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Tansy Rayner Roberts

Strong Women

February 9th, 2010 at 12:06

WendyIn my last post I talked about how there are many different kinds of strength in female characters, and it rubs me up the wrong way when an emotionless, damaged and violent ‘Ms Kickass’ is the only acknowledged type – as if that is the only alternative to the fainting damsel.

So in the interest of giving some actual examples, a variety of strong heroines I have been thinking about lately:

Emma Donohue in White Tiger and other novels by Kylie Chan

I once had a long conversation with someone about the lack of mothers in fantasy – and whether you could have a mother as an epic fantasy heroine. The problem with this of course (and the reason Xena didn’t get to keep her baby) is that taking a child along on a dangerous adventure is completely irresponsible. Chan was one of the first authors I found who had a solution – what if the child is immortal/powerful in her own right but still needs parenting? Emma develops powers and martial arts ability throughout the books, but which she isn’t technically a parent, she does fulfil that role throughout the books, and the juggling act of trying to sort out the school situation when you and your child are embroiled in a supernatural war was actually pretty awesome.

Briar Wilkes in Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Another mother hero! In this case, a woman almost entirely defined by her relationship with men – Briar goes in search of her teenage son, who is himself hoping to clear the names of his father and grandfather. I’m still only halfway through the book, but after reading so much steampunk centred around boy heroes I’ve been really enjoying the novelty of a middle-aged heroine with a complex past.

Polly & Eileen in Blackout by Connie Willis

The Blitz is famous as a time when everyday people had to cope with the most extraordinary horrors while still keeping the shops open, putting food on the table, and trying not to fall apart. In this time travel novel, stranded historians Polly and Eileen learn more than they intended about the fragility of life and survival in wartime. While their male counterpart Mike gets tangled up in the “manly” dramas of Dunkirk and military hospitals, Eileen and Polly show us the day to day stresses and challenged of living through the Blitz. Just something as simple as the constant interrupted sleep… with a new baby’s habits still fresh in my mind, I’m surprised the whole population of London didn’t just go insane.

Ce’Nedra, in The Belgariad by David & Leigh Eddings.

Yes, yes, an Eddings heroine, I know. But I’m not talking here about Ce’Nedra’s disturbingly wily feminine wiles, that she shares with all the other wily Eddings women (men! men are to be trapped!) When I was thinking about kickass women, and talking with Marianne de Pierres and Nicole Murphy about the motivation often ascribed to such women (they are kickass because they were TRAUMATISED and are BROKEN) I couldn’t help thinking about Ce’Nedra in the final books of the Belgariad. Having been a whiny, stompy, brattish princess for most of the books, she comes to accept her betrothal to Surprisingly Unqualified Boy King Garion remarkably fast. He then sneaks away in the middle of the night to Save the World, in the hopes of averting a war. Left behind, Ce’Nedra realises that war is inevitable, and she’s the only one left who can serve as a figurehead for the armies of the world to come together.

What follows are some incredibly powerful scenes in which this flibbertigibbert teenage girl orders herself some shiny armour, talks the various Men In Charge into letting her do her thing, and sets off on a journey far more epic than that of her errant husband-to-be. She goes from place to place, giving speeches, talking herself raw, waving swords and generally being awesome. What really worked for me was the way that she put her own nervousness aside and put herself so deeply outside her comfort zone in order to do what she perceived as her royal duty. It’s still one of the most memorable examples I can think of a princess being useful, and actually using her aristocratic education to good effect.

Atia (Polly Walker), Rome (HBO)

The important thing about strong women, is that they don’t always have to be nice. Atia is powerful, sexy, ruthless, vulnerable, controlling and oh, just a bit evil. Her rivalry with Servilia and the nasty streak they both showed in dealing with each other (that just got nastier as the stakes got higher) was masterful television.

Wendy, Bob the Builder

How awesome is Wendy? She builds shit, she manages the team, she dresses sensibly and she exudes confidence. I love Wendy.

In closing, apparently Libba Bray has signed a new deal to write a 1920′s supernatural series featuring a female lead reminiscent of Zelda Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker. I can’t tell you how disappointed I am. I heard the news via Twitter and thought it was that she was writing a series ABOUT Zelda and Dorothy fighting supernatural crime. I’m sure Libba’s series will be all kinds of awesome, but I want Zelda and Dorothy fighting supernatural crime!!!

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3 Responses to “Strong Women”

  1. Gary Kemble Says:

    How about Miss Elizabeth Bennet, from Pride and Prejudice?

  2. tansyrr Says:

    Gary: Ha, I was totally going to write about Elizabeth, and then I decided no, I’d stick to spec fic, and then I finished up with Atia and Wendy anyway.

    Elizabeth is a great example of a woman who is strong through great adversity, but who does not defy her culture to do so. Too often, ‘strength’ in female characters is portrayed through a lone woman who is an exception to all the societal rules. SHE can wear chainmail lingerie because she’s just that awesome, while all the other women in the story are background peasants.

    While I enjoy an exceptional female character as much as the next person, I always find it more interesting to see the women who exert strength within the confines. Elizabeth does that – she doesn’t break the rules like Lydia, but she also isn’t so tied into the rules as Jane – she rails against her confinement, she provides support to her sisters, and she ultimately gets what she wants (which is Jane’s marriage to Bingley, Darcy is a side benefit). Also she’s mouthy, which I like in a woman.

  3. Kaia Says:

    I wanted to add Kel from the Tamora Pierce books too, but she pretty much goes in the “is one of the boys, you barely notice she’s a girl” camp. And is annoyingly “oh I’m not going to tell on the bad guys even if it gets me in trouble” sometimes. Still, I love her.

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