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Strong female characters

Like many other writers, I spend a lot of my time thinking about strong female characters. This train of thought is so common that it even came up at a recent dinner party. We were talking about Buffy, and how it’s easy for her to be a symbol of female empowerment because she’s already super-powered. It’s a lot harder to stand up for yourself and for what’s right when you’re not The Chosen One. But that doesn’t mean you can’t, or even that it’s unlikely that you will. Real life is actually full of strong female characters. They have no superpowers. They weren’t chosen by anybody. Their heroism is as banal as the evil they refuse to stand for. For example, the women of Sandy Hook Elementary School.

It starts with the principal, Dawn Hochsprung, who had the presence of mind to turn on the school intercom, broadcasting screaming and gunshots into every classroom, so that others had to time to take cover. “That saved a lot of people,” said one teacher Theodore Varga, who survived the massacre.

Dawn Hochsrprung then ran into the line of fire, just as everyone else was running away. Everyone else but school psychologist Mary Scherlach.

At the sound of gunshots and screaming, some in her office dived for cover, but Ms Hochsprung and the school’s psychologist, Mary Sherlach, 56, ran out to confront Lanza, shouting back to the others to lock the door. They were both shot dead, Ms Hochsprung as she lunged at the killer.

Scherlach was headed for retirement. If this were fiction, we would all roll our eyes. TV Tropes even has a term for it: Retirony. It’s when you die just a little while before you get to spend all that time with your family that you missed out on for your career. Only this isn’t Retirony, it’s real life. And sometimes, real life involves being resourceful. Not everybody can tackle the gun-toting madman. Nor should they. Especially when they’re busy protecting 15 or 20 elementary schoolers from that madman.

Maryrose Kristopik, a music teacher at the school, kept 20 children safe by barricading them into a closet. Even when the gunman battered on the door screaming: “Let me in! Let me in!” she kept her nerve and blocked the door with her own body.

Most of these women told their students how much they loved them, because they wanted it to be the last message their students heard. They fully expected to die. But they wanted to go out knowing they had done their best.

Large windows left teacher Kaitlin Roig’s classroom exposed, so she huddled 15 children into a tiny bathroom when she first heard gunshots. The 29-year-old locked the door and pulled a bookshelf across it. She said it was a struggle to get all the pupils in but she knew it was their only option. “I put one of my students on top of the toilet. I just knew we had to get in there. I was just telling them they were going to be OK,” she told ABC News. “I told them we had to be absolutely quiet because I was afraid that if he did come in and hear us he would just shoot at the door. I said there are bad guys out there now. We need to wait for the good guys.” …When the police arrived to tell them it was safe to come out, Ms Roig was so frightened she made them put their badges under the door so she could be sure it was them. Only then did she lead the children out to safety.

In the post-Sandy Hook discussions, I’ve seen a lot of calls for two things: greater gun control and improved mental health services. I agree with both those sentiments, particularly gun owner Chuck Wendig’s call for licensing. I also sympathize and agree with Liza Long, who knows that her own son could be a school shooter if he doesn’t receive help. Like the teachers at Sandy Hook, Ms. Long has drilled her children on how to protect themselves. She’s drilled herself. She has a routine. She doesn’t do these things because she thinks of herself as “strong,” she does them because she has to. Because her preparation and her strength of will are what keeps herself and her other kids alive.

A few weeks ago, Michael pulled a knife and threatened to kill me and then himself after I asked him to return his overdue library books. His 7 and 9 year old siblings knew the safety plan-they ran to the car and locked the doors before I even asked them to. I managed to get the knife from Michael, then methodically collected all the sharp objects in the house into a single Tupperware container that now travels with me. Through it all, he continued to scream insults at me and threaten to kill or hurt me.

Sometimes, this type of strength is necessary over prolonged periods. Sometimes it involves standing up to your own family. Such is the case of Sara Reedy, who was sexually assaulted at gunpoint by a robber at the convenience store where she worked, and then arrested for that robbery because police officers didn’t believe her story and didn’t process her rape kit. Reedy’s family didn’t believe her, either. She lost her job. A month before her trial, her rapist was caught on another robbery, and confessed. Throughout it all, she stuck to her story. Upon vindication, she sued the police department and testified before Congress on rape investigation policy.

So the next time you’re wondering about how to create strong female characters, don’t think about Buffy. Don’t think about Xena, or Cameron, or Starbuck, or Beatrix, or even Amy Peterson. Think first about the strong women who are around us, every day, in real life. They’re not chosen. They’re not super-powered. They just are. Faced with real villainy, their acts of heroism didn’t involve surprising anybody with hidden martial arts skills, but rather taking somebody else’s place in the line of fire, or speaking up for themselves when no one else would. So when you hear somebody say that there aren’t models of everyday female strength, that all your daughter’s heroines have to be spinny killbots or goddesses or princesses or slayers, remind them of these women. Perfectly normal, ordinary women, who saved lives not because their strength was conferred on them by a distant authority, but because it welled up from within.

And keep in mind that all of us are potentials. In a period of so much shock, horror, and grief, it’s easy to feel completely powerless. But it’s equally important to remember that we’re not. That small acts, no matter who performs them, can save lives. That we can be heroes, if just for one day. That’s really only a matter of knowing what to do and choosing to do it.

As the Slayer herself once said: “Are you ready to be strong?”

12 ResponsesLeave one →

  1. Barb Geiger

     /  December 16, 2012

    I am not surprised these women did what they did, because this is what teachers who had been teaching past colombine talk about. I’m a Canadian teacher, so it took our own tragedy at Tabor for us to start talking about it, but all teachers, whether men or women, have all had that talk of what they would do, and then, to the best of their ability, all they can do is pray they have the guts to actually do it.

    It’s not easy, teaching in that room that doesn’t have an easy exit point, that’s not barricade-able because you’re thinking every second, this might be it, but if I can hold on for another 22 minutes I’ve got 4-G which has the emergency exit right next door.

    Because every teacher also knows that it’s not how powerful the lock that keeps the mass of weapons safe, it’s the person who holds the key. And if that person is socially-hackable, then everyone is at risk. Because it’s not enough that you might have managed to buy your weapon before your symptoms started to show or before your wife officially breaks up with you, or if you don’t know the tens of thousands of illegal gun owners willing to sell, you only need to know how to get to the one person who holds the key and break into them.

    Once they’ve opened the doors, you’ve got full access.

    People who believe they have the right to own enough power to kill a town has to be responsible for that power. And if a mad man shows up, threatening to kill them if they don’t get in, they’d better swallow up the responsibility they took on with that power and just take the death. Because if the mad man isn’t going to kill them, which he probably will regardless (see: making deals with crazy people) society should.

    You want the power, fine, it’s yours. But you better bleeding well protect it.

    Reply
  2. Barb Geiger

     /  December 16, 2012

    Oh, shoot. I meant to say crazy people who are currently being very intent on causing mass murder, and not just people who may be suffering from a mental illness. You can still make deals with people who are currently suffering from mental illness and still expect to live outside of this one tiny exception.

    Reply
  3. Laura

     /  December 18, 2012

    Thank you for this. It brought tears to my eyes. We throw the term “hero” about way too carelessly of late, but I have been thinking about the heroism of all these women since Friday. They surpass anyone I can think of.

    Reply
  4. I’ll need to flag this to read later, I’m very nervous about what’s happening in Syria so I can’t read about violence, but what I skimmed seemed powerful.

    Reply
  5. Dana Ganssle Ellis

     /  January 2, 2013

    This is a great piece of writing. Thank you! I wanted to remind you of one of the survivor’s from Sandy Hook, the daughter of two of the greatest teachers I ever personally had, who survived her experience.

    http://www.newstimes.com/local/article/Sandy-Hook-survivor-s-wit-and-will-a-weapon-for-4125396.php

    Reply
  6. Carol

     /  January 3, 2013

    This is some amazing insight. Thank you very much for putting these concepts together, and for writing about the heroes many do not think about.

    Reply
  7. Carlos

     /  January 3, 2013

    Thank you very much.
    Your article here really is inspiring. And the truth behind it is just awesome. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and ideas. And I feel the ambition to consider heroines much more in my future writing.
    Sometimes it just needs just the clear depiction stating the obvious, actually. Thank you again.

    All the best!
    Carlos

    Reply
  8. Beautifully stated. Thank you for this thoughtful essay. It’s a very personal reminder to me, as a writer, to write characters who are both strong and true– and to find that strength and truth in myself, as well.

    Reply
  9. I wouldn’t even dare to presume that I could imagine what it must’ve been like for the people in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

    But, quite rightly as you say, heroism (not heroics) come from doing what is right — only because it is so.

    Reply
  10. Spitfire

     /  January 28, 2013

    I have many strong women in my life who are recognized as personal heroes, and none of them are really “chosen ones” but rather regular people. Even people who were just there for me for a few minutes during a depression are heroes, and those are already too numerous to name all of them.

    Reply
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  • Madeline Ashby…

    ...is a science fiction writer, strategic foresight consultant, anime fan, and immigrant. She is represented by Anne McDermid & Associates, and IAM Sports & Entertainment. She has been a guest on TVO's The Agenda multiple times. Her novels are published by Angry Robot Books. Her fiction has appeared in Nature, FLURB, Tesseracts, Imaginarium, and Escape Pod. Her essays and criticism have appeared at BoingBoing, io9, WorldChanging, Creators Project, Arcfinity, and Tor.com.
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