Romance is Not the Enemy of Strength: Strong Female Characters Want Love, Too
One of the fandom memories that I hold close to my heart stems from the night of February 21, 2016. It was the night when Michonne and Rick Grimes finally got together in the season six episode of The Walking Dead titled “The Next World.” Many of us who had watched the pair survive, protect Carl and Judith, and confide in each other over the span of four seasons enjoyed what felt like a fitting payoff. It wasn’t just their romance that made the moment so satisfying. For me, it was watching Michonne – a woman constantly tasked with being impenetrable – being treated so tenderly. For a moment, Michonne got to exist outside of her katana and unmatched survival skills and just be a woman adored. It was joyous, and it had the Richonne fandom positively vibrating well into the morning.
Predictably, that joy was met with a sort of pushback that is reserved for women like Michonne:
“But she’s such a badass! She doesn’t need a man!”
It’s a well-worn defense against romance within genre. Interestingly enough, it tends to be heavily levied against female characters – especially those of color. Within highly occupied sections of fandom, there exists this idea that certain entities have a singular objective. For The Walking Dead, some appear to think that it’s all about surviving and rebuilding a new world. That’s a narrow outlook, which doesn’t leave too much for displays of humanity, like intimacy.
Romance and the inevitable shipping that follows get the reputation of weighing down “the story,” regardless of the writing’s quality. Even many who claim to love these women express disappointment when they decide to succumb to their desires, citing interaction outside of combat as a sign of weakness. The onslaught of this criticism was unsurprising that February night. Truthfully, I await more of the same as I watch The Flash‘s Cynthia Reynolds (nope, not calling her by that other name) fall head over heals for Cisco Ramon.
These sentiments are as coded as they are transparent.
Women in genre are often painted with a utilitarian brush. Our function within these worlds is either to nurture, protect, attract, or to serve as the damsel in need. Our love is acceptable when its primary purpose is to humanize the male hero, but if we are the hero, it’s wholly different. When we’re the hero, our one true love is supposed to be the community, society, justice…even if they don’t quite love us back.
This is an especially sensitive subject for women of color in fandom. As a Black woman, most of the Black women-centered tropes that I observe consistently involve labor (physical and emotional) as a way of proving their usefulness. Their labor is what earns them the title of “badass,” and they only get to maintain that title while they’re actively fighting. The bulk of the affection they do receive in fiction is either familial or hypersexualized. There’s rarely room for the moments when we’re seen just healing and receiving love, and the absence of that is dehumanizing. Citing our badassery as a reason for not “needing a man” is not a compliment; it’s a way to deny a side of us that’s allowed to exist in other women.
Now, there are some critiques of romance in entertainment that we should absolutely discuss. Romance, both as an element and as its own genre, is far too heteronormative. Also, there are times when it’s used as more of a plot device than a product of something organic between two characters (I often think of Matt Murdock and Karen Page getting together despite a lack of magnetic chemistry). Romance should be less of a crutch and more of a fun byproduct of something truly special. And there isn’t enough exploration of aromantic or polyamorous relationships. Simply put, there’s always room for improvement.
With all that said, intimacy in fantasy and sci-fi should be given the room to be improved upon. It shouldn’t automatically be vilified just for existing.
Finding romance that stands on its own without an assist from action, drama, or heavy comedy within the American televised landscape is hard. When you’re a fan of romance who also likes sci-fi or fantasy, it’s easy to cling to those tender elements, especially among the characters you love. When I see Cisco and Cynthia operating as a couple, I’m comforted by moments that I likely won’t find between brown people in many other places. That love doesn’t negate my thirst for high-paced action or a solid hero’s journey. It also doesn’t change the fact that the Cynthia Reynolds who is upset about a canceled date is the same Cynthia who is virtually unmatched in meta-to-meta combat.
A character’s desire for love and intimacy simply does not make them any less of a fighter. Wanting love is not inherently weak. One of the beautiful things about romance is that we can learn so much about a character while their guard is down with someone else. This can also be achieved through platonic, non-romantic relationships, and can be just as revealing. Romantic love, in general, isn’t ever required to humanize a figure. But it’s just as okay to enjoy those elements as it is to want them for ourselves.
It’s important for us to identify what we expect from our characters, especially the underrepresented ones. When we herald any woman, fictional or real, for being a “badass,” what do we mean by that, specifically? Even in fantasy, is it fair to strip these human characters of the experiences that make them … well, freaking human? If you think it is, do you apply this same standard to ALL of the characters you come across? If you know that you don’t, you may want to interrogate why that is.
A character may not need intimacy with others to be content and that is, without a stitch of doubt, valid. However, if they expressly want it, then that should be more than enough for the fans who love them.