You may have noticed I’ve been blogging about female characters all week! Well, there’s a reason: I want to discuss the concept of “strong female characters” today. That phrase gets thrown around a lot, but people have widely varying ideas of a) what a strong female character is, and b) what a strong female character is supposed to accomplish in the real world. So, let’s compare notes.
In its most casual usage, the phrase seems to mean either a female warrior or a female character who gets a lot of “screentime” in the story. Both of these things can certainly be important. Women are traditionally not portrayed as warriors or physically/emotionally “strong,” and as we talked about two weeks ago, the Bechdel Test illustrates that women are often only present as token supporting characters in a male character’s story. (There’s nothing wrong with telling stories about men, but it becomes a problem when those are the only stories!)
I noticed the same thing while putting together those recommendations I’ve been posting… There aren’t very many female points of view, but there are a lot of female second-most-important characters. I can’t help but feel that when a book or a movie is all about men with only one woman, or only women who exist in support of the man, that I’m being “appeased.” That the creators sighed and said, “We better include a woman or we’ll get complaints… Give her a gun and make her feisty, I guess. And put her in a catsuit.” Or, “We need a female character… Give him a girlfriend.”
Do you understand why that might bother me? I, as a woman, am still being treated like a separate, lesser, person. “Women” as a group are still being treated as outsiders, not part of the audience or part of the group of creators. We’re being treated as people who are “over there” complaining, who have to be thrown a bone, and who will then hopefully shut up. It also implies that creators have no idea what women are like as a group, and that they can’t fathom women beyond their sex appeal.
That’s why for me, a strong female character simply means a realistic woman. Some of them may be warriors, and that’s awesome! But they should be people, too. Some women may be wives, and that’s great! But they should also be people. Tropes can be used to great effect, but slotting women into those stereotypes and not adding anything is a problem. It’s still creating distinct and limited roles for women that we feel we have to live up to, when really it’s those stereotypes that are by definition fictional. Real women have hopes and fears and preferences and backstories and senses of humor, they exist in all kinds of occupations and situations, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Real women are often attracted to people other than stereotypically masculine heroes, and they may even not be attracted to anyone for the entire time it takes to tell a story! Ideally a strong female character is one of several different women in a story, but the most important thing is that the woman has agency — a term that simply means they are in control of their own choices. It means that there’s a person in there, and that’s all I want from any character.
What are strong female characters supposed to accomplish? Well, I think I just covered “realism…” In the real world, women are people. They are half the population, and they are intensely varied. The fact that they aren’t portrayed that way in fiction isn’t just happenstance — it comes from a history of marginalization, and it should be remedied.
To go one step further, the reason realism matters is that characters both reflect society’s perceptions and affect them. This is especially true for kids and adolescents, who use fiction to process the world. When Lt. Uhura walked onto the bridge of the Enterprise, she inspired a generation of black girls — and girls in general — to be more than maids or wives or secretaries. Characters give us examples, show us what’s possible, and make concepts seem desirable or undesirable. Feminism has been called the radical notion that women are people — the more they’re treated as people in the media, the easier that notion will be for people to understand.
What do you think?
- What does “strong female character” mean to you?
- Does it matter? Is media representation it a relevant way to address misogyny?
- What effect does a trope have? Do you remember a particular character or type being held up as ideal, or a character that made a big cultural splash?
- Any other thoughts?
For more information about the Friday gender equality discussions, go here.