I’ve been reading blogposts and articles by authors I’ve longed admired about feminism in fantasy. There is a call for stronger female characters in fantasy, but some disagreement as to what strength constitutes. Tolkien’s women have also been named (and shamed in some cases).
My two cents are as follows: I am a female and am very happy to be one (barring certain aspects of female biology---don’t get me started on pregnancy, I LOATHED being pregnant as I had miserable experiences both times, I was so happy when our babies arrived as the torment was over). I love being a girly-girl, jewellery, make up, fashion and cry easily, especially when children or animals are hurt.
I think it gets complicated when people attempt to discuss male/female attributes and typical pursuits when discussing strength in fictional characters. To make it easy for myself I’d say it all depends on the person. Some have the necessary characteristics and body strength to make great fighters, others don’t. It has been typically the domain of men, but not all men can draw blood, and some women are very good at it. Some people make excellent nurturers and carers—it is not the prerogative of one gender.
So where does that leave me as a female, writer and avid reader of fantasy? There is this impetus to not acknowledge women who are very happy being ‘typical’ women as also possessing strength
I beg to disagree: just because one isn’t a kickass super fighter doesn’t mean one is weak. Looking at three of the females in Lord of the Rings, they all possess strength: Eowyn wanted to engage in the war on the battlefield and was proven right when she killed the Witch King, was she strong? Certainly. What of Arwen? It takes strength to choose to stay with the man you love, knowing you will outlive him and that you will never see your parents or friends again. But my favourite---the one I wanted to be from the first time I read LoR was Galadriel. To exude power in the form of wisdom, indomitable will and use of magic is to me the ultimate strength. She did not need to raise her voice, hold a knife at someone’s throat or use seduction to achieve her goals. Yet she too knew loss—her brothers died, her daughter Celebrian was captured, and though she was rescued, she never fully recovered. Yet Galadriel never lost her courage or spirit—she was the bulwark of strength and the head of the resistance against Sauron.
So what is strength to me? Strength is fighting for what you believe to be right, in the manner you choose to fight: be it with a gun or through the power of the pen. Strength is both choosing to fight for your country and beliefs and being the one who stays behind to be both mother and father to your children, not knowing if your husband or wife will return, or if they do, if they will heal.
Strength is honouring your love and commitment to one who is suffering from an illness they will not recover from, knowing you will have to live on after they have gone. Strength is being diagnosed with that illness and facing death with dignity.
Strength is living on after the loss of a spouse, parent, sibling, child or friend, without succumbing to overwhelming despair. Strength is caring for a child that has been abused, doing your best to help them heal in spite of all the setbacks. Strength is overcoming one’s demons and allowing oneself to feel happiness again. None of these is gender-specific, anyone can be strong.
Do I see this strength in characters in fiction? Yes, sometimes in men, sometimes in women. It is there, hiding beneath their forced cheery persona's, their arrogance, the public face they put on to hide the pain. It is not blazed from the rooftops, announced to the masses. The reader is not bludgeoned with the total awesomeness that is the strength of the character—"gosh darn, isn’t he/she so amazingly strong?" Yet is there, revealed in quiet moments, in anger, on the rare occasion the mask slips. And it is present in both male and female characters.
If there is one thing as a mother of two girls I try to impart to them: it’s that anyone can make a show of strength—it’s in the quiet moments when there is no one around, the ability to continue in spite of loss, the capacity to make a tough decision and stand by it—and to do it all without fanfare and attention that one’s true strength is revealed. And that will carry them through whatever they choose to do in life. They have run the gamut of: pony riding fashion designer, pop star, ballerina, writer, vet, medical researcher and neither of them are anywhere near finishing school. Who knows what they will end up doing?