The Perils of Power, the Effects of Empowerment

Posted: September 23, 2011 in Braak, comic books, crotchety ranting, poetics, Politics
Tags: , , , , ,

Some time ago, I read a comment on the internet from some anonymous commenter about Power Girl: the notoriously well-endowed DC comics character. That comment went something along these lines: “I wouldn’t ever say anything about her boobs! She could knock my head off!”

This is obviously stupid, but in a rare moment of restraint I chose NOT to get involved in an argument on the internet. Perhaps my better nature prevailed, perhaps it was really my worse nature, who can tell? But recently, there’s been a combination of new arguments for (and against) more female creators at the major comics companies, and accompanying discussions about just what it means to make exploitative art, and on top of that there’s been some discussion in the news (depending on where you get your news, I guess) about “Mary Sues”, and just what the line between a strong character and a character who is TOO strong is.

Those particular articles were from a while ago and got me started thinking about this, but what really made me dust it off was Laura Hudsons “The Big Sexy Problem With Superheroines and Their ‘Liberated’ Sexuality.”

In a way, this is tangential, but in another I think very important way it’s not, but that won’t be obvious until you get to the end. So, read the whole thing, I guess?

My thesis here is this: “Powerful” is not the same thing as “Empowered,” and while that may seem blindingly obvious to anyone who can read (“Look! They’re DIFFERENT WORDS!”), I still want to investigate it a little bit, and to do that I want to talk about something called a Strong Character.

The Strong Female Characters

I think one of the principle problems in discussing Strong Female Characters…

(yes, like these)

…in particular, and Strong Characters in general, is that there are a number of ambiguities in play. One is an ambiguity around the word “character”: this is a word used both to describe the figure in the novel (“The character of Elizabeth Bennett is the protagonist of Pride and Prejudice”) and the behavior and personality of people, both real and imagined (“Elizabeth Bennett’s character was repeatedly called into question by Mr. Darcy’s aunt Catherine”). And there’s likewise an ambiguity (actually a trambiguity, I guess), in terms of the way we use the word “strong”: a person could be strong like Superman in the sense that he could lift a heavy object, or he could be strong like John McClain in the sense that he’ll keep fighting no matter what, or he could just be rendered strongly: that is, this is just a clearly and boldly defined, precise and complex character.

So, this means that we’ve got at least three things we can mean when we talk about “Strong Characters”: A character can be strong, in that she can have the power to punch a guy really hard; she can have strength of character, in the sense that she has a set or morals or behaviors to which she adheres, and for that adherence might be admired; and she can be strongly characterized, in that she is interesting, complex, a compelling figure to read about or watch.
Kate Beaton and Meredith Gran are quite right to satirize Strong Female Characters, because in this light the problem is as clear as day: the Strong Female Characters aren’t strongly characterized, and they don’t feature any particular strength of character. They’re just literally strong. They can slap some thugs, or throw a guy out a window, or shoot someone. That is main strength, strength of arms, regular, old-fashioned, lifting-a-heavy-thing-up strength. What makes this satire is that it exposes clearly the problem that so, so, so many readers and writers have failed to grasp: we’re dissatisfied because when we ask for Empowering female characters, we’re instead given Powerful ones.

The thing about this is that there’s nothing particularly admirable, from the standpoint of a story, about being strong. We’re usually talking about protagonists, after all, so their strength is going to be exactly what’s required for the story, and neither more nor less; Batman isn’t a better character because he succeeds even though he lacks the main strength of Superman – because, in terms of the story, Batman is still going to be exactly as strong as he needs to be to win. Maybe this means that Batman only fights a man with half his face burned off, instead of fighting a giant radioactive space chimp, but it doesn’t matter – that’s because the key to the story is not the strength that Batman exhibits, but the way the author describes the application of that strength, and the way the character responds when that strength fails him.

Likewise, Power Girl isn’t a stronger character because she’s physically strong, because her character doesn’t have anything to do with how strong she is. Her “character” as in her “personality” – as a “character” in her book of course she’s defined in part by how strong she is. But the content of her character isn’t determined by that strength, any more than we’d say a real-life person demonstrated outstanding moral character because she could benchpress three hundred pounds.

The Character’s Strength of Character

This isn’t to say that a character’s strength can’t yield some insight into their strength of character, because of course it can: once we know that Power Girl can punch a man into space, every time she punches someone and he doesn’t fly into space is a time that yields insight into how she behaves. She knows that she’s strong, so she holds back because she doesn’t really want to hurt anybody. And that strength of character coupled with her character’s strength helps to yield a strongly-drawn character: she’s struggling with how best to apply near-unlimited power – trying to do good while also trying to avoid doing evil, which is a challenge for anyone and makes some compelling comics.

What’s especially interesting to me about all of this is what it suggests that “character” in a book means – that is, a character’s character, not just the character themselves. A character, of course, is just an actor in a story – but that character’s character is what, exactly? It’s not really the same thing as it is with a real person, who is a product of biology and history and psychology, and has great depths of feeling and reason which are invisible to even the most astute observer. Human behavior, in the real world, is just the tip of the iceberg.

But human behavior in the fictional world is the whole of the iceberg. There is no real character behind a character, there’s no actual psychology happening, only the very carefully constructed illusion of it, which is why I think some people get so frustrated when they see female characters represented badly. That “some women are like this” (often used to excuse any number of kinds of behaviors) or that “this is the way the world is” is plainly a foolish argument, since the fictional world is constructed whole cloth anyway: a character’s character’s similarity to a real person’s character in no way absolves a writer from having made choices regarding that character. That character isn’t a real person at all, it is just someone that the writer MADE UP.

Similarly, the fact that Power Girl could knock your head off for commenting on her boobs is an equally spurious defense: after all, she is fictional, so no she can’t. She could, theoretically, knock your fictional analogue’s head off (if your character were rendered as a character, for instance), but even then, she only would if someone actually had her do it. This kind of excuse is exactly that: a way to excuse ogling a fictional woman’s fictional boobs, on the grounds that if you were a fiction and met her somewhere in fiction, she’d enact some kind of fictitious revenge on you.

A fictional character’s character isn’t a whole person at all: it’s just a set of imagined responses to a set of hypothetical circumstances. In fiction, we base that set of imagined responses on the handful of things that we’ve seen: Power Girl could have punched your head off, but didn’t, and therefore in the hypothetical circumstance “Some guy says something smarmy about her breasts,” we imagine that her response will NOT be “punch his head off.” The character’s strength of character has a lot to do with how we imagine those responses, while the character’s strength has a lot to do with what those hypothetical circumstances are.

Let’s look for a minute at, say, Eowyn, from the Lord of the Rings. Is Eowyn a strong character? Well, right, ambiguity. How physically strong is Eowyn? She couldn’t beat the Witch-King of Angmar without help, but that’s not really a fair test since no one else could beat him at all. And the hypotheticals are no good: there is no real world to draw from, and if we discard the things that we do know, we’ve got nothing to base our hypothetical circumstances on. “What if Aragorn had fought the Witch King?” Well, who the hell knows? If Aragorn had fought the Witch King it would have been a different book, and then we’d all be out to sea.

To get to the point, though, let’s say that Eowyn is not, comparatively, particularly strong. If she’d gotten into a fistfight with Boromir, he probably would have come out ahead. What she does have is strength of character, which we see when she faces down the Witch King: even though he is a terrifying ghost-monster on a DRAGON, she stands up to him anyway. And – and this is the important part – that strength of character would have remained even if she had lost the fight. The key element is standing up to the monster, and that’s independent of her actual ability to defeat it.


(“Well,” you’re saying, “It would have been a different book if she’d lost the fight, so who knows?” And yes, you’re right, but we’d have to change very little of the preceding to have Eowyn lose the fight, so it’s an easy switch to imagine, “Everything up to this point was exactly the same, except Eowyn loses the fight,” so leave off it for now.)

The point is that the reason that we like the character of Eowyn isn’t because of her objective ability to kick ass, which is just a feature of main strength anyway, but of her profound willingness to do it. This is what’s representative of her strength of character, and it’s what so many authors – comic writers or TV writers or movies writers or et cetera – fail to see. When people say they want to see “Strong Female Characters” they don’t necessarily mean they want to see female characters who are (oops, here I come, back to the thesis) POWERFUL, they mean they want to see female characters who are EMPOWERED.
By which we mean: not characters who exhibit main strength, or strength of arms, or have kung fu or laser eyes or something. You can’t make a character who exhibits all the typical problems that male writers have had writing female characters in the past — the characters are underdeveloped, or just fulfill a set of gender stereotypes, or they walk around in lingerie a lot – and then just excuse it by giving a character laser eyes. That substitutes a character’s strength for her strength of character, and while we might use “strong character” as a way to describe both of these scenarios, it seems plain that we actually mean two very different things by it.

She’s Not Strong, She’s Just Drawn Strongly

In fact, though, it’s not even someone’s strength of character that we’re necessarily talking about, which is where these Mary Sues come in. It’s easy to write a character that’s not just powerful (a common characteristic of both Mary Sue characters and their male equivalent, which I will also call “Mary Sue”, is the one in which They Have All the Things: that is, any time a skill or a power or a tool is required or introduced, it ends up in the hands of Mary Sue), but is also the smartest, and the most moral, and the most upstanding, and the most badass – to give them great strength of character. But that’s not quite the same thing as creating a strongly drawn character.

This always gets into the question of a character’s “flaws”, so let’s take a moment and talk about that. I tend not to put a lot of stock in the notion that a character has to be “flawed” to be a good character, or to be relatable. I think this is an idea leftover from the Aristotelian perspective on Greek Tragedy, in which heroes were understood to have a “Fatal Flaw” that would prove to be their downfall – hubris or anger or stubbornness or some such thing. The thing about Aristotle, though, is that he was the leading expert on Greek Tragedy because as far as we know he was the ONLY expert on Greek Tragedy, and our understanding of the whole art comes to us from him, anyway. And, for that matter, how can a character have a Fatal Flaw if he’s not in a tragedy? There’s no downfall for it to precipitate, so what does it even mean to be flawed?

If we took a classic example of a character – oh, well, let’s say this: imagine a heroine in a popular teen series of vampire novels, who’s ravishingly beautiful, but too humble to notice it; who everyone wants to be friends with; who is nice and kind and smart without having to have to try at all. We can easily imagine this character as being a little insufferable, sure.

But wait! What if she were also clumsy! More or less insufferable? Hmmm. Well, what if she had a gambling problem? Flawed enough yet? Bella Swan, of course, is a great exercise in commercially-successful character “development”, in that she’s a character with the minimal number of barriers between herself and her intended readership. What she is not is a good exercise in actual character development.

There’s something telling, too, about the way that writers often try to “flaw up” the character by sprinkling in the stereotypical anxieties that we all know women face. This character is a tough-no-nonsense lady cop, but she also has anxiety about her weight – JUST LIKE YOU, AMIRITE LADIES? She’s a take-no-prisoners corporate shark and a superheroine who can kill a man with a lead pipe, but she also cries about not having a boyfriend, JUST LIKE YOU, AMIRITE LADIES?
None of those signifier flaws – the sorts of flaws a writer might throw out there in order to give women the impression that he actually cares about what they think– in any way really inhibits a character’s strength of character, and they actually rarely have any effect on the story at all. Are they really even flaws? Well, then what DOES count as a character flaw?

It’s an interesting problem. In what way is Superman’s character flawed? Or, more accurately, what is his character weakness? Kryptonite hurts him, but that inhibits the character’s strength – what is it that inhibits his strength of character? Well…nothing. Okay, so maybe Superman just isn’t a very good character.

Let’s swing back on by The Lord of the Rings. Which characters in that are flawed? Sauron, of course, has a Fatal Flaw: he thinks everyone is as selfish as he is, which is why he doesn’t realize that the Fellowship is trying to destroy the One Ring until too late. This suggests a pretty interesting interpretation of The Lord of the Rings as The Tragedy of Sauron (he is the eponymous Lord, after all), but it’s obviously not Sauron’s story. So, what’s Frodo’s flaw, as a character? He doesn’t really have much in the way of a downfall, really, but I think you can make a case that his real problem is that he doesn’t think anyone else should have to bear his burden. Consequently, he refuses to share the burden with Sam Gamgee, and so the influence of the Dark Lord weighs pretty heavily on him, and comes pretty close to being the downfall of the whole enterprise.

Frodo, though, is by far the least interesting character in the story. A much better and more compelling character is Samwise Gamgee himself, and what’s HIS flaw? What is it that inhibits his strength of character? It seems to me the only argument you could make here is that he’s a little too loyal to his friends: that if he’d just knocked Frodo out and taken the Ring from him, the whole affair would have been over in a week. Of course, if he HAD done that, he wouldn’t be the same character at all, would he? Sam’s strength is his loyalty, and how are we supposed to go around suggesting that “loyalty to your friends” is some kind of a flaw, anyway?

No, I don’t think a character does have to be flawed in order to be compelling, and it’s that fact which shows us why innumerable efforts to give female characters depth by crudely inserting a sexual assault into their past (or even building their character on top of it in the first place) doesn’t really work. In the same way you can’t make a character complex by sprinkling her with a spate of random anxieties, you can’t make a compelling character by giving her something to brood over, or be obsessed with, or by suggesting that, despite her main strength (her ability to kick ass) and her strength of character (her willingness to kick ass) there’s a subtle damage or a weakness to her that yields complexity.

This is, in fact, another excuse in the chain of excuse that sees at its root the desire to look at a woman’s breasts and then somehow justify it: it’s okay for me to look at her rack! She could kick a guy! Not really good enough. Seriously though, look how tough she is! Not exactly right. But she’s such a great character, look at the horrible past she’s had to deal with! No, not quite.

The problem is that “can kick a guy” isn’t a character trait. Neither is “was raped.” “Doesn’t take crap from anyone” IS a character trait, but it’s only one, and so if you added all of these things together you’d still only have a one-dimensional character, and that means no matter what you cram into her background, or how many laser eyes you give her, a “tough chick” is still just a stereotype in the opposite direction.

Because, actually, the problem with stereotypes – and this has been a problem in conversation for a very long time – isn’t the stereotype itself. It’s a generalization to say that women like to be pretty when they go out, and a character who’s defining character is the desire to be pretty when she goes out is stereotypical. But the fact of the matter is that there are a lot of women who DO like to dress up and wear makeup, and there are women who wear corsets and fishnets and women who like the idea of a boob window (I can’t know for sure, but to be honest, if I were Power Girl and I had really great cleavage that was also BULLETPROOF…yeah, I feel like that’d be something I’d want to show off). The problem isn’t the generalization that is characteristic in the stereotype, it’s the fact that it isn’t part of a strongly characterized character – when it’s there because it’s part of a complex character who interacts with a world and is affected by it, then its stereotypicality doesn’t matter.

This is why, incidentally, it’s perfectly possible to have compelling female characters who do indulge in stereotypically “female things”, like baking or fashion or I don’t know, Ryan Gosling. Whatever it is you ladies like. Or why it’s perfectly possible to have compelling female characters who live in the 1960s or in Medieval Dayes and are NOT feminist, but are still living in and a product of a misogynist time. It’s why it’s possible to make compelling characters who spend all of their time in their underwear and fight robot dragon Nazis with samurai swords: you just have to actually do it – actually make them compelling. It’s not being an underwear-fetish model who fights Nazis with a sword that makes a character less than interesting – it’s not being anything else.

So, What Does This Have to Do With Wonder Woman’s Pants?

Good question, and I’m glad you asked that. Why doesn’t Wonder Woman wear pants? Well, why should she? The question of whether or not she wears pants is so far beside the point that it seems like an edict demanding she should wear pants would be entirely the product of a male-dominated industry that had only the vaguest notion as to what women are looking for in the characters that they like. I’m not saying that’s where the idea came from, I’m just saying that, if no one over at DC had taken Feminism 101, then “All the Women Have to Wear Pants” is exactly the kind ham-handed band-aid I’d expect to a pernicious and endemic problem.

The thing is, when Wonder Woman is strongly characterized, then no one cares whether or not she wears pants. She’s an athlete, from a society similar to Ancient Greece, who doesn’t have the same taboos about nudity that modern westerners do. She doesn’t care about pants, because pants are a thing that we, modern westerners, care about. We think not wearing pants is a sign of prioritizing sexuality over strength, because that’s why we wear them.

When we talk about characters who are Empowered, or Empowering, we’re talking about characters who have agency in their lives, or at the very least try to take agency. We’re talking about characters with depth and complexity and a level of emotional reality that, especially with female characters, encourages both young men and young women to recognize that women are complex, whole persons, with a swath of desires, anxieties, virtues and vices that are completely independent of what men expect from them. And while it is sometimes important to just see women who are shown to be as Powerful as the men in their stories – because it also serves as a reminder that women are often as powerful as men – in no way does Power serve as a substitute for Empowerment.

It’s perfectly in character for Wonder Woman to not really care about pants, and that’s not the issue, anyway: the issue is, when she’s done wrong, then the reason that she doesn’t wear pants is so that we, the readers, can see her bare legs. Because it is arousing and titillating to us. But breaking the barrier of the panel to give comics readers a fanboy-reach-around isn’t the same thing as character development, and whenever a female character doesn’t wear pants, or leaps out of a window with her costume half on so we can see her bra, or any number of things that are not a product of the strength of the characterization but instead a product of the writer’s or the artist’s desire to titillate his audience, then instead of a strongly characterized female we’re just left with a Strong Female Character.

  1. Chrysoula says:

    This is a fantastic post, and I’m really pleased to find someone detailing so clearly some thoughts that have been lurking in the back of my head about characters and their ‘flaws’. Thank you!

  2. Fata Morgana says:

    I read your article yesterday, and I really like what you’ve written here and agree with most of it.

    One thing stuck in my mind, however, to the point that I actually woke up this morning contemplating it, and wanting to add a rebuttal.

    I agree that characters do not need a ‘fatal flaw’ to be interesting. But when people talk about character’s having flaws, or such-and-such a character having no realistic flaws an therefore being boring or a Mary Sue, I think what they’re really saying is that the character is not relatably human, that they’re too perfect to be relatable.

    Take your example of Samwise Gamgee. Well I would disagree from the start that he has no flaws, but we’ll sidestep that for a moment. The point is not that he has ‘flaws’ so much that it is that he is not a perfect character. He is not the most handsome, the most skilled in battle, the most intelligent character. If he was, he wouldn’t be nearly as interesting. It’s not just that he would face an army of orcs to save Frodo (which is great in itself), but that he would do so while having the least martial skill of any of the characters.

    Tolkien was very wise, I think, to frame his story around the simple, human, non-magic, non-royal hobbits. Without them, LOTR would be as little-read as the Silmarillion. Heck, considering that the Silmarillion was only published posthumously, LOTR probably would never have been published at all without the hobbits.

    So a character, especially a main character, can’t be perfect at everything and expect to win the audience. I guess Superman is an exception to that rule, but count me as one who has never understood Superman’s appeal. It also works a bit differently in video games where you usually are the most super-powered, beautiful, perfect character ever, but I think that only works because there’s no need to ‘hook’ the audience in to feel the protagonist’s pain. You are playing the character, the character is ‘you’ and so when good or bad things happen to the character, you already feel like those things are happening to you instead, there’s no need to make the character relatable.

  3. Jesse says:

    I often wonder if the actual appeal of reading a character is more that the character must have a problem to solve than that the character must have a flaw (which can often be a problem to solve, so it’s a little sneaky). I think Sam’s lack of martial skill is a good example — fighting without any fighting skills is definitely a problem to solve.

    “American Gods” is another good example — we know next to nothing about Shadow, the protagonist (and even Neil Gaiman admits he doesn’t understand him) but it’s such a page-turning book. For whatever reason, we really want to see Shadow succeed, even though he isn’t relatable and, it’s been a while, but I don’t remember him having any obvious character flaws (other than being impenetrable, if that counts).

    To me, Superman’s appeal is watching him constantly solve problems, every day, and balancing that with his firm moral code and how that can pose its own problems. I actually enjoy the fact that he doesn’t have any bad qualities. I can be an inconsiderate jerk; I don’t need Superman to also be an inconsiderate jerk, and I actually prefer reading him aspirationally, kind of an, “Oh, I should really try to be more like that.” But regardless, how anyone relates to a character shouldn’t affect the power of the story.

  4. braak says:

    Jesse: I think that sounds a lot stronger than the “character flaw” interpretation; I was just thinking of Pride and Prejudice, actually, and trying to parse out what was interesting about Lizzie Bennet’s travails — the entire plot revolves not around anyone’s endemic failures of character, but around misunderstanding; it’s a problem that needs to be solved, not a basic flaw in character.

    I think relatability has a lot more to do with a character’s voice than anything else — actually, I’m not even sure that likability isn’t more important than relatability.

  5. Jesse says:

    Yeah, likability is another one I wonder about. It’s obviously important (I was hoping that everyone in “Paranormal Activity” died because they were such tools). Even Shadow is likable if not relatable. But is it necessary? I can’t think of any examples of hateful protagonists but writing one successfully would be an awesome experiment. Maybe Gregory House? (Or is he still likable because we wish we could be like him? A-HA tricky!)

  6. braak says:

    Yeah, it IS tricky — because obviously House wouldn’t be likable as a person, if you knew him in life, but he’s definitely likable as a character, which means that there’s two essential categories of what it means to be “likable”. And that the reality or the realness of a character isn’t necessarily an essential part of it.

  7. Dan_Brodribb says:

    Loved the article.

    RE: Superman. Some writer’s have used Superman’s very goodness as its own source of conflict. How does a moral person deal with a world that often falls short of being completely moral?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s