On NPR the other day some interviewer — I forget which one — was interviewing some novelist — I forget which one — about the novelist’s new novel — I forget which one. The interviewer was a woman, the novelist was a woman, and the novel was about some women.
“How difficult was it,” asked the interviewer, “to write strong women characters?”
My bitter, mirthless laugh drowned out the author’s earnest reply. Because:
“So, Mr Chaucer/Joyce/Hemingway/Virtually Any Other Male Author In The History Of English And American Literature, how difficult was it to write strong men characters?”
It’s a given, not a talk show topic, that strong male characters will inhabit any given work of regular fiction. Dude characters have their requisite flaws, but they’re fully drawn and interesting because men are popularly conceived to already be strong enough to have books written about them. In fact, the word “strong” never prepends the word “man” in American English unless the topic is circus acts. But in recent literature, film, TV, and blogs, the Strong Woman has emerged as a thing, an archetype.
What are the components of this strong woman character?
In some cases, perhaps, they are the same components as any other well-written character. But in the popular imagination, the Strong Woman is the one-dimensional composite of post-feminist megatheocorporatocratic marketing: tough but feminine, fighty, a little mouthy, indomitable in the face of adversity, but ultimately heterosexual and predominantly concerned with relationships. Always, at her core, is that reassuring lump of insecurity that ends up making her life about men. She is the latest addition to the cluster of popular stock characters infesting the literary canon: the harridan, the voluptuary, the madwoman in the attic, the girl next door, the cipher, the virgin, the nag, the mother-in-law, the mouse, the shrew, and the spinster aunt.
Because she is a femininity affirmation device, the Strong Woman is never strong in the sense that she actually seeks actual liberation. For instance, she never says, “to hell with this funfeminism crap, I’m blowing off the beauty mandate and challenging patriarchal oppression.” She just holds her head up and conquers breast cancer or earns that big promotion, and is enriched by the experience, and then has a relationship with a dude.
Enough with the “strong woman” designation, already. All women are “strong.” If we’re not strong, we’re dead.