Strong Female Characters

One article has captivated the entire literary community since its publication last week: “I Hate Strong Female Characters,” by Sophia McDougall. For modern readers and writers, that’s just about as offensive a statement as you can get. And written by a WOMAN? How dare she, right? That’s definitely what made me click, although I almost didn’t want to, on the sheer concept of it.

It was a smart publicity move, and beginning the article with a photo of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this author clearly knew what she was doing. Pairing an unpopular statement with a popular picture, the author ensured readers from every angle of the issue would be invested.

Before I get too far into this article, let me promise you I am not going to devolve into man-bashing. That’s not what this is about.

Not today, Emma Stone.

This article identifies—and participates in, IMHO—a layer of problems thicker and more tear-producing than an onion. The article was so revolutionary in its anti-revolution that everyone wanted to respond. (Seriously, Google “strong female characters”–pages and pages of responses to this one article!) I wanted to, too, but it’s taken me till now to know what my response would be. Because I find myself arguing for both sides.

McDougall’s main issue with Strong Female Characters (hereafter, “SFC”) is that they shouldn’t be described as “strong.” They should automatically be strong, and it shouldn’t define their character or role.

To address an issue this complex, we have to rewind and see how we’ve gotten here. One of the most valuable aspects of my undergrad English program was intense critical theory: learning how to read on a deep, comprehensive, and analytic level, pulling in companion texts for everything. While perhaps frustrating and complicated at the time, the lesson is so important: context is everything. “No man is an island,” says John Donne, and indeed, no book is, either.
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Well, maybe except this one.

Every great idea we have is either an action or a reaction to society. Every concept of normalcy—and our decision to participate in it or not—is also a reaction to society.

You, too, can join the group of people wearing this anti-conformity shirt from Zazzle.com. Wait a minute…

Don’t be disheartened; that doesn’t take any of the greatness away from individual heroism. For what good are heroics, ideas, change, without people to enjoy them?

What I’m saying is that “Strong Female Characters” are a reaction to society. It’s a society that has been largely patriarchal for millennia, where men are “strong” and women are simpering. So if we go back, WAY back, to the beginning of stories, were men described as strong? Beowulf, Hercules? Of course they were. It’s just not as celebrated anymore, because it’s been done. It’s much less unique, now that there are gyms in every neighborhood. And finally, in our modern age, the women are catching up, and it is a beginning of a new kind of storytelling.

In my critical theory class with the brilliant Robert Dale Parker at UIUC, we learned that there are defaults that readers assume, given no details about a character. The default character in Western literature is now, and has been for awhile, the white male. Let me prove my point using Facebook:

The default Facebook profile image, at least when I signed up. Recently, a female version was introduced. And some people think it still looks like a man, albeit a very specific character:

Darth Vader or default female?

A racial debate is a whole other can of worms, and I’m not going to get into that in this post. Yes, the above Facebook guy could be many different races. It’s possible this could be a woman’s haircut, but it would be a “masculine” haircut. However you look at it, the default assumption is male, and it’s a role everyone is trained to slip into without a second thought. Again, I’m not man-bashing here. What could we do, in a language where we’re supposed to use male pronouns to indicate gender neutrality? (They weren’t always–check out Old English’s pronoun table.)

It comes down to stereotypes. The “strong female character” is a backlash against the female characters of days past–who were commonly, let’s face it, weak. (I know there were exceptions, and I love them for it, but I’m talking generalities here.) The SFC is only a stereotype now because our society is hyper-aware of centuries of inequality, and thus writers vehemently tend to avoid “weak” by creating the opposite.

George R. R. Martin, creator of A Song Of Fire And Ice and executive producer of Game Of Thrones .

Go George R. R. Martin! This comment only intensifies my growing love of Game of Thrones, my newest obsession. (Image courtesy of Buzzfeed.)

The problem, identified in Rose Fox’s article for Publishers Weekly, is when writers make SFC only the opposite of weak. But that’s just a problem of bad writing; no character, male or female, should be single-dimensional. “Why aren’t male characters described as strong?” asks McDougall. Well, I think that many still are, but I get her point–it’s not as common anymore as it is a primary descriptor of female characters. SFC are described as strong because our default assumption, from millennia of stories, is that women will not be strong. My mom made a great point when I was talking to her about this article. “It’s the same way female characters aren’t described as sensitive, but male are.” Exactly! No one wants a sniveling crybaby for a fictional crush, but every woman wants a man who “gets” her and is empathetic. (Google, why are you showing me pictures of naked men when I’m trying to find a picture for this? You’re ruining my argument.)

“All the princesses know kung-fu now,” McDougall’s mother dismisses of her compliment of Fiona’s skills in Shrek. Is this a bad thing? The cool female characters now are all fighters. It’s no longer trendy to sit by and let men have all the fun/do all the work. McDougall’s argument that it’s never been OK is valid–but I’m recognizing the change. We have to say the females are strong because we are breaking the cultural stereotype that they are not strong. I can feel the tide turning in literature and film–which is, of course, a reflection of our society, too.

Young-adult literature, which you know is my favorite, is doing more than its fair share in the changing. Kudos to them, because this is influencing a generation of teenagers (and “young-minded” adults like myself and YOU I am sure) that women can do anything they want, be it kick butt, make pie, or make pie while kicking butt.

Superhero Chef by CulinaryNoteCards

One of the bloggers I follow, Tara the Librarian, wrote a great article in response to the SFC debate, in particular, McDougall’s claim about the lack of female characters in literature/movies. “This, my friends, is why I LOVE young adult novels,” says Tara. “Our world is dominated by female protagonists. They own the spotlight.” Agreed. And I also agree with Tara (and disagree with McDougall) that having women in the spotlight does not make media less appealing for a unisex audience. Men are already slipping into female narrative identities without effort; just look at the Hunger Games success.

But here is where I disagree with Tara: “It’s easy to think about the physical strength of our female characters. But what about other characteristics? Do women always have to be strong?…I am guilty of using the word “strong” to cover [other good] traits, but the fact is that ‘strong’ is just a terrible adjective. Women are not just strong.” The fact is that right now, “strong” is an adjective that DOES imply other good character traits in women–cunning, intelligent, emotionally resilient–because it is melding the stereotype that women already had with strength. “Strength isn’t just physical,” said my mom, with another pearl of wisdom when we were discussing this. Agreed! And as long as writers remember this and build real characters, not just gym rats, we’ll keep reading. “The only cure for SFC Syndrome is for writers to work on making all their characters well-rounded and interesting and complex and real, with a mix of physical, emotional, psychological, familial, professional, and social strengths and weaknesses,” says Rose Fox.

The only kind of gym rat I’m interested in reading about.

Although I’m usually against stereotypes, the SFC is one I’m happy with. Even if the heroines we love so much now (Katniss from The Hunger Games, Clary from City of Bones, Catwoman in the newest Batman installment, Merida from Brave) might seem over-exaggerated in the retrospect of future centuries, what a cool exaggeration to be known for. As a woman, a reader, and a writer, I will proudly dance on the line of being ridiculous in the name of being anything but weak. SFC have a lot of making up to do for stereotypes of the past. Hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, we will assume as a culture that female characters are strong unless we are told otherwise—and for that matter, that male characters are empathetic.
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36 thoughts on “Strong Female Characters

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  4. Hi, As a man, I did not take your article as man-bashy. I am curious though as many people, myself included, use Joss Whedon as an example for someone who has created SFC, is he the best or just in a minority? And also, what do you define as strong? My definition of strong for a woman is different than strong for a man, even if they do overlap a bit. I do not expect as much emotion from a man, but it shows strength to do so. True emotion mind you, not just anger or bitterness, but love, happiness, even God forbid, fear. Is it such that the level of our strength is defined only by social norms? Is it strength for a man not to fight when socially we are expected to? Any character should be defined by the weaknesses we give them. Their strengths are how they over come them. The filter that society puts on us defines us as man or woman, but what we do in life and how we carry ourselves through that adversity whether real or literary defines our strengths. Not to say as a group that writers are better, however, I do think writers actually voice their opinions. We aren’t mindlessly drones. We expect more because we are more. The standard female character isn’t good enough because we want strength. I would almost want to go back to look at the traditionally accepted strong male characters and reassess them to determine whether they would pass our new litmus test as SFC any more or if they too are only two dimensional and socially we have accepted them because we weren’t willing to elevate the bar.

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    • John, thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. I am glad to hear from the male perspective that you did not take this article as man-bashy, since that was not at all my intention. 🙂

      Since it seems you’ve already given Whedon a lot of thought, you might have seen this, but in case you haven’t, I find this a good resource of articles arguing both sides of the case of his feminism: http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Joss_Whedon
      As to my opinion? I think his creations are pretty good examples of SFCs–but no, not the best. I give him merit points for his popularizing the idea of SFC, and oftentimes, it takes a moderate approach to make a society-changing idea popular. So I think it’s safe to say that I prefer Whedon’s approach and ideology over his SFC execution–but that really could just be personal preference. When I think of my IDEAL SFC, I immediately think of author Tamora Pierce’s heroines (and even her secondary characters). They are strong in every way, yet somehow all unique from each other. They are also vulnerable and emotional, all in different ways/amounts/developments. I also really like Katniss from The Hunger Games as an “ideal” SFC.

      Totally agreed on emotions as being markers of strength for male characters–and I bet you’re right, that the traditional “strong male characters” would not pass the same tests of “strength” that we would expect today. Because we, as writers and as a society, are having to close such a huge millenia-old gap of gender inequality in literature, I think that means there is a gap in standards of “strength” for male vs. female characters now–but eventually (hopefully sooner rather than later), I think the standards will be much the same.

      Also, on your question of mercy/restraint–yes, I do think that is strength. Just look at how Bilbo and Frodo did not kill Gollum when they easily could have–but they chose not to. While no one would accuse Tolkien of being a feminist, I do love how he showed all the different facets of strength, encouraging empathy and emotion from male characters. (Besides the fact that it’s just an amazing story, period!)

      Can I just quote you for a second? This is brilliant: “Any character should be defined by the weaknesses we give them. Their strengths are how they over come them. The filter that society puts on us defines us as man or woman, but what we do in life and how we carry ourselves through that adversity whether real or literary defines our strengths.” Do you have a Twitter? I’d love to connect and quote you on there. @Amanda_K_Fowler

      Thanks so much again for your response; sorry for my delay, but as you can see, I had a lot to say! It’s been a pleasure discussing this issue with you. Do you have a blog? You should consider it, if not. 🙂

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      • Hello Amanda, Thank you for your kind words. I am in fact in the process of setting up my blog and I have just followed you on twitter. I have to admit, I am liking the ability to blather on about things that are geeky and being rewarded for it. There was a time when my friends and I, though not reviled, certainly received looks of … well, let’s just say I wouldn’t throw the same at anyone else. Nonetheless, I do enjoy a good conversation about elements of literary or cinematic nature. This one in particular is interesting because it does get such attention and yet the best way to achieve what needs to be done is to simply do it. Write what you want to read and support those writers who embody that sentiment.

        Thanks for the conversation. Look forward to more.

        John Kent

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      • Hi John,
        Thanks so much for the follow! I did the same. 🙂
        Good for you on the blog! You’ll have to let me know where I can read it.
        I know EXACTLY what looks you mean. I’ve always thought words were cooler than mean stares. They have way more power. My favorite retort was making some obscure literary reference the receiver obviously wouldn’t understand, then watching their mean faces turn into desperate confusion, while they grasp at straws for a comeback and come up empty. HA, go read a book, bullies.
        I digress…but I do believe you will find a large audience of people who would love to read about your thoughts!
        Agreed–write the good write to fight the good fight! 😉

        Thank YOU for the conversation, and I also look forward to more. 🙂
        –Amanda

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  10. “The cool female characters now are all fighters.”

    This reminds me of the exhausting and tear-inducing trend in urban fantasy (my default genre of choice) of having female characters with extensive fighting skills who take down bad guys with buffy-esque skills. And then this – this alone – is held up as proof that this is a strong female lead. (Of course, when the romantic interest shows up, we discover that he isn’t just an awesome mercenary/assassin/businessman, he is also better at everything, because romantic subplots need manly alpha men to appeal to the reader. Because, you know. Manly men. )

    And, as readers, we buy into this simplification of a shortcut. I remember seeing some review saying, “Yeah, she’s strong and independent! When she discovers her guy lied to her, she punches him in the face.”

    On a slightly different note, I have a canary stress test for books. When reading, I switch all the pronouns and see what happens to the scene. Sometimes, the resulting book is one I would prefer to be reading. Sometimes, I whimper a little inside.Usually, I lol.

    Truestory. I’ve been a fan of Terry Pratchett discworld books and, a few years back, happily tried his YA series about young witch Tiffany Aching. And two books in, I was wondering whether I had somehow gotten confused and Terry was a female author. No, he is not, but it really drove home my own assumptions about writing. Strong female authors write three-dimensional, human female characters – and male characters, depending on the story, sure. Male authors write cool stories with male leads, and sometimes manage an intriguing female here or there.

    That doesn’t have to be true, and it was good to get smacked with that fact.

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    • Your comment made me cheer aloud! Haha. What fantastic insight you have!
      I agree, it takes more than fighting skills to make a female character strong, interesting, and believable. I like to see when female characters are better at something than some males, especially their peers. And I also like to see sensitive males, sometimes more sensitive than females. Honestly, I am so annoyed by and not at all attracted to “manly men”–in reading or in real life, haha. If you can’t shed a tear you are WEAK!
      Your canary test is very smart. I think I’ll try that!
      I can’t believe I’ve never read Terry Prachett. I feel like I’ll get clobbered over the head for that one. (I feel this is worse than our not reading Stiefvater, hehe.) I will definitely check out that witch series you mention.
      Agreed about male authors having potential. What annoys me is when male characters write weak female characters. What infuriates and disgusts me is when females write weak female characters. It actually makes me immediately abandon those authors forever.

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  16. Reblogged this on Jelly-Side Up and commented:

    Happy International Women’s Day! Today is a celebration of women’s achievements and gender equality. To celebrate, I’m reblogging my post on “Strong Female Characters” in media–on what it means to be strong as a woman or man, as well as the modern popularity of this archetype and what it all means. Enjoy, and please add your own opinions in the comments!

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  20. Thanks for calling out the day to be celebrated Amanda! I have been blessed to have many strong and courageous women in my life starting with my mother as a child and followed by my sister and then as I became an adult and married, my wonderful wife and now two terrific daughters. You are all an inspiration to many people! Thank you for all you do and for all you do for me!!!

    Liked by 1 person

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