Rantytime. Warning for profanity — although I’m going to try and rein it in, as best I can. Nobody listens to Angry Black Women, after all.
This rant has been partially triggered by yet another discussion of “strong female characters” circulating in the blogosphere. (A good jumping-off point for this discussion is this io9 article, where I butted into the comments for a minute to pretty much make this same point.) This isn’t a new discussion, of course; people have been talking about it for awhile on and off. It’s just the latest hiccup.
The strong female character (SFC) is a stereotype. It’s gone beyond just a trope at this point. It’s ubiquitous; we see this character appear in films, in books, in video games — and because it’s a stereotype, we’ve started to “see” it in real life. Conservatives love Sarah Palin because she shoots things, and Ann Coulter because she thinks women should never ask for help, and should tote guns (and vote the way their husbands tell them). We celebrate images like this one, which has been all over my Facebook feed this week. We warn that the Republican “war on women” will “awaken the sleeping giant” — with violent, threatening language re what will happen when women fight back.
This is a good thing, right? We all know women can be strong. Us women can wield the big guns like the big boys. We can bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan; we can do anything, everything, we can work and have babies and cut the cords with our teeth and then still get up and punch a motherfucker in the face with our brains —
— Yeahno. See, that’s the problem with stereotypes. They contain a grain of truth, sure, but the rest is all melodramatic bullshit.
The usual reaction whenever someone complains about the SFC stereotype is much like what I’m seeing in that io9 article thread: confusion, frustration, and lots of, “But what about [insert favorite badass woman character]? She’s a good character, isn’t she?” Followed by lots of “yeah, but what’s wrong with a woman being sexy and wielding a big phallic symbol?”. The answer is: there’s nothing wrong with it — as long as that’s not the only depiction of women that we’re given. When the grain of truth is all we see, any truth in it becomes a lie.
Thus people begin to believe that the SFC is the only way for a woman to be strong — and they simply stop noticing the many, many other examples of women’s strength around them. They praise Aeryn Sun in Farscape but not Zhaan. They cheer Ripley using a pulse rifle in Aliens, but not Ripley using her brain in Alien. Stereotypes work kind of like brain macros: if [circumstance A] occurs, then run [assumption 1], [assumption 2], and so on. The SFC has programmed us to think “strong” whenever we see a woman with a gun, but not when we see a weaponless woman enduring something that would break another human being. Or we see her, but rationalize away her strength — sometimes until we convince ourselves that it’s something completely different. Strong women would leave an abusive relationship; the ones who stay must be cowards, for example. Or we come up with some other excuse. Even as we’re hit in the face with examples of a woman’s strength across hundreds of different circumstances and in thousands of different expressions, they mean nothing to us. We can’t even see the real strength in real women once we’ve been blinded by the stereotypical strength of the fictional SFC.
And then we hesitate to vote for female politicians if they don’t wield a gun. We justify paying women less because they don’t fight for more — never mind that they shouldn’t have to. We tell women soldiers to suck it up if they’re raped. We expect mothers to be perfect, and career women to “have it all”, and gods help us if we want to be both. We put so much pressure on women in general to live up to so many unrealistic expectations that it’s killing us. And we put the blame for everything women endure because of sexism — differential pay, assault, harassment, the unrealistic expectations in and of themselves — on women, because strong women ought to be able to fix all these problems single-handedly. This absolves men of any responsibility for the system that benefits them.
And thus the Strong Female Character ends up supporting, not subverting, sexism.
Let’s take this beyond gender. You’ve probably heard of the Model Minority, which usually gets applied to Asian Americans but can also affect the children of recent immigrants, etc. It’s usually thought of as a “good” stereotype. Who wouldn’t want to be seen as smarter, nicer, more hard-working, more self-sufficient, and less “inherently inferior” than other groups? How can that be anything but good? Well, here’s how. And here’s how — because even if this minority is seen as less inferior, they’re still inferior to white people. And here’s how. All that stereotype-induced praise generates lots of (undeserved) resentment.
This is why even “good” stereotypes are dangerous. Not only because so many of them end up encouraging bigotry, but also because they make us complacent. We let the ugly stereotypes slide because we’ve bought into the “good” ones. And if one kind of “brain macro” is OK, why not another?
For the past few weeks I’ve been following a case in which stereotypes have caused a boy’s death. There’s been a lot of discussion about George Zimmerman’s intentions; whether he hated black people or whether he’s Latino or whether he said “coon” or not… all that stuff is red herrings. George Zimmerman’s racism was his decision to act on the stereotypes in his head. He saw a young black man doing nothing but walking down the street and immediately concluded that he was “suspicious” and “up to no good” and “on drugs”, because the stereotype in his head was the Young Black Thug. And the police have acted on stereotypes as well. They tested the body of the dead boy for drugs and alcohol (although they did not test his killer). And thanks to a leaked tip from the Sanford police, the media has begun making much of the the boy’s suspensions from school for graffiti and possible drug use. Because All Black Men Are Drug Dealers And Gang Bangers, right? And if they didn’t want to be treated like a stereotype they wouldn’t dress like one, right? Right.
Stereotypes kill. Even the “good” ones. Stereotypes end careers, or prevent them from ever getting started. Stereotypes hide real discrimination, and excuse real violence. Stereotypes change the fate of nations, usually for the worse.
So hit “ESC” on the macro in your head and think, dammit. And the next time you find yourself trying to justify a stereotype, or downplaying a stereotype as “good” stereotype, recognize what it is you’re doing. You’re being a bigoted asshat. You’re killing people and helping to make the world even more fucked-up than it already is. You are the problem.
Now fix it.