What Makes a Strong Female Character?

In talking about the intersection of feminism and literature, there are a few things that often come up: the need to recognize, promote, and have more female authors, the way books by female authors are perceived, and the need for strong female characters.  This last issue, the need for strong female characters, stretches into the realms of popular culture, into TV and movies.  We need characters that young women can relate to, characters who inspire them, characters who tell both boys and girls that girls are more than prizes to be won or damsels in distress.

I want to be clear: there are strong female characters circulating through literature and popular media-~-I’ve been highlighting some on the Radical Idea’s tumblr.  Some of them are very well done.  But there are two major approaches to having strong female characters, two major ways we have been taught to think of strong female characters, that ultimately have major flaws.

1) The near-perfect woman: Many times, in an attempt to make a female character be read as strong, brilliant, and tough, writers/producers will end up stripping her of some or all of her flaws.  Melissa Anelli, Harry Potter Alliance board member and author of Harry, a History says about movie Hermione that ” that sounds like you’re making a kick-ass, amazing character, and what you’re doing is dehumanizing her.”  She has a good point: no one could be movie Hermione.  She’s beautiful, the smartest girl in her class, brave, always the one to keep a cool head, always the logical one, always the sensitive one, almost perfectly loyal…the first movie stays true to her  character really well, as Hermione is still the annoying know-it-all we meet in the books when she first appears on screen…but over time, she becomes increasingly perfect, and in doing so, she becomes less human.

The reason I bring up Hermione as an example, however, is that book Hermione is a great example of the strong female character.  She is still smart and loyal and brave, but she’s stubborn, she genuinely never understands Quiddich, she goes on annoying tangents when she does things like start a movement to free house-elves, she’s self-conscious about her appearance, she’s reduced to tears several times, she’s jealous, she’s awkward…she’s real.  Certainly more so than movie Hermione.  Book Hermione lets us read and relate to a character who has enviable, admirable qualities, but also flaws and problems that many of us actually possess.  She’s not perfect, and that’s why she’s a better character.

2) The woman who transcends femininity: You likely know this character as well: she’s tough, she’s strong, she doesn’t get emotional except at funerals, and she’s probably a warrior or something similar.  This woman is strong, or at least she’s painted as strong, but she achieves this by eschewing femininity.  This woman doesn’t have time for things like flirting or parties or dresses, perhaps; her hair is always unkempt, but that’s fine; she thinks that anything “girly” is silly.  You know who this girl is: she’s Arya Stark from Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire, she’s Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games.  We love these characters, but we see them as stronger than their more feminine counterparts specifically because they avoid or even openly dislike things we see as feminine/weak, such as big displays of emotion, or concern about appearance.

I’m not saying it’s bad to write characters who are, for lack of a better word, tomboyish.  Arya Stark and Katniss Everdeen are good characters, and there are girls who want to distance themselves from traditional femininity.  The important thing in writing these kinds of characters is to a) make them well-rounded and b) not make femininity seem inherently pathetic.  The problem with Arya Stark, which Katniss doesn’t have, is that she sees her sister’s femininity as making her weak, and because Sansa Stark is one of the most feminine, and often most victimized, women on the show, viewers are likely to see her as pathetic.  I digress, though: the point is that if one wants to write a character like that, then one needs to make them more than just a stern expression and a sword.  What drives this character?  Is it revenge?  Is it a need to be able to protect themselves?  Is it love of their family?  What do they like?  What are they afraid of?  Even the strongest people still have fears and weaknesses-~-these characters need them too, in order to be real.

But these archetypes aside, we need more diverse strong female characters, not just more well-rounded, better-balanced versions of the kinds we already have.  As a writer, and as a reader, I want women who come from different backgrounds, women who have different motivations and goals.  I want women who are driven by love-~-like Gwen Stacy (from “Spider-man”), and Meg (from Disney’s “Hercules”).  I want women who have great careers but desperately want families, like Callie Torres (Grey’s Anatomy).  I want women who stand up for themselves and for others, who won’t let themselves be stepped on, like Daenerys Stormborn (Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire), Olivia Pope (Scandal), Tris Prior (Divergent)  and Veronica Mars (Veronica Mars).  I want smart women like Hermione Granger (Harry Potter), self-assured women like Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games) and Jessica Pearson (Suits), women who refuse to compromise their goals like Christina Yang (Grey’s Anatomy) and women who are still figuring out who they are, like Mia Thermopolis (The Princess Diaries).  I want women who struggle with disabilities, like Daphne Vasquez (Switched at Birth), women who have to learn to accept themselves like Jane Bingum (Drop Dead Diva) and women who don’t care what anyone thinks of them, like Elle Woods (Legally Blonde) and Luisa Rey (Cloud Atlas).  I want sassy women, fierce women, shy women, and sweet women.  I want to be able to think of more strong fictional women of color than this post mentions (and more queer and trans women, and roles filled by queer and trans women), and I want them in major, iconic  roles on TV and in movies.  (I did find great lists of women of color in movies, but while some-~-like Halle Berry’s portrayal of Storm in the X-men films-~-might readily come to mind, others didn’t stand out as much.  We need more.)

It’s not just about wanting these women–~we need representations like these in fiction-~-both on the page, and on the screen.  We need female characters who adequately represent how diverse women truly are, characters who remind young women that they can be whoever they want, and that being who they already are is enough.  Being strong needs to be attainable for women-~-not something they can see but never be, not something they could only achieve by giving up who they really are, not something that seems distant and foreign, but something that is really possible, something that comes from trying your best, going for your goals, being willing to take chances, using your strengths, and most of all, realizing that you are valuable, exactly as you are.


~ by Randi Saunders on July 22, 2014.

2 Responses to “What Makes a Strong Female Character?”

  1. And women are just as diverse as men, so it would seem to be a no-brainer to stop trying to squeeze us into tiny boxes, no matter how traditional it is and convenient to do so.

  2. I will be putting this danizlzg insight to good use in no time.

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