What makes a woman tough by today’s standards and how did they get that way? At this point and time, we expect a tough woman to be Lara Croft: guns, knuckles, money and brains. And if we’re talking about heroes, why then, shouldn’t she be a gun tottin’, mansion living, superwoman? We want our heroes to be extraordinary. Right?
Consider the fiction trends of the 1980’s and 1990’s. This is the time when we saw a great deal of cynicism creep into literature and media. For the purpose of this blog, I cite for example Gibbson’s Cyberpunk novels and every book produced on that vision. Heroes who aren’t, no happy ending, and we’re all just machines to be used up and spit out. I could sit here and try to explain why this trend started: it probably comes down to the nuclear arms race, freshness of the material, and economic decline. Regardless, the Cyberpunkers did something that Wonder Woman couldn’t – they generated a whole new brand of tough woman. No gentile flowers in Cyberpunk that I ran into. Just women who shoot guns, get technical enhancements, and are as depressed as the men. A strange equality came from the pessimistic look at the future. Even Wonder Woman had to make adjustments to her usually happy attitude to placate the cynical young reader who had come to expect certain behaviors from their “heroes.”
To a degree, with the off-shoot of Cyberpunk, the new Steampunk genre came with a slightly less depressing world view. “Slightly.” The initial Steampunk authors (surprise, surprise, Mr. Gibbson again) held to the same dismal future but applied it to the past. Again, the tough woman is the pilot who can drink a marine under a table and fly straight a half hour later (after hand to hand combat with said same marine.) And I have a theory about this (don’t I always?) If there’s no hope that our fictional world will survive the greed, mechanical take-over, and imperial designs of a corrupt government, they why have the traditional peacekeepers and maintainers of goodness?
Oh, I hate to admit it – women have always been the carriers of positivism. Is it natural to us – maybe? But it certainly has been assigned to us as a social role to play for a couple of thousand years. And since it peaked during the Victorian age, I think that might be why I have a problem with historically minded Steampunk that tries to apply our modern image of a tough woman into the age. No complaints if the writer intended an alternate universe or is talking about the future with a Victorian edge to it. But the real Victorians would be appalled by the behavior of our Lara Crofts.
Which brings me to the difficult straddling place women characters (and their writers) find themselves in. How to be a stereotyped tough gal and yet authentic to the reader, plausible to the age, and powerful in her being a woman and not just a shorter, curvier guy? Does a woman character have to be strong according to a male definition of strength? Have we overcome our age of pessimism enough that the role of a woman is not black or white: tough or weak?
(And I do want to point out that although I’m picking on Mr. William Gibbson in this particular blog, I really do recommend his books – most especially the book that kick-started the whole Steampunk genre: The Difference Engine.)