By now, everyone is familiar with the “Strong Female Character” trope. The badass girl who can take anyone in a fight, looks gorgeous doing it, and, most importantly, doesn’t have any of those pesky weaknesses or emotions, except perhaps her love for the hero.
She’s expected to be Strong, where “strong” means unflinching and undeveloped, and where any hesitation, un-pretty sadness or doubt immediately makes her whiny and weak. Although the trope has often been posited as “girl power,” it forces female characters into an even more restrictive narrative box, and perpetuates the idea of “strength” as unattainable, inhuman perfection. And it’s worked. The trope has become so ingrained that critics are quick to criticize female characters for not being “strong” enough, for being “weak,” simply because they’re affected by the dramatic events around them, or because they’re not immediately completely in control of their situation.
Which is why I’ve loved seeing YA-inspired stories recently that deal with the mental toll of being “strong” in an intense, life-and-death type environment. Stories that show female characters who are leaders, who make difficult decisions… and who don’t emerge from it unscathed.
The most obvious example is Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, who’s a warrior and a leader, but who is scarred by her experiences in the arena and by the destruction of District 12. She comes out of her first turn in the arena with PTSD, and with a physical disability, as she’s left naturally deaf in one ear. By the end of her second time in the arena, she’s been deeply traumatized by the Capital — something that the first Mockingjay movie does an excellent job of portraying. She’s selfless and brave, and she’s a hero and a symbol of revolution, but that doesn’t change the fact that she has to face a lot of violence, a lot of suffering, and a lot of death, and she is changed by that, just as actual soldiers and war survivors often are.
Then there’s Clarke from The 100. Although Clarke’s trauma is less explicit that Katniss’s in Mockingjay, The 100 still explores the way that her leadership experiences affect her. She’s scarred by the difficult decisions that she has to make, and is increasingly erratic and desperate as the second season goes on. By the end of the season, she’s fleeing the camp, because she’s unable to face the decisions she was forced to make. And this isn’t presented as her being an incapable leader, or a weak human being. She is a strong leader, and a strong person too. But she’s also human, and a teenager, forced to not only look out for the safety of her people, but also choose who lives and who dies.
Of course, not all of these narratives need to involve PTSD or other explicit mental illness. But I find these examples notable, because they cross several narrative hurdles at once — first, they present female characters as the heroes. Then, they allow them to be emotionally complex. And then, they tackle the taboo of mental illness as well. This is incredibly important, because studies suggest that 29% of women will seek help for mental illness in their lifetimes, a figure that doesn’t include all those who don’t seek help. Stories about female characters who have mental illness and are strong are powerful and necessary, and, I think, genre fiction may be a better way of dealing with these plotlines than “depression/suicide lit,” where illness and recovery is the entire plotline, creating a narrative structure around illness that often leads to characters simply deciding to get better, or recovering just because they’ve been through the right emotional arc or fallen in love. When characters suffer from a mental illness in a genre narrative, it’s just one character element in a much larger story about staying alive, taking down the government, or saving the world. And it’s especially empowering to have a mentally ill character shown to be doing these badass things.
It’s a narrative that says you can be strong AND be vulnerable at the same time. You don’t have to be 100% unaffected by things to be brave, strong and emotionally resilient. In fact, it’s keeping going despite those things that makes a character strong.