On “kick-ass” heroines
I was reading an SFR with a “kick-ass” heroine recently. The book is universally lauded. But something happened early on that ensured I wouldn’t go on to finish it, much less read the rest in the series. The heroine was a highly-trained woman with substantial physical skill. And, after a scene with a companion, she finds herself running late for an appointment. So she goes to the equivalent of a present-day “taxi rank” and, disregarding everyone else, pushes her way to the front of the queue. Because she can. Because she knows that nobody else waiting in that line can stand up to her.
I’m sorry, but that’s not a sign of strength to me. On the contrary, I see it as a sign of weakness. To me, this supposed “kick ass” heroine is nothing but a bully. Let me pull back a little bit so you can understand my reasoning.
I am a small, brown-skinned woman who’s lived the majority of her life in white, Western environments. During this time, I have had to put up with plenty of verbal and physical abuse, both from strangers as well as people I had considered my friends. I’m sure that’s one reason why I have a more-than-average dislike for people who use their position to exploit or belittle those around them.
More generally, I’ve read that at least one in four women have faced abuse in their lives (sometimes, the number goes up to one in two, depending on the parameters), so the allure of the “kick-ass heroine” in SFR is completely understandable. As women, we relate to someone who won’t tolerate what many of us have tolerated in our lives. The “kick-ass” heroine is the woman we’d like to be, a woman of sharp intellect and physical prowess. She is the woman we wish we could have been, in those circumstances when we swallowed our rage, our sorrow, our indignation, and bent our heads in submission. But, in this current crop of more-than-capable women kicking ass, the fact that we’re celebrating characters who behave in a manner that we would normally consider reprehensible is alarming to me.
My usual test for these kinds of situations is to switch around the sex of the protagonist. What would I think of a tall, well-built male who pushed his way to the front of the queue because he considered himself “better” than the “civilians” around him? Would I say, “Gosh, golly gee, I really respect that guy for doing that!”? On the contrary, I think “thug” would be the least of my epithets. Why, then, are we prepared to accept such behaviour from a female protagonist?
If the novel had gone on to show some development of the character—her reappraisal of former behaviour, or even some tragic condition that turned a child into a bully, a woman who grew a shell of iron because she’d been hurt before and didn’t want to get hurt again—I think I would have continued reading. But there were no such indications and, from others who’ve read the series, I hear that this remains constant through the other books. So what are we to think? Is this elbowing people aside what a woman does because she’s “kick ass”…or because she’s pathetic?
There’s a fine line between strength and intimidation and I’m sure we’ve all seen it being crossed. Often, when that line is crossed, women are the victims. In such situations, what we crave is justice, and justifiably so. But justice and vengeance are two different things. And involving innocents in a show of strength, out of vicarious joy or to compensate for past slights, is unfair and shameful.
In previous editorials, I have taken much of SF to task. I have written about “flat” characters, devoid of humanity and how, as a result, they’re difficult to relate to. I don’t really want to admit that I’m having misgivings about some SFR heroines as well, but I am. If I can legitimately criticise some male protagonists for being nothing more than lantern-jawed bio-robots, then I can legitimately criticise some female protagonists for trying to shove a Y chromosome next to the two Xs, just to show how “tough” they are. The problem is, the use of physical brutality is an easy, ultimately untenable, way out of a much more complex problem.
We want our female protagonists to win—oh yes, indeed, we do!—but not just because sheer brute strength makes them bigger and badder than the opposition. Where is the fun in that? Remember Ripley from the Aliens movie? We didn’t cheer her on when she got into that articulated heavy-lifting suit because someone stole her lime sherbet from the company fridge. That would have been a use of power to assuage some petty power drive. We cheered Ripley on when she used that suit to go toe-to-toe with that badass alien mother, in order to protect what she believed in.
In the same way, we want our “kick-ass” heroines to win because they have right on their side, because they’re able to outthink and outmanoeuvre their opposition, because they’re committed to the path they have set for themselves, not just because they want to shove their way to the front of the taxi rank. We want them to win for the same reason we cheer for the underdog. Because, regardless of sex, to see the underdog winning means that that person has beaten the odds through skill, determination, will, stubbornness and intellect.
When we see a big kid lay into a smaller one on the playground, we aren’t impressed by his bigger stature or strength. We see it as it is: the strong preying on the weak. We should think the same way before blindly cheering every “kick-ass” heroine who comes our way.
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