Gender-Swapping Characters: Does That Work?

May72014

io9 has a post talking about artists who swap genders of existing characters, and they linked to this comic, Spectrum Sliding by Allison “Mu” Jones, on the Oh Joy Sex Toy site. (Warning: other posts on the site are NSFW). Both posts made me think, and that means another meandering blog post while I work stuff out. (Yes, I’m thinking again. You have been warned.)

A lot of us began writing because we read the work of the others and thought, “I want to do that.” My two inspirations were Georgette Heyer and Dorothy Parker, and I started writing, not because I wanted to write like them, but because I wanted to have the effect they had, give that sense of “Yes, that’s how I feel, this story understands me as well as I understand it” to readers the way they’d given it to me. Fortunately for me, Heyer and Parker were both female, writing female-centered stories. What happens if your kind of story doesn’t have female protagonists? What happens if you want to save the world by battling the giant whatsis? Defeat the Nazi’s with a whip and cool hat? What happens if your genre is male?

So you gender-switch, and that can produce a lot of great stories, but those stories are not like the originals because gender has a huge impact on character. You can do the Sensitive Guy and the Tough Girl, but they’re never going be exactly like the original Sensitive Girl and the Tough Guy that inspired them. Gender matters. I think the gender-switch is a great idea, I’m all for it, but it does it really make a place for the opposite gender in the genre if the story changes?

I think the change in story is one of the reasons women write romance and men write superhero comics. Yes, I know a lot more women are writing comics now, I’m a huge Amanda Connor fan, but comic books are still a man’s (boy’s) world, full of boob windows and bending over. I think one of the reasons I love Harley Quinn so much is that she keeps blowing up story lines; I love comics, but I’d like to see some of those narratives blown off the planet. Harley Quinn may die one of these days, but she’s not going to get fridged; whoever takes her out will do it to take her out, not to deliver man-pain to the Joker. But even Harley is in there because she fell in love with the Joker. What happens if I want to be Captain America?

So I’m a skinny young girl who wants to join the Army in 1941–no, wait, I’d have to be WAC and they’d take me even if I was skinny because they wouldn’t let me fight. There were physical requirements for WACs, but they weren’t as stringent (you had to be healthy, not strong) and they included skin care and make-up tips, so not the same thing. Okay, I’m not very powerful (well, I’m a woman in 1942 which is when the WACs began, so yeah) but I want to help win the war so I join the WACs. That’s good.

And then a scientist recognizes my heartfelt desire to serve and turns me into a super soldier–no, wait, they won’t let me fight so they won’t waste the serum on me. It’ll have to be a radioactive spider.

Okay, so now I’m a super-soldier and I save . . . men? That’s not right. Real Men do not get saved by women. And who am I going to fall in love with? Better be a superhero who’s stronger than me because otherwise everybody will think my True Love is whipped. Thank God Superman is around today or Wonder Woman would never get a date; Steve Trevor was such a wimp.

Well, crap. At least there’s Wonder Woman . . . wait. How many Batman movies have there been? Ten, not counting the cartoons? How many Superman movies? Nineteen, twenty? How many Wonder Woman movies? [Crickets.] Crap, crap, crap. Back to gender-swapping. (Also this.)

The truth is, it’s damn hard to gender swap an action story because of our preconceptions, especially our ideas about male/female relationships. It worked with Ripley in Alien, and I think a large part of that was because there was no guy she was emasculating as a love interest. You can be a powerful, kickass heroine, just don’t have a male lover because that’s too far a reach.

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I loved the final battle of Iron Man 3, but nobody really thinks Pepper is tougher than Tony, especially since the first thing he did was reverse the effects of the drug (albeit that was to keep her from dying from it, not because he didn’t want her more powerful than he was).

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Xena was powerful, but her real love interest was Gabrielle, so she wasn’t emasculating a partner every time she kicked somebody’s ass.

buffy-fight

Buffy was great at destroying bad guys, terrible at relationships; her one “normal” relationship ended because he couldn’t handle how much stronger she was, and her other two major relationships were with men who kind of enjoyed getting beat up by her.

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The example I keep returning to is one from my childhood: Annie Oakley. Annie chased stage coaches and rescued people and shot bad guys and was just the BEST . . . until the last scene, where she was always in a pretty dress, standing under a tree, blushing and flirting with her boyfriend, Lofty. I was seven when the series ended, so that might have just been one episode, but what I do remember clearly was fantasizing about being Annie and having great difficulty slotting the guy into my fantasy. And what I decided–I remember this as if it were yesterday–is that I’d save the people on the stagecoach and then faint into my boyfriend’s arms. Cake: Having and Eating Accomplished.

And that’s why I think gender-switching is so hard. If we’ve internalized ideas of who we want to be, those ideas are part of us and attention must be paid. Yes, some of them need to be excised from the fantasy–that whole fainting into the hero’s arms had to go–but a lot of them are good changes. I have no wish to spray anybody with a machine gun. I can get behind a good swift stiletto, but I don’t need a phallic symbol spitting indiscriminate death, I get enough of that crap in real life. So we have to adapt the story when we gender-switch, but we have to keep the things that made us want to gender switch in the first place.

I love Captain America because his is an underdog story and because he knows who he is even though he wakes up in an alien environment beset by things he can’t imagine. I love Tony Stark because his arrogance is earned–he really is a genius–and because he learns and adapts while rarely losing his cool. I love Bruce Banner because he’s so smart and so angry and because dealing with that anger is both his cross to bear and his greatest strength (boy, can I relate to that). I can work with those ideas in female characters, I would love to work with those ideas in female characters, but I don’t see them having the same impact somehow.

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When you make Captain America female, is there that same stirring old-fashioned response to the idea of Hero if she stands in her costume before an American flag? Or is she just a dirty Rosie the Riveter in red, white, and blue? Is Toni Stark just a self-entitled bitch with a cutting tongue? Is Brenda Banner just one period away from being a Destroying Woman? (I know there’s a She-Hulk, but she’s never as powerful as her cousin, Bruce, she never becomes an ugly monster, she just gets bigger and green, and she feels no angst about her plight, actually preferring her hulked-out form, which means she’s no Hulk. You know what might be interesting? A thin woman who hulks out into a huge, furious, powerful fat woman. I could work with that.)

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As usual, I have no answers, but I’m really fascinated by this. I could write a female Indiana Jones, a female Han Solo, a female Cap, Tony, or Bruce, but they’d be so different from the originals that I’m not sure I’d accomplish my original goal, to give myself a role in the fantasies I love, a role that’s not The Girl.

So maybe I can’t have my cake and eat it, too. Maybe I just have to make new cake.

What do you think?

(Cory, where are you? We need you on this one.)

Filed in Deep Thoughts

139 Comments to 'Gender-Swapping Characters: Does That Work?'

On May 7, 2014 at 11:45 am McB said...

Keep in mind that comic book heroes usually are, or at least have been in the past, written and drawn by men and boys, and that’s explains a lot of the gender issues right there. They are also the market for comic books and adventure stories, so they aren’t think about what women want in a good adventure heroine. And yes, women are enjoying these stories, too, but we aren’t the main market. Plus, while we enjoy the idea of smacking bad guys around as much as any male, we also like the color pink, worry about our hair, and get pedicures. So can we really complain if adventure stories portray women as being too girly? Of course there really isn’t any reason why we can’t save the world while wearing pink, but it’s gotta be hard to do without messing up your bangs and chipping a nail. Face it, even when the women are saving the world, and I’m thinking of Lara Croft, they do it with cleavage out there for everyone to see. How they manage the hair thing, I don’t know.

But then again, most boys don’t grow up to be Captain America, or as rich as Bruce Wayne, or as smart as Tony Stark. So if they can have their fantasy, why can’t we? But then you have a problem. If the girl can really kick ass, then her guy’s gotta be something special, too. Even Wonder Woman knew better than to tell Steve Trevor who she really was. Well, Superman and Batman kept their identities a secret, so maybe Crusie woman could, too. Then you can have the best of both worlds.

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On May 7, 2014 at 5:58 pm Jenny said...

Yes, but not all women like pink. The only time I put on make-up is when I’m wearing a speech. My hair has been a nightmare since the 60s. And I haven’t had a pedicure in years. Those are all generalizations about women of a certain income level–do you know what a pedicure costs???–and a certain relationship with society. We’re not all like that by a long shot.

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On May 7, 2014 at 12:05 pm Sure Thing said...

Recently “My Super Ex-girlfriend” and “Hancock” had interesting super-females.

I think we can swop genders when we look at people being tough in different ways. The way that you showed us how season 1 Oliver and Felicity help each other grow in different ways. Just a thought.

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On May 7, 2014 at 6:02 pm Jenny said...

Okay, haven’t seen either of those, but I’m guessing that if the title is “My Girlfriend,” the protagonist is the boyfriend. And Hancock is the protagonist of Hancock?
It’s not getting to be a superhero, it’s getting to be the superhero protagonist, getting our own stories instead of helping somebody else get his.

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On May 7, 2014 at 8:28 pm Michael Mock said...

I wouldn’t consider either of them great movies, but they’re both worth taking at look at just for their takes on the superhero genre.

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On May 7, 2014 at 9:10 pm Katie said...

My Super Ex-Girlfriend had it’s amusing moments, but if I remember it right, Uma Thurman basically turned into a stalker with super powers. It wasn’t exactly empowering. Although the end was interesting, what they did with the “villain,” and what happened to Luke Wilson’s real love interest. At any rate, it’s certainly relevant to the topic, but I recommend keeping the expectations low.

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On May 7, 2014 at 10:34 pm Muria said...

Hancock is the protagonist of Hancock. In some ways, he’s also the antagonist of Hancock. I don’t see why Hancock wouldn’t work gender swapped, though I’m probably missing something.

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On May 8, 2014 at 11:04 am Shawn R said...

Hancock was indeed the protagonist, but Charlize Theron’s character was both an antagonist and a secondary protagonist. (Spoilers.) It’s worth watching the movie, which I haven’t seen in quite a while, but while there is a love story there, the female character is not, to my memory “subordinate”. She’s not the main star, it’s Hancock’s story, but she has her own strong story. I’d like to see HER movie – the story told from her perspective.

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On May 8, 2014 at 11:34 pm Corrina said...

ABC just picked up Agent Carter as a series next winter.

Not the name I had in the “which lady in the superhero universe will get a starring role in a TV or movie first pool” but, hey, it’s Peggy Carter.

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On May 8, 2014 at 4:53 pm DJ said...

Love the new Captain Marvel! I bought issue #1 based on this set of dialogue boxes:
Have you ever seen a little girl run so fast she falls down?
There’s an instant, a fraction of a second before the world catches hold of her again . . . a moment when she’s outrun every doubt and fear she’s ever had about herself and she FLIES.
In that ONE moment, EVERY little girl flies.

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On May 8, 2014 at 11:36 pm Corrina said...

That’s now a t-shirt:
http://www.welovefine.com/8011-every-little-girl-flies.html#.U2xQ-q1dU8g

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On May 7, 2014 at 12:07 pm Alexa Muir (@awannabe_writer) said...

Really interesting post and raises lots of questions that I think boil down to: how much do we allow gender stereotypes to control the story? There’s nothing exactly wrong with a story that conforms to gender stereotypes, though in my opinion they tend to be boring, compared to a story that subverts them. Then there’s the challenge of how much as a writer are you aware of the stereotype you’re conforming to – which is what’s led to a lot of comics being aimed at what’s commonly seen as a “male market”, because that’s the stereotype of what men want in their media and very few question that.

Personally I hate gender swapping. I want entirely new characters, even if their are in a similar setting. To use your Captain America example, I agree that a female Captain America just wouldn’t work. But you could have a Russian female equivalent, as woman were allowed to fight at that time, mainly in the airforce. Look up Polina Gelman for only one example. Now, turning that sort of perspective (female and Russian) into a story equivalent of Captain America would be fascinating – a lot more fascinating than just gender swapping Steve Rogers. Gender swapping is a lazy way to tell stories imo – it’s far more exciting “to make a new cake”!

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On May 7, 2014 at 12:14 pm Susan D said...

Annie Oakley. She was soooo my hero when I was 5 that I received for Christmas (and still HAVE) an Annie Oakley cowgirl outfit. Fake leather. No, it doesn’t fit any more, but I couldn’t bear to get rid of it.

But I don’t think I have any specific recollection of her adventures, though I watched her every Sat am, between, say, Buffalo Bill Jr (“his sister’s named Calamity”) and the Lone Ranger.

But hey, look what I just found.
http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=annie+oakley+full+episodes
Got me some watchin’ to do.

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On May 7, 2014 at 10:47 pm Muria said...

If you read about her, she was an amazing woman. She met her husband when he bet someone $100 that he could beat any local sharpshooter they could find. He lost (by one shot).

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On May 8, 2014 at 8:57 am Susan D said...

Indeed. A documentary I saw a few years ago showed her (the real woman, not the TV heroine or the Irving Berlin creation) to be an awesome woman and a desirable role model for any girl of any age.

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On May 7, 2014 at 1:34 pm Corrina said...

The first thing I have to tell you is that you MUST READ CAPTAIN MARVEL.

Either the first couple of issues of the new series over on Comixology.com or the trade paperbacks of the series from last year. Because that is the most feminist comic out there, written by the incredible Kelly Sue DeConnick that hit so many notes, deep down, about female friendship that it spawned a real-life community, The Carol Corps. (You can read about the Carol Corps on Wired.com—http://www.wired.com/2014/04/captain-marvel-carol-corps/ )

And I’d also recommend the new Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, who is inspired by Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel. She’s a teenage fangirl of the Avengers and gets shape-shifting powers and, right now, she’s trying to reconcile that with her family. Written by the talented G. Willow Wilson. SO fun. To your point, she’s inspired not by Captain America but by Ms. Marvel/Captain Marvel (Carol Danvers.)

Really. Read them, cherries. You will love them. There’s a cat in space in the new Captain Marvel series. Rocket Raccoon thinks he’s evil. Snark Crusie-like dialogue. I hearts them.

Captain Marvel wears Red, Blue & Gold. She’s the inspiration now for generations of women even inside the Marvel universe. In the end of the original series, she loses her memory. But it’s brought back to her by *her* inspiration, a WWII female pilot, and by her biggest fan, a little girl named Kit. So the past and future generations literally give life to their own hero. It’s lovely and beautiful.

And, Marvel, if Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel doesn’t get a movie soon, I will hound Marvel Entertainment unmercifully.

:ahem::

Okay, gender-swapping and superhero comics.

Superhero comics at DC and Marvel can just be awful. Marvel, as you can see above, is making a tremendous effort to expand and be different as they also have a new Black Widow series which is great. DC just…ugh…they have Batgirl (Barbara Gordon) and Batwoman, Kate Kane. The latter might be the most on point for the discussion because Kate is currently engaged to Gotham Lt. Maggie Sawyer. But then DC decided nobody could be married because being married is no good for superheroes, especially not lesbian superheroes.

Which is really indicative of the way mainstream superhero comics handle romances. You won’t find good examples there at all—unless you go over to the Smallville digital series and there’s Lois and Clark. (In the current comics, WW & Supes are hooking up and it’s just dead boring. Apparently, they decided WW was more interesting as Superman’s girlfriend which is…ugh..I have a rant about this. I’ll spare you. *If you google Cliffs of Insanity/GeekMom/Corrina Lawson, it’s in one of those columns.

Anyway, where was I?

Right, the woman saving the day. Okay, I wrote a Gotham-inspired story, Luminous, where I gender-flipped the Batman-type. The hero’s a cop (think young Jim Gordon or Clark Johnson from Homicide) and the heroine is Noir, who is literally invisible. So she has the powers, he doesn’t. Most people would have written them the other way around. I am apparently not most people, which may explain that despite good reviews, the story didn’t sell all that well.

But if you’re not discouraged by my sales (I was so not discouraged, I just wrote a Christmas story about them because I’m mullish that way), my key to getting the relationship right was to have each of them be better at something.

Noir can turn invisible and she’s got bursts of light power. Al is a cop and investigator and he has the gun. It’s a tricky, tricky balance but what I ended up doing is giving each a moment when they saved the other.

But, you know, I tend to do that in every book I write. Since I blow stuff up or shoot people or attack them with magic, there’s usually a moment when either the hero or the heroine has to step up to save the other. So flipping the power balance didn’t throw me off as a writer too much.

And I’m not alone in this. Science Fiction romance tends to be full of heroes and heroines who save each other. (Linnea Sinclair’s Hope’s Folly is my favorite but all of her books are great.) Maybe it’s because female geeks tend to come at writing romance with a chip on their shoulder about sometimes male-dominated SF so they’re sure to make sure the genders have compatible skills.

It’s an interesting discussion because I know some romance readers read for the heroes. Which is absolutely cool. (I have a crush on several romance heroes.) But that means if you give the women a little too strong a personality, it can interfere with the fantasy of the reader putting themselves in the heroine’s place. Again, nothing wrong with that.

Since I tend to think I’m a superhero *already,* because, um, I apparently have a huge ego about saving the world, this is not a problem for me.

It’s an interesting point because I just got a review of Curse of the Brimstone Contract, my new steampunk, in which I flipped Watson female and gave her an entirely different background. She has the single POV because, dammit, you don’t give Holmes a point of view. He’s unknowable and mysterious and that’s his attraction.

But flipping the gender and yet also keeping her as strong a character as Watson did change the way people viewed Joan. Because the review I got at CriminalElement.com for Curse called it a “feminist” story. Now, I thought of it as a story of a woman constrained by society and finding a way with the help from the sexy, mysterious detective and didn’t think Joan was too radical. A number of Holmes’ original clients were young women making their own way in the world.

So I don’t object to “feminist”–I’ll totally own that label–what I find interesting is that if I’d flipped the gender back to male, no one would find Joan that unusual. Which ties back into what Jenny was saying about the reaction being different.

It is. I’m not entirely sure that different reaction is good or bad. But it’s there and it’s tricky. I can’t write any other way, so that’s how my stories come out, but I often wonder if it hurts my sales with some readers.

Now everyone:: GO BUY CAPTAIN MARVEL. Issues #1 & #2 at Comixology.com. Available for instant download.

And I could go on about how the comic market is changing but just follow @GailSimone on Twitter because she has a lot to say about it. Plus, she’s off-the-wall funny.

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On May 7, 2014 at 2:02 pm Corrina said...

Also, here’s Gail’s Twitter feed. She’s talking right this moment about how the industry is changing: https://twitter.com/GailSimone

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On May 7, 2014 at 2:31 pm McB said...

“Science Fiction romance tends to be full of heroes and heroines who save each other”

You know, I didn’t really get into reading romance until I chanced upon Jude Deveraugh’s historicals. It’s been many years since I read any of them, but what I remember is that while they contained the fairly typical hero type, the women were pretty spunky and just as apt to do the rescuing as be rescued. As I said, it’s been a while; they might not hold up. Before that my only exposure to romances was the bodice ripper or the chaste Regencies.

But for all we knock the bodice ripper, if you think about it they were probably the first adventure stories for women. Okay, the average heroine still had to be rescued from her own stupidity, but there were vikings and pirates!

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On May 7, 2014 at 2:39 pm Corrina said...

Amanda Quick’s historicals are full of these type of women as well. Though I think that’s a little off-topic to what Jenny was talking about–which is more along the lines of female role models. But, definitely, as it relates to romance, it can be tricky to swap traditional gender roles.

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On May 7, 2014 at 6:47 pm el7 said...

Thank you for bringing up Marvel Comics Captain Marvel! That is an excellent example of a comic book character as a role that has been inhabited by both genders, more than once. The current incarnation, Carol Danvers, has a military backstory with some points in common with that other hero wearing red, white and blue

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On May 7, 2014 at 2:03 pm Corrina said...

And Gail is also currently writing Red Sonja, much like a regular sword and sorcery adventure story, except Red Sonja is, you know, female. Her current quest is to get laid. (“I’m Red Sonja. I’m everybody’s type.”)

I’ll shut up now. :)

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On May 7, 2014 at 2:37 pm Lynda said...

Just popping in to say how much I love the picture of Gail Davis–aka Annie Oakley–because she was the very first star I ever saw when my family moved to California when I was eight years old. It was opening day at Disneyland in 1955, and when I spotted her riding by in a horse-drawn wagon, I about fainted with excitement. My mother was agog because some guy named Frank Sinatra was standing about twenty feet away from us, but seeing Annie Oakley was the thing I still remember after all these years.

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On May 7, 2014 at 3:24 pm SSpjut said...

It’s why woman invented paranormal romance. Our heroines kick ass, often without emasculating the lover-boy/girl, and there are no restrictions (except for misogynistic side-kicks) who try and tell her what she can and can’t do. I too love Georgette Heyer (best romance novelist ever, just sayin) but in today’s CG-Tech-anything-goes-world, our girls would kick those Regency boys butts under the bus, and then some.

I say, if the girls wanna play hardball, then write their own genre-switching heroes, and the boys be damned.

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On May 7, 2014 at 8:43 pm cleo said...

Most of the examples I can think of come from PNR. Heart of Steel by Meljean Brook is a great example of that – steampunk romance with a woman mercenary captain and a hero who has her back but doesn’t challenge her authority and isn’t threatened by her strength.

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On May 7, 2014 at 3:53 pm Olga Godim said...

The best gender switch story I ever read was a fantasy novel “Fortune and Fate” by Sharon Shinn. She is my favorite fantasy writer, and in this story, her heroine is a warrior, pretty much indestructible in combat. But… her hero is a scholar, you know – the lanky and absent-minded type. He doesn’t want to fight. He has never even handled a sword. He wants to recite poetry to her and play chess. He is quite content to let her defend him physically. No resentment there. He is too smart to resent her prowess with sword. Besides, it’s not important for him. He sees her soul beneath her brash exterior, sees her vulnerability, and he protects her too – with kind words and acceptance. One of the best romantic fantasy I’ve ever read.

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On May 7, 2014 at 6:50 pm Skye said...

I like a lot of Shinn’s stories because even if her male protags aren’t as “strong” as the female protags, they don’t come across as emasculated.

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On May 7, 2014 at 4:49 pm Toni said...

Not in the superhero world, but the CBS procedural Elementary has been fairly successful with their swap of John/Joan Watson. It is hard to balance Holmes, but I think they’ve successfully mastered the formula.

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On May 7, 2014 at 6:09 pm Jenny said...

Yes, but again, Watson is not the protagonist, she supports Holmes. Give me a female Holmes . . .

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On May 7, 2014 at 6:27 pm Gin said...

Ooh, ooh. That’s my “fun” project, when I’m stuck on other things: Female Holmes and male Watson. No romance in it, at least not between Holmes & Watson. Maybe a romance for Watson eventually. Narrator is Watson, following the classic structure, but the Holmes character is still the protagonist. She’s definitely running the show and knows things that Watson doesn’t.
It’s a challenge, though, for the reasons you’ve outlined above. Society is comfortable with sociopathic genius men (e.g., the BBC Holmes and at least arguably the original), but not so much with sociopathic genius women, so when Victoria (the Holmes character) acts like a jerk, it feels worse somehow, and is going to get a more negative reaction from people around her.
I don’t know how readers would/will react to Victoria, but I love writing the story.

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On May 8, 2014 at 2:32 pm Jenny said...

Doctor Who has Madame Vastra who is the real Sherlock Holmes in that universe, and her Watson, is Jenny, her wife. But again, she’s there to support Who. And HG Wells in Warehouse 13 makes a damn good Holmes in her real time period; I’d be all over that H.G. in her own series.

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On May 7, 2014 at 9:40 pm garlicknitter said...

For variations on Sherlock, I like Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes novels. Mary is introduced as a young woman (15) who is as smart and capable as Holmes (or, well, becomes so as she matures – she’s never dumb, but she does start young, so he’s got some advantages – at first). They meet on the Sussex Downs after he has (officially) retired from detective work. He’s still a sarcastic know-it-all, but he sees her abilities (and for a Victorian gentleman to see that in an adolescent female is something) and offers to teach her his methods. They become friends and partners and have many adventures.

And these are Mary’s books. Holmes is in all of them, but she’s the protagonist. She is not Holmes’ sidekick, as Watson was. She is his full partner. All of the early books in the series are entirely in her POV. I think Laurie King is an amazing writer and I definitely recommend not only the Russell/Holmes books but pretty much all of her work.

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On May 8, 2014 at 2:33 pm Jenny said...

Must look those up. Thank you!

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On May 9, 2014 at 3:35 am Another Courtney said...

Oh, yes, Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell/Holmes books are quite marvelous! I’ve been a bit disappointed in some of the more recent books, but the early books are amazing–I think you’d love them!

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On May 7, 2014 at 5:31 pm Jinx said...

Corrina’s description of the new Captain Marvel sounds pretty fascinating. I’m going to go look for it.

But your topic immediately made me think of the wonderful SF novel “Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula LeGuin. She produced a masterpiece of a book about a sexless, androgynous society where everyone is of both sexes and neither, going through phases of sexual receptiveness that lead to children, but not necessarily the children of one group over the other, since a person can be both mother and/or father over a lifetime. The individuals in the novel are spoken of as “he” but are not male in a human two-sexed sense.

And then, to ice the cake, she published a short story, “Winter’s King”, in which she just switched the pronouns for everybody from that planet, so the King was a “she” as was the servant, the general, the doctor, the baby, and so on. It was just brilliant.

Also, just to round out the meandering thoughts, in Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy, it was the heroine who rescued everybody. So.

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On May 7, 2014 at 6:11 pm Jenny said...

Absolutely in The Grand Sophy, but that’s a romance. We own romance, so that’s not a breakthrough.
I’m talking about women who love superhero stories, stories that are predominantly male and that lead to superhero movies where the women are all supporting characters. We have one iconic female superhero, and nobody’s working on a movie about her.

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On May 7, 2014 at 9:36 pm Annamal said...

Ancialliary Justice by Anne Leckie does something similar (the protagonist comes from a culture that refers to everyone as She regardless of gender)…also space romans.

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On May 7, 2014 at 5:33 pm Nicole Massey said...

Look to the old Doc Savage pulps — his cousin, Pat Savage, is a spunky woman who longs to get her hands dirty with the boys but Doc and his five aides are always trying to keep her out of danger and failing to keep her out of it. And as to how she maintains her beauty, she own a high dollar salon that liberates the well-heeled from their money for the best in what a beauty salon has to offer.
In his book “On Writing” Stephen King presents a scenario of a psychotic spouse who escapes from jail and has come to kill himself, his wife, and their child, but before he ends the exercise he has the writer swap gender between the two adults and then asks the writer to present it as much through dialogue as possible. (He also invites writers to send it to him, too)
In my current paranormal romance I have my female lead save her boyfriend from three thugs by invoking a goddess. I think it’s a powerful scene, but I tend to write strong women who do a lot of action, the most obvious being my foul-mouthed anti-hero Colonel Sheryl Foster. I see a lot of value in writing against type, but I’m an unrepentant statue pusher and expectations decrease joy.
I had high hopes for Sandra Bullock, as she did several action/adventure movies in a short timeframe — Demolition Man, Speed, and The Net. Getting strong female characters in movies will go a long way toward making people more accepting of women as action heroes.
One more note — remember, it was Jane who saved Rochester from wasting away.

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On May 7, 2014 at 6:15 pm Jenny said...

Yes, but Jane is part of a romance. Pat Savage is in Doc Savage comics.
I want a female superhero who owns her own movie. I want a superhero story that I can take the center of. I love the Amanda Connor’s Silk Spectre, I like I Zombie a lot, I will check out Captain Marvel, Cory, but what I want is Sif instead of Thor, Black Widow instead of Hawkeye, Pepper with her powers instead of Tony at the center of their own movies.
Because I want to save the world, too.

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On May 7, 2014 at 6:54 pm Corrina said...

If you want Sif, you want Journey Into Mystery by Kathryn Immonen’s recent Journey Into Mystery.
http://www.amazon.com/Journey-Into-Mystery-Featuring-Sif/dp/0785161082

And definitely you want this Black Widow by Paul Cornell:
http://www.amazon.com/Black-Widow-Deadly-Paul-Cornell/dp/0785144021/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1399502839&sr=1-3&keywords=black+widow

I know you were speaking mostly metaphorically but I couldn’t resist. :)

And I’m right there with you. Plus, if you want a female Holmes, there is a new series that features a female Holmes. (A daughter.) Plus Carol Nelson Douglas’ Irene Adler series.

But this whole discussion reminds me of the Mary Sue panel at GeekGirlCon last year. How come men get to have Batman yet if you created an original female character that’s smarter than everyone else, a better fighter than everyone else, richer than everyone else, more handsome than everyone else…he’d be called a Mary Sue.
Where’s our Batman?
That discussion made me want to get a t-shirt that said “I created a Mary Sue and I liked it.” (Also, the panel had the guy who wrote the MiddleMan comics. He was awesome.)

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On May 7, 2014 at 7:34 pm Corrina said...

I put Amazon links to Black Widow & Sif comics in that last comment, I’m guessing that’s why it’s under moderation. But if it doesn’t go through, you can just search Paul Cornell/Black Widow and Kathryn Immonen/Journey into Mystery Sif

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On May 8, 2014 at 2:34 pm Jenny said...

Don’t worry, I check the Pending file every day. I got you out.

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On May 7, 2014 at 10:53 pm Taragel said...

It’s not a movie, but did you hear that Rob Thomas is making iZombie as a TV show for the CW? It’s got Sark from Alias, too.

I don’t really read comics, but I’m a big fan of gender switching and awesome women being the heroes of their own stories. It’s amazing how even the “strong” female characters in action movies end up getting so little of their own agency and instead are left to prop up the heroes. My personal favorite heroine of all time is Kara Thrace from BSG. Though she was not the lead per se, she absolutely was the hero of her own story, and kicked serious amounts of ass. I think they managed to keep her very much a woman, and vulnerable when it came to her relationships with the Adamas, especially Lee. Their romance is my favorite in all of fiction and I’m so gutted by the terrible terrible ending they gave them (not even a bit of sentiment in their final scene. Terrible!) But they never (IMO) emasculated Apollo to elevate Starbuck. He gladly stepped aside and let her bang a few heads during the mutiny in S4. And they were always at their best when fighting side by side, though each could more than hold their own.

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On May 8, 2014 at 10:44 am Jenny said...

I did hear about iZombie being made into a TV show, so YAY. Especially with Rob Thomas. Although they’re changing it a lot so that worries me. OTOH, we’re getting a female hero who eats brains, so I’ll trust in Thomas.

The reason the strong female characters in hero-centered movies end up supporting the heroes is that they’re supporting characters and he’s the protagonist. Even the strong male characters end up supporting or trying to defeat the protagonist. And that’s the reason we need a strong female protagonist, so the rest of the strong characters can support her. We get that in other genres, but not in comic book/action hero movies.

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On May 8, 2014 at 11:24 pm Taragel said...

That’s true if there’s a singular action hero, but ensemble flicks and partner movies (although it’s rare to see a male-female partner movie) have no excuse. I’d like to see more movies with action lady heroes (how was Gina Carano as Wonder Woman not a no-brainer? Honestly), but Hollywood is so reticent. They’re just starting to come around to it on TV (Hey there Agent Carter TV series coming to ABC) but the self-perpetuating prophecy of women not being able to pull in box office dollars (because when do they ever get the chance?) persists.

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On May 8, 2014 at 1:36 pm Jacob Proffitt said...

“Sif instead of Thor, Black Widow instead of Hawkeye, Pepper with her powers instead of Tony at the center of their own movies.”

The problem is that you’re comparing people whose strengths overlap. Sif and Thor are both strength/competence-based combat focused. Black Widow and Hawkeye are both rogue archetypes. Pepper and Tony… could actually work with a bit of a tweak. I’d have to review the scene to get the exact wording right, but I remember thinking “waitaminute–he didn’t actually say he took away her power.” I think he actually said something like “That’s what I do, I fix things.” He didn’t actually say *what* he fixed…

The reason that could work (with the right writer) is that Pepper with the powers she had at the end of Iron Man 3 *doesn’t* overlap Tony–and thus doesn’t eclipse him or compete in his sphere. They may struggle a bit working it out, but he doesn’t *have* to feel threatened by a Pepper with power because he’s a man who is confident in his own abilities and capabilities and her new capabilities don’t compromise or compete with his own. In other words, I could *totally* see a Pepper-dominant storyline with Tony as a support character without emasculating him or compromising him as Iron Man. Oh, he’d want to jump in and fix things, but there are stories where she’d just be the better one for the job and I can see him being okay with that.

The thing is that relationships are important to every story, even the ones without people coupling up (Captain America is the best example of this in The Avengers–he’s not paired with anybody, but that’s reflected in a deep sense of loneliness that Chris Evans does such a fantastic job of conveying). Actually, Captain America is a good example because can’t you just see a story featuring Peggy Carter (his 1940s romantic interest) as an agent/spy/rogue hero ala Black Widow?

Our expectations or instinct for female hypergamy is compartmentalized, I think. Or can be. To drop down into RPG example territory, pair a paladin with a rogue and it doesn’t really matter which is the man and which the woman and both can be kick-ass heroes without needing to be weakened to spare the other. Or take a pair like Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. If you wanted to make them a couple, it doesn’t really matter which you make female because the romantic relationship would work well either way. Or Leverage. Parker could totally support her own stories and still be romantically involved with Hardison without compromising as a hero in her own right (and without feeling that Hardison was any less a man or worthy of her). And frankly, you could totally gender-swap Parker and Hardison and get more or less the same relationship dynamic.

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On May 8, 2014 at 2:39 pm Jenny said...

That’s a great point: complementary skills take away the competition problem.

So, because I’m focused on female superheroes, it would have to be an Avengers kind of pairing: She does this well and he does this well and they respect each other for that. (Or couples of the same sex, it’s just less confusing to use the different pronouns.) The problem there is that they’re superheroes, so they mostly do everything well, but that can be tweaked.

I really think that’s the answer: complementary powers, but make the woman the protagonist and her lover the supporting character.

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On May 8, 2014 at 2:45 pm Jacob Proffitt said...

“I really think that’s the answer: complementary powers, but make the woman the protagonist and her lover the supporting character.”

Yes. I *think* that’d work. I wish I had examples of people actually doing it. With superheroes of complimentary but orthogonal powers, it’d come down to where the story was. Tell a story requiring a nimble-fingered con and you put Parker in the protagonist spot. Tell one of a virus taking over a bank and you have Hardison on point. Each has place for the other (Parker infiltrating the bank to deliver Hardison’s fix, Hardison pulling blueprints or entry points for Parker’s job) but the spotlight depends on the story.

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On May 9, 2014 at 9:06 am toni said...

Even though Bobbie Faye isn’t a superhero, she’s the protagonists in my trilogy, and she’s strong, kick-ass, and does, at some point, save her friends, her brother, and the man she loves. He saves her, too, and their skill set is complementary and he’s sharp enough to realize that and to encourage her. (Which always confused me why readers really thought there was a love triangle… her ex loved her, but wanted her to change, to be docile, and she’d have had to do a lobotomy to be docile. He was never, ever, going to win her, and while I was glad they felt enough for him to want him to win her, he griped about her until nearly the very end. The new guy, the love of her life, looked at her skill set, thought, “damn, she’s amazing” and stepped up as her equal.) (Oh. I just realized I may have written a fantasy.) ;)

As someone who grew up reading comics, I got completely frustrated with women always being “the girl.” I think that’s one reason why I wanted to create a really strong female character. She has flaws, and she has skills, but she also can’t do everything perfectly… and I think that’s the key in creating a woman action character that fans can embrace. She doesn’t have to be emasculating if she respects the guy and he has (as you’ve discussed above) complementary skills.

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On May 24, 2014 at 3:29 pm Elizabeth said...

It’s not gender swapping, but it IS a significant comics role reversal:

With Agent Carter becoming a lead heroine in her own right, Captain America becomes the one who’s fridged (literally) for *her*, not vice versa. :)

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On May 7, 2014 at 6:50 pm Jinx said...

So you’re saying you want Maggie Thatcher? Or does it have to be somebody whose idea of effective conflict is outshooting, outboxing, and outweaponing crowds of powerful thugs?

Because that’s the part of superhero sagas that I always feel like fast forwarding past. I’ve always seen the classic superheroes as the fantasies of small, vulnerable boys obsessed with possible mayhem, and themselves on the losing end. The villains have the cold, Daddy-knows-best tendency to pronounce their plans for destruction, and the greedy emotions of small non-vulnerable boys who Want It All.

I prefer Pratchett heroes who get saved by guntoting heroines who smoke and say scathing things. Genderbending, yes. Superheroing, no.

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On May 8, 2014 at 3:17 am JaneB said...

I think you’re right, Jinx. I’ve no time for little boys’ games, even if they are the way the world is run. Thatcher did her own kind of gender-swap, playing those games and winning. But I want to see a female, or alternative, way of doing things.

Guess I’m not the readership for your story, Jenny. Or at least, only if you reimagine the whole thing really radically.

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On May 8, 2014 at 2:44 pm Jenny said...

I don’t want Thatcher, but I do want somebody who can outshoot, etc. a crowd of powerful thugs. (I missed Thatcher doing that; I might have liked her a little bit if she’d done that.)

Look, there’s nothing wrong with power fantasies. They’re fantasies. Not all stories have to be subtle examinations of character under pressure. Sometimes you just want to blow the bad guys away. Some days, that’s ALL I want to do. And I want stories that give me that catharsis.

I think dismissing superhero stories as the fantasies of small boys is analogous to dismissing romances as the fantasies of teenage girls. They may not be your fantasies, but that doesn’t make them irrelevant or unimportant. I adore Pratchett, Moist’s takedown of Reacher Gilt is a classic, but sometimes I want Ripley blasting the Alien away. And I’d really love a super-heroine who saved the day.

It’s like food. Variety is good and healthy.

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On May 8, 2014 at 3:02 pm Corrina said...

Ripley reminded me of James Cameron, which make me think of The Terminator and Sarah Conner. Because that’s her story. I never liked the second film as much because it’s not her story anymore. It’s all about Arnie and the kid and their relationship and she’s a supporting character.

The TV show, Sarah Conner Chronicles, was quite good and the main story question was about motherhood: how much do you protect your son? To what lengths would you go? And how do you keep any shred of humanity if you’re rightfully paranoid someone is about to kill your son? That theme runs through the whole series: What doe it mean to be human?

And then it was canceled on a cliffhanger. ::Sob:: I blame Whedon sorta on that one because it was either renew Dollhouse or Sarah Conner. And the network that aired them both went with the inferior Dollhouse. (Not a Dollhouse fan, though I generally enjoy Whedon’s work.)

Lena Headey (now Cersei on Game of Thrones), played Sarah.

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On May 7, 2014 at 7:02 pm el7 said...

I liked Spectrum Sliding because it reminded me of my own childhood make-do playing. They used to make fashion doll-sized Star Wars dolls. My brother got Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader and Stormtroopers while I only got Princess Leia. I guess my parents figured all the Barbies I’d collected from various cousins who outgrew them made up for the lack. What I’d do was have Darth Vader holding Luke captive in a chair fortress. Princess Leia would gather a posse of Barbies and set off to rescue Luke from Darth Vader and the Stormtroopers. At least, until my brother would inevitably barge in demanding to have his dolls back. All he wanted to do was stage duels with the plastic lightsabers while the Stormtroopers just stood around watching. So boring.

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On May 7, 2014 at 7:06 pm Jennifer said...

Hmmm. There is a story that I’d love to try to do a modern or time swap update of. I honestly cannot think of a way to do it. Mostly because it involves spies and I’m just not that smart enough to create equivalents to what the characters are doing (especially with modern technology), but also there is a gender issue. My favorite scene is when the heroine outsmarts the hero because (a) she’s a girl and (b) he’s never met a girl who wasn’t either dumb or pretending to be dumb before, so he ends up underestimating her even though he suspects from the getgo that she’s smarter than the average bear.

(I know someone’s gonna guess which book this is. Heh heh heh.)

But how the heck would you do that scene in modern times? How else is Character A, the smartest person in the room everywhere they go, going to underestimate Character B in an equivalent way? Go with racial stereotypes? Oh god, no. Make up some caste system? Ugh, no. I just don’t know. I’d love to do it, but my brain just can’t write it. (Or any fiction, to be fair.)

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On May 7, 2014 at 7:37 pm Corrina said...

The very first published Sherlock Holmes short story to appear in the Strand magazine, A Scandal in Bohemica, has him *fail.* And, what’s more, he’s outsmarted by a woman. And that launched a franchise.

You could do worse than have the hero outsmarted by a woman. :)

*There were two Holmes novels published before the Strand short stories but they pretty much were read & forgotten until the short stories hit big.

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On May 7, 2014 at 7:50 pm Jennifer said...

True, but in the case of the original book, she basically gets by doing some “dumb” looking behavior because as far as he’s ever known, “women do dumb things.” Not the case with Sherlock, I suspect. I just don’t think “womens be dumb” is gonna fly in eras beyond that one, unless I want to write the caveman version of this. And even in this case, it really only flies because the guy’s had a sheltered-from-women upbringing and just hasn’t had many interactions with them to know quite better.

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On May 8, 2014 at 2:48 pm Jenny said...

But he’s still the protagonist. I love that story, but it belongs to Sherlock, not to Irene. Tell it from Irene’s POV, and the dynamic changes and you don’t have a brilliant man being bested by a woman, you have a brilliant woman defeating a man.

I thought “A Study in Scarlet” was the first published Holmes story. Okay, just checked, there were Holmes stories before that, that was just the first one published in the Strand.

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On May 8, 2014 at 3:04 pm Corrina said...

Off-topic but, oddly, if you read Study in Scarlet, it’s actually Watson’s story. He’s the one with the character arc. Which might have implications for the gender-swapping idea.

But I’ve read many stories that showcase Irene as the protagonist. Not by Doyle, of course.

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On May 7, 2014 at 7:37 pm kay said...

The answer to that is in Leverage, Character A is the smartest person in the room, to get him to underestimate Character B is easy. He knows how Character B thinks, when she realises this, she uses it against him, she thinks like someone else. I have no idea what the book is, but I’d like to read it.

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On May 7, 2014 at 7:48 pm Jennifer said...

Hah, good point. In the case of the book, he and she have just met that afternoon. She manages to peg how he thinks right off the bat and use it to her advantage, but he doesn’t quite get it until it’s too late. Would have to change the dynamic of the story to have them have longer acquaintance, though.

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On May 7, 2014 at 7:12 pm kay said...

When I was little I used to love watching He-Man cartoons it was a lot of fun, When they brought out She-Ra, I watched it, but was not enamoured, Lots of girls loved her and I was all for a strong female character with a sword. I just felt the cartoons ended up a diluted version of He-Man, without the budget or effort. Gender swapping characters needs to be done carefully as they can just end up feeling as if you couldn’t be bothered to be original. Also their context usually needs to be adapted. I once saw an Othello, where the father’s betrayal speech was delivered by the mother. Instead of a straightforward “How dare you betray my friendship by eloping with my daughter” by the mother it had a more ” How dare you elope with my daughter, I fancied you myself” feel which was a touch hypocritical

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On May 7, 2014 at 7:14 pm Skye said...

To me, part of what you are talking about is also going on in our culture. Because women have become so strong and independent and capable, many men feel at a loss. Women’s roles have been redefined but men’s haven’t. So we still have the Strong Male and Sensitive Female partly because we still view Strong Female and Sensitive Male as emasculating the male.

As I was reading this, I was thinking about some stories I’ve been reading that have very, very strong female heroes. But then I realized for many of them, the male in her life is even stronger. So not a good example. So the female can be kick ass as long as the male kicks ass harder.

One story might work. It’s called Clean Sweep and it’s by Ilona Andrews. The MC is very strong but doesn’t look it. However, her strength comes from her knowledge and situational magic/tech. The males she gets involved with are strong physically, but she can kick them out of her home location. Is she stronger because she can do this, or weaker because she can’t fight them hand to hand? (It’s available on Amazon — I love this story and highly recommend it.)

I think part of the female superhero problem comes from the cultural idea that making the female stronger emasculates the male. A story with a female superhero and a bright, competent male should be possible. I want to save the world too! I would rather mow the lawn and pull weeds than cook and clean. I am just getting past my hatred of pink and when I polish my nails I use blue or green or purple. I prefer trousers to dresses and I keep my hair super short. I love the idea of going out and totally kicking bad guys’ ass and coming home to a smart, creative, articulate man who has made me dinner and who rubs my shoulders and feet.

We may have to start the revolution with children’s books, but I’ll bet we are the only ones who want to be superheroes.

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On May 7, 2014 at 7:18 pm Skye said...

*not. We are NOT the only ones who want to be superheroes. *sigh*

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On May 7, 2014 at 8:30 pm Gin said...

I’ll second the recommendation of Clean Sweep and pretty much anything written by Ilona Andrews.

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On May 7, 2014 at 8:34 pm Sue said...

I’ve only recently discovered your blog, Jenny, and I love it because it makes my writer’s brain spin in all the right kind of ways. As for female superhero ‘types’ in media, the best I can come up with is Beckett in Castle. But that is a romance and the show is written mainly from from Castle’s POV. Still Beckett has a backstory akin to a superhero, is kick ass and falls in love with her side kick. Castle is her equal but has some characteristics that could be traditionally thought of as more feminine.

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On May 8, 2014 at 2:51 pm Jenny said...

Yes, but as you point out, the show is called “Castle.” It’s his story. Also, no superpowers.

I actually think we’re doing pretty good in most other story forms. I just want a female superhero, preferably in the movies.

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On May 21, 2014 at 4:42 am clew said...

Cherryh’s Morgaine series? She’s a high-tech superpower, often mistaken for a demigoddess, who picks up a perfectly competent but human and *young* guy as a sidekick. He’s never going to catch up with her, and it’s her tragedy, but they are eventually partners.

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On May 7, 2014 at 8:39 pm Michael Mock said...

On the topic of Handling Things Differently in Science Fiction and Fantasy, I’m just going to toss out a recommendation for Martha Wells here – both The Element of Fire, and her Raksura books (starting with The Cloud Roads). There are a lot of strong female characters in both, as well as some interesting reversals of common tropes.

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On May 7, 2014 at 8:42 pm Peggy said...

Tamora Pierce does a great job of this with her books… Wish those would get made into movies! I also think there have been some good female heroes coming out of YA–I think you could argue that Katniss Everdeen is a better hunter and stronger fighter than Peeta or Gale, and one of the things I liked most about Peeta was that he was consistently shown to be the more emotional/sensitive of the two. And while there is a love subplot, I think it’s pretty clear Katnisss is the hero saving the world and her romantic feelings take a backseat to that.

Haven’t read Divergent, and it’s been a while since I did The Mortal Instruments, but both of those let girls be main characters who are The Special. Speaking of which, so does the Uglies series.

Maybe this is why YA has such a huge audience–among adult women too?

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On May 7, 2014 at 9:43 pm Annamal said...

There was a book called Reboot that came out last year where the girl was the strong emotionless one and the guy was the (literally) more human character, really interesting.

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On May 7, 2014 at 11:22 pm el7 said...

Good point. The Hunger Games does it too. NPR did a piece on why Peeta Melark is a classic movie girlfriend: he supports her come what may and he needs rescuing kind of a lot. YMMV on whether or not it works, but I like it.

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On May 8, 2014 at 10:40 am Jenny said...

Oh, excellent point. And it made a zillion dollars.

But she’s not a comic book superhero. I want super powers. And bang and pow.

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On May 8, 2014 at 11:32 am Corrina said...

Okay. Now I’m truly convinced I really need to write my “female version of King Arthur” urban fantasy book.

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On May 8, 2014 at 2:08 pm PG said...

The other classic girlfriend aspect of Peeta is that he rescues the main character emotionally. Katniss realizes by the end of the trilogy that she has enough rage and fire herself; she needs someone who is optimistic and forgiving to balance her.

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On May 7, 2014 at 9:28 pm Theresa said...

I’ve been out of touch with comic books since I started grad school and no longer had money to buy comics. But there was one comic I remember from back then with a female protagonist, Ghost by Dark Horse Comics. I feel sure that there are more and some that I’ve read about here and there that might be what you’re looking for, but I’m drawing a blank.

I also did a bit of googling around, and although I don’t know enough to recommend them, here are a few that might be worth checking out:

Cassie Hack
Danger Girl
Strong Female Protagonist (that’s the actual name of the comic)
Mind the Gap (also name of comic)

Also, indie comics tend to push boundaries a bit more. I really wish I had some specific to recommend, but it’s just been too long since I walked into a comic book store.

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On May 7, 2014 at 9:36 pm GatorPerson said...

How about a SuperWomanGrandma with a romantic male lead in a wheelchair?

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On May 7, 2014 at 10:50 pm sarah eggleston said...

Reminds me of Granny the extreme sports fanatic in the movie Hoodwinked. At one points she’s going up against an Arnold Schwarzenegger look alike and winning.

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On May 7, 2014 at 9:49 pm Annamal said...

One of the subplots in David Willis’ web comic Dumbing of Age is the relationship between a girl who dons a superhero costume and the guy who desperately wants to get to know her.
It’s a messy relationship but definitely romantic in its own weird way.

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On May 7, 2014 at 10:47 pm sarah eggleston said...

I discovered Jennifer Roberson’s Tigers series about 12 years ago. Del isn’t the protagonist, but she is Tiger’s partner and equal in the sword-fighting circle. And I adored the first few Alanna novels by Tamora Pierce.

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On May 8, 2014 at 10:45 am Jenny said...

Mollie loved those Alanna novels when she was in elementary school.
There are really a lot of strong female supporting characters in just about all genres now. I want strong female protagonists.

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On May 8, 2014 at 12:03 pm Corrina said...

Robin LaFevers Dark Triumph books are in that vein. Medieval female assassin. So good.

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On May 7, 2014 at 11:24 pm Mary (Egads) said...

The movie Salt works here. Angelina Jolie plays the CIA super agent and wins the day. She’s kick ass and her husband in the story is an academic. I think the main character was even originally written as a male and yet the switch works. The husband is the damsel in distress.

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On May 8, 2014 at 10:36 am Peggy said...

Oooh, forgot about Salt. LOVED that movie!!! I also think I remember reading that the part was written with Tom Cruise in mine and Angelina got it instead.

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On May 8, 2014 at 12:03 am Theresa said...

And once I’ve set to researching something, I have a hard time stopping:

Barb Wire (Dark Horse Comics, mid-90s)
Ghost (Dark Horse Comics, 90s)
Tank Girl (Dark Horse Comics, 90s)
Ghost in the Shell (Dark Horse, 90s)
Silke (Dark Horse Comics, 2000s)
Joss Whedon’s Fray (Dark Horse)
Orchid (Dark Horse, written by musician Tom Morello)
The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys (Dark Horse)
Painkiller Jane (Event Comics 90s; Dynamite Entertainment 2000s)
I Love Trouble (Image Comics)
Pretty Deadly (Image Comics)
Suicide Girls (IDW Comics)
X-23 (Marvel)
Runaways (Marvel)
Saga (Image)
Rat Queens (Image)
Birds of Prey (DC)
Fables (Vertigo)
Lumberjanes (BOOM! Studios)
Ms. Marvel now Captain Marvel (Marvel)
Damsels (Dynamite Comics)
Velvet (Image Comics)

Also, a list of some comics with female protagonists can be found here at Comixology: https://www.comixology.com/Leading-Ladies/comics-genre/79

Ok, I’m going to stop now. No really. Besides, I don’t need another thing to spend money on, and this is definitely heading in that direction.

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On May 8, 2014 at 10:39 am Jenny said...

I’ve got Saga and Birds of Prey, haven’t read them yet.
Loved Fray and Tank Girl. (And IZombie and Connor’s Silk Spectre)

Yes, Comixology is getting my money again, too. But I have a five dollar coupon! Which isn’t going to make a dent in that order.

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On May 8, 2014 at 3:46 pm el7 said...

Oh my goodness, I loved Ghost in the Shell. It’s existential and trippy. Major Motoko does have a male gaze on her, but she is in a cyborg body, which brings up all sorts of other issues to chew on. Her own primary concern is whether or not her soul is real or a figment of her imagination. She could clearly give a damn whether or not anyone else thinks it’s real, the important thing for her is if SHE thinks it is real. Then she meets another cyborg with similar concerns but no law and order hangups. Fascinating stuff. There’s also a male character presented as the damsel in the form of Togusa, though he is not presented as a love interest. He’s the only member of the team who still has most of his human body, and he’s a family man to boot. Whenever he’s in danger there is genuine tension created, so he is clearly filling the role that a female character would have filled in an older story. There are some good anime series based on the manga as well.

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On May 8, 2014 at 12:12 am Theresa said...

Ok, last comment. If you haven’t yet seen it, you should definitely track down and watch the Legend of Korra.

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On May 8, 2014 at 10:37 am Jenny said...

I’m making a list here. Thank you!

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On May 8, 2014 at 11:34 am Corrina said...

Definitely Legends of Korra. Good call! My kids all love it. If you can find Greg Rucka/JH Williams’ Batwoman: Elegy, that’s good too. The artwork is eye-popping.

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On May 8, 2014 at 2:58 am Caz said...

I feel like most of what you are talking about is gender stereotypes and sexism and how that has influenced our pop culture. We don’t have to buy into that, and hopefully since there are more and more comics written by women about women, future generations won’t have so many hang ups about this stuff.

Movie studios are mostly run by older white men who are still aiming that movies at teenage boys, even though at least half of their audience are women. I have had heard plenty of women talking about ‘Captain America: Winter Soldier’ for instance.

I do really like the Eve Dallas ‘In Death’ series by JD Robb/Nora Roberts and Eve is much tougher than Roarke. I think she balanced that by making him an ex criminal to her cop and very rich. His skill is with computers which is generally considered less tough than Eve’s skills.

It may be difficult to set gender swapping stories in the past as we are constrained by hos women could be in the past, but I think we can definitely set stories in the present or future and still have them work.

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On May 8, 2014 at 10:37 am Jenny said...

I think gender-swapping stories set in the past would be really interesting because of those constraints. Paul Anthony Shortt somewhere here in the comments sketched out a Stephanie Rogers/Captain America that makes those constraints part of the conflict, and I think it’d be great.

I think playing off existing characters or tropes is an entryway. I remember a really early gay romance that gender-swapped the gothic teen-age heroine for a young hero (Gaywyck); it was an entryway into the genre and a way for gays to get their gothic on, fitting them into a genre they liked but hadn’t had a place in before.

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On May 8, 2014 at 8:14 am Ash said...

Marvel did a movie on Elektra awhile back – i liked parts of it, but what is interesting was that she wasn’t tasked to save the world/city so much as to save a young girl (who if the baddies got would lead to wide destruction) but in terms of scope it wasn’t really a Elecktra saves the day.

But I have hopes that Marvel will continue to develop its female characters on Film/TV because May (AoS), Black Widow, Sif and the ladies of X-Men are all shaping up to be characters that I could totally believe as Stand Alone heroines in there own stories and I would put money on getting a Black Widow movie before a Wonder Woman movie, especially if Scarlett’s movie Lucy (in which she gets superpowers) does well.

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On May 8, 2014 at 10:30 am Jenny said...

I missed Elektra. I know Daredevil flopped, but I didn’t know they’d made Elektra. Must look that up.

I’m not sure about May just because she’s so taciturn; I love her but she’d be difficult to write as a central character. The most emotion she shows is with her mother (I can so relate). But Black Widow and Sif? Especially Sif.

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On May 8, 2014 at 9:10 am Susan D said...

I was looking up the Buchan family just now, and came across this in the Wiki entry on William, son of John:
‘[William] Buchan wrote his first thriller, Helen All Alone [1961], deliberately in the vein of his father’s novels, but with a woman as the main character, a point which provoked criticism in The Times. The reviewer declared, “Women in a thriller should be decorative, not pivotal.” ‘

And the beat goes on.

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On May 8, 2014 at 2:55 pm Jenny said...

I must find that. Big fan of The 39 Steps, but I’ve never read it. (That’s the 30s movie not the awful remake.)

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On May 8, 2014 at 9:14 am David said...

“You know what might be interesting? A thin woman who hulks out into a huge, furious, powerful fat woman. I could work with that.”

Do check out the Great Lakes Avengers. It’s played for laughs, but Big Bertha is almost exactly that. As to She Hulk, Geoff Johns did an Avengers arc where she went more traditional Hulk, and Dan Slott did an excellent She Hulk run where she angsted about having to go back to being Jennifer Walters to hold down a job. I’d recommend both.

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On May 8, 2014 at 10:28 am Jenny said...

I will look into those. I gave up on Jennifer after a couple of issues.

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On May 8, 2014 at 9:18 am Paul Anthony Shortt said...

I don’t know if I’m missing your point, but to me, all these reasons why you don’t see more women in action roles are exactly why I WANT to see more women in action roles. And I think, done right, such stories can absolutely have the same impact.

Why can’t a female character be more capable than her male love interest? Why can’t a woman be a leader, a hero, and still be feminine? Why can’t an intelligent, successful women be regarded as a business icon and philanthropist, rather than a cold-hearted bitch, a done-to-death stereotype?

Say you write about Stephanie Rogers, who wants to help fight in the war so much she poses as a man to try and enlist. She’s found out, but discovers that she’s been watched by Dr Abaranne Erskine, a scientist who, like Stephanie, has struggled to be accepted in her chosen field because of her gender. They form a bond, and Dr. Erskine brings Stephanie into the project, eventually becoming Captain America.

So the core story (ordinary person from humble origins rising against challenges to become a hero) stays the same, but you add a new depth and context to the hero’s struggle. In addition, you have the choice of whether to just have Stephanie accepted as a hero, or still have to deal with prejudice because of her gender.

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On May 8, 2014 at 10:27 am Jenny said...

This is excellent, exactly what I want.

My point, which was probably lost because I was ruminating instead of arguing, is that it’s not happening. We can’t even get a Wonder Woman movie, let alone Stephanie Rogers.

“Why can’t a female character be more capable than her male love interest? Why can’t a woman be a leader, a hero, and still be feminine? Why can’t an intelligent, successful women be regarded as a business icon and philanthropist, rather than a cold-hearted bitch, a done-to-death stereotype?”

That’s what I was asking, but I think the answer is, “Marketing.” As long as the perception of the audience for action/adventure is fourteen-year-old boys and their analogs, editors and executives are reluctant to put a female hero front and center because that screws with the perception of what males want. I think that’s wrong, I think it’s a fifties mindset, but given that there are no women headlining superhero movies or TV shows, I think that’s pretty evident. We get Black Widow, but she’s a supporting character. We get Sif, who has an identity of her own beyond The Girl, but she’s a supporting character. And these women never have personal relationships although their counterparts do. I don’t want Sif to become The Girl, but she’s standing RIGHT THERE and Thor falls for a limp-wristed scientist with one expression. Why? Because she needs saved and Sif doesn’t?

Wonder Woman gets her own TV show but it’s so bad it never airs. Nobody tries again. That wasn’t even the audience rejecting it. There’s a billion little girls worldwide looking for a hero (I’m including me in that), and everybody’s giving us “You can help the hero.” Thank you. Where’s MY bad guy to beat up? (We have a lot of rage, all billion of us.)

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On May 8, 2014 at 1:57 pm Jacob Proffitt said...

I think the relationships are important and possibly the reason those stories (like Wonder Woman) tend to fail. We can argue about why it might be so, but there *is* an expectation of female hypergamy that colors our view of the way things work. Wonder Woman is thus forced to be either celibate or be paired with some wimp like the captain whose name I can never remember. It doesn’t work. It feels wrong on a visceral level.

That said, I think it really *is* an indictment of the creativity of our storytellers that we lack these heroic female characters. Take the Stephanie Rogers above. Who is relationship material for a female Captain America? You *have* to have one or end up with a character doomed to a fundamental loneliness that needs to become part of the story (and potentially send the message that you can be a competent woman if you don’t mind being alone). In Paul’s outline above, I think one change makes all the difference–leave Dr Abraham Erskine a man. A younger man (and thus a brilliant scientist). He still sees her struggle. He still admires her. He still creates her as Captain America. Only now he’s a possible love interest who doesn’t feel at all threatened by a powerful woman–not because he created her (though that’s a suspicion with lovely plot-complicating potential) but because he is comfortable in his sphere of science genius and confident in his place in that world. He’d make a great supporting character as Captain America’s lover without eclipsing her as the kick-ass hero.

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On May 8, 2014 at 2:43 pm Corrina said...

Steve Trevor. And he works fine, when written well. He’s the human compliment to Diana and her entry into the normal world as much as Lois Lane is the human compliment to Superman.

But, no, we have to pair WW up with Superman and break up Lois and Clark because…well, the real answer is DC editorial has no clue what to do with their iconic characters.

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On May 8, 2014 at 2:59 pm Jenny said...

Actually, Steve Trevor always left me cold. Tell him Diana is Wonder Woman and let’s see how he does.

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On May 8, 2014 at 3:05 pm Jacob Proffitt said...

That’s just it, I don’t think Steve Trevor works for Wonder Woman–for reasons that are completely irrational and tied into deeply-seated roots in culture or biology or behavioral evolution (depending on who you talk to). First, the need for entry into the normal world is temporary. Second, a guy with a more competent/powerful woman just doesn’t work as role model/fantasy/heroic material. Steve doesn’t work like Lois because Steve is male and Lois is female. I hate even writing that and my rational brain wants to throw up arguments, but I have yet to see a story work where that’s the case.

Now, you could fix Steve if you made him the commander in chief of Earth’s armed forces (or the U.S. same thing…). If he could scramble a fighter squadron on his say alone or bomb the crap out of some country because they kidnapped Diana (but doesn’t because he’s a good guy), that’d be different. But he isn’t. He’s just some crap captain like dozens of others like him–he just happened to be the one who found the bottle (okay, wrong story, but with weird parallels now I think of it).

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On May 8, 2014 at 5:08 pm Jenny said...

I think you’re right. I’m not sure it’s completely grounded in culture, though, I think any successful romance story needs to be a story of partnership, two people working together or at the very least, two people who can work together, and if the power dynamic is too unbalanced, the romance doesn’t work. That’s my theory anyway.

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On May 8, 2014 at 2:58 pm Jenny said...

It’s that complement solution that you proposed earlier in the comments, that I think is the real answer. Somebody like Bruce Banner, a brilliant scientist, sure of who he is, not threatened by anything but his inner demon. He doesn’t even need to have Hulk-like powers, just be Bruce Banner, the most mentally-healthy member of the Avengers.

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On May 8, 2014 at 3:08 pm Jacob Proffitt said...

Ooooo. Wonder Woman with Bruce Banner! Now that works *way* better than giving Steve a promotion…

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On May 8, 2014 at 4:07 pm Corrina said...

Steve has a promotion. He’s in charge of super-human defense for the US. He’s not my favorite but I think he can work. For a while, Gail Simone’s Wonder Wonder run hooked her up with Tom Tressor/Nemesis, a mater of disguise, which I thought was a neat contrast to the “goddess of truth.” Phil Jimenez created Trevor Barnes, a worldwide community organizer working for charitable groups. Trevor was widely hated by male comic fans. (I though he was okay but bland.)

But Gail Simone’s best work was Wonder Woman: The Circle, which is all about stuff that I think a male writer would never have thought to cover.

I object to WW with any super-powered type. She so easily becomes “the girlfriend,” at least in comics. It’s one of the reasons that I’m leery of the Black Canary/Green Arrow pairing. That becomes part of her identity and then it becomes his story, not hers. And Black Canary should stand alone, given she’s one of the very, very few superheroes not a spinoff from a popular male hero.

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On May 8, 2014 at 5:12 pm Jenny said...

I thought the Black Canary was always part of the Green Arrow universe.

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On May 8, 2014 at 12:16 pm Beth Matthews said...

Not a superhero book but Palladian of Souls by B ujold has an amazing heroine ( who gets magic at the end) and it’s an amazing rumination on womanhood, motherhood and the role of a woman in society when she’s no longer a wife but too young to be a crone. Amazing book

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On May 8, 2014 at 2:59 pm Jenny said...

Hey, crones deserve super powers, too.
Says the crone.

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On May 8, 2014 at 5:53 pm Beth Matthews said...

Oh absolutely. I’m explaining the book poorly because I’m typing on my phone and I’m lazy. ;)

Basically Ista the heroine is thinking at one point that she did the innocent maiden thing, she did the mother thing and now she’s middle aged and there really isn’t a path defined for her in her soceity since she isn’t ready to sit quietly somewhere and moulder.

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On May 8, 2014 at 6:02 pm Beth Matthews said...

Sigh. I meant crones absolutely deserve power. Im gonna go away and stop typing on my phone now. Sigh.

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On May 8, 2014 at 2:15 pm PG said...

“I loved the final battle of Iron Man 3, but nobody really thinks Pepper is tougher than Tony, especially since the first thing he did was reverse the effects of the drug (albeit that was to keep her from dying from it, not because he didn’t want her more powerful than he was).”

The immediate reversal of the drug kind of disappointed me. I would have loved the next movie (if the previous one made money, there’s gonna be another) to have started out with Pepper having superpowers.

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On May 8, 2014 at 3:01 pm Jenny said...

Somebody somewhere suggested that maybe all Tony did was fix the parts that would have killed her, and she might retain some powers. It’s possible within the story world because Tony is the least threatened man in Marvel next to Bruce Banner–when you have an ego the size of the moon, it takes a lot to threaten you–but I don’t see it happening.

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On May 8, 2014 at 3:00 pm Annamal said...

I just remembered…Seanan Mcguire’s novels Velveteen vs the Junior Super Patriots and Velveteen vs the Multiverse.

She published them on her as a free serial and then put them out as two separate novels.
http://seananmcguire.com/velhome.php
Velveteen is undoubtedly the hero and while I don’t want to spoil anything, there was a romance that I loved.

You might want to try the (regrettably very short) Middleman tv series, the main character Wendy Watson is training as a kickass agent and her romance is adorable.

The other media I thought of is Kim Possible which was far snarkier and more thoughtful than I would have expected from a Disney nimated TV show. Admittedly Kim’s sidekick/eventual love interest Ron Stoppable does wind up saving her sometimes but the saving is definitely tilted more towards her.

Kim’s type personality is nicely balanced out by Ron’s slightly more laid back attitude to life.

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On May 8, 2014 at 5:56 pm Beth Matthews said...

I was just about to rec McGuire. I am not shocked that someone beat me to it as the people on argh have such excellent taste. :)

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On May 8, 2014 at 4:40 pm M said...

I’ve been re-watching Farscape, so this general topic was swirling around in my mind. At the beginning, Aeryn is a cold, tough soldier and John is out of his depth and very in touch with his emotions. The male main character was given a lot of traditional feminine characteristics.

I also keep having new thoughts about community forming in the first season, thanks to the Leverage posts. Paying attention to the writing choices makes me see things differently. Fun!

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On May 8, 2014 at 5:22 pm Theresa said...

I’ve never watched a lot of movies, but I think The Long Kiss Goodnight with Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson might fit the criteria that you’re looking for. Although Samuel L. Jackson’s character is the supporting character in a role usually filled by a female, that the uninvolved party who gets swept up into events by chance and must rise to the challenge to help the hero(ine).

Hmm, I’m not sure that any of these books would resonate, but they’re just so good I feel compelled to mention them. Ilona Andrews’ series Kate Daniels series is is incredibly, incredibly good. Kate is pretty much unequaled with a sword (and she can muster quite a bit of rage). Andrews has a free short novel called Clean Sweep if you want to sample. Also, Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series. The stories are from Mercy’s POV, and physically she is weaker than the other supernatural characters around her, but she never feels less.

thinking…..Gail Dayton. She’s not well known so her books are harder to find, but in her Compass Rose Trilogy (epic fantasy with magic, but no elves & dwarves), the lead protagonist and most powerful/dangerous character is a woman. Her book New Blood (steampunk) is also excellent, with strong female protagonist, but I’m less certain that it fits what you’re looking for.

A few others:
- The Deed of Paksenarrion trilogy by Elizabeth Moon, which starts with Sheepfarmer’s Daughter (epic fantasy).
- Rae Carson’s trilogy that starts with Girl of Fire and Thorns (fantasy)
- The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley. She also has a quite a few stories retelling fairy tales, with Spindle’s End being my favorite.
- Meljean Brook’s Heart of Steel (steampunk) you should definitely check out. While the hero and the heroine share the story, the heroine is the one who captains the airship and is the one most likely to shoot you between the eyes and kick you overboard. I feel like the author had definitely swapped what were traditionally male/female protagonist roles.

Sigh…most of my fiction is boxed up at the moment, or I’d do a quick skim through the shelves. I feel like there’s so much more, particularly in SF/Fantasy, which make up about half my fiction collection. Maybe I’ll do some unboxing this weekend….

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On May 8, 2014 at 6:47 pm Corrina said...

:puts on comic geek hat:

No, Black Canary is one of the very, very few Golden Age heroines to survive into the modern day. She was created in 1947 as a supporting character in the Johnny Thunder feature in Flash Comics. But she quickly became the star of her own series. And, Jenny, you’ll love this part: She was the superhero, her love interest was a police officer, Larry Drake, her eventual husband. She was revived when DC started doing their Earth-2 stories with the Golden Age heroes from the 1940s.

Sadly, instead of being the heroine of her own story, her husband was killed off and, in grief, she swapped from Earth-2 to the main comic book universe of Earth-1. That’s when she was romantically paired up with the brash Green Arrow, then a hero younger than her. Unfortunately, she continued to devolve until she was mostly known as Green Arrow’s girlfriend. When DC Comics decided to merge all their storyverses, Black Canary became Dinah Laurel Lance, the daughter of the original Black Canary and Larry Lance. Which is cool because she’s one of the very, very few superheroes to follow in her *mother’s* footsteps.

But that didn’t really help. You see where we’re going? She was originally a crimefighter on her own, then acquired a husband as a cop, then acquired a lover who was another superhero, and then she became known as Green Arrow’s girlfriend.

And she never had a good series on her own and she still continued to date Green Arrow, then Green Arrow was killed off, and DC editor Jordan Gorkinkel & writer Chuck Dixon came up with the Birds of Prey concept, including Oracle (Barbara Gordon) who was brought off the scrap heap of heroes by the late Kim Yale and her husband, John Ostrander. Lo and became the wonderful Golden Age of the Birds of Prey, to me and a lot of other female readers.

Canary mattered. On her own. Then DC brought back Green Arrow to life, Canary got pulled out of Birds of Prey to co-star with him, that title wasn’t good and…ugh.

Right now, Canary’s been rebooted again, all her Birds of Prey days wiped away and seemingly mooning over yet another husband. ::headdesk::

Comics had some great, great superheroines back in the day. But all of them got wiped away by…well, it was men in charge, you know. So I’m gonna blame them.

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On May 8, 2014 at 8:14 pm Jinx said...

I clearly have a problem grasping the woman heroes who fit the bill and those who don’t, but wouldn’t Maleficent count? We’re getting her this summer, and she’s got some kickass powers. Not to mention one hell of a costume.

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On May 8, 2014 at 10:07 pm MJ said...

Check out Modesty Blaise. She’s smarter, stronger, a better fighter, richer…only thing missing from your wishlist is a true superpower.

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On May 8, 2014 at 10:51 pm Kelly S said...

I’m going to suggest the movie “Read or Die”. It’s anime based on a manga series. Our heroine loves books so much she is a papermaster – able to manipulate and control paper. It’s her super power. She works for the British Library protecting old books. The librarian, reader, and woman in me loved it.

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On May 8, 2014 at 11:11 pm Seppie said...

Not totally relevant to writing or storylines, but I think relevant to the conversation nonetheless: there is an app for Chrome that is called “Jailbreak the Patriarchy.” Install it and you’ll get a little toggle button that allows you to reverse gender on any website, article, etc. It’s an interesting and fun exercise. Even though I consider myself pretty good at avoiding assumptions and judgements based on gender, I am often disconcerted when I swap genders and then forget that I did it.
https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/jailbreak-the-patriarchy/fiidcfoaaciclafodoficaofidfencgd?hl=en-US

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On May 9, 2014 at 1:25 am Micki said...

Gotta get this in before I read the comments, but I vote for “make new cake!” New cake is the best!! Sometimes old cake is fine when you tart it up with strawberries and whipped cream, but sometimes it’s just old cake.

Also, Saladin Ahmed has been posting frames from very old comics on his Twitter feed, exploring women’s roles in the old comics. Some of them are pretty strong roles. https://twitter.com/saladinahmed

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On May 9, 2014 at 2:02 am Micki said...

Well, if you are talking about a straight gender swap, there are a ton of superheroes out there who *don’t* do girlfriends. They are immature, or they are afraid to have someone who can be held hostage, or just damaged by their lifestyle.

Why can’t girls do that?

In real-life, so many women have multiple relationships before they find The Love Of Their Lives — if a superheroine is out sowing oats and trying a new boyfriend every adventure, there’s something real and natural about that. And lord knows, we need as many real and natural anchors we can get in a fantasy. It makes the fantasy part feel a little more stable.

I don’t see any reason why it can’t be done. It’s happening in all sorts of genres and it’s only a matter of time until it comes to the big screen.

(Addendum: Was the original movie, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, something that fits the bill? Not the TV series. I have a feeling that Superheroine has been done before, but not done particularly well.)

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On May 9, 2014 at 8:00 pm el7 said...

You know, this thread made me think of the Amethyst comics from way back in the day. She was a thirteen year old Earth girl who found out she was really a twenty year old magic wielding warrior princess, so it had that whole ‘insta-adult’ fantasy thing going for it. And yeah, she looked like purple eyed Barbie, but she also got to say things like “I’ll take you on separately or together and beat every last one of you!” Anyway, there was a whole subplot about how the evil Lord Opal and his henchpeople created a spell to make hottie Lord Topaz fall in love with Lady Turquoise, and there was wo in my wee little prepubescent heart for poor Amethyst because he was her love interest. I think the writers were realizing it was weird to follow that love story any further and decided to just get rid of Topaz in the most convenient way possible. But the plot said that Amethyst realized Opal would threaten anyone she loved, and she came to the same conclusion countless boy heroes have already come to, and decided there would be no more boyfriends. And the character stayed resonant, and remained boyfriend-free for her subsequent appearances, so it can be done.

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On May 9, 2014 at 5:35 am Ash said...

Possibly a step in the right direction by ABC (Marvel)? They have just greenlit Agent Carter : Marvel’s Agent Carter,” starring “Captain America’s” Hayley Atwell follows the story of Peggy Carter. It’s 1946, and peace has dealt Peggy Carter a serious blow as she finds herself marginalized when the men return home from fighting abroad. Working for the covert SSR (Strategic Scientific Reserve), Peggy must balance doing administrative work and going on secret missions for Howard Stark all while trying to navigate life as a single woman in America, in the wake of losing the love of her life – Steve Rogers. Inspired by the feature films “Captain America: The First Avenger” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” along with the short “Marvel One-Shot: Agent Carter.” “Marvel’s Agent Carter” stars Hayley Atwell as Agent Peggy Carter. Executive producers are Michele Fazekas & Tara Butters, Steve McFeely & Christopher Marcus, and Jeph Loeb.

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On May 9, 2014 at 1:59 pm Not writer Beth said...

Does Alan Moore’s “Promethea” fit the bill?

And there’s an interesting book called “The Pro” about a prostitute who gets powers. I don’t know why this discussion made me think of it.

And I really like Astra’s story in Busiek’s Astro City Family Album. But that’s more of a girl and independence story. She just happens to have super powers but it’s using them to fit in.

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On May 11, 2014 at 10:50 am Bona said...

Sometimes, when I’m reading a book or watching a movie, I do this gender-swapping with some characters, but it’s usually secondary characters, as I don’t see the reason for so many male characters when they could perfectly be female.
When you go into genre-swapping with the main characters, yes, you have to change more things. You are completely right about it. But I think that’s just another creative challenge. You could create something original that nobody has ever thought before.
I recognize this is more easily done with secondary characters. I remember two kick-ass heroines from the movies that attracted my attention years ago. One was Amy Madigan’s character in Walter Hill’s ‘Streets of fire’ (I loved Michael Paré in the 1980s). The other one, Angela Bassett’s in Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Strange Days’ (1995). It looks as if Sci Fi / futuristic movies tend to be more open to this kind of female character, but only if they are secondary. They help the main male character so they don’t emasculate but support him.
Ripley was -I think- an exception.

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On May 12, 2014 at 11:04 pm Kimberly said...

The last Superman, Man of Steel, in my opinion could have been a woman. The filming and the script lent itself to either. Why they didn’t do Wonder Woman instead of another Superman is beyond me. I think it is because of the “boys” that wanted to be producing and directing. The script was quite awful in the end, but the effects are advanced enough to carry the poor script and definitely good enough to make it then work for a female superhero lead. And look at Nancy Drew. Who needs a male Sherlock Holmes when you have Nancy?

I don’t think it works for all roles. I don’t see Hans Solo being a woman. But I see the Green Arrow being a woman and Batman being Batwoman. The casting is key, of course. Back to the lack of female lead superheroes — I think is because the action and CGI folks in Hollywood are men and they sign on to films they want to make…and they tend to sound full of themselves. The Marvel folks behind Avengers, however, saw the potential and are good enough writers and producers to do it. The issue becomes attracting the boys to a movie. TV shows are proving female action roles work. With movies, women like to watch a male lead. Boys and men don’t tend to like to watch women in lead action roles – unless, like you said, the boobs are big. Do little girls even buy action figures as much as boys? There are secondary markets to consider too. These movies are expensive to make. They need multiple sources of revenue. Maybe that is the real reason we see fewer female superhero leads.

On another note, am loving Person of Interest. I’d not have found it without your blog. Great characters and writing. And they film in my neighborhood. I recognize all the spots!

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On May 13, 2014 at 9:27 am Jenny said...

Oh, Person of Interest. Every season, they raise the stakes, and it gets even better.

You know, I’d love to write a Hanna Solo.I don’t have the SF chops to do it, but I love the idea of that character. Not a Zoe, but a truly free woman with her own spaceship, living on the edge of the law (or over the edge), going wherever she wanted? That would be great. And she’d shoot first, too.

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On May 14, 2014 at 12:53 am Flo said...

They aren’t comic book superheroes, but there are more gender-swapped action stories, retelling the male power fantasy with a female who’s nearly unkillable.

Columbiana, Salt (which was written for a male, and I don’t think would have happened if not for Jolie in Mr. and Mrs. Smith), Haywire, Alien/Aliens probably kicked this off in the genre, as Ripley was a unisex character. Lara Croft (also Jolie) in the Tomb Raider movies is based off a video game, and has a much better plot than many of the male-lead game-to-movie adaptions. Similarly with the Resident Evil movies.

In Kick-Ass, the protagonist was a well-meaning but underskilled teenage boy. Hit Girl was the super skilled girl (along with a really strange Nicholas Cage- redundant, I know- as her father) who pulled things off. Hanna had a young girl against a female baddy.

I think a female super-powered superhero will happen, but I also think it’ll be a few years as the groundwork from films like Terminator 2 through The Hunger Games preps an audience to accept a female in the same extreme situations that men have been flexing their muscles in for decades.

And I do think a huge part of it will be writing to both include and subvert the cultural bias we all live with as to a bossy man/bitchy woman when it’s the same words and context.

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On May 14, 2014 at 11:08 am Kim said...

Regarding Flo’s comment about action stories, there’s also G.I. Jane, which delved into a number of issues regarding gender, masculinity versus femininity, power reversals, etc.

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On May 20, 2014 at 12:13 pm Bonnie C said...

So, I know I’m way late to the conversation (story of my life ;p) but I stumbled on this web series last week and I think you might find it interesting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N_seu4JeBfc

It’s called “Caper” and it’s about a group of superheroes who are broke and rooming together and trying to figure out their gig. The leader is (roughly) a female Tony Stark without the ego and/or bank roll. It’s not perfect (it begins in medias res – forewarned is forearmed) but I found it fairly compelling in that it seems to be trying to crack this gender-swap superhero egg wide open. Also, everyone and their dog shows up in this thing, and that always tickles me. :)

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On May 20, 2014 at 6:38 pm Bonnie C said...

Also, I think Battlestar Galactica was initially quite successful with gender swap in the reboot. They took 2 prominent characters – Starbuck & Boomer (and later on Admiral Cain) – and cast them as females, which a LOT of the nerd community – myself included, initially – made much hue and cry over. But, they made a such huge point of… gender neutralizing, I guess, the whole thing that ultimately the swap wasn’t that big a deal. The fact that they later BROKE Starbuck is more an issue of character and poor writing and less of gender and a completely different blog post. :)

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On June 11, 2014 at 2:01 am Abigail Stockinger said...

So many great books and movies that portray a decent gender swap or major female protagonist’s that you all beat me to listing. If it were just a strong female lead with a male love interest being equal or even lesser most of what I think of are not in the fantasy realm other than the many Tamora Pierce novels, even as an adult I go back for a listen or a read because her characters are all of the above and then I think of Mercedes Lackey has a vast universe (some of it repetitive but still entertaining like most male graphic novels theses days) of strong female leads and even broke the mold in having a leading gay protagonist in a fantasy realm. And then there is the Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs…..she is far cleverer than her male counterparts whom she ends up having to take care of or rescue but maybe that is my interpretation. I would list the first few Laurell K. Hamilton as a strong female lead with some cool supernatural powers but that starts to get lost in about book nine. Charlres De Lint write very well complicated yet understated magical female leads but takes a while to unravel their abilities. As in movies or shows I think like the above Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica is pretty great until the above happened which I agree with Bonnie C.

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On June 17, 2014 at 1:21 pm ERose said...

I don’t get why in order to make a properly strong female heroine we’d somehow need to give the power differential between her and her partner (should she have one) a big makeover just because the partner is now a man. The things that make a female love interest worth a hero’s time would make a male love interest worth a heroine’s time – they’re good at their job and attractive, they’re their childhood crush, in real life they’ve developed a working relationship the heroine depends on, etc.
The reason Wonder Woman and her human captain don’t work for me has nothing to do with his “weakness” in comparison and everything to do with the fact that their relationship is founded on a lie. His “weakness” is in not being able to handle the truth about his girlfriend and his reliance on the dynamic he believes he has with her, not in his relative lack of power in comparison.

You also have the highly problematic issue with this point that we are all looking at the strengths of your classic love interest character and coding them as “less than” and thus not worthy of a male love interest character. There seems to be a need even in this comment thread to upgrade a male love interest’s strengths to more traditionally acceptable sorts so we don’t “emasculate” him. It’s as though in our minds, in order to have a superpowered woman in a relationship, we need to make this some kind of surreal power couple or omg the world explodes.
Look at the Hunger Games’ Peeta and Gale – they’re pretty solid examples of two ways to write male strength and a pretty solid example of the dynamic the two kinds can have with a heroine with male-coded ability.
Given that in most comic books, the love interest parts highlight the humanity of the superpowered character or the struggle balancing their power/responsibility and their real desires- and frequently develop via internal monologue – there’s no reason something similar to the Hunger Games’ interior views of Katniss’ choice between the two kinds of man couldn’t work out in that format.

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On June 17, 2014 at 5:39 pm confluence said...

Depends on what you mean by “work”. Will it get bought by a publisher or a movie studio? Maybe not. Will it be a good story which you should write anyway? Quite possibly.

It disturbs me that mainstream culture has such a strongly negative reaction to men who are portrayed as vulnerable or weaker than a woman or highly sexualized, when it has absolutely no problem with women being portrayed as vulnerable or weaker than a man or strongly sexualized. In fact, portrayals like this are a norm so prevalent that it is invisible. Why does one of these things make people so uncomfortable if the other is totally OK? This is an utterly toxic attitude, and it should be challenged.

I really like gender-swapping precisely because it subverts expectations about gender stereotypes. I consider the cognitive dissonance that it causes to be beneficial. I *want* more stories about women with “masculine” characteristics and men with “feminine” characteristics — they are all just *human* characteristics and you can create far more interesting characters with them if you distribute them more evenly. I would like to see more stories erode the arbitrary boundaries which keep these stereotypes alive.

Of course in certain historical periods gender roles were more rigidly defined than they are today, and gender-swapped historical stories don’t necessarily “work” — but only if you care about historical accuracy. If you don’t mind venturing into alternate history, there’s no reason not to write them anyway.

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