If someone wrote a story about my life, I would not be a Strong Female Character.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t have any problems with my personality. I’m well-educated, hardworking and ambitious. But I’m also sensitive, a bit of a drama queen, shy, and a total Disney fangirl, and if I were a character on a TV show, I would probably be criticized for being too feminine, for embodying too many negative female stereotypes. For not being Strong with a capital S.
The Strong Female Character has become another way for writers to avoid developing realistic women in their stories, relying instead on tropes and shallow stereotypes wrapped up in the guise of girlpower!feminism. Worse, it’s become a way for readers and viewers to comfortably dismiss flawed or feminine characters as “weak,” while holding onto their not-sexist card by praising the stereotypically masculine (but not too masculine) behavior of the Strong Female Character.
The typical Strong Female Character (TM) usually has at least three of the four following traits:
1. Action girl. She’s a skilled fighter, whether that’s shooting guns, duelling with swords, or being a badass with a bow and arrow.
2. Non-emotional. She’s the sort of character who steps over dead bodies without flinching, who responds to any insult with a sharp bit of snark, and definitely never doubts herself or cries.
3. Not-like-other-girls. She has mostly (or only) male friends, and she disdains girls who spend their time on silly, girly things like fashion.
4. Sexually “liberated.” She’s all about casual sex and skimpy clothing that seems impractical for her action-packed lifestyle.
With the possible exception of the impractical-skimpy-clothing (because seriously, who wants to fight a dragon without any armor at all?), none of these traits are bad things. Some truly great characters fit this mold to a tee. But — and it’s a pretty big but — not all well-developed, dynamic, realistic female characters are like the Strong Female Character (TM), because not all women are like that.
I may be making assumptions based on my own experiences, but I would even say that most women aren’t like that. Some are, of course, which is why it’s awesome to see female characters that get to be the tough one in a scene, who don’t give a damn about others and who can take anybody in a fight. But many women, like many men, are a mix of stereotypically masculine and stereotypically feminine traits. They’re young businesswomen who love rockclimbing and adventure but are quite shy and conservative when it comes to relationships. They’re PhD scientists who like cutesy things and spend a lot of time styling their hair. They’re girls who are generally very shy and overly polite, but have a very strong sense of themselves underneath. Some women outwardly fit all “strong female character” stereotypes because they know they wouldn’t be taken seriously by colleagues if they didn’t. And some women do genuinely fit inside a lot of feminine stereotypes, sometimes because of societal expectations, but also sometimes because that’s just who that person is.
The important thing is that none of these hypothetical women are “better” or “stronger” than any other. No character who fits any of these descriptions is a better or worse female character than any other. The key to a great female character doesn’t lie in their interests or their attitudes to things. It lies in having agency (or reasons for a lack of agency), a well-developed personality and set of motivations, and an existence as an entity all to themselves, rather than as a tool in another character’s story. Philosophers say that everyone views themselves as the center of their own story — a good female character will believe this too. And if she doesn’t, there should be interesting psychological reasons why.
I understand that the “strong female character” stereotype comes partially out of people being utterly sick of seeing only modern-day damsels in distress, women of the “fetch the smelling salts, she’s about to faint!” variety. But this backlash has turned into another form of sexism, another set of unattainable standards that women must meet to be “good enough,” standards that strip away any traditionally feminine traits and often dress up sexism and sexual exploitation as “girl power.” It leads to a culture that denigrates a female character for being uncomfortable with the sight of blood, or being unable to handle herself in a fight, or feeling hurt when someone insults her… all things that would be true of many real women (and real men), not because they’re weak, but because that’s who they are. It’s the sort of expectation that has people criticizing Joan Watson in the Elementary trailer, when she acts like any non-murder-investigator human being would do, and flinches away at the sight of a bloodied dead body. If I saw a murder victim, I would probably throw up. I’d probably have nightmares. Does that mean I’m not a good female character? Does that mean I’m weak? Or am I just human?
I want to find strong female rolemodels in fiction. I want women like Hermione Granger, who are incredibly intelligent and talented but sometimes crack under pressure, or Sansa Stark, who are gentle and kind but have an inner will of steel. And yes, I want characters like Alanna the Lioness, who disguise themselves as boys so that they can train to be badass knights. But strength comes in many different forms. It’s time for writers, critics and viewers to accept that.