The “Problem” With Strength and Femininity

So a couple of weeks ago there was a little cluster of complaints again online about why can’t we just have women characters embracing their femininity instead of doing all these hero things.

This could be puzzling at first, because a lot of these complaints come from folks who also espouse things like “motherhood is the ultimate heroic act” which seem to suggest that femininity can be heroic, but of course the actual meaning is about traditional gender roles.

And this is boggling to me, because women can be pretty darned heroic while being extremely feminine.

The Women of Weinsberg. (King Conrad III occupied the town Weinsberg in 1140. The women carry their husbands after being granted to leave and allowed to take their belongings.) Lithograph, c. 1910. Sarotti-chocolate picture.

The Women of Weinsberg.
Lithograph, c. 1910.

I’ve covered a number of historical examples before, so this time let’s take the legendary women of Weinsberg. When their town’s conqueror announced the men would all be executed but the women could leave with whatever valuables they could carry on their own backs, the women marched out carrying their husbands. How many of those husbands, d’ya think, were up there piggyback thinking, “Geez, I wish my wife was more demurely feminine”? Or do you think he might have at that moment valued her extremely feminine protectiveness, strength, and even stubborn defiance of authority?

I did a quick Google search for feminine traits and got “gentleness, empathy, sensitivity, caring, sweetness, compassion, tolerance, nurturance, deference, and succorance.” Cool. I did a search for masculine traits and got “strength, protectiveness, assertiveness, passion, confidence.” Which is weird, because with the exception of the scary assertiveness, those are traits we honor every Mother’s Day.

So while driving one afternoon I thought I’d ask Mage Elysia Parma from Shard & Shield how she felt about protectiveness and passion being unfeminine traits, and this little vignette happened.

I glanced toward Cliff, waiting on my left. “You’re going to be the one to tell her.”

Cliff nodded impatiently.

I raised my hand and knocked at the door with worn silver paint. From inside, a woman’s voice called, “Come in.”

She was sitting at a worktable, leaning over an open book full of charts. As we entered, she placed a finger to mark her spot and looked up. “Ah, Mr. Pellegrini. Welcome. What can I do for you?”

I gestured to the man beside me. “This is Cliff McBrickjaw. He’s from the Industry. And this is Elysia Parma, the Silver Mage.”

She turned to him. “Mr. McBrickjaw, welcome.”

McBrickjaw nodded. “I told Mr. Pellegrini I’d like to see you myself. Good to meet you, Elysia.”

She smiled. “Please, you may call me Mage Parma.”

McBrickjaw needed a second to realize he’d been slighted, and still he probably didn’t know why. I bit back a sigh; this was only going to get worse.

Elysia turned back to me expectantly, and I nodded toward him again. “He has some news for you.”

Elysia reached for a bookmark. “Unfortunate news, it seems.”

“I’m sorry to say it is, from your perspective,” McBrickjaw confirmed. “We’re cutting your role in this story.”

Elysia turned back, even her practiced face betraying the edge of indignant surprise. “What?”

“We’ve been seeing a lot of complaints lately about Strong Female Characters, TM. You know what I mean.”

Elysia relaxed and nodded. “Ah, yes. The mewling babes who occasionally punch someone but still cannot make a decent decision on their own or act on their own agency. Yes, I understand the problem. But I’m not sure what that has to do with me. I’ve certainly never punched someone. I don’t think I’ve even raised my voice thus far in the story.”

McBrickjaw shook his head as he took the empty chair at her table. “I’m sorry, Elysia, but it is about you. The Industry is concerned about your role in the story being too… strong.”

Elysia’s eyes widened in skepticism. “You do realize that I am a secondary character at best? That I barely speak in the first book?”

“Yes, well, that’s the problem. You don’t have that many lines, and the ones you do have are… assertive. You give orders, to a man.”

Amused incredulity. “That is literally my job as second rank of the Circle. I give orders to women too, and if it makes you feel any better, my superior mage is a man.”

“Let me assure you, it’s not about how I feel,” Cliff McBrickjaw said. “It’s just that I feel the story would be more… balanced if there weren’t so much obvious feminism included.”

“Obvious feminism?” she repeated. The amusement was fading. “You know three of the four protagonists are male?”

“Don’t worry, we’re not going to eliminate the female influence. We’re just going to make it feel more balanced.” McBrickjaw half-turned toward the door and waved Mary inside. “Mary has had some experience with this sort of part and she will be taking your role, so I thought you might just show her around….”

Elysia assessed Mary with a practiced eye, and I braced myself. But Elysia was keen enough to know it was not Mary’s fault, and she extended a hand. “Good afternoon, Mary. Mary what?”

“It’s just Mary.”

“You understand,” McBrickjaw said. “Mary is just overall better suited for story.”

Elysia nodded. “If I may, and without any disparagement to Mary of course, what are the qualities she brings which I lack?”

“Oh, she’s a wonderful female character. She is very pretty, as you can see.”

Elysia nodded. “She is, no question.”

“She is slightly clumsy, to give her a bit of whimsical girlishness that makes her less intimidating. And of course she is just a little stubborn, to give the reader a hint of will and, most important, to give the protagonist a real achievement when he sways her.” McBrickjaw nodded enthusiastically. “Her last role was in a dungeon crawl.”

“A dungeon crawl,” Elysia repeated flatly.

“Yes. So she’s well-versed in the female role in a fantasy genre.”

Elysia glanced at me, her expression a whole series of indignant questions. I cleared my throat and tackled just one. “Er, this story has politics and significant character change, not just encounters.”

“She’ll pick it up. Her role should be fundamentally the same.”

“Support without arc, I see.” Elysia turned to Mary and nodded encouragingly. “Your dungeon party, was it a traditional five-man band? Leader, lancer, smart guy, big guy, chick?”

Mary nodded. “Yes, that’s it. I was the cleric. It’s a really important support role; the fighters couldn’t get anywhere without their support.”

“That’s true,” Elysia agreed.

McBrickjaw cleared his throat. “Mary, honey, I’m talking about this story.”

“Sorry,” she said, folding her hands and lowering her voice.

I was watching Elysia, so I saw her eyes flare. McBrickjaw missed it as he launched into his explanation. “Audiences are concerned that female characters are becoming too masculine, what with all this fighting things–”

“My country is literally at war.”

“–and punching people–”

“I have never punched anyone.”

“–and holding authority over professionals instead of children. We think it will play better with more femininity.”

Elysia took a slow breath, and I took a step backward. When a woman takes that breath, it means she’s about to win an argument, and when she’s also one of the most powerful mages in the Circle and thus the kingdom, possibly the world, it means you give her room to win it.

“What,” she asked, very calmly, “would you say are the primary aspects of femininity?”

McBrickjaw brightened, probably believing that she was coming to his point of view. “Oh, that’s pretty straightforward. Beauty, of course. There are other traits as well: Feminine women smile more, they cooperate rather than taking control, they are are comforting. They are, you know, maternal.”

Elysia’s eye twitched. “Maternal.”

McBrickjaw nodded. “It’s a strength to be maternal. Men can’t do it, you know, only women. Women should embrace their femininity.”

Elysia took another breath. I glanced about the room, stone to withstand the occasional ill effect of magical experimentation and surely sturdy enough.

“Mr. McBrickjaw,” she said, her voice perfectly poised, “I understand you have not spent much time in this world, but I can see that you are proud of your education. Therefore I expect you’ll have heard of, say, wild boars.”

He nodded. “Of course. What would any typical medieval fantasy land be without them?”

“This is not quite a typical medieval fantasy land, but the boars will suffice. Would you please imagine, for a moment, that you have found yourself between a sow and her brood of young piglets? And that she has discovered you trying to capture one for your supper?”

McBrickjaw hesitated. “I hope I would not be so foolish as to do that on foot.”

“We do not have a surplus of horses here, Mr. McBrickjaw, and no one would risk a priceless horse in a boar hunt. But why would you wish not to be on foot?” Elysia raised an eyebrow. “Might there be danger in coming between a mother and her children?”

McBrickjaw frowned. “Well, yes, but–”

Elysia stepped closer to his chair. “But maternal instinct is the special domain of the feminine, as you say, and to fight is unfeminine, you say.”

“Well, I–”

“Are you familiar with the phrase ‘mama bear’?”

“Those are animals. Animals aren’t feminine.”

“Pick any of the peasant women in the countryside, and imagine yourself a slaver come to steal her child. Do you think she will smile? Cooperate? Be pretty for you?”

“You can’t–”

“Or would she defend her loved ones, do you think? And do you think her children might find that comforting? More comforting, even, than smiling or cooperating?”

McBrickjaw set his brick jaw. “Quit twisting my words!”

Elysia leaned down to face him. “That a woman may be comforting does not mean she must comfort you, Mr. McBrickjaw. She must embrace her femininity in all its parts, not merely those which are convenient for you. A feminine and maternal woman will do what is best for her loved ones, and sometimes that means she will fight for them.”

“You are a poor example–”

“I may not have any children, Mr. McBrickjaw, but that does not mean I do not have any loved ones. I love my friends, and I love my colleagues, and I love this country.” She lifted an empty hand and scooped a palmful of dancing fire from the air.

McBrickjaw stopped protesting, his eyes on the flames.

“And I will fight to protect what I love, Mr. McBrickjaw, whether it be a fellow Mage of the Circle or a citizen of this realm. If someone should threaten my loved ones, I will use all my abilities both to defend and to comfort, in the manner that best serves in that moment.” Elysia closed her hand and the fire vanished, leaving no smoke. “And then,” she said, straightening, “I will sit down and embroider a very feminine cozy for the urn holding their ashes. Perhaps even with flowers and butterflies.”

I let out the breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. Of course she hadn’t actually set fire to anything; she hadn’t really needed to. Elysia was not averse to dropping into a more common language when her point was not being understood, but she wasn’t given to tantrums.

Mary was gaping. Elysia turned to her, cool as if McBrickjaw were not in the room. “What did you enjoy about being a cleric, Mary?”

McBrickjaw stirred in his chair. “That was entirely unnecessary, you — feminist!”

Elysia put a hand to her heart with mock hurt and rolled her eyes. “Ah, the insult of belief that we all have been gifted with equal worth. I am wounded to the quick.”

“The Industry will never tolerate this! You won’t get past a traditional readership with that kind of behavior in female characters. I’ll see you never get a contract again.”

“Fortunately, this realm is an author-publisher affair, and we can find our own niche.” She jerked her head toward to the door. “You are excused, from my office and this realm.”

He swelled. “You are an affront to the order of things. You were a poor character choice in the first place, unnecessary filler and complicating subplot. And you’re ugly, too; no wonder you’re not married, no man would want to tap that.”

Elysia returned a level gaze. “Get out or get smoky.”

McBrickjaw spat a few monosyllabic words automatically filtered by the story’s rating and stomped out the silver door.

Elysia turned back to Mary and nodded encouragingly. “So you played the cleric?”

Mary shook her eyes from the door where McBrickjaw had vanished. “Um, yes. Like I said, the others needed me.”

“And you stood at the back, healing whichever guy needed your help?”

Mary nodded. “How did you know the others were all men?”

Elysia smiled. “It’s usually four out of five, and you’d already taken the last spot.” She took Mary’s arm. “And you enjoyed that? Healing?”

“Oh, I did! I really did.” Mary hesitated. She glanced briefly toward McBrickjaw’s exit and then as quickly pulled her eyes away. She looked embarrassed. “But sometimes — sometimes, I think I wanted to do more, too. I did want to help, because being a healer is important to the party, and I understand that, but sometimes I wanted to do more than just cast healing spells. Maybe not fight, but, I don’t know, help to negotiate sometimes, in the diplomatic scenes? Plan?”

Elysia smiled warmly. “Would you like to try it? We have a lot of soldiers in this story who need someone to care for them and heal them, but we need someone who can organize rescue missions onto a battlefield, prioritize care, make life or death decisions when it’s necessary. It is critical work, but it is responsibility and authority, and it requires courage and independence. Do you think you could do it?”

Mary’s eyes shone. “Please, I don’t know if I can, but I would love to try.”

Elysia put an arm around her. “I think you’ll give a splendid try.” She looked at me. “You don’t have any problem with that, do you, Mr. Pellegrini? Bringing Mary on as another female, and giving her such masculine traits as courage and confidence?”

I smothered a chuckle. “Me? Of course not.” I waved to encompass the room. “I’m not threatened. After all, this whole scene just played out in a male POV.”

Elysia burst into laughter. “Have a seat, you two,” she said. “I’ve got some cinnamon bread hidden in my cupboard just in case of an empathy scene. Let’s break it out.”

So there’s my little rant about the lack of “femininity” in female characters. To close, I just want to quote myself from another post:

This question of complexity and balance comes up almost immediately with a female protagonist and somehow almost never comes up with a male hero. Read the following two sentences:

“Wonder Woman is incredibly strong and determined, but they managed to keep her femininity as well!”

“Captain America is incredibly strong and determined, but they managed to keep his masculinity as well!”

See how the first reads like a typical movie or book review, while the second is plainly stupid? That betrays our cultural assumptions both about the complexity of female characters and about femininity and masculinity. We assume, so deeply we barely notice it’s an assumption until it’s pointed out, that female characters may be less complex, and that “feminine” is a contrast to “strong” and “determined.”

Here’s an idea: Let’s embrace a wider and more accurate definition of feminine, one that’s less simplistic, more nuanced, and more reflective of women throughout history.

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  1. Personally, while there are heroic aspects of motherhood, I would like to think I’m capable of other heroic things outside of that role!

  2. Elysia Parma is a feminist icon and a queen.

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