Daily Archives: August 30, 2012

Why Do You Write These Strong Female Characters?

I had planned (and I say that in the loosest form of the word) to blog about something else today, but during my morning romp through the Book of Face, I saw a meme posted by the lovely Traci Douglass.

You can probably already guess that it hijacked that original “plan.”

In other words, because people find strong women strange.

You all know me and Joss Whedon. He’s one of my all-time heroes. And I love that quote. The greatest writers know how to dig their fingers into the pulsing heart of an issue and draw out the gold. I consider Joss a Great Writer.

But the creator of the meme did something I find interesting. And I’ll read into it, because that’s what I do.

For those of you familiar with Buffy and Angel, you’ll see two characters in this meme who are familiar, but that are using the faces of other characters.

The dark-haired witch at the bottom? For most of Buffy, she looked more like this:

Willow Rosenberg

Not so much with the veiny. Willow Rosenberg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And the blue-haired, leather-sporting chica in the bottom left corner, she is best known to us like this:

Winifred Burkle

Winifred Burkle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What struck me as interesting was that the creator of the meme either subconsciously or consciously chose to represent the alter-egos of Fred Burkle and Willow Rosenberg — Illyria and Dark Willow, respectively. Which to me says that this person felt on some level that Illyria and Dark Willow were stronger than Fred and Willow.

I disagree.

Both Illyria and Dark Willow were in part evil. Illyria was a former Old One who returned by stealing Fred’s body. Illyria was an ancient god who ruled by fear and whose temples had crumbled to dust during her long slumber in the Deeper Well. Dark Willow was a product of vengeance and fury who embraced dark magics to punish those who murdered her lover.

Fred and Willow? Fred was a brilliant physicist who got sucked into a hell dimension (at least hell to humans) for five years, where her intelligence and ingenuity saved her life over and over. When she joins Angel back in L.A., she overcomes the damage that Pylea did to her psyche and her mind. She has a darker side, seeking revenge on the professor who damned her to those five years in hell, and she is one of the more open members of Angel Investigations to joining Wolfram and Hart in season five.

But Fred is strong. She has faced huge trauma and come out of it better. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone watching Angel and hating Fred. She’s a brilliant character in her own right.

For me? Illyria is sort of meh. It should have been Fred’s face on that picture. Fred and Illyria are two discrete entities, no matter that Illyria is able to alter her own genetic structure to impersonate the former owner of her body. Once Illyria is there, Fred is gone.

And then there’s Willow.

Sure, Darth Rosenberg could sizzle Warren into a flayed, dangling pulp. Sure, she could physically best Buffy. But Dark Willow was still weak, as anyone running on pure fury is. They may have a powerful frontal assault, but they leave their flanks unguarded, which is how Giles is able to set the events in motion that allow her best friend to reach her through her anger.

Willow herself, though, is truly something spectacular. She teaches herself magic and learns through her (many) mistakes. She fights alongside Buffy and is usually Buffy’s most stalwart friend. And when the magics run away with her? She quits.

She manages to do what few people are capable of — she comes back from the darkness after letting it fully suffuse her being. And she learns the true essence of magic and uses it to change the world.

Now, I don’t know the creator of the meme, and I can only assume that he or she didn’t intend to make a statement by opting to go for the flashier characterisations portrayed by two beloved actors. But where I think Joss truly excels in his writing of strong female characters isn’t only when he makes them wield magic and guns and kick ass.

It’s what he builds over seasons and episodes. It’s that he taps deeper and deeper into what makes them go, what makes them strong, what makes them become strong. Buffy Summers, standing on the edge of the Sunnydale crater? She’s in a different  stratosphere than the Buffy Summers who buried the Master in a shallow grave.

The women Joss writes don’t come out of the gates perfect. They’re flawed. They’re sometimes broken. They’re frightened. But they persevere. And in doing so, they become something greater.

I watch a lot of different shows, and I have seen very few I would say come close to the level of development that Joss gives the women in his stories. Veronica Mars, definitely. Walking Dead? Not so much. Dexter? I could give Deb a nod for sure.

What Joss understands — that the people who continually ask him the titular question of this post do not — is that women are not memes. Women are not confined to archetypes and stereotypes. Women are more than that, and they deserve to be portrayed as such.

Joss operates in a mindset where the Strong Female Character is only a reflection of Strong Women. A mindset where “Strong Female Character” really means Strong Character, female. What is unfortunate is that, whether they want to admit it or not, much of the world still operates on tropes — which is why Joss’s attention to the development of his female characters is so mystifying to many.

And I couldn’t help but think when I saw the pictures mashed into that meme, that the creator sort of missed the point. Fred and Willow exemplify Strong Characters, period. Illyria and Dark Willow are strong females.

There is a distinction.

For every Buffy Summers, there are fifty or more Megan Fox’s in Transformers. They might have some strength, but they lack two of their three dimensions. And that, more than anything else, makes up Joss’s response.

Why do you write these strong female characters?

Because you’re still asking me that question.


The world needs more Willow and Fred. 

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