Kick-Ass Female Characters
A lot of “strong female characters” in the media are physically strong – kick-ass women who can fight and take names. Think of Mako Mori from Pacific Rim, Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, Buffy, Zoe from Firefly, Kira Nerys from Deep Space Nine. In books, you have Tamora Pierce’s Alanna and just about every urban fantasy heroine.
But that’s not the only kind of strength. In fact, it’s a masculine strength. Alanna is celebrated because she becomes a knight – she’s “as good as a boy” at masculine pursuits. One of the books in the series is even called The Woman Who Rides Like a Man. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of Alanna, and I don’t mean to single out Tamora Pierce, who was writing girls in fantasy at a time when not many were.
Other Ways of Being Strong
But what about other ways of being strong?
Women and girls whose strength takes a different form — one might even say a non-masculine form — are often not seen as “strong characters”. For example – and I’m as guilty of this as anyone – in A Game of Thrones, everyone loves Danaerys Targaryen and Arya Stark and Brienne of Tarth, but who likes Sansa Stark? Not me.
Yet Sansa is learning to play the women’s role in the “game of thrones” better than any of the other young women whose POVs we get – and she’s learning from the best, Cersei Lannister and, in her own generation, Margaery Tyrell.
Maybe she deserves a second look.
I grew up reading girl characters, and you can probably guess some of them. Anne of Green Gables, Laura Ingalls, Pippi Longstocking, Ramona Quimby, Trixie Belden, Menolly from Anne McCaffrey’s Harper Hall trilogy, Lyra Belacqua from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.
Each of these is quirky, unafraid to do her own thing, resourceful and clever, rebellious against society to some degree (although several of them “settle down” in the end, or show signs of heading that way), and often flawed (like, say, real women). Some of them are more “girly”, others are more “tomboyish”, but they all dance to their own drummer.
Notice something else? The only one in the above list who can literally kick ass is Pippi Longstocking, who is so strong she can lift her horse above her head. And that’s only one of her character traits. Her general quirkiness and independence are far more predominant. She’s not particularly feminine, but she’s not masculine either. She just is.
And that’s the way it should be.
If you’re interested in reading more, I recommend the following articles:
Women in SF and Fantasy – my own recommendations of female characters and writers. (YA version coming soon!)
I Hate Strong Female Characters – Sophia McDougall explains why the term itself is problematic.
On the Subject of the “Strong Female Character” – Chuck Wendig argues that strong just means “well-written”.
Strong? Weak? How About Women with Agency – Shoshana Kessock proposes a different measuring stick.
What’s in a “Strong Female Character”?” – Juliette Wade celebrates “feminine traits”.
Your turn! What’s your definition of a strong female character?