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WisCon Panel Report: Strong or Stroppy 
31st-May-2008 05:10 pm
language, voyage
So, in starting to write up my panel notes from WisCon, I've realized that I'm not that great a panel note-taker. Or rather, while I'm good at writing down what's of interest to me (the title of a book I want to read, a thought spurred by the panel that I want to follow up on later, a particularly clever insight offered by one of the panelists), I'm not all that great at capturing the overall flow of the panel for someone who wasn't there. I'm going to try to do my best to construct panel reports that are informative and don't grossly misrepresent what was going on, but be aware that these are sort of impressionistic.

Okay, disclaimer over. The first panel I attended was:
Strong or Stroppy? Annoyingly Feisty Female Protagonists

In SF/F-particularly, it seem lately in paranormal romance-the protagonist/narrator is meant to be a 'feisty' woman, but comes across instead as irritatingly stroppy in attitude, and rather less tough in action and practice than she sounds. Has this become a rather tedious cliche, and what might other, different, models of effective strong woman characters look and sound like?

Panelists: Vito Excalibur (M), Lesley Hall, Alma Alexander, Paula Fleming, and Jennifer Stevenson.

This panel started with a bit of discussion about what "stroppy" really meant, and the panelists actually decided that it was really a rather positive term, since being stroppy often boils down to being unwilling to take crap from other people. This complicated the discussion slightly, since people occasionally had to clarify whether they were talking about good-stroppy or bad-stroppy.

On the other hand, the word "feisty" was deemed to be irredeemably patronizing. (Personally, I'd like to see "feisty" eliminated from descriptions of female characters, not only because it's patronizing, but because it's uninformative. It seems to be applied to any woman who isn't a complete doormat.)

At any rate, the panel quickly came to a consensus that the objectionable thing, whether you wanted to call it stroppiness or something else, was authors writing female characters whom the authors clearly believed were tough and competent, but whose alleged toughness and competence was completely belied by their actions in the story. I believe one panelist referred to it as, "their mouths writing checks that their actions can't cash."

One thing I liked about this panel: we named names. You know how on some panels, people all want to talk about what they see as objectionable trends in SF, but nobody wants to actually specifically point to any particular books? Not this panel. Unfortunately, since I'm not a big reader of paranormal romances or watcher of American network television, a lot of the works named weren't ones that I'd read, and there were a lot of characters discussed who I didn't take detailed notes on.

Anita Blake (from Laurel K. Hamilton's long-running series) and Stephanie Plum (from a mystery series by Janet Evanovich) were two characters who were quickly brought up on the annoyingly-stroppy side of the equation, although some people seemed to have mixed feelings about Anita Blake. At some point, we delved into history, and someone asked whether Eleanor of Acquitaine qualified as stroppy. Lesley Hall replied that being married to Henry II would make anyone stroppy. God, I love history geeks.

Lois Bujold's heroines, Joss Whedon's female characters, the female characters on Veronica Mars, Ripley from Alien, and Tamora Pierce's characters were all singled out for praise, though there were some interesting caveats and quibbles raised. For example, somebody praised Whedon for writing strong female characters and made the assertion that you could swap the genders of his characters "and it wouldn't matter." Someone on the panel quite sagely pointed out that regardless of what could happen, the fact of the matter is that we don't get shows about Captain Zoe and her faithful sidekick Mal - it's always the other way around.

The mention of Ripley brought up an interesting point: apparently, in the orignal script of Alien, Ripley was written as a man, and when she was recast as a woman, they didn't substantially rewrite the part. This prompted someone in the audience to ask whether in creating "strong" female characters, we were really creating masculinized female characters. Are the gun-toting, trash-talking, sexually rapacious heroines of modern paranormal romances just substituting male stereotypes for female stereotypes?

This prompted Alma Alexander to bring up a book(? maybe it was a film?) called Dangerous Beauty. It's a historical novel, and the protagonist is a courtesan. She's definitely strong, but not at all "masculine".

There was also some discussion of the cliche of the woman protagonist who is successful in her job, but whose personal life is a wreck, and whether that was just a carryover from hardboiled detective novels (whose male protagonists often have similar problems), or whether we have some deeper need to portray women as being successful both professionally and personally or whether it was just a matter of it being difficult to write good stories about people whose lives are going swimmingly in all respects. I don't think we came to any solid conclusions there - it's a tricky issue, possibly worth a panel in its own right.

An interesting point came up about the writing of strong female characters: Jennifer Stevenson noted that in her recent novel series (which seems to fall roughly in the paranormal romance genre, and also sounds like something I have got to get ahold of, despite not reading much in that genre), she had to tone down the way she wrote her protagonist to prevent her from being perceived as a bitch. The toning down consisted primarily of making her smile more and swear less.

There was more, but those were, I think the high points. A good panel.
1st-Jun-2008 05:24 pm (UTC)
Wish I'd been there, that sounds very interesting.

And it has a potentially strong bearing on DW: what sort of gender attitudes are there not only with reference to the incumbent companions but wherever a possible female Doctor is discussed? I've been trying to read up on Benny Summerfield from the NAs towards my contribution to toobroadtoodeep (though I have a few of the books, it's helpful to have some meta too), and some of those points raised at the panel are handy!
2nd-Jun-2008 08:36 am (UTC)
Hi. Do you mind if I add your WisCon-related entries to whileaway's memories?
2nd-Jun-2008 02:04 pm (UTC)
I wouldn't mind at all. Add away!
2nd-Jun-2008 07:40 pm (UTC)
Thank you!
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