Literary Explorations: What the hell is a “strong female character”?


(This is a ramble.  Expect ramble-ness.  Note:  there aren’t many comments on this blog (you can fix that if you like), but some of my Google+ followers opened the flood gates here.)

No joke.  We hear about them all the time.  But what do we mean when we say “strong female character”?  I ask this because I’ve read so many different definitions, and none of them seem to offer a valid justification for inventing a special category to describe characters.  When you think about it, we almost never say “strong male character” — granted, there are so many male characters anyway, and I suspect I’m right when I attribute “strong female character” (SFC) to a community response against the relative shortage of, well, SFCs.  Implicitly, this is a binary.  There are “weak female characters” (WFC) too, but their weakness derives from their portrayal — a frequently sexist one — rather than any assessment of their “strength” (broadly defined).  Identifying a WFC means exposing the ways in which writers fall prey to gender stereotypes in a way that doesn’t challenge those stereotypes (or, in other words, at least exploring what it means to be a woman in a more powerless position)(I’m not convinced this is actually a good definition, though).

Personally, I find the term SFC slightly offensive — and I’m not the only one.  In 2009, Anna at Genre Reviews opened her critique with the following:

You know what’s a problem? Strong female characters. First of all, why do we have to specify “strong” when referring to “female characters?” Why is this not a given? The default for male is not “strong” or “wusstastic,” so why do we have to be so specific about the chicks?

You can find similar stuff at the Geek Feminism wiki.  There are also plenty of posts about why some SFCs are not actually SFCs (such as this one from Stuff Geeks Love and this one from Over Thinking It).

I pretty much agree with all of these folks.  There is something sinister about labeling certain “types” of female characters with the “strong” modifier.  It’s a buzzword that has the unfortunate effect of essentializing one type of female behavior as somehow different from the rest.  But women, in my experience, do not demonstrate their strength via some set of character standards.  It is possible to write a character in an inferior social position (such as someone living in a vastly more patriarchal culture than our own) as “strong,” just as it is possible to insert heroines who are complex, literally strong, determined and bold into our fantasy worlds.  These aren’t mutually exclusive, nor is it necessary to identify one or both as “strong” when we’re really just dealing with “female characters.”  Not stereotypes.  Not objects.  People who happen to be female.  People who respond to stress in a variety of ways.  There are no standards for how women deal with heroism, trauma, stress, love, exploration, discovery, etc.

But a term like SFC implies that there are specific standards which only certain women meet for inclusion into a “better” category of woman.  That’s bullshit.  The problem with female characters isn’t that they’re not strong; the problem is that they are so frequently written (frequently by men, of course) as 2-dimensional objects.  They’re chairs.  And I mean that in the most offensive way.  The problem with so many female characters?  They’re not weak or strong — they’re just not characters.  They are set pieces (often of the pretty variety) put in place for plot convenience.  They are, and I’ll said it again, chairs.

Personally, I think we should stop calling bad female characters WFCs and good ones SFCs.  We should stop calling fake SFCs by that name too.  We should just rip them for not being real characters and spend more time writing and discovering female characters who fit the bill.

Anywhoodles.  That’s what I’ve got to say on that.  Feel free to rip me a new one in the comments.


P.S.:  Does Sam’s mother in Transformers count as a proper character?  I always liked her as a character, but she spends so little time on screen…

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

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