I recently started watching the new TV series Outlander, based on the popular books by Diana Gabaldon. I have never read the books. The series sounded like something I might enjoy, about a woman who time-travels to 18th Century Scotland.
After watching two episodes, I’m already done with it.
I see people raving about the show on Twitter and other social media. Like Charlie Brown, I don’t know how to argue with success. Something is resonating with many viewers, and I don’t mind that they are enjoying it.
But to me it’s a major disappointment. It made me think of how the term “strong female character” is so often misconstrued.
From the first moment, Claire, the heroine of Outlander, is presented as a strong woman. The first scenes are of her operating on a soldier in a make-shift army hospital at the end of World War II. She’s fearless. She’s covered almost head to toe in blood and doesn’t care. When told the war is over, she takes a healthy belt of champagne straight from the bottle.
She’s a badass.
She’s also incredibly confident sexually. A palm reader even comments that any man would be happy in bed with her.
She’s so competent (and has so many skills that serve her well in her journey into the past) that it strains credibility. She is also remarkably self-aware of her own (few) missteps.
Of course, there’s NOTHING wrong with a competent, sexually confident female character. In fact, that’s terrific. But she’s so relentlessly perfect I got bored with her right away. I couldn’t become invested in the character or what happens to her. There’s no mystery whether she will survive her journey. She needs no character arc because from the beginning she comes across as some kind of modern female ideal.
To be frank, I had the same problem with the story’s hero, who is also perfect. He represents, if not a modern, at least a certain universal male ideal.
(I’m going to assume that this is a problem with the series and the books present far more nuanced characters.)
So, one may ask, isn’t this uber-strong woman character better than a weak female character?
Well, it depends on what you mean by “strong” and “weak.”
To me, a strong female character is:
Full of contradictions
Grows as a person through the story
If I were to give you a list of what makes a strong male character for me, it would be pretty much the same. I’m not saying I want female characters to act like men (though some great ones do, i.e. Arya and Brienne in Game of Thrones) but the qualities that make a great character are the same regardless of gender.
You want to know why I love most of Jane Austen’s heroines?
They are intelligent, lively and, at least deep down, good-hearted.
And nearly every one of them is WRONG about something important.
(The exception is Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price. She’s right about everything. Not surprisingly, Mansfield Park is my least favorite of Austen’s books.)
Elizabeth Bennett allows prejudice to cloud her judgment about Mr. Darcy’s true character. Emma Woodhouse thinks she can manipulate the lives of the people around her. Marianne Dashwood falls in love with the wrong man. Her sister Elinor is in love with a good man, but one who is unattainable. Anne Elliot allows friends and family to talk her out of her engagement with her one true love. Catherine Moreland is so obsessed with gothic novels she thinks she’s a heroine in one.
(Austen even calls Catherine, her own heroine, an imbecile.)
All these characters grow throughout the story. They make mistakes and learn from them. It’s their weaknesses and flaws that make them memorable–and human. It’s their strengths that make their character arcs believable.
Sometimes in a bid to make female characters “strong” we hold them to a much higher standard than male characters. I recently read a negative review of the movie Frozen that complained about Anna needing a man to help her on her journey to find her sister.
Anna is a princess who up to that moment spent most of her life closed up in a castle. It would be unbelievable if she had made it through the rough terrain on the journey to find her sister on her own. Of course, she needs someone to guide her. Kristoff functions as a mentor character, helping her survive a world that is familiar to him and foreign to her.
Think in contrast of Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: A New Hope. If it hadn’t been for Obi Wan Kenobi and his use of The Force, Luke would have been grabbed by Imperial storm troopers early in the story. No one calls him a weak character because of this. In fact, it isn’t until Return of the Jedi that he has mastered his Jedi skills, and even then, he still needs to learn how to use them properly.
I love a kick-ass heroine. But that’s much too narrow a definition of “strong.” There are many women’s stories to be told, with characters who have different kinds of strengths and weaknesses. I’d like to see them all.