Strong Female Characters Aren’t Men With Boobs!

As most of the web knows, Marvel made a huge announcement yesterday – the comic book Thor is now a woman.

She wields the hammer because Thor can’t. This is different because for reasons we can’t disclose quite yet, Thor is unable to pick up the hammer. There are a number of women in Thor’s life, and we’re going to tease out for quite awhile the identity of who this woman is. But one of the women in Thor’s life picks up the hammer. She is in fact worthy. And she becomes Thor.

There’s only one Thor in the Marvel Universe. The character we know as Thor will not refer to himself as Thor anymore.

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I’m not a comic book reader. But I am a huge fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I know the importance of female representation in media. Especially geek culture, where some of the harshest misogyny lies. Still, I am ambivalent about this announcement because it seems like Marvel is looking for a feminist pat on the back by doing a gender swap instead of creating an original character.

From a marketing standpoint, it makes sense. Thor is a pre-established dude with a famous comic line. A female-centric Thor story appeals to a built-in fanbase. An original female character with new powers and a new storyline would be a tough sell in Marvel’s eyes (although I’m sure if she was well-written, she would do just fine. Market research shows that 45% of comic fans may be female.)

Ultimately, the Thor thing will probably go fine. Whoever this “woman in Thor’s life” is, I hope she’s strong, smart, and developed in her own right. I would assume so, if she’s worthy enough to wield Thor’s hammer. If they were retconning Thor to be female, I’d probably be more irritated, but I have no problem with them giving a woman a chance to be “the” Thor.

But such an announcement reminded me of a huge issue I have with how “strong female characters” are often written: putting boobs on a man does not make that character a strong female. I am sick of seeing the perpetual lazy writing of “strong female characters” where authors simply write men and put a girly name on them. You don’t get a cookie for that, authors. I know it’s hard to write a marginalized group without doing it wrong, especially when you’re not in that group, but women can show empathy, emotion, attention to detail. They can show the conditioned doubts and internalized misogyny that women are raised with. They can think and feel like women, they can like “girly” things, and still be strong. They’re allowed to fall in love. They’re allowed to cry. They’re allowed to fear. They also don’t have to have muscles to be tough, and there are different ways for them to be strong.

Sure, women exist like the characters Michelle Rodriguez plays. But it’s important not to consistently equate femininity with weakness and masculinity with strength. I love seeing gung-ho chicks like Captain Holly Short cry. I love seeing someone as smart and powerful as Hermione get doubtful and flustered, or for her to enjoy looking pretty at the Yule Ball. I loved seeing Black Widow show terror when faced with the Hulk in The Avengers. Equally, I think “strong male characters” shouldn’t be afraid of showing such emotion either, as again, emotion and “feminine traits” are not weakness. They’re a sign of humanity.

Most people are a blend of both masculine and feminine.

When it comes to all genders, you should intend to write well-rounded human beings. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Everyone has vulnerabilities that can be targeted by the antagonists, and it’s okay for your characters to get upset sometimes. Or sad. Or heartbroken. Or overjoyed. It’s also okay for them to make mistakes and do regrettable things, so long as your audience sympathizes with them in advance. Instead, equate strength with usefulness. Is your character useful to the story? Do they have a talent or skill that makes them a part of the team, that allows them to solve the plot, that gives them confidence in themselves? Does their personality and presence give strength to others? There you have it – a strong character. No gender swap needed.

 

 

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