Sam Hawke guest posted at Fantasy Book Cafe about tomboy protagonists for the blog’s annual Women in SF&F feature in 2019:
“There is a particular kind of character in SFF. You know her. She’s smart and tough, determined, decisive, and she can kick the collective arses of any takers. She comes in a few varieties—in better stories she’s an Alanna of Trebond or a Brienne of Tarth, with depth and history and more than one dimension; in weaker ones she’s an empty Strong Female Character™ who has no real contribution to the plot other than Being Awesome While Female—but either way it’s her prowess at fighting, particularly against men, that sets her apart. […]
“Instead, I wrote a woman, Kalina, with a chronic illness who couldn’t fight to save her life. Literally. I wrote a book in which the main characters’ problems couldn’t be solved by the strategic and entertaining use of violence even if they had the skills to deploy, and I did it purposefully. I did it in part in response to my own sewing test.
“Let me explain.
“The sewing test is failed when a book deploys a lazy code to tell me how much better, more interesting, more deserving, the female character is than those silly other women by making a point of having her hate sewing or embroidery or [insert other feminine-coded activity or trait of your choice—but you wouldn’t believe how often it’s sewing]. These days, if a book does this, I’m out. It’s not just lazy, it’s not just a cliché, it’s a statement by the author that I’m expected to cheer on one woman by disparaging the rest of them. […]
“Basically, there’s a nasty underbelly to over-reliance on this very limited model of ‘strength’, and it’s rooted in the same insidious patriarchal BS that gave us the old style women-as-objects-to-be-rescued stories: here are traits which are traditionally coded as masculine, which you have been taught are more valuable than traits which are coded as feminine. See how you should cheer on this woman because she’s different and better than those other women, who are weak and shallow and worthless. Reward her for those traits, and punish those who lack them.”author Sam Hawke at Fantasy Book Cafe blog, 2019
Hawke is perfectly right, if you ask me. As awesome as ass-kicking women are, other ways of being awesome exist and should be recognized more widely. Because the variety of life skills to be excelled in is much, much wider than merely physical prowess, fighting skill, or attitude.
Moreover, as we all know, there are situations where the application of know-how or just the right tool will create such a better outcome than anything else that at best it’s not even fair to compare them. Why should genre literature forget these skills when women stand in the protagonists’ shoes?
I’m going to be adopting the phrase “being awesome while female” for all kinds of amazing things that women do. It’s just that awesome. 🙂
P.S. I just read City of Lies, Hawke’s book with the female protagonist who has a chronic illness. I thoroughly enjoyed her strategic and entertaining use of her brain—and ditto for the male protagonists, Kalina’s brother and his best friend.
Image by Eppu Jensen
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