Tuesday, September 23, 2014

"Smart, Strong Woman:" Is this phrase an insult?

I was going to post a review today, but I just finished reading a fascinating article about an interview conducted by Linda Holmes of NPR and Shonda Rhimes, creator of Grey's Anatomy and Scandal.

Part of the interview involved a discussion in response to an article that appeared Friday morning in the New York Times which referred to Ms. Rhimes as an "angry black woman," which the writer apparently meant as a compliment, but was not taken that way by anyone else, least of all Ms. Rhimes.

Anyway, the interview between Linda Holmes and Shonda Rhimes touched on the racial aspects of the television industry and also discussed gender issues. Ms. Rhimes said that she hates the frequent description of her characters as "strong, smart women." Why use those descriptors, she asks? Is the alternative writing "dumb, weak women?" She goes on to note that male writers are never complimented for creating "smart, strong men."

I thought it was a very thought provoking statement. Particularly because I, and most other book bloggers, often describe female characters in books that we love as "smart and strong." Should we be doing that? By describing the characters as such, are we inferring that such characteristics are unusual?

I posit that descriptors like "Smart" and "Strong" are worthwhile, within limits.

The fact is, that especially in Young Adult literature, the stereotypical female character is weak, prone to insta-love, and willing to die for the boy she loves. This is largely due to Twilight and subsequent copycats (although as a Twilight apologist, I've always argued that Bella is stronger than she's given credit for).

As a YA book blogger, I feel that I not only have to review the book at hand, but also defend the genre as a whole. You never know if the review you're writing today will be the first YA book review someone unfamiliar with the genre comes across. They may be imagining a whole genre full of Bella's in their head. Reading a review that describes the female lead as "smart" and "strong" may help dispel that stereotype.

On the other hand, Twilight was so 2008. Since then we've had a plethora of strong female characters in popular YA franchises: Katniss, Tris, Hazel Grace, and of course Hermione. I don't know that weak female leads are the main stereotype of YA characters anymore.

The problem with "Smart" and "Strong" isn't so much that they are insulting terms. The problem is that they are limiting. It is much like describing a book as "interesting." At least we know it's not boring, but what in the world does "interesting" mean?

Smart and strong are merely adequate descriptors. We can do better. If I describe a character as blonde, that gives me a vague idea of what she looks like. Is her hair curly, straight, wavy, or frizzy? Is it dishwater blonde, golden blonde, or bleached white? Is her hair short or long?

Perhaps instead of describing a character as "smart," you could say "Not only is she the top student in her class, but she can belittle a bully so subtly that he thinks she's complimenting him." As for "strong," what about "She knows exactly what she wants and how to charm her way into getting it" (which I think describes Bella quite well) or "She loves {boy character} with all her heart, mind, and soul, but it's obvious that if he dropped off the face of the earth that she'd be able to carry on and achieve just as much." I think descriptions like these give you a greater idea of the character than basic terms.

Is Ms. Rhimes right in that male characters are typically not described as "smart, strong men?" Yes and no. In the culture at large, it is assumed that a man is "strong." A discussion of a male character's relative strength often only comes up in regards to accusations of weakness. A "weak" or "effeminate" man is a far greater sin than either a "strong" or a "weak" woman, in this world where femmephobia reigns supreme.

I do think that YA literature often bucks this trend. Yes, the typical male lead in a YA novel, particularly a dystopia or paranormal, has rippling muscles, a strong jaw, and phenomenal fighting skills. But there are plenty of other male love interests who are primarily defined by their quirkiness and charm. I'm particularly thinking of Stephanie Perkins and John Green's characters. (Cricket comes to mind first). This is one area where YA literature is ahead of the curve. Hollywood is afraid to give us leading men who don't look like they could physically take on the world or cut glass with their chins.

YA literature bucks the stereotype of girls defined by solely by a boy (I bet a lot more books pass the Bechdel test than movies) and also the idea that attractive boys have to be stoic, perfect physical specimens.

Female characters in YA are indeed "smart" and "strong." But they deserve more than those two words to describe them. My frequent use of these words are generally due to laziness rather than a lack of anything better to say. I strive to be better about describing why characters are intelligent and emotionally or physically strong. Similarly, I strive to look beyond cultural norms of masculinity in describing male characters.

*This of course is all a very heteronormative discussion. Stereotypes are much more layered and fraught with discrimination when get into the LGBT world, and I don't feel adequately informed to opine on that. Plus, it's after midnight and I really need to take my contacts out and go to bed.

What are your thoughts on this issue?

I'd love to hear them


  1. I think these are all very good points. I remember the first time I saw someone argue against the "strong" female stereotype, and it was really eye-opening to me. I'd always seen the idea of writing "strong" female characters as a positive, but someone was arguing that what you really need is human female characters. Characters that are three-dimensional and all of that. Since women were portrayed as weak for so long, I think it was easy (and still is easy) for authors to think they need to do the exact opposite in order to show that women aren't actually weak. While I get that and think it's important for women to not be viewed as inherently weak, it's also true that women have varying degrees of intelligence and strength, just like men do, and it took me a long time to realize that there's value in portraying characters all over that spectrum.

    I still love a lot of "smart" and "strong" female characters, and I think there's a lot of good things that can come out of writing and reading about such characters, but I do think that more needs to be focused on about these characters than just those two labels. The characters are only great if they're well rounded after all, and well rounded means having some flaws too.

  2. That's also like describing a character as "bad-ass". This can go for either gender, but it's a pretty vague description. However, I still like it, still use it when writing my reviews. A well-drawn character is three-dimensional, unable to be described in a few choice words. However, as reviewers, we must boil a deep character down to mere sentences. It's definitely challenging. (However, I truly dislike the expression "angry black woman", especially when describing a character who may be a woman and may be black but isn't angry, merely determined and forceful.)

  3. Ehhh yeah, on my part my frequent use of "strong and smart" to describe a female character comes mainly from a place of laziness >.< Ditto with "bad-ass" - I use that one a lot! But yes, I completely agree with you. Very insightful indeed. I guess I had never given it a thought before! I'm pretty crap at describing character personalities, but I do try to at the very least break out the thesaurus, and at best delve into the character a bit more thoroughly.

    PS. I agree with you about Bella - definitely stronger than most people give her credit for.

  4. I agree. I admit that I do use these terms but I mean when they are "smart" that they are quick on their feet to help solve or resolve problems. As for "strong" I mean that they handle things well. But I totally understand.

  5. I think that YA characterization is a little bit different than adult women characterization, because there is a big difference between a teenage girl and an adult woman in terms of maturity and biological development.
    I think that a lot of the time bloggers use the terms "strong" and "smart" to describe YA female leads that are more mature in their actions and thought processes. There are many YA books that star YA characters that are, in fact, young adults. And they are portrayed realistically as teenagers, meaning that their mental and emotional capacities have not fully developed. And that's okay, that's how a teenager is. And a lot of times we see that development in the stories we read, and that's why we connect with those characters and love them.

    But then we get the Katnisses, the Trises, the Hermiones, the Hazel Graces....these characters have already seen so much, they have already matured to a level that surpasses their other YA counterparts. They see the overall picture for their communities and societies and fight for justice and freedom. Or they just have a viewpoint on the whole world that goes beyond their own problems. And I think that's why we use words like "strong" and "smart"--because they are mentally and emotionally more mature than other YA characters.

    So I agree, we should start changing out vocabulary when talking about YA literature. Because it's not that all YA characters aren't strong and smart. It's that some are just much more mature in their views and approaches to life.

  6. I think a lot of the issue is when you describe someone as a "strong, smart woman" it can sound a bit like she's "smart and strong for a woman... not in comparison to men." Whereas you'll hear men described as a smart, strong character without any reference to the gender. I don't think there's anything wrong with calling someone smart or strong, but I'd rather be a smart and strong person, than just smart and strong in terms of my gender.

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