I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of strong female characters. (Yes, I know, I’m late to the party.) What does “strong” mean? Which characters and traits qualify?
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.
(For a great article about Sansa, read In Defense of Sansa Stark. And another: Sansa Stark Does Not Kneel.)
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?
I love this post! There are different ways of being strong. Sometimes being quiet carries the greatest strength of all. Thank you for the reminder that we don’t have to engage in mortal combat to be a hero. 😉
Spot on. As Elizabeth points out, there are many ways of portraying strong female characters – the Xena Warrior Princes method is but one (and I say this as a New Zealander…). All are important.
Thank you, Elizabeth and Matthew! Glad my thoughts resonated with you.
Whilst I don’t necessarily agree with Chuck Wendig, I do think his definition is one that it should be.
Personally, I feel there are many ways to be female–barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, doing six hours of Army training every day, running a company as the CEO… it comes down to what the female in question *wants*.
As such, ‘strong female character’, in my opinion, should be a female who does what she wants, because she wants. Not because she has to or anything.
As a reader, I want to see more well-written women characters that don’t automatically involve romance as a major piece of the story. It’s sad to say I can get a 3D character in a romance, and I can still find action thriller where the woman character has to work hard at being cardboard.
I also think people got into making a woman character “strong” in terms of being able to kick butt because the other way is a LOT harder to write. It’s much easier just making her physically strong then trying to come up with other alternatives that push the creative muscles.
Dianna, exactly. There are many ways to be female, and I’d love to see all of them on the page, often.
Linda, yes please! Nothing against romance (I’m reading one right now, with a female protagonist who just zings off the page) but let’s get those female leads into other stories too.
And your point about physically strong being easier to write? Makes me want to stand up and cheer. It *is* easier to write a woman who can fight and think you’re done. Like Dianna said, there are many ways to be a strong woman, and they’re *all* worth exploring, even if it’s harder.
I think the key here is variety of storytelling. Why pigeonhole female characters, whether it’s into romance stories (and I’d add “women’s fiction” here) or kicking-ass roles? Until they show up regularly in a wide variety of roles and types of story arcs, we still have work to do.
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