The Tough Chick in Modern Fantasy: Sexist?

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January 10, 2014 by Kira Lyn Blue

I had intended for today’s post to discuss common themes or character models in modern fantasy that might be considered sexist and debate about whether or not that was the case.

scratchthatI changed my mind.

You see, the more I thought about the points I planned to discuss and the more I thought about the types of complaints I see in modern fantasy book reviews, the more I wanted to understand the root cause of both the prevalence of certain themes, plots, or archetypes and our frustration with them.

Let’s look at just one example and I think I can demonstrate what conclusions I’ve drawn.

Anita Blake (especially early in the series) typifies this character type in urban fantasy.

Anita Blake (especially early in the series) typifies this character type in urban fantasy.

The Tough Chick

Hang around on any sort of urban fantasy review forum long enough and you’ll find people complaining about the dearth of Tough Chick female protagonists. You know the ones: they’re sassy, smart-mouthed, prickly with a side of shoulder-chips, prefer Glock over Gucci, are the rare females in male dominated professions, and spend most of the story trying to prove themselves to the guys and be as unfeminine as possible.

Many readers are tired of this character type and accuse writers of implying that to be a strong woman she has to be a dude with a vagina. People use this as an example of sexism in modern fantasy and assume it means writers or publishers are denigrating femininity.

While I can’t rule out the possibility that may be true in some cases, I also think we might be reading a bit too much into it. Or maybe, not enough.

One thing I hate most about this “dude with a vagina” argument is that it implies that a woman who chooses to eschew the traditional trappings of femininity is somehow less of a woman. That, to me, is sexist in and of itself. Women should be respected regardless of whether they love high fashion and makeup or grungy jeans and muddin’ in their pickup truck. I would ask if by condemning this sort of character if we’re not subconsciously supporting gender disparity.

iObject-critterHold it right there!

Hang on, Kira! It’s not that the character type exists it’s the prevalence of it! It’s crap that we can’t have more strong female characters that do embrace femininity. You’re right, women should be respected either way, and that should mean a more equal distribution of feminine and tomboy female main characters in modern fantasy.

You might think that wouldn’t you? Let me offer a suggestion of why that isn’t the case.

Months ago, I discussed my frustration with the preponderance of detectives or law enforcement types as the main characters in modern fantasy. One of my readers pointed out that it makes sense, because law enforcement is the modern-day version of the warrior. When you write an action book, you tend to have warrior archetypes.

Okay, so if we’re looking at female protagonists who are police officers, military, detectives, emergency services, security personnel, etc we’re definitely talking about women in traditionally male dominated professions.

I know we’d like to think we’re past gender discrimination in these fields, and while I have absolutely no doubt there have been massive changes in the past couple of decades, it’s still not perfect.

In my own personal experiences in male dominated professions, I can say that the majority of men I worked with did treat me as an equal and respected me. However, there are still those that have difficulty believing a woman makes just as good of a military officer/detective/firefighter/scientist/etc as a man.

Some of it is subtle and they may not even realize they’re doing it. Things like dismissing a female coworker’s valid concerns about an approach to a project or dealing with a crisis, assuming she’s overreacting because she’s emotional or PMSing. I’ve repeatedly seen my own ideas and arguments dismissed by male AND female coworkers, but then if a man in the room voices the same thing, people listen and agree.

Many women of my generation have learned the hard way that it is easier to be accepted in male dominated fields by acting “more masculine.” Wearing makeup, skirts, high heels, etc only serves as a reminder that we’re different, and worse, that we’re potential sexual partners. I can also state from personal experience, that the dynamics drastically shifted once I was married and “off-limits.”

I do want to stress that I am not saying all or even the majority of my male coworkers treated me or other female members of the team differently than the men. I’m just pointing out that there is still discrimination and that one way of coping with it is to minimize femininity in dress and behavior.

And then you’re judged as being butch. It’s a no-win scenario. As a female friend of mine who is a military officer put it, “You’re either butch or a bitch. Pick the one you can deal with.”

Now, while these are my own experiences, the number of female characters in modern fantasy working in male dominated fields who have the Tough Chick Persona suggests that my own experiences are still common enough that fiction is merely reflecting the issues women are dealing with in current society.

Again, to draw on my own personal experience, as a writer I debated long and hard over making my own female protagonists Tough Chicks, whether I should write them in as the sole females in male dominated professions, and what levels of acceptance they should have. In the end, I still lean towards Tough Chicks because it’s what I personally identify with and it provides me the opportunity to write in interactions that display the types of things I have had to deal with in my own life.

So, I ask you if other writers aren’t simply doing the same?

I would like to posit that modern fiction, fantasy or otherwise, reflects the issues, dreams, and fears that we’re struggling through as a culture and that even our responses to that fiction reflects our issues, dreams, and fears.

squirrel-thinkingLet’s do a thought experiment: I am currently working on a story where the main character is a Tough Chick, but her supernatural gifts push her into a support role for the “warriors” of the story. She hates being relegated to the rear, rails against it, and has to come to terms with accepting who she is and the value of her talents, even if that means letting others do the front-line fighting.

Now, while I intend for the story to send the message that ALL roles in a society are equally important and that we can find satisfaction and value in being whoever we really are, I can anticipate the criticism I’m going to get.

Some people may be upset thinking that I’m suggesting that women in general should be relegated to support roles and be happy about it. That is not the case, but I am planning out the story carefully to ensure I can get the message across as clearly as possible.

I mean, what does it say about our culture that I am worried enough about how the message will come across that I have even seriously considered writing that character as male just to avoid such criticism even though I would much prefer to write it as a female?

Perhaps the next generation of writers will have had entirely different experiences as members of the military, law enforcement, politics, science and engineering fields to draw on for their writing. The Tough Chick persona may fade in prevalence.

I’d be interested to see what sorts of trends you’d notice if you compared the themes, archetypes, and gender interactions of books written by authors in their 30s and 40s with younger authors just getting into the biz.

What are your thoughts?
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20 thoughts on “The Tough Chick in Modern Fantasy: Sexist?

  1. MrsJoseph says:

    Not gonna lie, I love some tough chicks al la Kate Daniels.

    But I can say that – as with all of it – it can get old if that’s all we’re served. I can also say that the “dudes with vaginas” argument kinda comes from the books themselves. Take Anita Blake, for example. By the time you get to the current book in the series, all Anita does is slut shame and rail against other women. Anita dismisses any and all things feminine – unless she is doing it herself. And a lot of authors imitate LKH’s Anita…which gives us a ton of man and woman hating tough chicks.

    Not. Fun.

    I started a book with a female police detective…withing the first chapter I had to DNF it. She was disgusting and made manly men look emotional.

    Maybe the problem is characterization? That people have a problem seeing both sides of women. We are complex…

    • I have to admit, I’m not as fond of the later Anita books. Can we say “double standards”? However, I have also seen real women do exactly what Anita does in backwards attempts to be more accepted as females in male dominated professions. I am ashamed to admit that I went through similar phases. So, again, I could argue that LKH is reflecting real world scenarios and the struggles of accepting that you can be strong and be Woman. It’s NOT pretty and maybe it isn’t fun to read about.

      I also think there may be something to authors imitating LKH, perhaps even at the insistence of a publisher. That could affect how well the characterization comes across especially if it isn’t what the writer really wanted to do.

  2. MishaBurnett says:

    I think there’s more than one kind of Tough Chick character. These remarks are exaggerated for the sake of clarity, not meant as criticisms of any particular writer or genre.

    There’s the Tough Chick as male fantasy, the “Lara Croft” type. The vibe isn’t always sexual, or entirely sexual, but there is an ideal that many men have of a woman that you can treat just like a guy. This type falls most closely into the “man with a vagina” category. Usually they are characters who excel at traditionally male activities and are shown to fail at traditionally feminine pursuits. Often aggressively homosexual (with a preference for “girly” partners) or else promiscuously heterosexual, engaging in frequent one night stands.

    There’s the Tough Chick as female fantasy, the “Mary Sue” type. She isn’t just good at everything, she’s better than everyone at everything. Not only a fierce warrior, but also beautiful and brilliant and able to cook souffles that don’t fall. They spend a lot of time competing with men in various areas and always winning. Usually they have one great love of their life who is either the one man who can beat them or else the one man who is okay with being beaten by them.

    Lastly, the Tough Chick as practical character. (For what it’s worth, I think that Jac from MFL falls into this category.) I think you nailed that description fairly well in your post. I’ve worked with women in locksmithing, for example, and a “masculine” look is just practical, not only because of other people’s reactions but because long hair and high heels are contraindicated for working on cars.

    So I think that many of the criticisms leveled at a particular character type are over-generalized, and may fit some characters and not others.

    • That’s a good break-down and it gives the complaints about the Tough Chick a better frame of reference. I can certainly appreciate why readers would not be thrilled by a character who is little more than a cardboard cutout of a male fantasy. And as for the female fantasy, readers just as happily slam a Mary Sue.

      As Mrs. Joseph pointed out, characterization matters. I think the author should be judged based on whether or not the character fits into their world and the story they are trying to tell and the complexity and depth of character development.

      For example, when I read paranormal romance, I am not surprised when the lead female tough chick is a male fantasy cutout any more than I am surprised that all the dudes in the stories could moonlight as Chippendales. I do hope for more diversity in books that have romantic elements but where romance is not part of the plot.

      • MishaBurnett says:

        What’s important to me is that characters be consistent and believable. Yes, gender is an important part of what makes us what we are, but it’s not the only part or even (in my opinion) the most important part.

  3. seanbidd says:

    Importance of character roles can be weighted, and be dynamic to shifting situations, they don’t have to remain static.

    Why tether your character to just her supernatural powers in support, she has been living a life, find her history to the other skills in her possession. Plus, not all front-lines are about fighting, there’s forward intelligence, logistics, reconnaissance, and often they are out ahead of any fighting front.

    Then again it all depends on your approach to the story, and where it is going. Support roles don’t always only have to exist at the rear or as a reserve link to any front-line fighting situation/environment.

    But I’m no writer, just a speculator to different diversities each character might find amongst the words in a tale.

    • Those are excellent points and speculation is wonderful and always welcome. It’s one of my favorite things as a writer and a reader, where topics can take you and how they can shift your worldview and understanding.

      I’m still in the plotting phase for the story I mentioned, so I haven’t made many decisions on the details. We’ll see just where it goes 🙂

  4. I don’t see why you couldn’t have two females in the male-dominated profession. One can mentor or try to suppress the other (as sometimes happens, to hold onto their status as the Only One) or just plain commiserate. That way they can still be in a minority, but have the kind of conversation-fodder you had with your officer friend.

    Likewise I think it would be interesting to have a male protagonist who comes to your Tough Chick’s realization — that he has to stand back and be a support-type in order to play to his strengths. There’s a lot about female empowerment these days, and a lot of push-back from some male types, but I haven’t seen a lot of lead-from-support male protagonists. You know, a collaborative guy instead of a Generic Lone Wolf.

    • I have come across a few in the series I’ve read, but they’re usually secondary characters. One exception I can think of is the Kitty Norville series, where both the male and female leads buck the typical archetypes of alpha werewolves.

  5. ameliabishop says:

    Funny that I should spy this today. Just this past week I was in a similar discussion, in a very dis-similar genre: m/m romance. While here you are discussing the “dude with a vagina”, there we were talking about the “chick with a dick”. I think both are equally disturbing ideas, not only for the one-dimensional characters they describe, but also for the underlying misogyny the labels themselves reveal.

    I do love Kate Daniels and her contemporaries, even recognizing them as “female fantasies” doesn’t weaken their appeal to me. They aren’t very “real”, but that’s okay (I love that sometimes, it is fun to read)

    But I also hope for more “real” characters. Not to fit some political agenda or to remove the fantasy from fiction, but just to keep things interesting. How wonderfully refreshing when a tough chick gets her ass kicked and fails to save the day! How beautiful when a male hero embraces his fears and insecurity! I’d just like to NOT be able to predict exactly how a character is going to react to every situation. I’d like to be surprised (just as I am often surprised by real people).

    Fun, fantastical characters are entertaining, but there is a distance there, always. I can never forget I’m reading a fantasy, I am never really that invested. For me as a reader, “real” characters elevate a book/series to a higher level.

    • It is wonderful, but for every one of us who loves seeing real relationship dynamics, there is at least one other person out there who will dislike a story with a woman who fails or a man who isn’t just another chest thumper.

      Last night I read a book in a series that is all about alpha males, and the author made a shift and made the male of that story more open and honest about his feelings, and where he couldn’t deal he’d avoid rather than act with aggression. I thought he was adorable and real and loved the story. I was sad to see how many reviewers slammed the author for the series making a wrong turn, making weak, whiny characters (they weren’t IMO), and multiple comments about how “real men don’t talk about their feelings, it’s just not realistic.” It made me want to pull my hair out.

  6. Kate Sparkes says:

    It seems like you can’t write a female character without getting slammed for something. I have a heroine who needs time to discover her own strength, and who’s a bit sheltered and inexperienced at first, through no fault of her own. I know I’m going to get bitched at for her being “weak” in the beginning, just as someone else might get ripped into for making a woman “too tough.”, It seems like women in books are either the “tough chick” and criticized for it, or if they have many traditionally feminine qualities/aren’t total badasses, they’re called out for that. Men in books are adored for surliness, pushiness, and general assholish behaviour, but women can’t get away with that, either. I’m trying to just let characters be who they are when I’m reading, but I’ll admit an aversion to the emotionless warrior type (male or female).

    We seem to accept a far greater diversity in the personalities, motivations, and desires of real women than we do in book characters.

    • Yes, exactly. Everyone says they want realistic characters and realistic characters have to have flaws to overcome. But then we complain about the flaws the authors give those female characters.

      It makes me wonder why we, as a culture, are so critical of female characters. Why are we so worried about the flaws of people who aren’t real? Do we think that reflects badly on us? Or are we uncomfortable seeing our own flaws reflected back to us?

      I can’t answer that, but I do think that understanding that the a female character IS going to be judged harshly can benefit us. For one, if we can anticipate possible criticisms, we can use that as greater motivation to ensure the message we want to send comes across clearly and to carefully develop our characters and interactions. Secondly, we can acknowledge that no matter what we do, there will be criticism. There will always be those who miss the point or simply don’t enjoy the story we’re trying to tell.

      • Kate Sparkes says:

        Oh, for sure. I know it’ll hurt like hell if (when) Rowan gets called a doormat in spite of the things I’ve done to strengthen her character, but at least it won’t surprise me, and I’m confident that I’m accomplishing what I set out to. Can’t do much more than that.

    • Oh, and on another note one of my all time favorite book series has exactly the sort of character you described. I did struggle through at least the first half of the first book because the MC was so naive, self-centered, and obsessed with appearances. However, the plot and world was fascinating and the author kept giving hints about the MC’s underlying strength that kept me going, and damn I’m glad I did.

      Darkfever by Karen Marie Moning.

  7. […] thing to discuss here, that is something I have been thinking about for the past few days following this post by Kira Lyn Blue. That post discusses female protagonists, but many of the things Kira discusses […]

  8. Kerwyn Hodge says:

    I can’t comment much on the archetypes found in fiction, particularly not modern fiction as I haven’t much read what’s available today. Blame it on me being a tad geeky, and reading more technical, professional, and theocratic works. However, I’ll bet your linking the “bitch vs. butch” characterization of women (whether intentional or subconscious) by people in society with the characters portrayed in modern novels is spot on. “Art imitates life” seems to be the natural way of the world, whereas life imitating art likely takes more careful forethought and consistent effort to accomplish.

    I look forward to that time when writers feel free to create characters that reflect the totality of our varied personalities, whether they be male or female, because our world learns to fully accept people as they are. Of course, that means we as a global society have some growing to do.

    • Sadly, I think you’re right. A fellow blogger, KatanaPen linked an article today on women in Hollywood written by a female director. She used “bitch or ditz” instead of bitch or butch, but the same underlying concerns are there.

      Really, though, it’s not just women. There are so many people fighting prejudice, stereotyping, etc. We even have this whole Alpha Male thing in fiction that seems to be the norm for male characters when men are more complex than that.

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