Strong Female Characters are fucking great. I love them, and I’m glad we have them. And there are some really, really good ones. It’s just a shame that many storytellers have taken the shape of Strong Female Characters and run with it in the opposite direction.
A History of Strong Female Characters
I’m not going to tread old ground here. There are a lot of really, really good analyses out there as to why the Strong Female Character archetype is problematic. Here are some of them I’ve enjoyed (although it hurts that two of them feature pictures of the movie Katniss… read the damn books and you’ll get a fantastic, strong, real female character):
- The Phrase “Strong Female Character” Needs to Go before Women Deserve a Smarter Conversation – Sadie L Trombetta
- Strong Female Character’s Aren’t Enough, Goddammit – Kelly Faircloth
- I Hate Strong Female Characters – Sophie McDougall
But I’m going to take a bit of a different route than the standard ‘Strong Female Characters need to die’. Because the reason I still appreciate and love them, aside from the fact it’s fun watching women kicking ass, is that they give me hope.
For a long, long, long, long, long time, stories were told where females were ancillary. I’m not going to call them weak, because to be honest, a lot of them go through hell and some of them even make it out, and that’s hardly what I’d call weak. But I will call them Ancillary Female Characters, because they’re not Main Characters. They are quest objects, love interests, challenges. They are the princesses to be saved or the wife waiting at home or the daughter brutally murdered to start off the quest. They often don’t appear much in the story at all: they’re usually just mentioned in a side sentence here and there or at the very end when the Main Character gets to have her as his trophy… depending on the rating.
That’s not to say that back then, other stories didn’t exist. It’s just that these were the stories that got prioritised, cherished, and endorsed. This was the mainstream. There were always the (awesome) odd ones out, of course, like Xena and Buffy. But in general, the standard was still your classic Ancillary Female Character.
But then everything changed.
Suddenly every movie has, and I’ll steal this quote from the awesome article written by Kelly Faircloth, “some tough-as-nails woman in pleather pants, ready with a glower and a gun.” And honestly? They’re fun. I was really, really glad to see them. After all, Strong Female Characters came about because we got tired of seeing Ancillary Female Characters. Feminism started writing its own stories, and uncovering older historical ones that had been silenced. Hollywood saw the times changing, and then started churning out Strong Female Characters like a cheap, desperate manufacturer wanting to flood the market.
So that’s great, right? We have another stereotype now. We have more badass women who punch people and shoot guns and take names. So why are we bloody feminists so unsatisfied?
“Strong” Female Characters don’t get to be strong
Tasha Robinson over at Dissolve wrote a great analysis about how we’re losing all our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome, which I think tells a lot of the story. But for me, it boils down to something much simpler. We’re getting physically “Strong” Female Characters, sure.
But we’re generally not getting Powerful Female Characters.
Let’s take a step back and have a good look at what makes Strong Female Characters strong. Usually they know martial arts, or some other cool fighting style. Maybe they look badass wearing black pleather and are obviously as tough-as-nails. Sometimes they’ve also having survived a tragic backstory.
Well… cool. You can make a woman strong. But if you stop there, and don’t let her use those strengths to affect the plot, or if you actually actively sabotage her and make her a hollow shell of the character that was first introduced so the Hero has someone to save… well that is a huge, storytelling problem that breaks a fundamental rule of fiction.
“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” – Anton Chekhov.
Look at most Strong Female Character archetypes used poorly (some examples: The Lego Movie, Ant-Man, the Hobbit movies, etc). At the end of the story, it is still the (usually male) Hero who stops the bad guy or has to rescue her. She becomes a love interest, a trophy. She has no power or influence to use her strengths. She sounds… almost like an Ancillary Female Character, actually, only now she gets to wear skintight leather, badmouth people and punch the hero once or twice before he gets way better at whatever the Special Movie Skill is than her for no reason.
This is an issue.
By now, people who like to say “Come on, it’s just a story” have probably stopped reading. But if by chance you’re still here, I’d like to direct you to an awesome TED talk that talks about what happens when you only have one type of story. Spoiler alert: the richness, diversity, and truth of storytelling and humanity itself is lost.
Not to mention, if this trend continues, then we’re right back where we started. Strong Female Characters have just become the new, sexier, ‘girl-power’ forms of the traditional Ancillary Female Characters. They are eye candy. They are rewards. They die early. They are warnings. Because Hollywood’s attitudes toward women, unfortunately, don’t seem to have really changed.
So I think that we should stop treating Strong Female Characters as the ultimate gold standard for feminism and story diversity. If the story asks for a Strong Female Character, that would be great. I’m still glad they’re around. They’re an evolution we needed to have, and they still are in stories we need. What I want to see is them become the female equivalent of Tough Guy Male Characters who are still valuable members of the team and who have their own believable character arcs. They can even sometimes be beaten by the Hero or other characters like the male version of the trope. I’m cool with that. It’s another character a female can be, another model for us, aside from The Dead Wife.
But now, when I read and watch stories… I’m not looking for Strong Female Characters.
I’m looking for Powerful Female Characters. And I think that should be our new gold standard as storytellers to strive for.
Powerful Female Characters
What is power? I’m not saying that every character should be a gun-toting wizard with unlimited magic drawn from her period blood (although let’s be honest, that would be pretty epic). Power comes in many different shapes and forms. At the end of the day, power is the ability to influence others and to influence the outside world. It’s the rifle in Act 1 actually getting fired and affecting the plot.
And the beauty of it is that it allows for a much broader range of characters than your standard scowling, gun-toting Strong Female Character. Give me a housewife who volunteers in her community and can sway people to join her lobbying efforts with her relentless good cheer, organisational skills and cupcakes. Give me a teacher who will fight like hell for her students against a money-hungry school board. Give me an engineer who is trying to figure out how to fix her wayward AI, knows how to do it and actually gets to apply those skills. Give me a bard who uses her stories to stir up a rebellion, but can’t fight for shit and likes makeup and dresses and doing her hair. Who gives a fuck? She started the goddamn rebellion, and there’s nothing wrong with liking pretty things.
And of course, you can start with your standard ass-kicking Strong Female Character and mix it up. The one who was trained by her father from a young age to be a Mystical Ninja or Knight. Then, instead of training the hero and then becoming a sidekick, make her the unfriendly ally he has to woo. Or the Lancer to his Leader role. Or… oh my god… let’s make her the Main Character of a story outside the YA genre. Let her influence the plot with her skills. She can have a romance, I have no issue with that. In fact, go ahead – the romances that make me swoon and get that funny fluttery feeling in my chest and run around the room like a teenage girl are romances between equals, where both are full characters worthy of respect, with their own storylines and strengths and weaknesses, because when they come together and respect each other and decide to do something about those Orcs, shit gets done. My god. Equality is sexy as hell.
Ahem. Clearly another blog post for me to explore.
Anyway, the point is that Strong Female Characters are great. I’m glad we have them, and I’m grateful to the writers who have struggled against the industry for years to bring them to us. Because there are some really, really great Strong Female Characters out there, which I try and remember when I get disappointed by the more common depiction of them where the Hero bullshits his way through training and somehow gets to rescue her / beat her when she’s been practicing for 20 goddamn years and he’s been practicing for 20 fucking minutes.
It’s good to have another stock character in the toolbox of stories that women can be beside the Damsel in Distress or the Dead Wife/Mother. But we shouldn’t stop there, and we should also find a better measure for what makes a good female character.
So listen up, Hollywood/Netflix/etc. Let’s start a new gold standard of Powerful Female Characters. I can’t wait to see what happens next.