The Complex Truth of the “Strong” Female Character: What Are We Doing Wrong?

I’ve thought a lot about how to write this post. I’ve tried three times now to write this out as an essay of sorts – the subject matter seems like an essay sort of deal – but once everything I want to say is put where it needs to be, it just sounds kind of sloppy to me, no matter how I spin it. So I’m gonna change it up a bit and split this post into two parts. The first: the essay, where I will discuss the topic of “strong female characters” (to be known as SFCs from this point forward) and how I feel we’re misguided in what that means; and the second: a list of things I personally feel we could or should change in our approach to writing women.

Everybody on the same page? Awesome! Then let’s begin…

 

The Essay, or, “What Are We Doing Wrong?”

 

I’m sure you’ve all heard it before, a character being described as a “strong female character,” usually for the same reason each time: she breaks the stereotypes! She’s not some weak, defenseless damsel in distress, she’s a badass warrior! RAWR! But can we be real for a second here? Most of the characters we – particularly us as the creators – feel the need to describe this way are also a few other things: predictable, one-dimensional, and devoid of all hints of femininity. All three of these are equally terrible things.

The SFC exists for one reason alone, to break the mold of what women should be and to prove that girls can be just as active in their story as the guys can. But the problem I have with this trope is that it doesn’t only break the mold, it completely flips it. Instead of being an emotional, passive trophy, she becomes a stoic, assertive maverick. Her emotional display is cut to a minimum and never – or rarely, I’ll say – do you see her engaging in traditionally feminine activities. She’s tough, she’s rugged, but everyone neglects to mention that she’s masculine.

Because women have been stereotyped as moody and fragile, the SFC is anything but that. Thus, she’s no longer conforming to femininity, but toxic masculinity. It’s a double-edged sword, you see? One extreme is oppressive, the other extreme really just makes me ask, “Why bother?” Because really, why write her as a woman if you’re going to do everything in your power to make her seem like anything but a woman? I understand you are trying to defy the patriarchy and what not, but by denying her generally feminine traits, you are really only furthering the patriarchal views; that to be feminine is to be weak and useless and to be masculine is to be strong and valiant. This is a complex of sorts, where in order to avoid making her a delicate flower we feel the need to make her capable of everything her male counterparts are capable of, usually to the point of surpassing them. I’m telling you, this isn’t healthy. This is to say, “Man up,” enforcing the idea that the only way to get stuff done is to suck it up and grow a pair. As if the only way to earn the same respect as a man is to be a man.

You may think you’re empowering women by writing us as superior, by making us fearless and unstoppable, but in truth you’re just destroying one box and switching us into another. I hope you understand that. As a young girl who can’t pack a punch, can’t fix a car or change a tire (though I like to imagine I’d be able to figure out the latter if it came down to it), and often find myself overcome with emotion, I simply can’t relate to your New Age Mary Sue.

When I say I want stronger female characters, I don’t mean physical strength – of course, that’s also good, just don’t rip away her humanity in exchange for it. But no, when I say “stronger,” I mean stronger character. There are far too many weak female protagonists who usually end up pigeonholed into the roles of being either the love interest/eye candy or the sassy nagger who always seems to know when the hero’s being stupid but never actually solves the problem herself. I don’t want to settle for that. I want realistic, three-dimensional women – with emotion and flaws and some god-damned personality – who still manage to get the job done. I want more Belles in this world: girls who are smart and savvy and fierce, but still gentle, kind and caring. I would also like more Reys (from The Force Awakens, if there was any doubt) in this world: girls who, yes, are tough and kick-ass, but still express fear and anger and sorrow; happiness and excitement and wonder. At the end of the day, the best thing you can do for your characters is to make them human, men and women alike. (Of course, the argument can always be raised, “But what if they’re not human?” But to that I say, “Make them.” The reason we connect so deeply with characters is because we can identify with them to some extent, because we recognize certain traits that resonate deep within us. Not everyone cries for the death of a rabid dog, but if you can personify him – make him kind and loyal and protective – you can almost guarantee people will feel it.)

And now that the essay portion is out of the way, I would like to make a few suggestions on how to avoid the SFC curse.

 

The List, or, “What Can We Do Better?”

 

  1. STOP FOCUSING ON THE FACT SHE’S A WOMAN.

    I know, it sounds ridiculous considering I just went on a rant about how we need to stop making our women men, but when I say this I mean it more as, “Stop thinking about what she is and what she’s expected to be and just make a good character.” Stop trying to break or conform to the tropes and give us a heroine worth following. I want you to know that it’s perfectly okay to write a girl who cries and hides when first encountering the beast. She doesn’t need to have the best poker face or be bold and fearless, because if we’re being honest, the story of someone who has to evolve in order to overcome their fears is a lot more interesting than the story of someone who never once struggled for what they wanted.

  2. LET YOUR CHARACTERS FEEL THINGS.

    This goes for both men and women. Characters in general are a lot more interesting when they really experience things, when they feel more than the standard happy/mad/sad. Show us worry, show us doubt, show us fear, and while you’re at it, show us relief and compassion and anxious excitement. Remember, kids: emotion adds complexity, and complexity adds depth. No character should have to be one-note.

  3. KEEP YOUR CHARACTERS BALANCED.

    The idea of making SFCs utterly flawless to overrule any sort of stigma one might have is ultimately hurting your cause; if you make someone too perfect, you make them unrelatable. This is the reason a lot of people hate on Superman, because for a while there he was just Mr. Perfect, the golden child. (He still kind of is, but more and more they’ve been shining light on his greater depth and the complex that being Superman has given him, which I appreciate.) The best characters throughout history have flaws. And not the cutesy sort, but the real, inconveniencing, possibly game-changing kind. As much as one needs strengths, one also needs weaknesses. We are not always capable of doing everything ourselves, and if we must, victory should never be so easily handed over. Make your characters learn and grow and evolve and better themselves, if anything.

  4. DRAW INSPIRATION FROM THE REAL WORLD.

    Human beings are very diverse creatures. Not all women are the same, and neither are all men, which means that there are a lot of interesting quirks and combinations to be found right here in the real world. Take from that. If you meet someone whose personality you find particularly striking, take note of it. Try to remember what exactly it was about them that caught your interest, and then try to capture that. If you’re aiming for any sort of realism, there is no greater well to draw from than reality, and working in these little details can breathe a new level of life into your characters.

 

I think that’s where I’m going to leave this post. This topic is something my sister and I have discussed a few times, and something I have noticed other people taking a stance on, but as I was working out Project 2 – which features a main female protagonist – I started to wonder whether some of my own choices would read as borderline SFC territory. For example, would making her asexual come off as a cheap way of excusing why she has no interest in any of her male friends, thus defying the usual love interest trope while simultaneously suggesting a girl can’t just not be interested? Truth is, I don’t know how people are going to take it, but I fear the possibility of my intentions being misunderstood. (Of course, that opens up a much bigger discussion about inclusion and representation – one I don’t have the energy for at the moment, but it is something that matters a whole lot to me.) The last thing I want is to be writing flat or predictable characters, or to contribute to the further silencing of certain issues, so it’s something I had to reflect on a bit.

Now that my opinions are out of the way, how do you feel about SFCs? Do you have any missed points or counterarguments? I’d love to hear what some other voices have to say on the topic, so don’t feel shy. But that’s all for now. I’ll (hopefully) be seeing you again sometime soon.

strong female characters

 

 

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