The Truth About "Strong Female Characters"

Illustration for article titled The Truth About Strong Female Characters

Are there just too many strong female characters in Hollywood? Are we erasing women's identities by trying to turn them into action heroes, and stoic badasses?

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Mur Lafferty points us to a New York Times essay bemoaning the trope of "strong female characters" in movies and other mass media. The author, Carina Cochano, complains that in order to be strong, Hollywood's women have to be the "strong, silent type" and avoid showing any traditionally feminine characteristics. (I'm curious if Cochano ever saw Battlestar Galactica, which gave us not only Starbuck but also President Roslin and Caprica Six, three very different strong characters.)

In any case, the NYT piece came out last summer, but I hadn't seen it until Lafferty's response today, in which she writes:

Strength is taking charge of your own destiny and not waiting on others to do so. You don't have to swear and drink and beat people up and slay monsters. You're allowed to cry and take care of children and cook and get your heart broken and dress up and date and get pregnant. But when decisions have to be made, a strong character makes them and doesn't wait for someone else. When a monster is chewing on your true love, you hit it with a stick (or pick up the sword that's RIGHT THERE.)

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I guess I have a few things to say, off the top of my head, about this issue:

1) "Strength" certainly means different things in the context of a zombie apocalypse than it does in the middle of a relationship drama. In the former context, strength means the ability to kill zombies, or hide from them — whichever keeps you alive and helps keep the people you care about alive. So in a lot of genre entertainment, we do judge the strength of characters by their ability to cope with monsters or mcguffins, because that's how we judge all characters.

2) Cardboard characters are cardboard characters. What Cochano seems to be bemoaning in the New York Times is not an absence of traditionally feminine characteristics, but an absence of character traits. She says "strong female characters" are devoid of "blubbering, dithering, neuroticism, anxiety, melancholy or any other character flaw or weakness that makes a character unpredictable and human." Cochano sees bland characters and decides this is a matter of gender, rather than bad writing — even though the men, too, are often bland and badly written in these films.

3) Passive people are hard to watch. I say this as someone who was riveted by Melancholia, but also as someone who thinks Hamlet is Shakespeare's most overrated play. Generally, people who are passive in the face of challenges are not as interesting as people who take action, however futile. A great example of someone who is not a "strong female character" is Audrey in the Lorax movie, who wants to see a tree — but doesn't want it badly enough to do anything about it. Instead, she natters about her tree-lust to Ted, who goes off and actually makes it happen. That's why Ted's the main character and she's the love interest.

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4) There are many ways to be a strong character. See the BSG reference above. Or Buffy the Vampire Slayer where, as Lafferty points out, Buffy and Willow were strong, but so was the relatively introverted and sweet Tara.

5) Whenever everybody in Hollywood starts writing the same character, it quickly gets annoying. I'm reminded of the period, in the 1990s, where all female characters had "attitude," meaning that they pouted and acted bitchy until it was suddenly time for them to turn sweet and kittenish. But acting tough isn't the same as being tough, and having "attitude" isn't the same as having character.

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But what do you think?

[via Mur Lafferty]

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DISCUSSION

When it comes to women characters, individual characterization bothers me a lot less than overall narrative. While, yes, it can be problematic if "strength" is only defined by certain characteristics that are traditionally associated with masculinity, I'm not really that concerned with a character being "strong," because it just doesn't have much resonance with me, at least not anymore.

What I do notice, however, is when only male characters are allowed to have narrative focus. When women have no purpose in a story, no semblance of an independent narrative scope, beyond what they can provide for a man. Women have traditionally been defined by their relationships with men; men are the principal, women are the secondary figures. It's why, for instance, I don't generally have a problem with Joss Whedon's characterizations of women, but it does bother me that in the Buffyverse for the most part only women love interests are killed off (e.g., Jenny Calendar, Tara, Anya, and Cordelia all die; Angel, Oz, and Riley just leave, and Spike is resurrected). And yes I know that's not true for all Whedon shows, and it certainly doesn't bother me so much because Buffy is obviously largely driven by women characters. But I still think it demonstrates how women characters are often used for plot purposes, restricting any independent narratives they could have. It's not like I have a problem with the characterization of any of those women - Tara and Anya are my favorite characters! But I'm using Buffy because I think it demonstrates the difference here. Meanwhile in other shows, women are largely treated as plot points rather than having any sort of independent narratives, and because most if not all of the principal characters are in turn men, it means women get little in terms of voice or story at all.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, I don't think the women are the problem - I think the problem is how women characters are used in media. I think a lot of the time they're very disposable, especially for the purpose of forwarding the story of another (usually male) character (i.e., this is basically women in refrigerators). And even if they're not being killed or harmed, they're still used primarily for the purpose of conveying something about another (again, usually male) character, or for helping that character with his story, rather than having any narrative of their own - which is, again, very damaging, because it reinforces the notion that women are only as relevant as their relationship to a male character, or only exist to serve a purpose related to a male character. While women from a young age are taught to relate to male protagonists, I don't think men are taught the same about female characters and are likely more actively discouraged from it because omg ew girls (though yes, I'm sure plenty of guys do it anyway). But if you have a substantial portion an audience that won't do anything to relate to a woman's narrative because of her gender, and can only see it through the prism of its relevancy to a nearby male character's story, that's a problem. It's part of why somehow putting a woman anywhere in a story so often somehow just means (very much heterosexual) romance.

(Also, I don't mean that women must be the protagonists of everything - one doesn't have to be a protagonist in order to drive their own narrative. I think A:TLA is a great example of a show with a lot of characters - including the women characters - driving their own narrative arcs, even if Aang is the eponymous character, with the only real challenge to his place as protagonist coming from Zuko. This didn't stop the writers from building stories for characters like Katara, Toph, and Azula, and they were always given more to do than to just be props in the dudes' stories.)