My assistant Maddie tells me that every time I tell her I'm loving a submission, she looks at it and assumes she's going to find a strong female lead. I've got a 16th-century nun, a 17th-century midwife, a post-apocalyptic 15 year-old zombie killer, an unhappily-virginal 18 year-old zombyre lover, as well as a lawyer, a slayer, a trucker, a dog trainer, a bargain hunter and an innkeeper (and I've left some out!).
You could get into why I like strong women so much (hello mother, wife, daughters, partners, etc), but that's not challenging. What I find interesting is something Maddie said to me this afternoon as we were discussing yet another manuscript with a strong female voice:
"Why is it," she said, "that so many of these girls and women, regardless of age and also regardless of competence or capability, tend to the unsympathetic?" (Note to clients reading this--it's obviously not about all the female characters we have :))
Hmm...now that made me think, particularly in the context of the crime and adventure novels I work on. Then she continued:
"And why is that not a problem with most of the male protagonists we work with?" Even better. A real gender studies question, and not manufactured, and without agenda.
What's it all about? Is it a question of writers trying so hard to make their female protagonists hard or strong that they make them unfriendly? Or is it that they are concentrating so hard on plotting (which is often fast-paced and frenetic in the kinds of procedurals and adventures we work on) that character development and personality might sometimes be sacrificed. And possibly because--particularly in historical novels--in order for a woman to rise above her typical place and be the kind of person who would solve crimes or take part in adventures she would need to be very strong and possibly threatening to the men who would deal with her. Are authors overcompensating, then needing to dial back some of the aggression? Are we, as readers, equating feminine strength with being unsympathetic or unpleasant, while we are more accepting of a male protagonist exuding machismo; or think of a quiet, brooding...unpleasant man as darkly sexy?
Ultimately it simply doesn't bother me terribly much. I like the strength of my bad-ass ladies and don't apologize for them. I understand the need for a reader to root for a heroine, but I don't like weak women any more than I like incompetent men--and I don't think you need to sacrifice strength for attractiveness. I have two daughters who love Cappie Pondexter, the shooting guard for the WNBA's New York Liberty. Cappie is hard and she's aggressive and she fights and she takes over games and runs the offense. My girls think she's awesome, and don't care that she fouls overly hard sometimes, or whines to the refs or yaps at the opponents or pouts when she doesn't get the call. She's our bad-ass heroine, and we love her.