One of the things I do in both my academic and fiction-writing capacities is examine the roles of girls and women in a text. It’s incredibly convoluted, with layers and factors and ideology and stuff, but hey, that’s what makes it fun. In everything from LM Montgomery and Louisa May Alcott’s books to contemporary genre romance, from Sense and Sensibility to The Handmaid’s Tale to Twilight, in books and TV and movies, I’m constantly asking questions: What does an ideal girl/woman look like in this book/series? Who contrasts and why? How is womanhood constructed? How is it demonstrated? Performed? How does it look in relation to boys/men? How do others respond to it?

What does it mean to be a woman in this fictional world?

I’ve mentioned gaslighting the reader in previous posts, and wanted to dig more into some of the specific elements next. Plus, we’ve been having a rousing discussion in my IRL writing group about character development, and I have all sorts of ideas that’ve been roiling around for months and months. So let’s spend some time with the Female Main Character, and ways that we as writers might end up gaslighting the readers with what our FMCs say and do. The biggest problem I’ve had in recent years is the whole “strong, smart woman” thing.

Obviously, I don’t think being a strong, smart woman is a problem for FMCs. Der. But it’s become such a thing in fiction, more than just a buzzword-laden phrase, with different marketing elements than the similar-but-different words we use in critical work, “empowerment,” “authority,” and “autonomy.” We’ve had multiple discussions in my IRL writing groups about the nuances, the demands of a fiction-reading public, our own expectations as readers, writers, scholars, women, and/or feminists. Like, for example, if a heroine must be a “strong, smart woman,” how do you deal if the point of the plot is her growing into such a person, and she might not be able to start off in a position of strength? I have trouble with this in my YAs, especially, where coming-of-age for a young woman is centered on her discovering power and skills, autonomy, a voice, and moving from a place of relative disenfranchisement as a girl into space as a woman.

But the problem is, if she starts off in a weakened position and later finds power, editors/betas comment on the first pages that “She’s not strong.” Well, yeah, that’s fair.

So how do you show that growth without having an unappealing dishrag of a FMC to start with?

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The thing that really doesn’t work, however, is what has become common back-blurb material in genre fiction: just… announcing that the FMC is a strong, tough, smart woman. Especially if her actions in the text aren’t actually demonstrating any of those things. Telling one thing, but showing another, and claiming that no, it’s actually really ___ because you’re just too critical and a hater who doesn’t believe in strong women…? Ah, yes, friends, we’re back in gaslighting territory!

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Look up plot summaries and author interviews, and you will see countless times the insistence that the FMC is a “strong, independent, smart woman.” “She’s the one in control!” But it has gotten to the point that the second I read that phrase or variations thereof, my response is “Yeah, right” instead of “Yay!” I’m resentful of the times I’m presented with a limp, shallow, or superficial FMC, only to have others both within and outside of the text keep repeating how smart she is, how she doesn’t take no crap, how she’s just so smart and strong!

If the actions of the book don’t show that, if she does not do things that are actually smart or strong, if she regularly does things that are stupid and weak, then no, she is not a smart, strong, take-charge woman! It’s not enough that other characters tell us that she’s strong, either. The text has to demonstrate it. The FMC has to show it.

Let’s dig in and see what we got, and what we might do with it.

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Milk, sugar, lemon, shot of brandy…?

Some of the most common sloppy shorthand for “strong, smart women” FMCs starts verbally, with dialogue. A strong, even feminist FMC will be portrayed as having a “smart mouth,” engaging in sassy back-talk or sarcastic rejoinders, “telling it like it is,” and/or cursing. In real life, as well as in fiction, a woman shooting back a pithy quip or well-timed almost-insult (usually to a woman who is perceived as a threat to her relationship with the MMC) or just bursting out with an “Oh, fuck!” often masquerades as strength and intelligence.

But is it, really? Is that her being “smart”? Is “strength” what we’re seeing? If it doesn’t tie to a longer trajectory of characterization or character development, or if her strength is the result of a system or situation that is ultimately limiting her, then it’s not actually an example of her being a strong woman at all.

To repeat myself, it’s amazing how often we are meant to infer strength of character, intellectual insights, and empowerment from a sweet, winsome heroine’s internal monologues… thoughts that include things like noting other women’s weight or snarking about someone’s dyed blond hair, making any number of judgmental comments about how she’s dressed or what she does for a living. “She wears too much makeup.” “She looks like she spends hours on her hair.” “She has actual business cards to hand out.” “Everything she’s wearing has a designer label on it.” “Even though she’s plump and her nails are chewed to the quick, I like her.” Putting down others is not effective way to make a point about the FMC’s supposed strengths…. especially if it’s unclear why another character’s actions are supposed to be a problem. “She bounced over and threw her arms around me, and I tried not to wince at her enthusiasm.” “His Aunt Hazel was all over me like an oversized coat.” “Kathy shrank inwardly as Jason’s sister gushed loudly, ‘Ohmigawd, you’re the girlfriend? We’re all just thrilled that Jason’s finally found The One!’” Being unsentimental, critical, or irritable are not automatic “strong” character qualities.

But let’s go even further. Sometimes a scene where a FMC verbally spars with someone (generally a female rival, but sometimes a man in power) is meant to show that the super-smart FMC is now confident, especially in context of her relationship with the MMC, because she is secure in his love and thus in herself as a woman. She is now sexually empowered via the orgasms he gives her, so now she can demonstrate full, firey, intelligent womanhood in relation to someone she perceives as a threat and “stand up for herself!” But scratch the surface, look at the contexts, and wow, no, that’s not what’s going on. That’s not what is actually being shown by these actions.

So many of these scenes that are ostensibly about female power are actually laden with anti-woman stereotypes: Other women are all just jealous bitches who want the FMC’s may-un. Women are emotional. Every woman’s in competition with the others. “Strong” women engage in nail-scratching catfights, throw cocktails in each other’s faces, call each other “slut!” and “bitch!” or make snotty, snarky comments about what the other has/hasn’t done sexually.

Sweeping generalizations, examined: Science Confirms Bitches are Jealous 

Furthermore, if you shrill snappy insults, that is not intelligence, and if you call someone a “manipulative bitch!” because you think she’s checking out your dude or is bending forward in a low-cut blouse, that is not strength. That is insecurity.

And yet in romantic fiction, we’re often told that this kind of interaction is the consummate sign of strength and power in a FMC. “Look at how she didn’t take any crap from his bitchy ex-girlfriend, either! She’s strong, she’s smart, she’s in charge!” Hm. But what’s going on underneath it all?

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Let’s say that in your novel, your FMC has three scenes with the MMC’s ex-wife, and these scenes are meant to communicate part of the FMC’s growth from shy or easily-intimidated young woman to potent, powerful woman.

Scene 1: FMC sees Ex for the first time, and notices that she is cold, beautiful, impeccably groomed, radiates sex, is dressed in a power suit, is wearing killer heels, has on more diamonds than even the Duchess wears, etc. FMC is immediately overwhelmed with feelings of insecurity. How could MMC fancy her after having been with a goddess like that? As if to add fuel to the fire, Ex flicks her dark-lashed, heavily made up eyes in the FMC’s direction, smiles cattily, and then puts one possessive hand on the MMC’s arm. Fury boils in the FMC’s heart. She’s no fool, she can see what this bitch is up to, goddammit!

Scene 2: FMC and MMC are at a family gathering or a business function, when, surprise! Ex shows up there, too! And she’s still dressed to the nines, like always, but FMC notices that Ex’s hair is not quite as perfect as usual, or that there are lines of tension around her eyes, or that her perfect fingernails are chipped. FMC feels a surge of power that she herself is dressed in a new silk gown or Valentino outfit or jeans that skim her curves provocatively, or maybe even is now sporting a big diamond engagement ring from the MMC, and knows that she is equal to this situation. Ex talks to the MMC about some sort of problem, with trembling hands or tears in her eyes, and FMC knows, just knows, that this bitch is trying to get her claws back into him by playing damsel in distress! How dare she? But not only does MMC not see it, later, he’s even “amused” by FMC’s jealousy. Well, she’ll show them both!

Scene 3: FMC and Ex meet up by some coincidence, or because Ex has sought her out. Despite never having any real interactions with each other before, Ex is all slinky and sneering, or grudgingly admiring, or emotionlessly narrow-eyed. She instigates some sort of confrontation, either by insulting the FMC for being too young/innocent/girlish, or stating that only she, Ex, knows what the MMC is really like/needs/wants. FMC’s fury erupts, and she goes nose-to-nose with the Ex, in a display of total strength, intelligence, and empowerment. “I know what you’re doing, you bitch! Well he’s mine! MINE!” or “You think you know so much? Well, I happen to know about ___!”  Sometimes MMC or supporting female characters will catch the exchange, or part of it, and back up the FMC’s insults to Ex. “I never saw what a cold, heartless bitch you were before, but now….” “Everyone knows you’re jealous of FMC, you old whore! Go find another sugar daddy!” If we’re lucky, Ex gives a heavy-handed “I can see why he loves you” or “You’re a worthy adversary” at the end while FMC stands there, the victor, basking in the admiration of the MMC and Ex’s jealousy and hatred.

We’ve seen variations of this in contemporary and historical romance, in Rom Coms and sit coms and dramas, as if this is anything remotely like what real people say and do. But even if it’s not, is it strength and intelligence and empowerment? What is it showing us about women, womanhood, and power?

Is the FMC a strong, tough, feminist, smart, empowered woman because she faced down her rival, captured the heart of the MMC, and “won” in their big confrontation? Why, she went after what she wanted, that gorgeous man she fell for, and got it, and took down the biggest rival for his attention and affections in the process with some deft insults! Right?

If this were the case, then Anastasia and Drizella Tremaine would be amongst the strongest feminists we ever knew.

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They’re just strong women going for what they want, and confronting their biggest rival before they do!

None of what happens in scenes like that has demonstrated real power on the part of the FMC at all. Instead, it shows that all of her power and her identity is centered on being in a relationship with the MMC. She has what the other woman wants, in this case, the romantic and sexual attention of a powerful, good-looking man. Other women are jealous of her. Even if one tries to frame it as the FMC obtaining these things because she is so wonderful and deserving, that is not actual strength. Even if the FMC has shown strength in other areas of the plot, this whole thing compromises that.

We’re meant to see a woman calling another woman a slut or a bitch as empowering and smart, all, like GIT TOLD. But other than wordswordswords, there is no power, no real intellectual ability. In fact, the situation reveals emotional responses that clearly indicated the supposedly-empowered party is even LESS empowered by this exchange. Like the whole typical thing where one woman throws a drink, pulls a weave, or shrieks “You whore!” at another woman. And the actually-not-empowered woman skedaddles off with her girlfriends, crowing “Did you hear me! I totally called her a bitch!” as if that utterance changes something significantly. It never does.

But she called Ex a bitch and a slut so… EMPOWERMENT?

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We’re meant to read a FMC’s “Stay away from my man!” as some massive YOU GO, GIRL moment. But even if the rival did have twitchy kickers for the MMC, the FMC’s big empowering moment actually reveals how little power she has in the situation. FMC is only valuable because she is the object of a man’s desires and a woman’s envy. She just gave her supposed rival ammunition to destroy her, exposed her own insecurities, and showed us that she can’t even locate the real threats. That isn’t strength. That isn’t empowerment. That isn’t the mark of deep intelligence. That is just a mass of stereotypes. The FMC is actually more disenfranchised as a woman than ever, because she is an object.

Could she still have an effective showdown with Ex if she and the MMC had been broken up? If she was not beautiful or younger or considered by others to be more attractive? If she wasn’t sporting an engagement ring? If, after the big “You bitch, stay away from my man!” moment, what if the MMC went “Hey, actually, Ex is the woman I love!” and dumped the FMC, would she still be strong and empowered and smart? The locus of power is the FMC’s relationship with the MMC, and the fact that we read that as “power” and “strength” and even “smarts” is a huge social problem worth examining.

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There are roles for women in our society to which we automatically ascribe strength, so if your FMC is a ___ or a ___, readers are meant to read that as a way of demonstrating that she is a strong woman.

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Admittedly, in this particular case….

But it gets tricky. Look at the whole “strong single woman raising kids on her own” formula.

No one wants to be accused of showing FMCs who are mothers in weakened positions, or suggesting that single mothers aren’t strong women. The whole “tough single mom who gives up everything to put her kids first” FMC is a popular one in romance fiction. But what does the text show us? You can tell us things all you want, but what does the FMC actually do? For instance, if your tough single mom FMC is always saying that “I love my kids, they are my top priority” or “There is nothing I wouldn’t do for my daughter. Nothing” … but then all we see happening in the story is the same devoted mom leaving her kids for weeks with the grandparents or spending night after night out to be with the MMC, then that’s not the action of a devoted mother or a strong, tough woman. I’ve seen multiple novels where the FMC purports to actually be pursuing the romantic relationship for the benefit of her children, whether it’s the job at the company with the hot boss or the liaison with the rich aristocrat that will secure social and financial positions. And… sure. You’re leaving your kids with a full-time nanny so you can go on an erotic holiday fuck-fest with your boss, but you’re totally “doing it for your kids,” FMC. Because you are so strong and tough and empowered as a woman and as a mom. Riiiight.

That is the opposite of female empowerment. Just because it involves your vagina does not make it female empowerment, FMC! You’ll have to really confront social and gender structures if you want to show that fucking the hot rich guy is a selfless and empowering act of motherhood.

What does the FMC do that’s strong? Is it really demonstrating strength and power?

Another “for instance” that I’ve mentioned before that the weird show-versus-tell mixed messages happen regarding women drinking. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with your FMC enjoying a beer, having wine with dinner, or downing a shot of hard cider. But the act of drinking, or what she’s drinking, in and of itself is not a character trait that signifies strength. How does the drinking function in your story? What is it supposed to show us, character development-wise? If your innocent FMC has, over the course of your story, turned into a young woman who “defies” her man by going out for drunken girls’ night or Sunday brunch with her gay pals, that doesn’t necessarily show that she’s strong or tough. If she had never had a sip of wine before meeting the MMC, but now, with a flash of her eyes and a challenging smile, she bellies up to the bar and pounds four tequila shots in a row, how and why is the reader meant to think that this is some intrinsic sign of empowerment? If she storms back from a bad business meeting, or a fight, or a dice-and-cards game at a country house party, or a meeting with her parents about her arranged marriage, and starts chugging from a stashed bottle of something-or-other, that usually shows the opposite of “strong” and “tough.” Excessive drinking doesn’t usually signal power for a woman, no matter what the historical setting. If her motivations are of the “I’ll show them!” or “I can do what I want!” or “I can do what the men do!” variety, that’s not a sign of strength. Drinking to prove someone else wrong or show that she’s one of them or one of the guys or not uptight is the opposite of strength.

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Keep going.

Especially, ask what roles do the women in the text access? Occupy? Reject? It’s possible to interrogate power whether a woman is a queen or a peasant, a CEO or an intern, but to declare that because a woman is a ___ she is automatically a strong person can make for some problematic assumptions. Did she get her job because her daddy owns the company? Are we told she is a take-charge business person, but all of her exchanges in the text include men flirting with her or talking about how attractive she is, and women being jealous of her beauty and lifestyle? When she married the duke or king, did the people of the village automatically love her for her charm and winsome ways? Those are not strong, empowered FMCs.

However, if she got the job because her daddy owned the company and then had to constantly go head-to-head with sexist businessmen, prove her financial acumen in multiple meetings, work several complicated deals with other companies on her own, faced down a rival who said she was “just another pretty face and set of tits,” and had a huge realization about her own privilege, as well as her own considerable skills and talents, when faced with other women in the company, you might be on to something.

If that FMC has a love-hate sexual attraction with a rival CEO at a major corporation, and started a sexual relationship with him that resulted in her making an important business deal with his company, you’d completely undermine your FMC’s strength. But if she and the MMC were at rival companies competing for a deal, and the FMC discovered shady stuff behind the scenes, which lead to the MMC realizing that she was smart, insightful, competent, and he respected her as a professional, then you’d have a strong, tough, empowered FMC.

Let’s go even further:

Apply that “Why?” game and see what happens. Describe your FMC’s powerful, strong traits, and interrogate them. Are they demonstrating true strength, or something else? (I’ll use a paraphrased example from an IRL writing group discussion/exchange, when one writer tried to explain what it was that made her FMC so strong, something others of us disputed.) What is it that makes your FMC a “strong, smart woman”?

“Jessa loves Kane with a whole and open heart.” That is meant to be read as strength? Why? Isn’t that what love is supposed to be? Does he love her back the same way? Why is this anything truly remarkable or unusual?

“This kind of love makes you vulnerable, so Jessa is showing real bravery by loving Kane.” Actually, since Jessa just left her abusive husband, and since she’s known Kane for all of four days, it shows that Jessa might not be making the healthiest emotional choices right now. Why is it brave for her to go from one horrible domestic and romantic relationship into another one? Wouldn’t it be braver, stronger, considering our society, for Jessa to spend some time on her own instead of hooking up with another guy?

“She’s independent! She’s a very strong woman because she takes care of herself!” Why shouldn’t she take care of herself? That’s what adults are supposed to do! And besides, she spends less than two weeks living on her best friend’s couch and extolling how she won’t be treated like crap by men again, only to move in with Kane. Why is moving in with a new guy supposed to make us think she’s strong and independent and takes care of herself? It shows us the exact opposite.

“But she starts her own business at the end! She has control and power! And Kane loves and respects her for it, he supports her ambitions!” Okay, but why did Kane have to be involved in helping her set up her business? Why was he the one that found out about the shop for rent, through one of his friends? Why does Kane have to do the action, not Jessa?

“But she acts! She has a big confrontation with her ex-husband, and she is totally in charge!” Except that Kane is standing by, all big and strong and intimidating and threatening. And when Jessa says “Look at what you’ll never have again, you bastard!” that’s saying that her power is in being wanted sexually by men, and being able to withhold that power. That’s not true strength. Why does she have to have this confrontation with her ex? If it is meant to demonstrate that Jessa has “won,” why is the emphasis on how beautiful she looks, and how jealous her ex is when he says “I made a mistake”?

Without meaning to, the author had created a world, a romance, where the only strength a woman had was that the MMC thought she was beautiful and was in love with her, and everything she achieved in the text came about because of that romance. She hadn’t intended it, of course. She wanted to show a strong and smart woman who handled hurt and adversity, and succeeded in her dream of starting a business. She wanted to show a loving and supportive MMC, show her FMC finding love with a good man after a crappy marriage. But by tying Jessa’s happiness and confidence and even business successes entirely to her relationship with Kane, it ended up demonstrating that a woman had no power if she did not have a man in her life to fight for her or provide opportunities for her.

By confronting why we were assuming that love and hooking up with a guy was meant to be read by other women as “strength” and “power,” it was possible to see a deeper system at work, to see that Jessa was actually removed from positions of strength due to her relationship.

We pushed, and eventually the author restructured the story’s timeline so that Jessa had been on her own for over a year before she met Kane, and that she had already started a business with a friend, which was successful. She could still hit all of the notes she wanted about Kane respecting Jessa’s career and being supportive without it disempowering Jessa entirely. She could even have a scene where Jessa confronts her ex-husband, but by putting it in a business setting, with Jessa in her professional capacity, and removing Kane from the scene entirely, it now demonstrated Jessa’s strength and independence. Jessa’s power wasn’t dependent on who she was and wasn’t fucking.

Instead of insisting that a situation that clearly didn’t demonstrate strength or empowerment actually did, the author dug in, tweaked some things, and was able to create a more engaging, effective, and nuanced FMC… and one who we actually believed the MMC would want. The MMC, too, became more engaging and appealing as a result, too.

The tea is almost gone, so I’ll continue with Part Two of FMC Gaslighting as soon as I refill the kettle, darlings!

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“Someone needs to teach Emily about brevity.”

2 thoughts on “Gaslighting the Reader: “Strong, smart FMCs”

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