Neil Gaiman Explains How the Phrase ‘Strong Women’ Begets Lazy Writing


It shouldn’t be any harder to write strong (as in, fully-wrought and believable) female characters than it is to write strong male characters because women, just like men, are people (not that not being a person has ever prevented a character from existing in the first place). Still, the very idea that a popular male writer like Neil Gaiman could somehow create great female characters is apparently so anomalous that it can take up space in a interview.

During a recent BBC radio special commemorating the 10th anniversary of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer airing in the UK, host Naomi Alderman spoke with with several supernerds, including Whedon and Gaiman. Adlerman asked Gaiman how he might go about writing a daughter of Buffy, which led to Gaiman offering would-be writers some fairly obvious advice: if you want to write strong female characters, maybe it’d be good to hang out with some women.

Gaiman: I always feel like the wrong person to be asked when I get asked that question because people say, ‘Well how do you write such good female characters?’ And I go, ‘Well I write people.’ Approximately half of the people I know are female and they’re cool, and they’re interesting, and so, why wouldn’t I? In the case of making the TARDIS a person, you make her the kind of person you’d like to meet.”
Alderman: This gives me nothing to help people with who cannot write good female characters, and they do exist.
Gaiman: I think the big thing to point out to people is, you know, possibly they should go and hang around with some women. And also, it’s worth pointing out that people, unfortunately, misunderstand the phrase ‘strong women.’ The glory of Buffy is it was filled with strong women. Only one of those strong women had supernatural strength and an awful lot of sharpened stakes. And people sort of go ‘Well yes, of course Buffy was a strong woman. She could kick her way through a door.’ And you go ‘No, well that’s not actually what makes her a strong woman! You’re missing the point.’

In all fairness, that same point about kick-punching prowess serving as a lazy stand in for actual strength could be made about the VAST majority of male and female movie characters, because blockbuster movies these days are almost always a hot garbage fire of clichés, cartoonish CGI, gratuitous half-nudity to show off how ripped an actor got for a role, and unnecessary stakes that put the fate of the entire Earth/universe/space-time continuum in someone’s (Spider-Man’s) sticky hands. You need quick way to show an audience that your super-powered protagonist is strong? Easy-peasy — that door, right over there, is itching to be thunder-fisted into a million toothpicks.

Joss Whedon has made similar points about writing female characters, and Gaiman’s shorthand guide for creating a “strong woman” should be so obvious that it’d be almost embarrassing to articulate. Unfortunately, we’re not at that point yet in the current cinematic landscape, where producers are skittish about building franchises around already established, extremely popular female superheroes just because they think they can’t sell enough Wonder Woman merchandise. Until that attitude changes, people like Neil Gaiman will be asked about their magic ability to write strong women.

h/t: The Mary Sue

Image via AP

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