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Today, I’m thrilled to welcome Claire North! Claire North is a pseudonym for Catherine Webb, who has written several young adult speculative fiction novels including two Carnegie Medal finalists, Timekeepers and The Extraordinary and Unusual Adventures of Horatio Lyle. She is also Kate Griffin, who authored the Matthew Swift and Magicals Anonymous books—two related urban fantasy series set in the same version of London. As Claire North, she’s published the Arthur C. Clarke Award finalist The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Touch, the World Fantasy Award–winning novel The Sudden Appearance of Hope, and The End of the Day. Her next novel, 84K, will be released on May 22!

84K by Claire North The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Strong Women!

I went to see a man about writing for theatre.  “I’m a novelist,” I explained, “But I’m really interested in learning about playwriting.”

He talked for forty five minutes without pause, at the end of which he congratulated me on my clear yet silent intelligence, and invited me to go away and write “five strong women”.

My heart sunk.  Dear god spare me, I thought, but spare me from another goddamn strong woman.

Oh don’t get me wrong—more than ever we need empowering symbols of kick-ass awesome ladies.  We are in a world which still teaches girls not to fight, run or argue.  Our global leaders are especially charming on how important it is to possess women by their sexual organs.  But the power of stories is that they make you believe—not just know, but believe—that you can be awesome.  That you can change the world.  And in this sense the Strong Female Character is a blessing, an uplifting gift to future generations, and should be celebrated, amen.

However.  The tools we use to progress will after a while, hopefully, change the world enough that new tools are needed too, and I wonder if we aren’t coming up on that time.  After all, the Strong Yet Kind Beneath Their Traumas Male Character isn’t an idea we have ever felt the need to celebrate.  Men just are strong.  They just are confident, outgoing, assertive, brave—and if they’re not that is itself a source of great literary exploration and angst which I would argue is as oppressive to men as anything currently propagated against women.

The wholeness of male characters doesn’t need to be stated, they simply are; unless you genuinely believe that without a male Doctor Who, boys are going to grow up stunted because of the lack of any other male role models.  Because, wow, doesn’t Rey emasculate Star Wars by… you know… that way she sorta exists, the shadow of her boobies making it basically impossible to perceive the existence of Poe, Finn, Luke or Han?  Whatever next?  A Captain Marvel movie, taking it to 1 out of 18 MCU films starring women?  Goodread’s “best of science fiction list” containing fewer than 88% men, and more than three of the women being Ursula Le Guin—and more than three of her (awesome) books on that list not having male protagonists?  IT’S A CRAZY WORLD WE LIVE IN.

Slow exhale….

And here’s the nub of it.  A complexity is permitted to our Strong Men that is frequently denied to our Strong Women, because the female “strong” is itself often a trap that denies a place for true human depth.  Strength is not tenderness; compassion; kindness—all words that are associated with “feminine”, another concept that needs a serious bit of contemplation.  Instead we celebrate “strength” in an era where women still feel that they need to be extraordinary to compete with a male perfectly average.  Novels by female authors are reviewed less, rewarded less; and that’s just the book industry.  In our fiction and our lives, we fight for recognition, and become “ice queens” and “ball-breakers” and clichés of “strength” that simultaneously deny our complexity, imprison us in these labels.  Remember when Wonder Woman was released, and critics declared she was diminished by being beautiful, and sexy?  How did we get to this place, where to be a Strong Woman is also to be not sexual or vulnerable?  How did this idea which should have set us free, tie us up in so many knots?

What do you think of when you think of Strong Woman in SF/Fantasy?  A great many male writers have sat down with the excellent and awesome intention of putting in more Strong Women, and the result is often… well… clad in leather with a sword.  Or a big gun.  Frequently monosyllabic.  Brisk bordering on arctic.  Words unnecessary.  Cutting.  Strong.

It’s not just male writers—women are also sucked into this with great ease, and I’m happy to hold my hands up and say I have definitely dabbled in these Strong Women tropes.  In the best situations, these ladies are kick-ass awesome, professionals who know what they want and how they’re going to get it.  In the worst, our literary women are secretly deeply motherly and caring beneath their steely exteriors and will at the end of the story find fulfilment by casting off their guns and ambitions and having a baby, because hurrah, fulfilment.  Motherly motherly fulfilment.  In the absolute, absolute worst case, the Strong Female Character is a victim of violent sexual abuse, which made them Hard Yet Pained, and which hugely traumatic experience is used to justify why they’re so Tough, rather than being Sensitive and Tender, as though sexual violence can just be thrown in as a bit of background colour.  Sometimes they’re strong for a few pages, the kindly yet brave heart of the story, until they’re brutally killed on page 7, thus provoking the man to learn by their awesome example.  Their awesome… dead… example.

So sure, there’s still a need for our Strong Female Character, because there’s still a huge battle to be fought for the hearts of tomorrow; but also a need to new conversations about what this means.  Happily, I’d argue that a great deal of the recent successful fiction both by and about women—such as N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series, Naomi Alderman’s The Power, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series, Becky Chambers’ Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and Francis Hardinge’s The Lie Tree—are doing this awesomely.  Their characters are Strong in the male sense—in that they are permitted agency, choice, faced with challenges that they then must confront.  They grow, they learn, they make mistakes, they fall, they suffer, they pick themselves back up.  They defy labels.  They defy being pigeonholed into the box of “strong but won’t have sex unless tamed” or “strong and scarred by experience” or “strong and lonely” or… whichever box it is that permits no personality beyond the label.  They are people, whole and true.  And surely that is where the dream is going, and has always been going, and it is our duty as lovers of stories—and women too—to remember this.