Writing Myth #2: Strong Female Characters in Fantasy Can’t Be Girly

Today’s myth deals with a trope that I see often in fantasy. In order for a female to come across as strong and independent, they show a disdain for all things traditionally linked to femininity.

Only damsels in distress know how to sew or embroider. Dresses are too confining, so the only option is to wear pants. Why be forced into an arrange marriage and have babies when they can go out and have adventures? They put down their sewing needles and embroidery hoops in favor of swords and shields, kicking ass and taking names.

I’m all for strong female characters. Women in fantasy novels and fairy tales are usually thought of as damsels in distresses waiting to be saved by their hero or as a reward for defeating the villain. They’re more reactive than proactive, and have little to no personality. Or they’re old hags with some sort of magical ability, either showing up to aide the hero on their journey or as an obstacle that must be dealt with. Some of my favorite fantasy novels or stories feature women who go against these tropes.

In recent fantasy novels and movies, female characters have been moving in an opposite trend. They’re strong warrior women who are serious and angsty. They’ve seen things and are on epic quests. They like to eat meat, swill booze, wake up with brand new tattoos. They like to talk loud, play rough, ain’t got time for that girly girl stuff.

Which begs the question— what’s so wrong with that girly girl stuff? What’s with all the disdain for what’s seen as traditional feminine arts— sewing, embroidery— and traditional female roles— wearing dresses, being a wife and mother— in fantasy? Who says that in order for a female character to be strong, they must be a rebel and a tomboy?

When you think of princesses in fantasy, what usually comes to mind is an image of a pretty girl in a long flowing dress, gazing long fully out of a window waiting for her beloved, while working on a piece of embroidery in their lap. The easiest way to show your female character is different and strong, is by having her shatter this image into a million pieces. She doesn’t wear dresses, isn’t going to wait for her prince, and doesn’t do something as girly as embroidery.

I will admit that in high school I went through this phase when writing female characters. I was tired of the traditional passive princesses and wanted characters that were as tired with associated tropes as I was.

Now that I’m older, I can see that all I really did was trade one trope for another. Instead of writing damsels in distress, I was writing female characters who I thought were strong and independent, but were really ungrateful idiots who had no idea how things worked. Mainly because I didn’t know how things worked.

In the past year I’ve gotten into sewing and quilting, even trying my hand at embroidery. As I’ve learned those skills, I’ve come to have a healthy respect for those so-called girly girls. I’m lucky enough to have the option of either sewing by hand or using a sewing machine. I do not have the patience or skill to do much sewing by hand, let alone embroidery. Five minutes trying to do it by hand and I’m ready to give up. The fact that for the majority of history women didn’t have modern conveniences such as machines, grid mats for perfect cutting and still managed to produce such high quality work— which is usually better than my own—  is something to be admired, not scoffed at. Working with cloth is a huge part of human history, and the first few inventions that kicked off the industrial revolution— which led to the 21st century that we know and love today— were aimed at the textile industry.

It’s also not realistic in story telling. If your strong female character is going on adventures, then she’s probably traveling a lot. What happens when she loses a button, wears a hole into those pants, or gets a tear from fighting? It’s not like she can go to the nearest Target and get new clothes for cheap. Instead, she’d have to fall back on simple sewing skills to repair the damage. Maybe even using them after a fight to stitch up a wound.

There’s nothing wrong with having female characters who go against the traditional feminine standards in their society. What’s wrong is when they not only look down on the womanly arts, but the author does as well, not offering any alternate views or showing any female characters who do not go against society norms as weak, or characters to be pitied. It is possible to balance both views in a work and still have a strong story and characters.

For example, take Pixar’s Brave. The main character, Merida, starts off detesting the princess duties and lessons her mother, Queen Elinor, insists she learn. She much rather be off practicing her archery than needlework. She hates the tight dress her mother forces to wears, and tries her best to get out of an arranged marriage. However, by the end of the movie she grows as a character. No longer is she so quick to dismiss her sewing skills— at one point believing that they’re needed to resolve the conflict. She reconciles with her mother— the very embodiment of all things feminine that Merida was fighting in the first place— and it’s implied that both realize the other has valuable skills and insights to share.

This is also done well in Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet. The main character, Alanna, starts off as a typical tomboy. Rather than be forced to go to a convent, she convinces her twin brother to switch places so he can go and train as a mage, and she can take his place training as a knight. Early on she’s determined to be a skilled warrior, and even states that she won’t trade being a warrior for getting married and having children as a noble lady befitting her station is expected to do. Similar to Merida, she grows as a character and realizes she can be a knight and a wife and mother. Being one doesn’t make her a weak woman, as long as she is with the right man.

Another option is to simply have a strong female character who is also talented in sewing and embroidery, and uses it to her advantage. This is seen in another one of Tamora Pierce’s series, The Circle of Magic quartet, in the character Sandry. Sandry is a girl of noble birth who has magic specializing in cloth and thread. Because she’s classified as a ‘stitch witch’ and is a noble, she’s often underestimated, but uses her thread skills to save the day on many an occasion. In the same series is the character Tris. She’s a bookworm, is extremely intelligent, and has a bit of a temper— traits not usually seen in passive female characters— yet sticks to wearing skirts, even if pants would be more comfortable, and other female characters such as Sandry are okay with wearing pants. She too proves that just because she’s a girl and wears dresses, doesn’t mean she should be underestimated and is just as capable as saving the day as any other male hero.

There are many options when it comes to portraying a strong female character without them completely dismissing all things feminine. In the case of Brave and Song of the Lioness, the characters start out one way, before growing and realizing what they detest isn’t so horrible after all. In the case of the Circle of Magic series, one character uses their traditional feminine skills as a strength, and the other is a rebel in one way, but traditional in another. You don’t have to sacrifice femininity for strength or vice versa, it is possible to balance both for a character and in a story.

And who knows, maybe along the way you’ll find a new appreciation for those skills you too were so quick to dismiss, or a chance to share your own knowledge and skills with readers.

Agree or disagree? Know of other examples or just a fellow quilter? Leave me a comment below.

Next month: Prepping for Nanowrimo.

—Kay S. Beckett

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