Strong Female Characters and How Dull They can be

It seems to have become the obsession in recent years. This show has a strong female character! Did you read this book, the female character is so badass?! Love that movie, especially the strong female character.

Why is the glory of female characters to be strong and nothing else? When was the last time male characters were defined by strength alone? The 1980s I think. The time of machismo.

Yet look at John Rambo. The action hero. Yes, he’s a badass. He’s a manufactured beast-of-war by the US Army. But the whole point of the first movie is that he’s a broken man. Mentally and emotionally he is a wreck because of what he has been through, and living in a society that despises him. Even the last movie, which ends with a horrendous and bloody shootout, has John Rambo finally going home. He is an incomplete man.

Weak characters can be far more interesting than the strong ones. Cowards can be funny, but more often they are very relatable. Let’s not kid ourselves, most of us wouldn’t dare do the things our heroes and heroines do. I love Batman, but if my parents had been murdered when I was a kid I’d have just gone into therapy and likely never come out. To be Batman takes a level of commitment and psychosis I just don’t possess.

Weaklings can be there to entertain us but also to provide that comparison for the strong character, so we know the latter is doing something exceptional. Others hide or run when this one stands strong. Yet sometimes taking a stand is a dumb thing to do. Sometimes it is the wrong move. Many individuals in history have stood up only to be knocked down, and the consequences to land on those they were trying to help.

Devious characters are intriguing. Tyrants are fascinating. Thinkers are admirable. They can each also be repulsive, offensive and dull.

A strong character can be defined as someone who does what they want, but so could a bully. A strong character could be defined as someone who defies the strong, but a coward picking that fight is far more exciting and uplifting. A strong character could be someone who knows their purpose yet so could a plotter or fanatic. A strong character could be described as someone who ‘takes no shit from no one’ yet so could a high minded buffoon or someone whose apathy leads them to hold others in contempt.

I think my issue with the hyping of strong female characters comes from two things.
One, the term is overused when the characters could be described in more detail.
Two, it seems any female character who exerts some backbone gets the title simply due to her gender, whereas male characters who behaved the same way would be denounced.

For instance, a princess who declares her resolution to win a kingdom for her people is called a strong female character, because she’s going to kick some arse. However, a prince who does the same thing could be seen as ambitious, ruthless, uncaring. In other words, a glory-hunter. The main problem there is that the male sounds far more interesting. It also appears that a female character who does what a man would is deemed strong, simply by taking a man’s role. That doesn’t just seem patronising to me but dumb too.

Take Ned Stark. I liked him a lot, but my word the man was an idiot. To face enemies that sly and denounce them to their face was always a move leading to destruction. Would my opinion change if Ned had been Nelly? No. In fact, his wife seemed to make every wrong move possible and bring about the near destruction of her family. I get the whole Stark honour thing, I really do. I love characters who fix themselves to a code, even if it means they fall by it. But is it strong to live by something so binding? Is it strong to lash out without thinking first?

One of my favourite characters in Game of Thrones is Arya. Is she another strong female character? No, not for me, but that’s why I like her. She is intelligent, resourceful, quick-witted, ruthless even. Her vulnerability – that she is a small girl on her own – is what makes her storyline so compelling. She is surviving. She is growing into someone strong, you can see it, and that journey is fascinating to watch. When she is a strong female character, she will be one by right and by earning it, and yet she is a lot more than that. For me, anyway.

I could rant about how it winds me up that Crazy-Dragon-Girl and Bitch-Queen (otherwise known as Daenerys and Cersei) are often touted as strong female characters. One seems to fall over dragons and armies and fawning men to do her bidding; a bidding that is going to lead to the deaths and woes of thousands. The other cloaks herself in the power of her family to be mean to teenage girls. They’re not strong. But then neither is Tywin Lannister. For me, he is a total bastard. I have to admit, though, I love bastards. Bitches too. In the real world, they got shit done. They made things happen, for good or evil. Tywin seeks to make his family great at all costs. He’s a ruthless bastard, but not a strong male character. Neither are his sons, beaten down by him, although you think they could become stronger. Still, why call them strong when we can look at them as complex creatures? Again, male characters aren’t so quick to be labelled, nor so easily.

Hell, I’m going to throw this down. Sansa is a stronger female character than them. She is utterly alone, helpless and could be killed off at the whim of another. She is trying to get by, much like her sister, only she has to defer to her superiors, pretend to be their loyal subject and accept whatever they throw at her. She and Tyrion are a good match in that regard. Not the brightest spark, true, but she is living a nightmare. I admire her for not having gone mad or killed herself yet. She has guts.

Let’s look at someone else though. Doctor Who. Okay, so the Doctor isn’t a woman, fair point. Is he strong? No. He’s a childish adventurer of great knowledge and courage, with a scarred past and a bucketful of regret. Make him a woman (which could be done in theory) and would we call the Doctor a strong female character? I hope not. I hope we’d call her the same we call him – a goofy hero with character flaws and a huge heart. Well, two of them.

But let’s face down the two major players when we talk strong female characters. Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor. The heroines of scifi.

No, let’s give them the title they deserve. These two are as strong and interesting and iconic as any male character in scifi. These are heroes of that genre, not defined by their female status, but by what they do.

Yet let’s not forget they are female, nor that this is important. Sarah is a woman and a mother. She fights for her son. Ellen becomes a mother figure in the second movie, doing much the same. But neither are they merely mothers on a rampage. There is so much more to both.

Sarah Connor is anything but strong when we meet her. She is so normal she could be anyone – a single person who is getting by. She is changed by the events of the Terminator. By the sequel, she is this strong female character, and yet she is, well, she is like John Rambo in a way. For all that she has become someone strong enough to protect her son, she is clearly not very good at being a mother, and her fanaticism toward stopping Skynet leads her down a very dark path. When she goes to kill the scientist and shoots his home up, then strides in to aim her gun at the cowering family, she has become like the Terminator. She realises this is wrong. Sarah’s strength almost becomes her undoing.

Then we take Ellen Ripley. Officer on a ship, doing things by the book. Lone survivor of the first encounter with an alien, she goes back to face her nightmare, backed up by marines. She ends up trapped again and is the one who holds it together the most, knowing what they are dealing with. Again, she becomes strong due to events, but she is still scared. When she goes into the nest, she is panting, fumbling with her gear. She is terrified. Because of that, you are too. Her bravery for the sake of Newt is what makes her strong, but it is such a lacklustre term to encapsulate who Ellen has become and what she is doing. In the third movie, she has to face death, and does so. Again, she is stuck with the situation, and that moment when she seeks the alien to kill her or waits for the axe to end her life, she is tense with fear. In fact, those are also moments of weakness for her. She wants to end it. She has given in. She is forced to fight on by Dillon because he wants to save his community. Yet the ultimate choice is hers and her sacrifice is provoked because she knows she has to end the threat.

Using the term ‘strong female character’ about Sarah and Ellen is so dull. It fails to describe that these individuals loved, lost, fought, suffered, strove for the good of others and faced evil beyond their imagination. Two people living simple lives, suddenly overturned and left with the responsibility of protecting their kind, themselves and those they cared about. Yes, they are strong, no question. Two of the strongest. But let’s not devalue their intriguingly developed personalities with pandering titles.

I’ve known strong women all my life. This may be why I’m not so enamoured of the label. One of my best friends who recently passed away was tougher than anyone I know. Yet strong women are often sensitive and have suffered. My friend was strong in spirit, but she could get upset by a trivial matter if the mood was on her. That didn’t diminish her strength to me; rather, it enhanced it. Bravery is overcoming fear, not dismissing it. Strength of character is overcoming flaws and weaknesses, not lacking them.

Is that why female characters are so quickly deemed strong? By being a woman they have a ‘weakness’ to overcome already? I highly doubt this is the case overall but there are certainly times when I’ve felt the term is used patronisingly. It is also clearly being used as a selling point.

I get why it matters, though, I really do. For too long have women been damsels in distress or side-notes to be killed and avenged. Let’s face it, story telling has often been men telling tales to other men. For that reason, women are both the inspiration, the goal, the glory, and also the enemy. They are our Eve and our Lillith. They lure us to good and to bad. Mind you, that makes us seem very craven, and often male characters are so driven by love/lust/obsession that it would be fair to call many weaklings. (Lancelot, I’m looking at you, matey!) But heroes and villains need motivation and that can be for selfish ambition, selfless love or just needing to chuck a ring into a mountain. Times are changing and women are not just telling stories but becoming a marketable audience. Storytelling is changing, as it always is. Female characters are doing things for a variety of reasons, so let’s not brand all as strong role models just to get noticed.

Women have often been portrayed as plotters or demure because that was the role society had for them. Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, had a bunch of louts living at her home for years, and she endured them and outwitted them. Odysseus makes it home and kills the lot. Huzzah! But who was the stronger there? They both fulfilled their known roles at the time. Today, in an action-packed blockbuster movie, Penelope would have to sweep up a sword and join in, all so we can hail her as a strong female character. Depressing to see female roles being defined in such narrow margins still, even if the margins have moved. Do we worry about Odysseus or Telemachus and how strong they look? Ultimately, Odysseus and Penelope are deemed one of the great loves that overcome time and distance and hardship. They both had strength. Nothing wrong with that. The fact they each show it differently helps define their characters.

Again, I understand why we need to have strong female characters and to celebrate their existence. Still, the term seems overused, restricted and with too much insistence on it. Women don’t have to do the same things that men do to be strong. They can be clever, fiesty, remorseless, daring and annoying, same as men. They can fight with fists or words or ideas, they can show mercy or have none, they can make mistakes and correct them. They can also be defined by the roles society enforces on them yet show superior qualities, of differing types.

I live for the day that female characters are just interesting, with complex personalities developed fully over time. That we take it for granted, that no one notices or cares, because then we’re all working on the same level and women are seen equal to men in story telling. That no one feels the need to put a sword in a woman’s hand to justify her existence in a fantasy movie, nor demands she be an ace pilot simply because we can’t think of anything interesting to say about her character. (Yes, New Uhura, you’re with Spock and you do things, but you’re not interesting. Get those writers to make you interesting rather than give you things to do. Mind you, that about sums up the new Star Trek movies for me.) That we don’t call women who have super abilities strong women because we’re that dumb, instead seeking the inner strength that truly counts and ordinary people can relate to. (That’s why I didn’t mention Ripley reincarnated, even though I like that movie too).

I’ve waffled on enough. I’ve been keeping this in for some time but I suspect it has been riled up by the new Game of Thrones series. I can’t wait to watch it but the barrage of banner-waving for ‘strong female characters’ just irks me. It is a great shame that so few shows have such a line up of women, but more so that they all get thrown under the one simplistic label. Some are weak, some strong; some clever, some stupid; some ruthless, some kind; some interesting, some dull. Just like the men.

Oh, possibly my favourite ‘strong female character’ is Granny Weatherwax, from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. A witch, an old one of very fierce will, who rarely uses her powerful magic yet can stare logs into starting a fire out of pure embarrassment. She is proud, stubborn, strict, certain of herself and thoroughly dislikable. A character of flaws she hides, even from herself, and a fascinating past. Of course, if anyone declared her to be a strong, female anything, she’d give them such a glaring!


3 comments on “Strong Female Characters and How Dull They can be

  1. I think the term is sometimes used the way you define it, but other times “strong woman” is meant to indicate a richly defined and complicated character, rather than a cipher. That’s the kind of strong women that we need plenty of. It’s a reaction against the many times women are peripheral to stories. I think part of the reason so many of these strong women are badass is because stories about badasses are traditionally thought to be male-centered (silly in a modern context; my wife loves hem) and so their women were classically thin and irrelevant. The other reason is that studio execs make this very mistake. “People say they want strong women? Good, give them guns!”

    In other words, I suspect most people already agree with you. Still, this post is well argued.

  2. alexgeorgeal says:

    You raise some interesting points and go against common trains of thought.

    I think, at the end of the day, a strong character can be defined as such regardless of sex–it’s a unisex term. Strength would be the courage to pick yourself up when life knocks you down, to strive to do the best you can no matter how hard it gets, to make your voice be heard, to be unaccpeting of rules and regulations that don’t fit with your character, to stand up for freedom of expression, opinion.

    Strong characters in stories: usually they’re the ones who reveal their strength of character through self-sacrfice.

    Alex George
    Author of Under the Dragon’s Claw

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