lady Macbeth’s parts aloud in class seemed liberating and Ophelia’s madness was clearly Hamlet’s fault. Looking back, I think it is interesting how even in these moments I was still desperate to have a woman character to identify with, even if she was crazy.

Instead of books I began to watch more movies, of which I must admit, lead me down some less empowering avenues. It isn’t to say that there are no strong women in film and television, but I do believe that the mainstream late 90s and early 2000s were less than stellar for girls and women. I was a teenager in the heart of Girl Power! What makes my current chick lit project so interesting to me is that as a 20-something I looked down on the chick lit and chick flicks of the 90s and 2000s because as I was living that time, I was the mindless consumer of what I thought their message was… Get a boyfriend/husband and then you’ll be happy. It’s not until I started looking at some of these things critically that I actually started to appreciate them.

As I woke up to my feminist identity I began to cling to any female character that I could identify with… and this is when I was introduced to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the universe of Strong Female Characters that writer/director Joss Whedon creates. I love Buffy. I love all the women in the show. I love all the men. I love the story lines that deal with female empowerment, oppression, and liberation as well as issues of sex, love, abuse, death, addition and the power of friendship, family, support, and forgiveness… all the while illustrating girls and women as sources of strength and individuality.  And of course at this point, (age 25) I wanted to be a teenage vampire slayer.

Since my feminism and Buffy, I am now hungry for strong women. I seek them out. I want to point them out. I want to read against the text or against social concepts of these women being negative. I want to celebrate them. I want to defend them. I write papers in defense of the knowledgeable woman who ends up dead at the end of novels. I cling to depictions of non-sexualized women in media. I end up in arguments with my partner about the merits of a weak script/smaller distributed films with amazingly powerful woman characters in them (*cough* Haywire *cough*).

Reading more is opening up my world of strong female characters once again. We all know that the chick lit stereotype is that of vapid, weak women but the more I read the more I realize this isn’t true. Books offer complex women who can be explored. My desire for identifiable female characters, at least for me, is satiated through novels about and by women. What is lovely about chick lit is that many of these women do have silly, un-perfect moments and I get that.

So, I clink my wine glass to yours in celebration of Strong Female Characters as I click over to my Word document to start another paper in defense of chick lit.

While I’m doing that, how about you let me know what SFC you most identify with.

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7 thoughts on ““Are You Ready to Be Strong?”

  1. This was as delightful a read as I expected, given that it began with a Joss Whedon quote! (And what a quote it is.)

    I’ve never really thought before about which character–strong or otherwise–I most identified with, so it’ll probably take me a little while to come up with an answer. I’ll be glad to have something to ponder while dozing on and off through illness.

  2. As I child I mostly identified with male characters, as there were so few SFC available. However, I liked Eowyn in Lord of the Rings, and was mad that Tolkien went and married her off to get rid of her.
    As a preteen, I identified with Emily Starr, of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s books Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs, and Emily’s Quest.
    Now… I don’t know how to answer. I enjoy the SFC whether or not I am identifying with her!
    Some examples:
    Senneth from Mystic and Rider (fantasy)
    Anyanwu from Octavia Butler’s book Wildseed (sf)
    Lillith Ayapo from Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, particularly the book Dawn (sf)
    Alyx from Joanna Russ’ book The Adventures of Alyx (sf)
    Tenar from Ursula K. LeGuin’s books The Tombs of Atuan, Tehanu, etc, and the many SFC in Tales From Earthsea (fantasy)
    Elizabeth from Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice

    1. I haven’t read too many science fiction and fantasy books, but my partner has. I understand that women can be few and far between while at the same time having such genres almost have more of an opportunity for SFC. What I think is cool about sci-fi/fantasy woman readers is their strength and ability to challenge male dominated domains such as the sci-fi/fantasy genre.

      Butler and LeGuin are authors I have been meaning to read and will certainly add to my TBR pile!

  3. Great post, Christine! For me, the classic strong female character is Jane Eyre. I love her! She’s smart and tough and she has complete self-respect even when everyone around her tells her she isn’t “worthy.” The modern SFC for me is still Bridget Jones. She was a bit of a screw up, but with the help of her friends and her own curious nature, she made a success of herself. And she was entertaining as hell!

    1. My journey with Bridget is what keeps her close to my heart, too! I think she is hilarious and genuine. What I like the most is that she has her weak moments like all of us, but when she finally sorts herself out she won’t put up with bad behavior. Her friends are the best! Shazzer’s feminist rants are the best!

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