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June 25, 2019

The Obligatory Strong Female Character Post


What constitutes a "strong female character" (or SFC for short). As a person on the internet, I’m obligated to weigh in on this. Everybody’s doing it! But what do we mean by “strong”? Is a strong person the same as a strong character? And do we need more SFCs in fiction?


Physical Strength

Obviously, “strong” and “weak” can describe someone's physical attributes. A strong person is physically fit and muscular. They can lift heavy objects and carry weights great distances, and sometimes know how to fight. A physically weak person, on the other hand, might be sickly or flabby and can't lift or carry much at all.

Hollywood churns out many physically strong female characters, although many of them are played by actresses who might blow away in a strong breeze. Most of these so-called SFCs could be replaced by sexy, physically fit lamps, because while admittedly strong, these ladies are not in fact characters. They are hollow beings with very little personality and characterization beyond “She kicks butt!” Thus, while these are "strong female somethings", they can't be called SFCs.

I have two issues with people who think that there are not enough of this type of “SFC”. One is that there is an underlying idea that, to be as good as male characters, the female in question must be as physically strong, if not stronger, than her male counterparts. Because apparently physical strength is the height of worthiness and likability, or something? Often the idea of role-models comes into the conversation regarding SFCs, in that people think little girls need better role-models. To such people, I ask, would you teach little boys that in order to be good enough, you must be as physically strong or stronger than your peers, and that anything less than that is not worth imitating? Of course you wouldn’t! So why should little girls learn the same lesson?

As an aside, I also think it’s funny that in a time where we are so cognizant of unattainable female body images, we perpetuate them in the type of physically strong female characters we portray. Again, Hollywood has willowy actresses habitually dropping men three times their size with one punch, not with magic, nor with martial arts designed to make up for smaller body sizes, but just sheer physical strength. And this actually does have an effect on real-life expectations: I went to a firing range as part of a Citizen’s Police Academy class, and the men in my group could not get it through their heads that I—a tiny, 5'3" wimp—couldn’t lift a police-issued shotgun long enough to aim it properly. I physically could not do what they could do without trying. I’m not saying writers can’t have physically strong women characters, I’m just saying that, maybe, take into account that that strength might require a larger body, muscles, training, or strategy. But I digress…


Strength of Character

Thankfully, most people who call for more SFCs are not talking merely about physical strength, but instead something more like strength of character, or strength of will. Someone with a strong character doesn't give up easily. They've got chutzpah, and moxy, and gumption, and a bunch of other words that are fun to say. Yet I quibble with people’s call for more and more such SFCs, because there are already plenty of characters like this. And there always have been. Books for children have always featured girls with just as much grit and wherewithal as boys, as have many classic books for grown-ups. Think about Elizabeth Bennet, Anne Shirley, Mrs. Frisbee, Mina Harker, Sara Crewe, and Gerda from The Snow Queen, just to name a few off the top of my head. 

So where is the "there aren't enough SFCs" crowd coming from? These people, in my opinion, want women who never need, nor want, any help. Such a character is smart and capable enough to do everything by herself. She not only has a strong will, but is strong-willed. She doesn’t ever cry or get freaked out or feel helpless—because these are signs of weakness! She has guts, i.e. plot armor so thick that she will never ever meet an obstacle she cannot surmount. Which is… really boring, honestly.

Captain Marvel is a shining example of this type of so-called SFC: literally nothing affects her, physically or emotionally. There’s this line about how she’s supposedly too emotional, but she never shows any feeling besides a little smirk. Is cockiness an emotion? Anyway, there’s one scene where she finally realizes that everything she knows is a lie and that she’s been used by a genocidal race of space goons. This would have been a great moment for her to lose it, to scream, or cry, or use her powers so much that she accidentally blows off her inhibitor chip. But no, having her get frustrated or sad would show that she’s not 100% in control of everything, which would make her look weak. And human. And relatable on any level. I don’t know if you could tell, but I did not care for Captain Marvel.

Again, people who advocate for this type of SFC want role-models for little girls to look up to, without realizing that these super-capable, unassailable SFCs are just as unattainable an ideal as physically strong yet-muscleless ladies. Some girls are naturally shy and mild, other are unsure of themselves, and a few have actual anxiety-related issues. Are these types of girls weak? Again, let’s look at our male counterparts. Would you tell a shy little boy that he’s weak because he’s not as bold as his peers? Or that he shouldn’t seek help from others because he should be strong enough to do it by himself? Or, instead, would you tell him how to show true strength—the Mina Harker, Mrs. Frisbee, Sara Crewe type of strength—by persevering even when things are hard, and you do feel small, and things don’t go your way? Maybe we should be teaching girls the same thing.


Strong Characters, Female or Otherwise

So then, what is a strong female character? Is it a character who is a strong female, like a woman who can take down twenty guys in a fight? Or is it a female with a strong character, who never gives up no matter how tough it gets? I submit that it is not—necessarily—either. An SFC is, in short, a strong character who is female. Clear as mud, eh?

What no one ever seems to ask in all the SFC discourse is what, pray tell, do we mean by a "strong character"? Maybe the easiest way of answering this would be to find some examples of weak characters of either sex.

Bella Swan springs readily to mind, as do half-a-dozen female YA protagonists who might be described, in the most charitable terms, as “one-dimensional”. They lack agency and personality, generally because they are meant, more or less, to be reader inserts, so that the audience can imagine themselves in that role.

I submit that Ray, of the new Star Wars trilogy, is also a weak character, but in a different way. She makes decisions, sure, but without any motivation. She wants to stay on her planet and wait for her parents, because she needed a backstory, but then she’s fine going across the galaxy with Finn to drop off a droid, because otherwise she wouldn’t be in the rest of the movie, and she eventually decides to join the Resistance because that’s what a protagonist would do. Then she goes to train with Luke, apparently forgetting that she was waiting for her parents. Then she goes to try and turn Kylo Ren good because that way they can have a cool fight scene. She definitely has strength of character, in that she makes good decisions and isn’t easily swayed from doing whatever heroic act is required in any given scene no matter the odds, but there’s nothing behind any of her actions. There’s no there there. She does what a protagonist would do, not for any reason of her own—for example: because of her deep love of the Jedi, because she wants to find out the truth of her parents, because she’s wanted on her home planet for droid theft—but because the story requires it. And “because the story requires it” is never a good reason for doing things!

Lest you think I’m picking on the ladies, let me name the weakest character of all (and I apologize ahead of time to fans of the series): Ender Wiggan, of Ender’s Game. He has less agency than Bella and less reason for his actions than Ray. He might make one or two decisions in the entire book, the rest of the time just sort of moving around and doing things without purpose. We never see why he wants to do anything. His one character trait—and an informed one at that—is that he’s smart. That’s it. You could replace him with a lamp that’s intelligent enough to complete the objective of a war game (no, really, there’s a scene where all he does is complete the object of the game—get to the goal rather than focus on killing everyone on the other team—and he is lauded as a super genius) and nothing would change about that story.

What do all these weak characters have in common? Lack of personality, agency, goals, interests, quirks. Put simply, they are not well developed; their characterization is weak. Developing a character is a lot like developing film: the better you do it, the clearer the image should become. Thus, weak characters are a dark film that someone wrote on: “Bella is average and loves Edward”, “Ray is Force-sensitive and always tries to do the right thing”, “Ender Wiggam is a genius”. The end. Those don’t give a very clear impression of who we’re dealing with.

A strong character, i.e., a well-developed character, is one who we will know like the back of our hand by the end of the story, because we have such a clear picture of them. We know what drives them, or what makes them content. We know what they like, hate, and fear. We know odd little facts about them the way we know our friends’ foibles and eccentricities. A strong character feels like a real person.

Note that this in no way means that characters who are strong in the other two senses—physically fit or strong in character—can’t also be strong characters. There are plenty of multifaceted bruisers, fighters, and macho characters of both sexes out there—just watch anime! There are also, obviously, characters who never give up but, rather than being one-dimensional heroes, have traits that make them interesting and likable, like those who do what’s right despite wanting glory and money instead, or who are pure hearted but kinda dumb, or who became a hero due to some complicated backstory that still informs their actions. What I’m saying is, it’s possible to be a physically-strong strong character who also has strength of character!

But that’s not a necessity. Obviously, physical abilities are not a prerequisite to a well-developed character, but nor is a strong moral compass and grit. Take someone like Starscream, the ever scheming and completely untrustworthy second-in-command of the Decepticons in Transformers. Although tenacious in his own way, I don’t think anyone would hold him up as a model for “strength of character”. He’s backstabbing, weaselly, and willing to betray anyone (even himself!) to achieve his goals. No one would describe him as a weak character. What about Javert, from Les Miserables? He’s definitely got wherewithal—he needs it in order to obsess over one stolen loaf of bread for twenty years—but in his final hours, he gives up and chooses suicide over a world that doesn’t jive with his vision of justice. That might, ultimately, make him a weak person, but it cements him as one of the best examples of a strong character: he has a worldview and a goal and an obsessive personality; a real person like him would do something like that when his world comes crashing down. Many weak people, if depicted intricately and written clearly, might make strong characters.


We Need More Strong Female Characters

So, with this as our definition, do we need more SFCs in our fiction, or are there enough already? Yes, we do, and no, there aren’t. I’m not one of those people who demands a 50/50 ratio of male to female characters, but I do wish that the female characters we do have were stronger characters. The problem is that when we say “SFC”, writers hear “woman who can hold her own in a fight”, “woman who can save herself”, “woman who can’t be beat”, etc, and think that that absolves them from giving said women anything resembling a personality. They check the SFC box and pat themselves on the back for how great they are at writing "strong females", forgetting the “characters” part of the equation.

Honestly, I think the reason so many so-called SFCs are weak is precisely because it’s currently anathema to present a woman as anything but totally strong. Take Rey: having grown up on off-brand-Tatooine, she could have been savvy and money-hungry, perhaps planning on selling BB-8 back the Resistance instead of just delivering him. She could legitimately want to help Finn and the little droid get home, but might as well make a quick galactic credit while she’s at it. This would also payoff later, when she learns that she’s Force-sensitive, because there might actually be a temptation to the Dark Side—the easy side—contrasted with her innate desire to do the right thing. Wouldn’t that be interesting? Too bad! Because girls aren’t greedy! Girls can’t be tempted to take the easy way out! Girls need strong role-models! Role-models can't show weakness!

Which is dumb, because real people—men and women—are weak sometimes. People have physical and mental ailments. People have blind spots, and bad habits, and temptations. Even characters who are meant to be role-models can do so by showing that weaknesses can be overcome.

And this next statement might blow some people’s mind, but not every character, not even every female character, needs to be a role-model. The dearth of female characters in a lot of stories isn’t going to be solved by adding in a dozen women who are all do-gooding ├╝bermenschen; if you’re going for realism, you need characters with a diversity of goals, traits, and personalities, not just a diversity of sex.

Give me those meek and mild well-defined female characters. Give me shady, cowardly, or stingy ladies who feel like someone you could meet in real life. Give me musclebound fighters who have intricate motivations and backstory, or snarky fly-boy type ladies who totally can’t put her money where their mouth is. Give me female characters who struggle to do the right thing, or get exasperated with other people who they don’t consider up to snuff, or are super gung-ho with their hero duties to the detriment of their own safety, or any combination of the above. Basically, give me female characters who are as multifaceted and developed as the average male character.

We do need more SFCs in fiction, so we need to stop praising half-hearted, one-dimensional substitutes who happen to be female, because such characters are anything but strong.

2 comments:

  1. Well said! Captain Marvel is a great example of a character who's weak despite winning with ease, because she's not allowed any weak moments during her story. Her world should have come crashing down, and she should have felt something other than her usual cocksure superiority. Part of that is just that the movie was formulaic and had weird structure and pacing issues that undermined a lot of the surprises it could have had, but a lot of it is also how her character was handled in light of what she learned. Look at Iron Man - when Tony learned that Stark weapons were being sold and causing trouble all over the world, it affected him deeply, and made him look at himself and become a hero. He also had to be brought low and overcome adversity, building his first suit in a cave out of junk. It informed who he is and the decisions he made for the rest of the franchise. If you want an example of a woman, look at Black Widow. She was made into a weapon and did all these shady things, and she's trying to make up for it. It motivates her to do great things, and it makes her friendship and compassion and feelings of family with the other Avengers all the more important and poignant, because she is a deeply good and worthy person who feels in her heart how far she's come. She'll do anything to protect the people who helped her and saw her worth. Gamora and Nebula are the same way. They're less developed so far, but even in their smaller amount of screen time, we see them struggling and freaking out and confronting their incredibly messed up histories as they learn to trust. If we're looking for a woman who can be the star of her own movie (and the best part of a franchise imo) look no farther than Wonder Woman. She is incredibly strong in terms of power - the daughter of a god who can go toe to with Superman, but she's also a kind person who observes and listens before making up her mind. She's very strong willed and she does her own thing if she thinks it's the right thing to do, but those decisions are rooted in compassion, and they're not always correct in the situation. And we do see her getting overwhelmed and having to confront her own inexperience and naivety. In the scene when they're heading for the front, she sees suffering all around her and it hurts her that she can't do anything about it. Then after that she goes over the top and charges the machine guns, inspiring others to act as well. That's the thing about her - she inspires others with her heroism, and doesn't put anyone down. In the scenes where they're camping in the woods and she sees that Charlie is suffering from shell shock, something she doesn't fully understand, she quietly takes it in. Later after she saves the town, she learns that Charlie loves to sing but hasn't for a long time until that night. When the team is splitting up and Charlie is going to leave, thinking he's useless, she invites him back, saying "but who will sing for us?" She finds what's best in people and welcomes it with her whole heart, because her strength comes from love (not just romantic love either). And when the town gets gassed she freaks out! She has moments of weakness where she doesn't know the right thing or doesn't get there in time, and it affects her! Also in Justice League she doesn't want to take the leadership role Bruce sees she's capable of, because she knows leading that way means ordering people to their deaths, and she doesn't want that. Later on, she does lead, and also does my favorite hero thing of all, where she goes out of her way to save everyone even though it wasn't the plan.

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  2. And speaking of movies that give me hope for DC, look at Darla from Shazam! She's a little kid who can't fight at all, and gets taken hostage to boot, but she's such a strong person and character. Her unquestioning welcome is a huge part of Billy getting over himself and wanting to be a better person, even though he falters off and on throughout the story. She has definite personality quirks that are memorable and endearing, and let us get to know more about her in a couple scenes than we learn about Carol Danvers in an entire movie.

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