In his essay ‘Saving Science Fiction from Strong Female Characters’ part of the Hugo-nominated essay collection Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and the Awful Truth, John C Wright has this to say on the subject of strong female characters and romance:
There is a reason why Superman rescuing Lois Lane remains a charming and beloved center of their myth even after more than half a century whereas no on remembers or cares to remember any scenes of Wonder Woman rescuing Steve Trevor…The sexes are opposite, and culture should exaggerate the complimentary opposition by artifice in order to increase our joy in them…
Now, I don’t want to get into any sort of political discussion here. It doesn’t matter whether you agree with Mr Wright’s views on women, politics, writing or anything else. It doesn’t matter whether you agree that this is a desirable state of affairs or not. It certainly doesn’t matter whether or not you think Transhuman and Subhuman deserved to be nominated for a Hugo Award. What matters, for the purposes of this essay, are the words quoted above, what they mean, and the fact that culturally speaking Mr Wright is absolutely correct. As a culture, we are not comfortable with romantic partnerships in which women are the ‘stronger’ partner, strong in this sense being physical, martial, external strength rather than anything emotional, spiritual or rooted in character.
Once again I repeat that for the purposes of this essay I am not interested in the politics of this situation, in how this situation came about and how it might be changed, if indeed it should. The fact that Mr Wright is right in this instance, not the fact that he is on the right politically, is what concerns me here. If anyone wishes to deny Mr Wright’s assertion than they are more than welcome to do so. However, they would have to produce examples to the contrary if they wish to convince me, and in order to truly debunk Mr Wright’s assertion they would have to be examples that enjoy a wide popular currency. After all, Mr Wright himself has given us the example of Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor, but that example only serves to prove his point: who remembers Steve Trevor?
Off the top of my own head, I can only think of a single example with widespread cultural currency of a strong female character being paired with a male love interest who is noticeably weaker than she is, and that example is Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games series of movies (I have not read the novels, so I will talk exclusively about the films) who ends the quartet with the unphysical Peeta, rather than the burly woodsman and soldier Gale. However, I will also note that in order to achieve this state of affairs Katniss has first to be broken mentally and spiritually by the suffering she endures at the hands of Presidents Snow and Coin, and then Gale is removed from romantic contention by the fact that he plays a part in murdering Katniss’ sister. And even then many reviewers complained that the ending of the love triangle fell flat. My guess is that they remained unconvinced that Katniss would or should choose Peeta, and were rendered uncomfortable with the idea that she would end up with a ‘weaker’ man. One wonders if complaints earlier in the series that neither Gale nor Peeta were ‘worthy’ of Katniss had anything to do with the fact that neither of them seemed capable of matching her prowess in the field.
For the third and final time I repeat that this essay is not about how we can change this thinking in people, or whether we should, or whether feminists/conservatives are out to murder science fiction’s declining readership by promoting message fic/toxic masculinity at the expense of rousing storytelling/raising consciousness. The culture is what it is. It is the responses to this cultural discomfort, among creators wishing to work with strong female characters, that interests me.
Simply put, it is my thesis that this cultural discomfort with romantic couples in which the woman, even a woman designed to be a ‘Strong Female Character’ is the stronger partner is responsible for the current state of affairs whereby the L and the female B are the best represented element when it comes to LGBT representation in the genre.
Briefly, there are five possible avenues open to creators when it comes to a strong female character and romance. The first, and the simplest, is not to bother with romance at all. This is very rare, since everyone loves a good romance subplot to spice up the action, but it has been done. The quintessential example, for me, is Ellen Ripley from the Aliens series of films. Throughout four films (we’ll see what Neil Blomkamp comes up with for Alien 5), Ripley remains resolutely devoid of any romantic attachments, either present or past. In Alien, her relations with her fellow interstellar truck drivers is strictly professional, and she often seems every so slightly contemptuous of her fellow crew members (witness the scene in which Brett and Parker try and negotiate a hazard pay bonus for landing on LV-426; her disdain for them is obvious throughout, and I seem to remember she straight up calls them both assholes as soon as they can’t hear her over the sound of the machinery); they in turn appear to see her as a sort of ice queen, and she certainly acts like it when she refuses to let Kane back on the ship because he might be infections. In Aliens, Ripley mourns her daughter, who passed away while she was in cryo-sleep, but spares not a thought for her daughter’s father; she bonds with Corporal Hicks, but her affections are reserved for surrogate daughter Newt. In Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection… well I haven’t seen 3 (killing off Newt and Hicks you little…) but in Resurrection Ripley has a stronger attachment to the xenomorphs than she does to any of her human compatriots.
It will be noted here that, while the strong female lead is demeaned neither by association with a weaker man nor by being weakened to allow association with a stronger man, the woman is given ‘safe’ emotional bonds with people or creatures that, being so much weaker than she is (Jonesy the cat in the first movie, little girl Newt in the second), do not either threaten her strength nor arouse any cultural discomfort in the paying audience.
The second approach is to essentially chicken out on a strong female lead by creating a love interest who is as strong as she is or near-about. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a good example of this: there is never any possibility that ass-kicking Vampire Slayer Buffy Summers will look at Xander as anything more than a goofy friend, and I doubt that even he seriously entertains the possibility of a romance between them. Instead, she is paired up with two badass vampires, first Angel and then Spike. Most of the times she dates human boys they either turn out to be agents of evil or else run of the mill unworthy dickheads, and the one time she had a serious relationship with a human, soldier boy Riley, he proved to be very unpopular with the viewers and was shuffled off the show in short order. Buffy-fans admired Buffy’s strength, but they didn’t want her to date a boy who was put in the shadow by that strength; they could find no man worthy of their beloved Buffy who could not hold his own against her in a fight.
The third option is to pair the female lead up with a man who is weaker than her, but in some fashion or due to some cause which justifies that weakness, in such a way that it cannot really be held against him. This was the approach taken by Dark Angel when it paired up superspy Max with paraplegic Logan Cale.
Fourth, and the worst option in my considered opinion, is to gradually water down the strength of the strong female character, while simultaneously building up her love interest. This was the approach taken by Kim Possible when it brought down Kim and built up Ron, and by Teen Titans as it brought down Starfire and Terra while building up Robin and Beast Boy. This option has the advantage of alleviating the cultural discomfort with a stronger woman, but that is the only advantage that this method has. It does a disservice to the characters, by using them ill and treating them dishonestly, and it does a disservice to the writers by making them look like hacks who can’t keep a handle on the characterisation of their cast. Perhaps for these reasons it has fallen out of favour of late.
Instead, in these ever more progressive times, a fifth option has been increasingly employed by the creators of media for all ages. You see, the cultural discomfort that is felt by many when it comes to a strong, powerful female character being forced to lower herself to consort with a man who is not her physical applies only to relationships between men and women. It does not, as scriptwriters and creators are increasingly coming to realise, apply to relationships between women. Indeed, I believe that one of the reasons that we are seeing a marked increase in the number of lesbian romances on our screens is due to the fact that it makes finding a love interest for a strong, butt-kicking female character much easier than it used to be (as a writer, I find in general that one of the good things about writing a lesbian romance is that all the romance tropes that would be hoary old cliches in a heterosexual setting become fresh and new when girls are kissing girls).
To return to the example of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, all the characters on that show developed over the seven year run, but I do not believe that any of them developed quite so much as Willow Rosenberg, who exemplifies in miniature this link between female strength and homosexual romance.
Willow begins the show as a shy, dorkish computer geek. She dresses unfashionably (indeed, our first introduction to her comes as queen bee Cordelia cruelly mocks Willow’s outfit), she knows so much about computers that when Angelus murders IT teacher Miss Calendar, she is asked to take over the class. She dresses as a ghost for Halloween because its a way to hide under a sheet. In this early phase of the show she also carries a torch for Xander, despite the fact that he is more attracted to Buffy (when he isn’t being attracted to various femme fatale monsters that wander into Sunnydale in the early seasons), and barely notices that Willow is there. Still, she pines after him and the show sometimes teases the possibility of a romance between them. Xander, dorky clown that he is, is clearly unworthy of Buffy and presents no competition to the brooding vampire Angel, but at this stage he and Willow are roughly equal in strength (or the lack of it) so the possibility that they might become involved is not out of the question.
However, starting the in the second series of the show Willow starts to gain in confidence. She also starts to learn magic, performing the spell to give Angel is soul back at the end of season two. It is at this point that Xander/Willow becomes a dead letter, as Xander remains largely the comic relief for the entire show but already Willow is becoming a more dramatic, dynamic character, and already beginning to outgrow him. However, she is not yet a particularly strong character, either physically or magically, and so she remains within the orbit of potential male love interests. In particular, she starts dating Oz. Oz is not a particularly strong man, other than the three nights a month where he turns into a werewolf, but he is pretty cool in a teenager kind of way, and the fact that barely says anything gives him the air of a strong and silent type. Certainly he’s a step up from Xander, who goes on to date the human and resolutely unempowered Cordelia.
But, as Willow’s magical powers continue to develop to the point where she is one of the strongest witches in the ‘Verse, even Oz is no longer good enough for her. Willow is going from strength to strength and leaving him behind, and we can’t have that. First Oz is gotten rid of, leaving Sunnydale to explore his lupine side on a journey of self-discovery. Then Willow encounters Tara; Tara is also a witch, and a fairly powerful one, but her personality would make Fluttershy seem assertive, and there is no doubt that Willow is the stronger one in the relationship. Their friendship turns into something more, and by the time Oz comes back he finds that Tara has well and truly supplanted him.
Tara and Willow’s romance lasts for the remainder of Tara’s life, and they eventually move into Buffy’s house and unofficially adopt Buffy’s sister Dawn. They are never equals, either in strength of magic, strength of personality or treatment by the show. In the musical episode Tara’s song, ‘Under Your Spell’ is all about the effect that Willow has had on her, and the show generally treats Tara more as Willow’s girlfriend than as a character in her own right. Tara gets the occasional moment to shine, in the famous episode The Body she is the only one who truly understands what Buffy is going through after her mother’s death, and is the only one who can give her any meaningful comfort or advice, but generally she is there to be a love interest for Willow. Even her death happens solely to drive Willow insane with grief. None of which is a criticism – Willow is a more important character than Tara and there’s nothing wrong with that – but it’s hard to imagine a male character being used in this way. It is also noticeable that Willow, despite haven’t had an active sexual relationship with Oz, never identifies as bisexual. From the moment that she and Tara become intimate, she is insistent on calling herself a lesbian, an insistence that can only be due to a desire by Joss Whedon to preclude the possibility of any more boyfriends for Willow. After Tara’s death, her next relationship with is another girl, the potential slayer Kennedy. By this point, Willow is too strong for any man to match her. Even Buffy gets in on the act in the continuation comics, having a brief fling with fellow Slayer Satsu, presumably because with Angel and Spike in their own books there weren’t any men around strong enough to deserve her.
Nor is this the only example that I could name. I am quite a fan of the Canadian urban fantasy show Lost Girl, which focuses on a succubus named Bo, played by Anna Silk, and her life as a private detective in the underground world of the fae. Bo is by any definition a strong character. She is, in fact, one of the most powerful fae in existence, for which she is coveted by half the villains on the show (the other half want to kill her, lest she become a threat to their plans), able to use her abilities to kill men or twist them to her will. Or she can just beat them up in hand to hand combat.
Bo is also bisexual, and the dramatic tension that does not derive from everyone and their dog’s attempts to use her for their own purposes derives from the love triangle that sits at the centre of the show. On the one hand we have Dyson (Kris Holden-Reid), a burly, rugged manly man of a cop who can also shape shift into a wolf, or just hulk out to become even more muscular than he was already. He is also an incredibly strong fae, able to endure Bo’s draining of his life force without dying, able to hold his own against her in battle, able to master her in the bedroom. On the other hand we have Lauren (Zoie Palmer), a human doctor enslaved by the light fae. Lauren is so vulnerable to Bo’s powers that they are forced to remain celibate for a good chunk of episodes because Bo can’t control herself sufficiently to avoid killing her, and in a later season Bo nearly dies because she can’t drain enough chi from Lauren to regenerate her injuries. Notably, while Dyson frequently accompanies Bo into battle, and even rescues her once or twice from various perils, Bo spends a great deal of time trying to rescue Lauren from the servitude in which she is bound. The power disparity between the two women is much greater than that between the woman and the man.
And then there is Legend of Korra, which caused quite a stir with its ending in which heroine Korra, the Avatar and master of all four elements, flies off into the sunset with non-bender Asami. And yet, when the show began, there was no evidence that Korra was anything but heterosexual, and a major arc in the first season was her beginning a relationship with Mako…despite the fact that he was already in a relationship with Asami. When the show finished, the creators were quick to crow about how awesome they were for being so diverse, and what a fantastic gift they had given to all their queer friends. I am very dubious about that, not least because Korra was originally conceived as a twelve episode mini-series that would have ended with Korra paired with Mako, and the by fits and starts nature of the show’s expansion to four seasons, combined with the fact that Korra and Asami hook up rather late in the day and the absence of any over-arching plan such as was clearly in place in the preceding show Avatar: The Last Airbender, would seem to put paid to any idea that this was more than a last minute decision. Having originally created a purely heterosexual love triangle between Korra, Mako and Bolin, they eventually came to realise that neither an ordinary firebender nor a comic-relief earthbender where really up to scratch. Aang could give himself to a waterbender girl, but for Korra to accept an ordinary bender man would be lowering herself too much. A non-bending girl, however, was perfectly acceptable.
I would have a lot more respect for the team behind Legend of Korra if they had been honest about their reasons instead of giving themselves RSI masturbating to their own tolerance. In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man as modest stillness and humility, while few things are as unlikeable as preening and chest-puffing.
I also note, in passing, that whenever a piece of media attempts to discard these precepts and pair their strong female lead with a much weaker man, the fanbase can often be relied up to revolt over it. My Little Pony, for instance, spent two movies attempting to pair Twilight Sparkle, its intelligent, compassionate, magically powerful and all around admirable protagonist, with the incredibly bland Flash Sentry, who is an ordinary human teenage boy with no powers, no abilities, no importance to the plot and no particular qualities beyond a vague inoffensiveness. The fandom despises him, and prefers to pair Twilight with Sunset Shimmer, an intellectually brilliant but emotionally tormented little-girl-lost whom Twilight rescues from her inner darkness.
There is no real conclusion to this, I merely wish to present these facts and this argument, and point out with a degree of wry amusement that the very patriarchal attitudes that progressive fandom so despises are in part responsible for the LGBT representation they so desire.