Shannon Hale recently had a fascinating blog post http://oinks.squeetus.com/2012/12/why-do-you-write-strong-female-characters.html, on the continued perception that strong female characters are some kind of aberration, or that writing them is a political statement. She points out that she tries to make her characters realistic, that is, having both strengths and weaknesses, and that strength is not the default male position. I agree with her that we left that behind several years ago. Certainly I grew up reading about strong females, and I know my kids did. But I think the question reflects not so much the doubt that women and girls can be strong as much as the suspicion that society somehow isn’t ready to acknowledge that in public. Heroines from Antigone onward have been strong and even assertive, but the reaction to that assertiveness and strength in the context of the story’s society is very different than it would be to a man’s. Antigone’s on my mind because the Castle Builder is reading it in school. And Antigone is a fascinating character because she asserts herself and dies for it. Historically, that is actually the more typical prototype of strong female characters. She’s morally right, she’s the heroine, but she dies because society can’t accommodate her assertive strength. Shakespeare’s Juliet is another one. She defies her father’s wishes and ends up dead. Now, we all know – and even Elizabethan audiences surely agreed – that her father was wrong and Juliet was right. But who’s left standing at the end of the play? The Book Princess once pointed out that Shakespeare’s females are often only able to be powerful when wearing boys’ clothing. She offered Portia in Merchant of Venice, Rosalind in As You Like It and Viola in Twelfth Night as examples. (More on that, I hope, in an upcoming guest post from my resident Shakespeare expert.)
So we’ve always had “strong female characters.” But what happens to them? Are they considered, in the context of their world, anomalies? Sinners? Martyrs? Or are they, again in the context of their own worlds, unremarkable? I think in Shannon Hale’s books, they’re unremarkable, and that is likely what prompted that question in the first place.