I guess you would call it a popular topic in feminist writing circles, the myth of the “Strong Female Character”. People tend to be very opinionated about it, rejecting many of the examples put forth as being simply “badass warriors” and not necessarily showing the range of what that phrase might encompass.
I don’t quite understand why characters like Lady Sif or Wonder Woman would be rejected, for they decidedly have strength and I think that throwing them out simply because they possess the more obvious quality of physical strength undermines the argument. The most recent version of Wonder Woman, for example, feels more well-rounded than some of her predecessors–physical strength being almost a side-note to her compassion and moral strength. I do understand, though, why the definition should encompass women like Hermione Granger or Felicity Smoak, too.
I watched “The English Patient” not that long ago and one of my favorite rainy day movies is “Chocolat”. Between these two films I began to develop a deeper understanding of a different kind of strength a woman character can have, the kind that exists in something closer to everyday life.
(I’m definitely going to get spoilery here, so if you haven’t seen either of these movies, best go watch them first. They’re worth it.)
I give to you my ideal “Strong Female Characters” that don’t have super powers: Hana and Vianne Rocher. Interestingly, both women are portrayed by the lovely Juliette Binoche.
Hana, from “The English Patient”, makes a decision that makes little logical sense when she chooses to hole herself up to nurse the titular character. As he edges closer to death, she sets about making his last days as pleasant and comfortable as she can in an abandoned church with no modern conveniences. Still, it feels like a home rather quickly and she even finds love with a soldier camped on the church grounds.
While at turns vulnerable and in control of the situation she finds herself in, Hana shows her true quality when her patient’s end becomes apparent. In short, he has had enough of living in pain, both physical and emotional, and she helps him to die. The moment that it really kicked in for me how strong this woman was happened as she prepared the final doses of morphine for him. She’s doing something she knows is necessary, that is kind, but she breaks down and cries for a moment regardless of any logic the act might have. She allows herself that moment of “I don’t want to, please don’t make me, this hurts too much” before wiping away her tears and, not stoically but with resolve, continues her preparations.
It’s so vulnerable and yet so strong. And I love that she does not shut her emotions off, does not become cold or hardened, but returns to her task still feeling all these things. There’s a calm acceptance that she is doing what is right, but beneath it, she’s still feeling the injustice of it all and her own resistance to taking this man’s life, no matter how kind the act.
In “Chocolat”, Vianne has a similar, though more explosive, moment.
She’s been patient and determined, but Comte de Reynaud has blocked her at every turn. At one point, she is blocked so thoroughly from her efforts to break the town free of its dreary life that she stomps through the town square, right past a statue of the Comte’s ancestor.
She stops there, kicks the plinth where the statues stands, and then proceeds to beat at it, whipping her shawl at it, screaming and yelling at it. She makes, as it looks to the others around, a spectacle of herself. But, instead of slinking away after her outburst, she holds her head up and strides on across the square. She owns that moment thoroughly.
She’s angry, frustrated, and at the point where she does not care if anyone sees. Normally taking everything in stride with little more than an indifferent shrug when someone questions her bold actions, for a moment she allows herself to be emotionally out of control. When the moment passes, she is herself again, composed and self-assured. The release stokes her inner fire to continue on. She’s a force of nature, this chocolatier.
These two characters are examples of a kind of domestic strength that often gets overlooked in the search for women’s equality in fiction. I love Black Widow, Wonder Woman, and all the rest. Super heroes are wonderful examples of women of physical strength and mental fortitude, but I understand better now the different kind of strength, just as hard won, that women hold within them. Sometimes being strong means being vulnerable for a moment because fuck you, this whole living thing is hard sometimes.
There are more of these characters out there. Mrs. Weasley, Sophie from Howl’s Moving Castle–the list goes on and I’m on the lookout now for more. I’d love to hear who your favorites are, too. What women characters have you read or watched that embody a more subtle kind of strength?