(Strong) Women Characters, an occasional series: Introduction.

[This post contains spoilers for Dr. Who through Tennant.]

So in the post midterm haze I’ve started re-reading one of my favorite series of books. Masters of Rome by Colleen McCullough. (Lots of people know her from Thornbirds, which I have never read and, honestly, will probably never read even though I love MoR to pieces.) The nutshell summary is that its a series of books about the rise and fall of Julius Caesar, and the end of the Roman republic.

Rereading this series has gotten me thinking again about what is considered “women’s” literature and what is just considered “literature.” There’s no lack of sex in these books, and there’s even a book called Caesar’s Women which is framed primarily through showing who Caesar was via his relationships with the important women in his life. And yet, these books are considered “literature.”

Sure, they’re hundreds of pages long each, but so are Mists of Avalon and the Kushiel books. MoR has plenty of action (warfare, intrigues, murders), but so do MoA and Kushiel. The longer I thought about it, the more I came to realize that the primary distinction between MoR (and the Wolf Hall books, which I’ve also read) and the other books that I was comparing it to was who the story was focused on. In order to get away with writing sex scenes, with talking about romance, you have to write about a dude.

I mention this because today I saw a friend’s tweet of a picture complaining that the recent run of Dr. Who had been all girl stories. The complaintant was upset, I guess, that the Doctor moved away from being rough and tumble Boy’s Life style pulp adventure to…talk about feelings? Actually focus stories on women? I’m not entirely sure, being as I haven’t watched the show since Tennant left…but I think I can catch the drift since it was headed that way from Eccleston on.

See, New Who isn’t just monster of the week stories. New Who has had the audacity to have whole episodes in which the Doctor wasn’t the focus, and even when he was the ostensible frame he was actually a MacGuffin. (Anyone remember Martha tracking all over hell and high water to spread the gospel of the Doctor? The point of that story wasn’t actually the Doctor, it was Martha.)

New Who has featured women characters.

Not female props for the Doctor, but actual woman characters. And as much as the average nerd guy likes to talk about how he likes “strong women characters,” what he usually means is women in what I call the Whedon Mode. Girls who kick butts and don’t talk about girl things too much. Girls that are still blank enough slates that nerd guys can project their own desires and images onto them.

And the women of New Who tend to defy this model.

Hopefully over the next few weeks I’ll be talking about women characters who are also strong characters. I want to talk about what makes a character strong and how those traits map onto women. Attributes like assumption of competence (an entry about the new Man From U.N.C.L.E.), resilience (Katniss Everdeen, Tris Prior, and the rise of the YA Dystopia heroine), curiosity (Ghost in the Shell and its spiritual inheritor, Lucy), non-compliance (Bitch Planet), and other things. As I explore these traits, one of the things I’m going to talk about is which pieces of media get ghettoized as “girl stories” and why.

So pull up a seat. Let’s talk about women characters, what makes them awesome, and why that gets hidden behind a bunch of kyriarchical bullshit.


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