Save yourself… or don’t get saved. Why I think that mindset is dangerous for women… and men.
I’ve heard it a million times, and it drives me absolutely nuts. If there is a female protagonist, she must save herself, or she is weak and useless. Seriously? Well, I guess I’m a weak woman because the men in my life have saved my hide more than once—and I love them more for it! However, if you knew me as well as my family and friends, you would never call me weak (I mean, I am a redhead, after all.)
Let me back up a bit and give you some background for my semi-rant. A dear friend of mine has written many short stories with strong (I mean well-written) female leads who find themselves in a pickle that seems impossible for anyone to overcome. Sometimes they save themselves, sometimes a father, a stranger, or some other person comes to their aid. And for that, she has been told she should have the protagonist save herself—every single time.
Let me be clear. I love a female lead who can kick butt and take names, but when the stakes are high, let’s be honest—none of us can do everything on our own. We need people. That’s why we live in a society… a civilization. Now, don’t get me wrong. When a woman who is supposed to be the lead of the book does nothing but whine, get in her own way, and never learns from her mistakes (cough—Elena Gilbert—cough) or frequently makes ridiculous choices until some big, strong man comes to save her (cough—Bella Swan—cough), then yes, it tends to grind on my nerves a little. Whenever a woman allows a man to treat her poorly, I bristle… but that’s a far cry from writing a character who needs a little boost, or at least, accepts one with gratitude when it’s offered.
But let’s step back even more and examine a few other situations. In one of my friend’s (Crystal Crawford) stories, the female main character finds herself abducted by a human trafficking ring. It just so happens her father is a sort of tech genius and has been helping to track this very same ring. This main character does everything in her power to save herself—and another young woman—from what would likely be a horrible fate. She was not complacent, did not whine, did not sit around for a rescue team—no! She worked hard and escaped! That’s almost unheard of when it comes to human trafficking (I mean, I wish it were real, but it just isn’t), yet when her father shows up in the end with a strike team to help her and ALL THE OTHER PEOPLE… it turned some readers off. She should have saved herself, they said… I’m sorry, WHAT?
Wouldn’t it be grand if a seventeen-year-old girl could single-handedly bust up a trafficking ring without any help whatsoever? Realistic? No, not really. Yes, fiction is made up and is often unrealistic, but you need a touch of reality for a book to ground you and keep you reading. You need a reference point, and a young girl saving herself, breaking up a ring, and saving everyone else inside with her, is… what’s the word… ridiculous—unless she has superpowers, but that’s another story and another rant altogether.
In my soul, I believe that forcing a female lead (or any lead, for that matter) to always save herself in impossible situations sets a precedent that can be dangerous for women. It says you are not capable, formidable, or worthwhile if you cannot single-handedly tear apart a building, beat up all the bad guys, and rescue everyone all by yourself. It says if you are attacked by someone and cannot overpower them, you are weak. It says that having feminine emotion is bad, and it’s just not. If someone is beating me to a pulp, I would very much like for a stranger to jump in and save my butt. I don’t care if it’s a man or another woman or an animate fruitcake dressed as a human—just save me!
Let’s be real for a minute and jump back to my friend’s story. What seventeen-year-old girl is capable of such feats? And why shouldn’t her father want to help her? What sort of crummy dad would let his daughter figure that out on her own? Liam Neeson, anyone? I’d appreciate someone with a special set of skills giving me a hand when it all hits the fan.
I also think it does men (or any rescuer, but usually it’s a man) a huge disservice. Somehow, they become overbearing and patriarchal bad-guys for wanting to help the women they love. Does this mean a woman saving a man is bad, too? Going to the ends of the earth to rescue someone you love is… bad?
I really love it when a book or movie can show a couple or family helping each other because, to me, that’s what life is all about. For example, in Frozen II, Kristoff was honestly sort of useless throughout much of the film. Then, when Anna needed him the most, he came in full-force with the help of Sven, and what did he do? He asked Anna how he could help. See? He didn’t tell her she couldn’t do it herself, didn’t swoop in and save the day—he helped.
I think it sucks for both men and women when we set a precedent that asking for or receiving help somehow makes you weak. No, to me, asking makes you strong. It says you know your limits and are not afraid to show your fear, weakness, or need for another. After all, there are loads of things women can do men can’t, and that’s what makes women pretty awesome anyway. Of course, a butt-kicking heroine is awesome, and I adore them… but not if all they do is save the day alone, constantly discouraging everyone who cares for her from helping her.
This crosses into the territory of another character reminding the female lead how amazing they are. I always hear, “She shouldn’t need a boy to tell her how amazing she is…” That’s exactly right, and in a perfect world, everyone would know they are worthy of love, they are important, and exceptional in their own way. But… where is this perfect world? I think we all need reminding that we are great, that we don’t need to be anything else but what we are, and that our hard work means something to someone.
Believe me, I know loads of women who do extraordinary things every day. They fight against some of the most brutal realities of human nature, rescue people from fires, save lives, raise kids on their own… but even they need help. Not necessarily from a man, of course, but help all the same. So maybe the next time you read a book where the superhero woman gets a little nudge from someone else (especially a man), consider how strong she must be to ask, to receive, and to be grateful. And maybe one day when the man least expects it, that woman might just save his hide in return—like I’ve done for my husband. More than once. Because he can’t get out of his own way sometimes.