In the past I’ve written in an attempt to pinpoint what I find so troubling about some portrayals of “strong” female characters, especially in American superhero and fantasy comics, but despite having expressed various reasons for these impressions as such I still have never felt that the answers I’ve given were entirely adequate. It’s been an on-going process of self-questioning and observation, and the reason I’m making this post is that I’ve come to realize another issue when it comes to the representation of female strength.
It came to me while I was reading the comic Flipside, which features as its main character a sexy and strong female jester named Maytag. Throughout the first volume, Maytag is repeatedly confronted with a similar sequence of events. Some bad men confront her, threaten her with rape or call her a bitch, and then Maytag turns their expectations upside down and defeats them (for the most part), while still emphasizing her sexuality or making some sexual innuendos.
Keep in mind that Flipside isn’t a particularly egregious example, as it suffers more (at least early on, I haven’t read further) from a lack of experience and characters overly designed as wish fulfillment, nor are anime and manga completely innocent of this. Also, the act of knocking out your would-be rapists can be empowering imagery. Instead, what I realized by seeing this two-step process over and over in such a short span of pages is that the the seeming need for sexual threats to happen in order to establish a female character as strong diminishes a story because strength winds up being defined as the ability to not get sexually assaulted. In these scenarios, the girl can’t be strong in a world which accepts the possibility of strength in a woman as a believable occurrence, only in a world which has to constantly remind her what a girl she is and how as a girl she’s liable to be attacked.
Another problem is what I would label the “straw misogynist,” or characters who are purposely set up to be extremely sexist so that they can be put in their place when the girl fights back. The way straw misogynists are used in situations like the ones I’ve been describing is that by threatening rape or sexual abuse they immediately bring attention to the sexuality of the girl target, creating this mixed message where the thrill is both in that danger but also in the sexual way the girl fights back. As a result, it ends up conveying something along the lines of, “You might not be able to overpower me sexually, but if you could oh boy would you be having fun!” And even a sexual fantasy such as that is not a problem because it’s just fantasy, but if it’s being touted as an example of how female characters can be strong, then there should be no surprise if some readers reject that notion.
This is not to deny the use of dangerous situations for women in stories, nor do I think that stories need to “ignore” gender. Instead, what I want to emphasize is how showing someone is strong is a different experience from showing someone is strong with constant and persistent caveats to that notion.