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George and Mary Bailey

I was in a conversation recently with a woman I had just met and we were discussing my writing and the different projects I was working on and the woman commented that I better not have any weak female characters in my stories. I thought it an odd comment. I knew exactly what she meant by the comment, and the inference bothered me, but not wanting to start an argument with someone I had just met, I kept my mouth shut. It does lead me to some questions. Does this mean that all female characters have to be portrayed as strong? And what is meant by strong? And should male characters be only portrayed as weak or is it still okay to have a variety of male types? And are females so low in self-esteem that the only kind of character they can relate to is one who is strong?

I’m not a fan of pop culture, but I do pay attention to it and what I see going on in the media–books, television shows, and movies–explains the woman’s comment and answers some of my earlier questions. The definition of strong as portrayed in pop culture is mostly superficial and related only to physical strength and toughness. The way females are being portrayed today is on par with the way traditional male heroes have always been depicted; they are physically superior to their enemies and don’t take any guff off of anyone. They are aggressive and ready to fight at the drop of a hat. When I see a ninety-five pound female take on a two hundred and eighty-five pound behemoth and flip him through the air and then pin him to the ground and pound him into submission, I’m just a little skeptical. I realize it’s all made up, but I also like to watch entertainment that is somewhat credible. If you believe what is being portrayed in the media, females are aggressively running around as cops, firemen (firemen?), soldiers, the setting doesn’t seem to matter, and kicking major butt. And the male characters are more and more being betrayed as passive and submissive. But when I look around me, in my day-to-day living, I don’t see any of these behaviors reflected. Nor would I expect to. So why is the media pushing so hard to portray women this way?

I saw a commercial recently that featured a number of well-known NFL football stars; these men being more physically intimidating than any other group within society. A snow is beginning to fall and so a couple of the players go around the neighborhood knocking on doors and drafting others to come and play the first snow game of the year. None of the players are in uniform and this allows them to accentuate their physical features in tight-fitting workout attire. When enough are finally found to play the game, they line up opposite one another and one of them asks if the game will be touch or tackle. Ndamukong Suh, the most intimidating of the group at six feet four inches and three hundred and twenty pounds, shouts out “tackle”. And then for a brief moment the players are shown lined up across from one another, staring each other down, flexing their oversized muscles, and in the middle of all these testosterone oozing monsters are two petite, model sized females, also looking ready to rumble in their tight spandex outfits. Seriously? That is so unbelievable as to be farcical. In that game of tackle without pads, they wouldn’t last two seconds, nor would they even be invited to play. I wouldn’t last two seconds with that bunch and I’m six feet two inches and one hundred and ninety-five pounds. Those professional football players would snap me in half like a brittle twig. So why is the media trying to make it look as if males and females are equal when it comes to physicality? I have a few guesses, but I also have different ideas as to what strength is.

A popular movie that comes around every Christmas season is the classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. In the movie, the male lead is played by Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey. The female lead is Donna Reed who plays Mary, George’s wife. At one point in the movie, George’s business is being audited by the authorities and a sum of money is missing, which if unexplained means George will go to prison. Rather than face this difficult situation with integrity, George instead becomes distraught and runs away from the family. He ends up at a bar and becomes drunk and then decides to commit suicide; he believes it would be better if he had never been born. In the midst of his suicide attempt, he’s visited by an angel, Clarence, who saves him and takes him on a journey, showing him what the world would be like if he had never been born. George is eventually convinced that he does indeed have a wonderful life and he returns to his family and is willing to face whatever justice he deserves.

But what about Mary? What is she doing while her husband is running away from his problems, getting drunk, and attempting suicide? While her husband is being weak? Mary is taking care of their four children, one of whom is sick in bed with a fever, and while George is running around with Clarence the angel, Mary is making her way around the town and rallying everyone to come to George’s aid. Mary is being strong in the face of family turmoil and difficult circumstances. In this drama, Mary is the strong character, not George. The physical nature of the two characters is never addressed and is truly irrelevant.

Mary’s strength is an inner strength, one of determination and loyalty and taking care of her family against all odds. Mary’s strength is the kind of strength I’ve seen displayed in the females I’ve been surrounded with in my life. From my mother to my wife, to my sisters and daughter’s in law, I’ve seen this kind of strength. Women, married to physically strong and intimidating men, being strong when their men are too often weak. I believe we need more Marys portrayed in our culture and less stick figure models running around and kicking the butts of any and all villains. It is the strength portrayed in Mary that builds and maintains a strong society. Men and women are created to be different, physically and emotionally, and the two together create balance and symmetry.

Back to my writing. If my stories are rejected because my characters don’t fit the current PC culture, then so be it. The truth is, all characters have strengths and weaknesses, but not all characters are the same. And what makes up a strong character is seldom physical in nature. I’ll continue to write characters that fit a story and some will be strong and some will be weak. Because life is full of the strong and the weak and together they make a great story.