I have written before about strong female characters (see Female Vampires and Strong Female Characters), but there have been a lot of posts in the past few months complaining about the prevalence of kick-ass heroines in popular culture. There’s nothing wrong with kick-ass heroines, as far as I’m concerned, but I do agree that it is wrong for them to be the only representation of a ‘strong female character’.
I do love watching girls kick ass, but if you were to ask me for examples of strong female characters, I would point immediately at Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski and Peter Hoeg’s Smilla Jasperson, or I would point to just about any film featuring Jodie Foster – her characters are portrayed as at once determined and utterly vulnerable.
The joy in watching women be heroes is in just how unusual it is to find heroic women. It seems that 90% of fiction is about the heroism of men with women relegated to supporting roles. Even many stories where the main character is a woman seem to revolve around a partnership with a heroic male. Karina Cooper says: ‘I want people to understand that being helped by the opposite sex does not some how lessen your strength.’ I guess not, but how many plots of male heroism see men asking women for (significant) help? Maybe they should, but that’s not the point. If we’re talking about gender equality, then if it’s acceptable, normal and often realistic for men not to ask women for help, then why should it be seen somehow to be abnormal, unrealistic and therefore unacceptable for women not to ask men for help?
Okay, I’m getting into absolutes here, which inevitably reduce any argument to absurdity. I don’t say that women should or shouldn’t ask men for help, and I don’t think that is strictly relevant to being a strong female character. The important thing is to make the story and the characters believable.
In PSA: The Strong Female Character Myth (March 18, 2013) Karina Cooper set out to debunk 7 myths about strong female characters:
1. All “strong female characters” are badass.
2. In order to be a strong female character, she can’t have suffered from [insert sexual or gender issue here].
3. In order to be a strong female character, she must have suffered from [insert sexual or gender issue here].
4. Strong female characters are never helped or rescued by men.
5. Strong female characters have no flaws.
6. Strong female characters are unlikable in every way, but still manage to win.
7. Strong female characters can’t fall in love.
By and large I am in complete agreement. Myth No. 7 needs some care, however. Karina says:
The compromise and trust built between two people is a matter of nature—healthy, strong relationships can actually strengthen characters, just like they do people. When a strong female character falls in love, that doesn’t make her less strong. It makes her courageous as hell. We all know how damned hard it is to open ourselves to another and trust.
That’s fine. I don’t mind romance if done well. What I do mind is when the heroic journey of the lead female character is suddenly entwined with her romantic journey, so that the primary character seems almost to end the story in a secondary role, blissfully happy at having found an alpha male protector who will solve all her problems for her. Even worse is when heroines are portrayed as fundamentally broken without a ‘one true love’ at their side. There’s nothing wrong with having a few hot guys in the story, but a female character’s heroism shouldn’t seem to require a masculine foundation.
Strong female characters can fall in love, yes, but heroic female characters must not have the plot pulled from under their feet.
On the subject of equality… Elizabeth Wheatley (The Strong Heroine) says:
One thing that drives me crazy is the double standard with heroines, mainly those portrayed as warriors. In Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, Katsa is physically abusive toward Po, her love interest, and people seemed to think it was fine. If Po on the other hand, had socked Katsa in the mouth, drawing blood and knocking her to the ground because he didn’t like what she was saying (which is what she did to him), people would have called him an overbearing jerk and written him off. Dominating people for no reason merely makes a character—male or female—a bully. (No concessions here.)
I find this a little puzzling, but only because the relationship between Katsa and Po is very much based on physical combat and the equality of their strength. As such, it’s difficult to read it as bullying.
But it’s a valid point. Some people refer to Captain America’s Peggy Carter in this respect. Sophia McDougall says:
One of the recruits immediately starts mouthing off at her, first insulting her accent and then, when she calls him out of the line-up, making sexist, suggestive remarks.
She punches him to the ground.
In Enough With the ‘Strong Female Characters’, Already, Sarah Dunn adds:
Equality of women does not mean women have the right to suddenly punch a man in the stomach for making snide remarks about her, like Peggy Carter does in Captain America. That is an irrational escalation that the audience would not so readily accept if the gender roles were reversed.
Sophia McDougall, in her excellent article I hate Strong Female Characters (New Statesman; 15 August, 2013), says:
Part of the patronising promise of the Strong Female Character is that she’s anomalous. “Don’t worry!” that puff piece or interview is saying when it boasts the hero’s love interest is an SFC. “Of course, normal women are weak and boring and can’t do anything worthwhile. But this one is different. She is strong! See, she roundhouses people in the face.”
Equal Voice’s mfield94 makes the same point (Strong Women):
It is taken for granted that the male lead is strong and tough by the sheer fact that he’s male. However, whenever the Strong Female Character stars as the lead (if they star at all, but we’ll get to that), the fact she “strong” is treated as something strange and unique.
This isn’t inherently the fault of the character. Rather, it is the fault of the way they are advertised. Emphasis is put on the fact that the Strong Female Character is different, that she isn’t like “normal” girls.
While it is admirable that characters are emerging that challenge traditional gender roles, treating these characters as different actually reinforces the stereotype they’re trying to fight.
E.E. Ottoman, writing about female sexuality and female readers’ reaction to female characters (Why Is Lesbian Romance So Unpopular When Compared to Gay or Straight Romance?), says on the subject of strong female characters:
Anytime this subject gets brought up in the writing community someone always pops up (almost always a woman) to tell me “not all women are strong” and “we need to write stories about non-strong women too.” It has happened so frequently at this point that I think it’s moved past the point of critiquing the way Hollywood has constructed “the strong female character” (which I think genuinely does need to be critiqued). The conversation is hardly ever framed as “the way the Strong Female Character is constructed in say Hollywood action films or the fantasy genre is problematic” instead it is almost always portrayed as “strong women as characters are problematic.” This distinction has caused me to wonder if a lot of women get triggered by any kind of talk of strong female characters because they themselves don’t feel strong or don’t consider themselves strong and it’s anxiety inducing for them to have what makes a woman ‘strong’ talked about at all.
What exactly is a strong female character?
Daniel Swensen (On Writing Strong (Female) Characters) echoes my own feelings on the subject:
The most memorable female protagonists (the ones that come up constantly in conversations like these: Buffy, Ripley, etc.) show us that they can feel terror and charge into peril anyway. That they can love, or grieve over love lost, without pining forever in their room. That they can hold their own without being invincible.
But let’s get some other views. Elizabeth Wheatley says:
What do I think comprises a “strong” heroine? A girl who stands up for what she believes in and does what she needs to do, even if there’s no one backing her and even if everyone else is against her—it’s just that simple.
Mishka Jenkins (Our Leading Ladies) says:
Even the strongest of women sometimes have a damsel-in-distress moment. That doesn’t make them weak, it makes them real. Think of Elizabeth Bennett, a great female lead who is independent and strong, but who accepts the help of Darcy when she needs it without compromising any of her strength or personality!
Therefore I Geek has a different take (What Makes a Strong, Female Character)
Many authors create female characters that they believe to be strong. The word that I hear most often is “complex.” The author creates a girl or a woman who must be completely human, and especially heir to human fallibility. The character must meet the challenge, fall before it, and then rise to the occasion, or at least, this is how the formula seems to have been constructed.
To be truly strong, it isn’t enough to simply feel the pull of stressors. It isn’t enough to continue to live during hardship. It requires a bone-deep acceptance of destiny, and the sacrifice of ease and even of relationships to fulfill that fate.
Ace in Space has a warning:
Acting like any woman in any situation is Not Feminist and Not Strong if she accepts someone’s help or support is just plain old ridiculous and harmful—and the more universal this attitude becomes, the less the trope encourages look what girls can do and the more it demands look what girls must be
Is there a solution?
In Goodbye to Strong Female Characters, Melissa Silverstein and Inkoo Kang propose:
If a director or screenwriter is interested in meeting the bare minimum of feminist standards, a female character should have the wits and a big enough part in the story to propel and shape the plot significantly on her own accord. We all enjoy seeing women kicking ass, but we’d enjoy even more watching a woman whose decisions are important and taken seriously by the characters around her.
And finally – I think this is a great quote to end on – in Becoming Human: The Evolution Of Female Characters In Media, Amber Topping says:
When it comes to the evolution of female characters, as far as they’ve come, they still have a long way to go. How female characters should evolve next is straightforward. Let them be real, always real.