This blog post originally appeared on Dragons, Zombies & Aliens in May 2017.
Growing up, I loved hearing the words strong female character (“SFC”). By the time I’d hit middle school, I was sick and tired of seeing the same old damsels in distress and sexualized romantic interests in my favorite movies and series. I wanted more Mulans, but instead I got a truckload of Sleeping Beauties. But every now and then, an action movie or sci-fi book would throw me a bone and delivery my semi-regular SFC.
Except they didn’t. As I grew older and better at writing stories myself, I began to notice a problem with the “strong female character.”
They aren’t characters at all.
They’re tokens. Something to get the “feminazis” off of the writers’ backs, and maybe throw in some overused sexual tension for the main (male) character.
So we need to get rid of the very idea of the “strong female character” for a variety of reasons. These are the big three.
The Term Itself
The first problem is the term itself: strong female character. Not everyone with a uterus is a woman, and not everyone with a dick is a man. Liz Taylor in the fifth season of American Horror Story is a transgender woman, and one of the best characters of the entire show.
And what does strong even mean? Physical muscles? Confidence? Emotional endurance? Why do we need the word in the first place? It’s never in front of “male character.”
Easy answer: men are automatically assumed to be “strong,” and women weak. So when producers and directors say that they have a “strong female character” in their movie, it’s like saying, “Regular women are pathetic wimps who can’t do anything. But this woman is strong and capable.” More on this later.
“Strong” actually means “weak”
Second problem: let’s assume that strong means “capable of looking after/rescuing herself.” Essentially the writers are trying to create the exact opposite of a damsel in distress. That’s a noble effort, so long as the character doesn’t end up as the damsel anyway. Not that she should be invincible; she’d be boring if she was. But she should rescue the man at least as often as he rescues her. You know, that whole equality thing.
Good examples of this give-and-take are the characters of the Percy Jackson series (the books, not the horrible movies), particularly Annabeth Chase. For all her intelligence, she does need help getting out of tough situations from time to time. The entirety of The Titan’s Curse was dedicated to Percy rescuing her (after she rescued him). In all the other books in the series, Annabeth routinely battles and outsmarts monsters, Titans, and giants, often saving Percy’s life (and the world) as a result.
But as for stories that aren’t written by Rick Riordan, an embarrassing number of “strong female characters” need rescuing by the man, and at no point is she given an opportunity to return the favor. Worse, she who has trained for years in the military, or was designed to be a weapon, or is otherwise entirely qualified to do whatever dangerous thing she and the other characters are doing, must be rescued by a bumbling beginner. The guy who just entered the adventure, who has zero experience and very little idea of how to defeat the bad guy, ends up rescuing the super soldier. In what world does that make sense?
The entire point of the SFC’s existence–being a kick ass woman who “don’t need no man”–is completely undermined by falling into the ancient damsel in distress trope. Just look at Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy (who needed to be saved twice!) and Valka in How to Train Your Dragon 2 (also twice).
The third and final problem with SFCs is the most aggravating to me as a writer: it’s lazy storytelling.
Black Widow (a.k.a. Natasha Romanov) in Age of Ultron was so disappointing because the writers didn’t go into her complicated, mysterious past as much as they should have. During her conversation with Loki in the first Avengers movie, she mentions that she’s on the team to balance out the “red in my ledger.” To which Loki replies, “Can you? Can you wipe out that much red? Dreykov’s daughter, Sao Paulo, the hospital fire? Barton told me everything. Your ledger is dripping, it’s gushing red, and you think saving a man no more virtuous than yourself will change anything?”
Whoa! There are three things in that single line of dialogue that make us go wait, what? It’s the doorway to an excellent redemption story not unlike Tony Stark’s. But instead of doing that, the writers decided that Black Widow’s story in Age of Ultron would be how sad she is that she can’t be a mommy, and that that’s what makes her a monster (which is a whole other rant altogether). The romantic subplot between her and Bruce Banner made her flat and two-dimensional, when she could’ve been one of the most intriguing and awe-inspiring characters in the whole series.
Unfortunately, Natasha has lots of company. There are hundreds of other women who’ve been doomed to a dull love interest: Trinity from The Matrix, Tauriel from The Hobbit trilogy, and Grace in Armageddon, just to name a few.
How Writers Can Avoid SFCs
You can have kick ass heroines with swords and stakes and guns. That is not the issue here. The issue is when that is all that defines them.
Buffy isn’t a classic character of the vampire genre because of her karate skills. It’s her ongoing struggle to try to live a normal life with friends and family while everything else is (literally) going to hell.
Annabeth doesn’t inspire thousands of Percy Jackson fans because of her knife, but because of her strong sense of purpose and confidence.
Brienne’s story in Game of Thrones is interesting not because she’s hacking sexist jerks in two, but because of the difficult choices she makes.
But I don’t consider them “strong female characters.” They all have strength, of course, physical and emotional. But why would you use “strong” to describe someone like, say, Hermione Granger? The first words that come to mind for this classic witch are intelligent, stubborn, brave, arrogant, compassionate, and loyal. Not once does strong ever pop into my head. It’s too weak a word for her.
A character–man, woman, or anyone else–does not become a memorable, flesh-and-blood person in the eyes of their audience just because there’s a sword in their hand. What makes them great characters is that they drive the story.
For example: the blind fighting champion Toph Bei Fong from the Nickelodeon series Avatar: the Last Airbender embodies all the stereotypes of the “strong female character”: she’s cocky, a total tomboy, and loves fighting. And those stereotypical features work because she has clear motivations and a narrative arc. She wants to get out from under her oppressive parents and save the world, which is exactly what she does. She’s defined by her determination to fight for what she believes in and her growing love of teaching.
The main takeaway is this: the strength of a character is not determined by how many bad guys she can kill or how sexy she looks with a gun. It’s determined by her power over the story. If she has none and she is only there as decoration/sex appeal/tokenism, then she needs to be rewritten. Maybe give her some girlfriends so she’s not the lone vagina of the boy band. But if she has significant influence over the plot, then she truly is a strong, woman character.
Impressive article. One of the things I try to think about when writing my female characters is I try to make them protagonists in their own story and really, once you do that, they don’t have any need to overcompensate by pulsing with “strength.” One of the earliest times I realized this was the key was, ironically, when Hermione was off doing stuff with her Time Turners in the background. It was an interesting story which Harry just wasn’t a part of until it became relevant but made me realize Hermione had her “own” book we just weren’t reading.
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