The term has been coined and codified for years. In fact, many of you reading this likely already have an idea of this character in your head—the ass kicking archetype with a mouth to make a longshoreman blush. The Sarah Conner and Ellen Ripley types (both of which I love). A simple Google search of strong female characters drives the point home even further. There are already many hot takes on how the archetypes rose in popularity, discussing how these women were constructed with men’s desires or comforts in mind, thus leaving the woman herself out of the equation. Because a woman can only be strong if she’s strong like a man, talks and walks either like men or for men, because heaven forbid we alienate the men, et cetera and so forth.
But there is a nuance missing here regarding what it actually means to be a strong woman, and if you ask me, that nuance is missed because of the heavy centering on mens’ perspectives (the absence of gasps by every woman ever is duly noted). That is to say, that most men have absolutely no idea what it means to be a strong woman. They simply could not fathom it because our misogynistic culture would never dare to impose on them what is expected of women. By that account, many women would have a near impossible time articulating it as well, the sheer fact that being “strong” is not an upgrade for women; it is not optional, it is mandatory for survival. It has been what we always were and will be, because society demands it. Because we demand it of ourselves. This is not to diminish an entire gender, many of which are beautiful, compassionate, strong, and intelligent in their own right, but that is another topic for another day.
Among the threads of book Twitter, I’ve noticed a chatter centering around this fact. Readers and writers alike seeking out works with strong women that are more than just the whiskey drinking, pack-a-day badasses who fight bad guys in the shadows, the only revolving character trait among them being whether or not they do it in heels or combat boots. We want feminine women. We want sad women. We want flirty and innocent women. We want gender queer women. We want vicious women. We want real women. Because women can be all these things, and being women we understand the immediate, implicit strength in those qualities because we live it every day, in various forms. There is a suffocating demand placed upon women to be all things to all people—star employee, mother, teacher, wife, lover, house manager, accountant, maid, cook, therapist—and not only must these items be completed, but completed to the satisfaction of our spouses and children and bosses and parents and community. And when the pressure becomes too much, when our strength gives and we become weak, when we need to be allowed to be weak, oftentimes there is no one there to catch us. No one to guide us to a safe place and commandeer the ship. Men are not taught how, and women are taught to never let our frailty show. So we wade along under the crushing weight of our existence, throwing parades for our husbands while they babysit their own damn kids and considering it a blessed life if we don’t combust under the strain.
All this to say that while those Ellen Ripley’s of before might forever hold a cherished place in our hearts, we are aching for something beyond those scorched trails that they blazed decades ago.
There is no one way to be strong, and our women characters ought to finally reflect that fact.