Editorials

The Myth of the “Strong Female Character”

Ah, feminism, is there a more confusing -ism that just boils the blood and makes the hair on your arm stand on end? I’m sure you’re probably wondering where this is coming from and/or preparing to call me an uber feminist or a femi-nazi or some such variant that implies that I have a vendetta against men. Quite the opposite. I happen to like men. I occasionally have crushes on, fall in love with, or lust about men. As is my right. The purpose of this article is to give you an idea of my little pet peeve about the perception of “strong, female characters” in movies, television, and comic books. In fact, I’d really like to call a moratorium on the use of “strong, female character” to describe women in media or as a reason to get me interested in any of those mediums mentioned above. Why? Because “strong, female character” is basically code for “scantily clad women toting weapons without a lick of personality and/or character development.” It also seems to be a synonymous with “empowering,” which is just a special kind of insulting.

Strong Female Characters by Kate Beaton

The reason I’m opening up this oh so loaded can of worms has its origins in a particular conversation I had with a gentleman at Bellingham Comicon last Saturday. Myself and a friend were walking around when this gentleman, sitting behind his table, signaled me over. Now, I’m a big supporter of comic book conventions because they give all us geeks a chance to get together and be who we are without fear of judgment to a certain degree. I’m also open to looking at independent and creator-owned comics because they offer another avenue of storytelling that the big two often don’t. So my friend and I walked over and started talking to him. As the conversation progressed, I started noticing the phrase “strong, female character” occurring regularly as he described the different books he was selling. One book in particular featured a woman in a crop-top, bare midriff, with Daisy Duke shorts and a shotgun across her shoulders. This, he said, was justified because she was a “strong, female character”. In fact, he said that it was okay to have female characters in comics with bare midriff and big boobs as long as they were “strong, female characters”. At no point in this conversation did he mention any other character traits because apparently being a woman means I will automatically latch on to any character that is “strong” and “female”.

I’ll admit, I probably gave him the impression that this schtick might work what with my being female and wearing a Wonder Woman t-shirt and my Big Barda tattoo clearly visible. But I was also wearing a Flash necklace and there wasn’t much conversation that dealt with him. I will also concede that this man was not trying to be an ass about it. He was clearly trying to get me and my friend interested in his product and thought those particular buzz words would be enough. This is where the problem lies. “Strong, female character” is used so often it’s the equivalent of saying “going rogue” or “game changer”. The more you say the words, the more meaningless they become. What the hell is a “strong, female character” and why does she have to be so distinctly identified? Why don’t we use “strong, male character” as a description? By emphasizing the word strong in conjunction with female, there’s an implication that female characters are inherently weak and, therefore, we have to make certain that this particular character we’re promoting is made more prominent by being referred to as “strong”.

But what do they mean by “strong”? Does it imply that a female character is physically strong, mentally strong? Does she have fortitude? A heart of gold? The ability to balance a family and a career while still maintaining a sense of self and accomplishment? Strong is such a generic word that it could pretty much encompass everything I just laid out. Its non-specificity makes it easy to say without having to explain the circumstances under which “strength” is required. Female characters are strong because…? Well, Lifetime and Oxygen seem to think that women are “strong” because they overcome either a certain obstacle or their own circumstances, which is why most of their movies deal with cancer, verbal and physical abuse, and rape. Ya know, because the only way to show that a woman has strength is for her to overcome the most traumatic of experiences. Video games are even less forthcoming with what makes a female character strong. There are two exceptions: Samus Aran and Lara Croft. Both characters exhibit intelligence, cunning, an ability to take a lot of punishment from alien monsters or ancient booby traps, and they save the world from time to time. Unfortunately, revamps and new games diminished their characters entirely. Samus became dependent on male approval before she’d literally do anything and the writers for the next Tomb Raider game flat out stated that Lara Croft’s origin involved her nearly getting raped as a means of showing how badass she became because she had to fight back. Because badass women need a reason to be badass.

And then there’s Sucker Punch. Let me be clear, if you like Sucker Punch, that’s fine. You’re well within your right to like the movie. I’m actually a huge fan of Zack Snyder’s aesthetic and his adaptations of 300 and Watchmen. But saying that Sucker Punch is about “strong, female characters” and “empowering women” is like saying Jaws is about a misunderstood fish who just wants to be loved. Sucker Punch is a male fantasy about female empowerment in that the main character, Babydoll (none of the women in this movie have real names, by the way), allows herself to be put in a mental institution by her abusive stepfather/uncle (?) where said male figure makes a deal with an orderly to get her a lobotomy so she won’t talk. It’s also heavily alluded to that the orderly is abusing and, more than likely, raping the girls. Babydoll, who doesn’t speak until 20 minutes into the movie, retreats into a fantasy world where she and her fellow inmates are whores who dance for a male audience (empowerment!). Babydoll, apparently an idiot savant at bumping and grinding, retreats into yet another fantasy realm full of CGI video game set pieces whenever she dances where she and her friends wield guns, swords, and wear skimpy outfits as they fight because…feminism? Movie Bob over at the Escapist has a couple videos addressing why everything I’ve just said is wrong about the movie, and why I don’t “get it”. But here’s the thing, if someone else has to explain to me all of the “layers” of Sucker Punch in a way that the writer/director couldn’t, I’m gonna say the movie has failed on some level.

Just for funzies, would you like to know who my favorite superhero is? Batman. Why? Because Batman is a hero without super powers who uses his mind and intellect to solve crimes. He’s also one of the most complex characters in comic books. After losing his parents, he devoted the rest of his life to making sure that the same crime would never happen to another child. He’s a psychologically scarred, obsessively driven individual who dresses as a bat so he can scare the shit out of the criminal element of Gotham City. But his obsession often leads him to alienate those closest to him, usually his many wards and colleagues. He skirts the line between hero and villain every time he leaves the bat-cave and a lot of people are convinced he’s just as crazy as the people he puts in Arkham Asylum. See Jack’s article for more on that! My point here is that in my run-down of the reasons why I love Batman, though I use the pronoun “he”, I didn’t say I like him because he’s a “strong, male character”. I like him because he’s an identifiable character and that has nothing to do with the fact that he’s a man.

The same is true of Wonder Woman and Big Barda. Are they women? Yes. Is that the reason I like them? NO!! Wonder Woman is a skilled fighter capable of great compassion for those in need of help. Go read Greg Rucka’s Hiketeia if you want a really good example of how far Wonder Woman will go for a person in need, even someone we wouldn’t think deserves her compassion. Though recent events in the comics have revealed her true parentage, Wonder Woman has had to prove her worth to her sister Amazons and show them that she is more than just “clay”. She’s also an emissary, an example of nobility and composure that she takes to heart who’s not afraid to kick butt when it’s required. Barda is similarly superpowered, but she’s possessed of a great, fiery temper that makes her quick to react when threatened. She’s got a wicked sense of humor, she loves her husband, and she’s not even the slightest bit fazed by fighting a dragon. She’s also been the victim of torture at the hands of Darkseid’s minions, but fought back to earn her freedom from Apokolips. Both women exhibit identifiable and relatable character traits that are not restricted to being female.

It would be hypocritical of me to say that being female doesn’t factor into my reasons for liking Wonder Woman and Barda entirely. If anything, I see them as exemplary characters that I would want to introduce to my children some day. Girls and boys need role models and they often find them in television shows, movies, cartoons, and, yes, comic books. But I want to emphasize that character is the word we should be focusing on, not whether the person is male or female. A character goes through a journey, a character arc, if you’ll allow me to use the proper terminology. Though comic books often have the luxury of long-form storytelling to achieve character arcs (your mileage may vary on that), movies and even television have a shorter time frame in which to give a character room to develop. Whether it’s two hours or a season of television, we expect characters to have gone through some kind of experience that changes them for better or worse, in big leaps or small steps. Why? Because characters adapt. Characters change. Characters experience the ups and downs of life.

In my parting thoughts, here’s a little litmus test for when someone tries to sell you on a “strong, female character.” Ask them why. If someone says Buffy Summers is a “strong, female character” your follow-up should be, “Why?” If they can’t answer said questions with any actual personality traits, character flaws, or give you a plausible storyarc, then you can move on as that person clearly doesn’t have you in mind as an actual reader, viewer, or gamer. They think that using those words will draw you in and that isn’t right. The “strong, female character” is a myth. Women are simply characters and should be treated as such regardless of gender.

About the author

Samantha Cross

Sam is a self-described "sponge for information" soaking up little tidbits here and there that make her the perfect partner on pub trivia night! Hailing from the beautiful Pacific Northwest, she indulges her nerdy and geeky qualities by hanging out at the local comic book shop, reading anything she can find, and voicing her opinion whether you welcome it or not. An archivist and historian, she will research any and all things and will throw down if you want to quote Monty Python, Mel Brooks, or The Simpsons!

17 Comments

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  • Brilliantly stated, Sam. I’ve had creators of all types pitch things to me based on these traits and you’fe eloquently stated things similar to what I’ve wanted to say. I am a huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and I think Joss has great character development for all of his characters, not just the ladies. They’re flawed, they grow, they may have some moral flexibility, but above all they don’t just fit into one category.

    In terms of sexism in general, I vehemently dislike when someone tells me “Oh, you just like Captain America because Chris Evans is hot.” Well, sir or madam, yes he’s attractive and maybe the film helped get me interested in the character of Cap. But he stands for so much and is such an Icon in American cultural history. As an American historian it would be hard for me NOT to be drawn to the character.

    I’m reminded of journalists who ask actresses like Scarlett Johannson how they prepare for a role like Black Widow. Because gees it must be hard getting into the mindset of a strong female. Guess it’s harder than for these male actors who get to be tough guys all the time. Heaven forbid we not live in a world where people do not have to be pegged into these gendered roles.

  • Thanks, Natasha! I too find Chris Evans hot, and, yes, sometimes that is a motivation to see a movie he’s in, but there have been several movies starring really ridiculously good-looking men that I haven’t seen. It all boils down to taste and what movies you’re into. Myself and several of my girl friends are huge action movie fans, but we’ve never once looked at an all male cast and been all “Ya know what this movie needs? A token female character that is clearly only here to get women to see the movie.”

    That’s when it becomes insulting to me. I don’t care if an action movie stars only men, but when they add a woman just because they think that will pull in female viewers, it’s stupid. There was actually an article when The Avengers came out that was geared towards women as a primer for who the characters were in case their significant other decided to drag them to the movie. Because women apparently don’t like superhero movies. Thank God Joss Whedon made Black Widow more interesting in The Avengers and he did it in a way that allowed her to utilize that perceived weakness a man like Loki would try to exploit and turned it right back on him. Well played.

  • And speaking of Barda, I can’t wait for her to be reintroduced in the New 52 universe. There are quite a few New Gods I’m intrigued for.

  • I like Buffy plenty, but after she died and came back it really wasn’t the same show, so I won’t accuse you of blasphemy, Hilton. Not yet, at least. It’s always going to be one of those “what ifs” surrounding what might have been had Firefly continued past the first thirteen episodes.

    And I’ve got my fingers crossed for the reintroduction of Barda and Mister Miracle. If you’ve already got Darkseid and Orion showing up, the New Gods can’t be far behind!

  • I think that part of the problem is the phrase itself: “strong female character.” Are female characters generally not strong? Are strong characters generally not female? Historically, (and I can really only speak intelligently from a film standpoint here) the answer to both questions has, sadly, been no. But back to my point. As enlightened beings of the 21st century I don’t think we can, in good conscience, continue to use the phrse “strong female character,” in which female acts as a qualifier. How about just saying: “Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley is a really strong character.” End of story.

    • I would say yes, generally, in many movies geared towards nerds, the female characters are scenic vixen or love foil or victim. We don’t get to have a lot of Meryl Streeps. So I would argue “Strong female character” is not a poorly chosen phrase.

      • I completely agree Bex; even when we do get characters like Ripley, she is overtly feminized in some way to make her less “threatening” (e.g. she’s blowin’ shit up one second, and gently covering the eyes of her “adopted daughter” Newt in the next – she can be strong, but she also has to be a mother). I’m not suggesting that femininity is mutually exclusive to strength, but I think the way that we begin to move away from what you’re talking about (e.g. women solely as vixens and love interests) is by taking “female” out of the equation as a qualifier.

  • The problem, at least in my opinion, is in the thought process that character identification is entirely gender specific. Of course guys love action movies because it’s all about blowing shit up and walking away from explosions. The only way a woman would go see that movie is if there’s a female character involved. Unfortunately, that female character is just as much eye candy for men. It’s the same for romantic comedies. Hollywood just assumes women will go see the movies, so they have to find a way to entice men to go as well.

    God forbid a movie come out that just happened to have a good story, nuanced characters, action/comedy/romance, and appeals to men and women. I think the collective minds of Hollywood would explode because they wouldn’t know what to do afterwards – probably make enough sequels to tarnish all the good faith built by the first movie.

  • Sam, you know I love you, but I have to take issue with assuming that all men love action movies because they’re about “blowing shit up and walking away from explosions.” Not all guys love action movies, and not all guys who DO love action movies love those parts the best. Moreover, *I* love action movies because shit gets blow’d up, and Bruce Willis sometimes steps out of moving vehicles holding a pistols like BAMF. And honestly, I could care less if there’s a woman involved.

    I personally think there ARE moves that have good stories, nuanced characters, action/comedy/romance, that can appeal to both men and women. I think it MAY depend a bit on personal taste of course (e.g. I think R.E.D. would fit the bill, personally).

    But just as we need to stop putting qualifiers in our “strong character” statements, we should also stop making gender-based assumptions on movie genre preferences (I know Hollywood does is, but I’m not sure we should follow the leads of folks that are, all-to-often, No Talent Ass Clowns [I’m looking at you Bay]).

    I miss you, Sam!!

    • I miss you too, Rachel!

      And a fair point about gender qualifiers for movies. I was trying to say that Hollywood makes those assumptions (i.e. men like action movies, women like rom-coms) and they try to market those movies to the gender they assume will go regardless and then try to find a way to include the other. It just seems to be part of the Hollywood machine. Of course, that’s not the case. You KNOW I love action movies (how many times did I want to watch The A-Team or The Losers?) Hell, I could have the first Die Hard on in the background all day and never get tired of it! And that’s a movie that’s full of explosions, great character development, and one of the best movie villains of all time! Alan Rickman! I mean, Hans Gruber! And, yes, there are definitely movies that are appealing across the board, which is entirely subject to personal taste, but Hollywood loves to categorize, so when I see articles that are meant to be “primers” for women about the characters in The Avengers so they’ll know who’s who when their boyfriend takes them to the movie, I feel just a skosh insulted. Then again, not everybody pours over the detailed history of comics the way I do, so to each their own, I guess.

      And yeah, Michael Bay is just the worst! 🙂

  • Great article. I think when they say “strong female character” it’s by opposition to the (sadly ever present) one-dimensional “love interest” type character. The Mary Jane, Lois, Mary sues of the fictional world, whose sole purpose is to give the “hero” a haven of warm arms to fall back to, or alternatively to be rescued occasionally.
    So maybe they saw Alien or Terminator 2, and said “hey women can be strong characters”. And just ran with it.
    I know my brothers fell in love (literally) with Princess Leia because up to then, the female characters in movies geared toward men, were one dimensional cardboard cutouts and Leia, flawed as she is in retrospect (she’s still a love interest, two actually, and she spends a quarter of Episode 6 in a bikini), it was a revelation for them that a woman could be interesting on her own through other aspects. To this day, when they talk about her, they say she’s a “strong female character”, one of the first they thought was cool but not necessarily because they wanted her. They knew she’d kick their ass if they even tried. I don’t think they mean it in a disrespectful or reducing way. Quite the opposite.

    • Thank you!

      It’s always a mixed bag trying to talk about a subject like this without falling into the same trap of gender qualifiers (which I unfortunately do from time to time). It’s really interesting that Leia was the one that your brothers were attracted to as a character. Interesting in that it makes totaly sense when you think that Leia was introduced in 1977, preceding Sarah Conner and Ellen Ripley, as the archetypical “strong female character.” Yes, she’s the love interest, wears a “slave” outfit for a bit of Return of the Jedi, and one of only two women in a galaxy far, far away, but she displays a lot of nuance and personality in all three movies. She kicks all kinds of ass, cares deeply for her cause and the fate of the galaxy, shows warmth and love for the people she cares about, and can verbally shut anyone down!

  • I was just thinking about this not too long ago after I was trying to quantify why I didn’t enjoy G.I. Joe: Retaliation.

    Don’t get me wrong, the movie tried so, very, very hard to be fun. But then there’s the movie version of Lady Jaye.

    I have nothing against the actress Adrienne Palicki, but there wasn’t much there for her to work with. It hit me that she wasn’t allowed to be a full on character.

    She was The Action Girl. She had to be tough, smart, capable and infallible.

    I know there’s only so much time in a movie to create a full on character, especially an ensemble piece but still…….If not for the credits, I would not even be able to name her character.

    And the worst part is, she’s not the only female character in the film! Jinx (why yes, I do remember her from the animated movie) somehow manages to leave even less of an impression!

    A woman with a gun does not equal a strong female character. A strong character in general has a fully formed personality, you understand who they are and (more importantly) who they aren’t. As a Bat-fan, I know when an out-of-character moment happens and it tells me the writer doesn’t know what they’re doing.

    However, a well-armed blank slate is not a character, it’s a prop with dialogue. Not unlike an SUV that started getting snarky with the driver. Man, I wish someone else was directing Transformers….

    Anyway, I absolutely agree that a strong character is a strong character regardless of gender.

    And don’t get me started on Sucker Punch……….

    • Though I’ve now credited her, I didn’t initially because the illustration was meant to emphasize how ridiculous and sexist the phrase “strong female character” has become, which was Beaton’s intention as well. Just an oversight, though I tend not to put a lot of links and captions in my articles. That being said, I met Kate Beaton at Emerald City Comicon a few years ago and she was the sweetest person. She drew a Revolutionary soldier in my copy of her first collected volume.

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