Maria Alexander is an award-winning author who can wield a pen and a sword with equal ease. And if you've read any of her fiction (or non-fiction!) you know that she cuts as smoothly and precisely with her words as could (if she chose to) with her steel. Her debut novel, Mr. Wicker, hits hard and fast, plays brutally with readers' emotions, and has as many twists as a rollercoaster ride. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, and several stories have earned Honorable Mention in various Year's Best Horror anthologies.
Women in Everything: Why the Badass Chick Schtick is Just Bad
By Maria Alexander
I'm a real-life sword slinger. I own a katana and I know how to use it. Not long ago, I wrote a blog post that went viral about how the media depicts women as warriors.
Thereafter, I wrote an article for Nightmare Magazine about what really makes some of the most popular female action characters “strong” in horror films and TV. (Hint: It’s not their muscle.)
That said, I’m absolutely sick to death of the phrase “strong female character” and I want everyone, myself included, to stop using it stat. First, the phrase implies female characters are inherently broken and that male characters are generally okay when they all can suffer from poor writing. While I agree that a problem exists, the de facto shortcut to solving it unfortunately is to give the female character fighting skills. You think putting a sword in someone’s hand makes her “strong”? Wrong. Giving a female character a gun, sword, battle axe, chainsaw, butcher knife or piano wire does absolutely dick for her. Literally. In most cases, she just becomes Rambo with boobs because the writer has tacked on a traditionally male definition of strength. And now genre fiction and film have fetishized the “badass chick” to the point that, unless she can fight off six guys without flinching, audiences don’t consider her to be strong.
This only makes matters worse.
While my award-winning debut novel, Mr. Wicker, received much critical acclaim, one of my friends was deeply offended that my main character, Alicia, kills herself in the first paragraph. “She’s weak,” this person said. “I want my female characters to be strong.”
The stigmatization of mental illness deserves its own blog post, so forgive me if I bypass it here to make another point. As this friend described the rest of the story, it soon became clear that, because of her “tough chick” definition of strength, she was blinded to the complexities and strengths of the story's characters. One of the most brass-knuckled characters in the story is a senior woman of color who manages both the lockdown staff and her sociopathic boss. (She’s even a fan of horror.) Alicia’s grandmother is also a bag of nails, having survived brutal family dysfunction. Another great character in the lockdown is a young schizophrenic woman of mixed background. She has an amazing power no one would ever guess. Everyone, even the patients, has agency.
It’s true that Alicia’s main battle is to wrangle her inner demons, and those little bastards have her on the rack from the get go. But dealing with those inner demons is tough, and frankly not many people have the courage it takes. Most would rather drink/drug/fuck/Facebook away their pain and pour concrete over their souls than face their personal flaws. Alicia’s certainly tempted to do many of the above. But once she realizes what she has to do, she walks right through the fire to seize the gold. All of us are broken, even our heroes. That gives them depth and believability. We need characters of both sexes showing the moral integrity to rehabilitate their broken bits. While physical threats are certainly scary, taking personal inventory can be one of the most terrifying things we ever do because we might just find something so unbearable that the guilt and self-loathing pushes us over, or onto, the edge.
But instead of focusing on courage itself, why do we now have to make every woman a Brienne of Tarth? (Of course, she’s not usually allowed to be ugly. If she’s the heroine, she has to be Brienne of Tart, appealing to the male gaze.) One reason is because it’s obviously exciting, empowering and refreshing to see an amazing, ass-kicking woman. But I think there’s another reason that’s far darker than we’d like to admit.
The more women talk about having control over their lives – whether it’s their bodies, whom they marry or their careers – the more dangerous the world becomes for them. On one side of the globe, if a woman says “no” to a suitor, she gets acid thrown in her face. Or she’s shot in the head for getting an education. In my ‘hood, her partner rapes or outright murders her for any offense. Online, she’s terrorized, threatened, stalked and doxxed for speaking her truth, never knowing which of those hundreds of threats is going to solidify on her doorstep. While we’ve certainly come a long way towards equality and we have more male allies than ever before (bless every one of you), male entitlement poses an even greater threat to women’s safety. In a heartbeat, Susan Faludi’s Backlash looks more like Backdraft, as male rage engulfs us. And it’s not just men. Women defend the status quo because, like Amy in Gone Girl, they want to be the “cool girl,” never making a fuss or seeing to their own needs, eschewing feminism so that men will accept them. We see them on social media packing as much hate as possible into 140 characters as they stomp on women who speak up.
Given the threats women face every day just for telling their truth, who wouldn’t want more heroines who can protect themselves and others with physical force?
If writers want to empower women, though, I suggest they explore an alternative, far more subversive approach.
In fiction and film, we need to portray women with authority, autonomy, and interests independent of whatever is going on with the men in their stories. Women who are main characters that dream, face challenges, and make decisions not based on their romantic interests. Or maybe they do. There’s nothing wrong with having romantic interests. We’re human beings, and love is a huge motivator in our lives. But it’s got to be the woman driving the plot, the War Rig, the investment schedule. Filthy rich dames brokering backroom deals. Judges. CEOs. CTOs. FBI. CIA. Church leaders. Doctors. Attorneys. Engineers. Astronauts. University chancellors. Athletes. Directors. Sheriffs. Principal research scientists. Presidents. Women who have this kind of power and use it are the cure to what ails us in literature and in life.
To this end, horror has major work to do.
I recently read the first chapter of a new novel published by a well-known small horror press. In that first chapter, I counted 28 women. Sounds great, right? Wrong, because 25 of them had been viciously murdered (some described in detail), one was a secretary, one was a mom with no dialog, and the last was a little girl (the presentation inferred she and the mother were potential victims). A raft of male characters were on the scene: one was the serial killer, one a doctor and the rest were government agents. Basically, everyone with a pulse who had any power, education, or authority was male. You can see why I couldn’t get past the first chapter.
This is seriously not okay, and it’s not unusual for horror. Try searching the web for some variation of “badass female horror novel characters,” and you’ll come up with more or less the same short list of movie heroines. Not books. Movies. I think I found only one list of female horror novel heroines, and out of a handful of characters, at least one of them was actually the monster and two others were human villains from Stephen King novels. (Those also appeared in the movie lists.) Maybe it's an SEO problem or my Google Fu is lacking, but I’m guessing it’s because far fewer people either care to make such lists about horror novel heroines or, more likely, even can.
We must do better. Even I’m trying to do better. The female protagonist of my latest YA horror trilogy is a teen robotics prodigy. She’s also biracial – half black, half white. If you’re about to say “Well that’s not realistic,” 1) fuck you and 2) just tell that to Thessalonika Arzu-Embry, a 16-year-old African American girl in Illinois with an IQ of 199 who is pursuing her doctorate in aviation psychology. Oh, and she’s written three books.
Now that’s badass.
Maria Alexander is an award-winning novelist, short story writer, poet, and games writer repped by Alex Slater at Trident Media Group. Her debut novel, Mr. Wicker, won the 2014 Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a First Novel. In a Starred Review, Library Journal called it "a horror novel to anticipate" and Fangoria called "a powerful read." She lives in Los Angeles, where she studies Japanese swordsmanship.
Don't ask her which is mightier. You might regret it. Instead, stalk her on her website, Facebook, and Twitter.
To find out more about Maria's thoughts on women and swords, check out her blog post on the subject.