She’s a badass, she’s sexy, she’s mastered the art of the one-liner. She is a strong female character.
I’m sure by now we’ve all heard the discourse about “strong female characters.” On the surface, it sounds like an empowering way to depict women in media, but that is often not the case. Don’t get me wrong, I love sword-wielding, ass-kicking women as much as the next gal, but it’s more than a little disappointing when “strong” is a female character’s only personality trait.
We need to stop holding female characters to a man’s standard of strength. I’m not the first to say this, and I won’t be the last, but I believe it’s time to replace the “strong female character” with the “complex female character.”
The “strong female character” trope likely evolved from several sources, one of them being the Femme Fatale. This trope came to popularity in the 1940s and ’50s and revolves around a woman who uses her powers of seduction to lure men into a false sense of security. They are women like Catwoman from DC Comics, sensual and deadly. This depiction of women in media was a way to show that women who were empowered, sexual, and confident were dangerous. As society began to move away from this limiting perception of women, female protagonists were given more agency, and the femme fatale evolved into the female superheroes, assassins, and spies that we see in media today.
“Strong female characters” also likely have roots in the goddesses from Greek Mythology. Goddesses like Artemis, Athena, and Aphrodite were allowed to be wise, powerful, and vengeful like their male counterparts. Although patriarchy existed in ancient Greece, they worshipped a surprising number of empowered women.
As they exist today, the “strong female characters” can usually be sorted into one of three categories: braun and brain. Not every female character who is characterized as “strong” fits perfectly into one of these categories, and not every female character in these categories is a poor depiction of a strong woman. However, I think it’s important to identify the archetypes that have become common in our media and recognize their strengths and weaknesses.
This character might be a hard-ass leader like Sergeant Calhoun from Wreck-It-Ralph or Helene Aquilla from An Ember in the Ashes, or she might be a superhero like Wonder Woman from DC Comics. She could be a soldier, an assassin, or a hunter. Whatever form this female character takes, she is defined by her physical strength and, often, her lack of emotions.
She might give the impression that the writer took a male character and changed the name from John to Jane, added boobs, then called it a day. She doesn’t care about her appearance yet still manages to look flawless after every battle. She is the strongest character in her world, but rest assured that the world will still be saved by a man at the end of the day.
Now, there are also good traits to be found within these female characters. First, they’re strong, and they know it. When little girls see women on the big screen or within books who can hold their own physically, they see that they have that same potential. They are not limited to traditional gender roles, and they don’t have to apologize for taking up space. We are lucky to have characters like Mulan who show us that women have the strength and courage to save the day.
The Brain comes in many shapes and sizes, from child prodigies to the smartest kid in the grade. We’ve grown up with Annabeth Chase, Matilda Wormwood, and Meg Murry, showing us that it’s okay to own our intelligence. These ladies didn’t mind being the odd one out, but there are still weaknesses to this archetype.
These girls are often (but not always) “not like other girls.” They don’t care about makeup or other silly, girly things; they only care about the pursuit of knowledge. They are more than happy being surrounded by guys rather than other girls. This depiction of elitism is especially frustrating. It implies that femininity and intelligence are mutually exclusive. Hermione Granger is one of the most egregious offenders in this case and often puts other girls down for being silly and stupid. Characters like Beth Harmon from The Queen’s Gambit show girls that it’s okay to be brilliant and feminine.
Complex Female Characters
Many of the female characters listed thus far are complex characters even though they fall into either the braun or brain categories, while many of them are just “strong.” The problem with writing female characters is writers will often base them on pre-established archetypes rather than real complex people.
It seems that in many genres, writers are getting better at making their female characters complex. We’ve seen amazing characters like Laia from An Ember in the Ashes and Circe from Circe. These characters exist for themselves and not to support a male character or cater to the male gaze.
I hope we never stop seeing badass women with swords in the media, as long as they are complex. Let’s retire the female characters who put down other women and femininity to seems strong. Let’s retire the female characters who have no personality other than punching. Let’s finally replace the divisive “strong female character” with the more realistic “complex female character.”