What makes a “strong female character”?


A few weeks back, thumbing through the New York Times magazine, I happened upon an essay titled, “A Plague of Strong Female Characters.” Oh good, I thought. A plague! Then I scratched my head and paused. Wait a minute. A plague?

Plague, defined, can mean a lot of things as a noun, from contagious bacterial disease, to a curse, to divine punishment, to something that causes trouble or irritation. Strong female characters, in any kind of form, be it film or fiction or video games or top 40 radio, was not something I necessarily turned my nose up at. What was this plague she spoke of?

Carina Chocano’s essay is, at least, aware of the fighting words invoked when you begin a piece by stating, “Every time I hear someone use the term ‘strong female character,’ I want to punch them. The problem is, I hit like a girl.” Cringe! She meanders a bit through some anecdotes before getting to what she’s basically trying to say: “Strong female character” has become shorthand for badass, busy, cold, single and possibly gun-toting women, and she implies that this is problematic.

Detective Deb Morgan on “Dexter”

She also does a wee bit of backpedaling to admit:

Maybe what people mean when they say “strong female characters” is female characters who are “strong,” i.e., interesting or complex or well-written — “strong” in the sense that they figure predominantly in the story, rather than recede decoratively into the background.

Separate or combined, I’m still not sure what the problem with either of these type of characters are. If they’re physically strong and adept fighters, i.e. Angelina Jolie circa Tomb Raider, then we’ve got the positive of a female lead character in an Indiana Jones-type male dominated genre. If they’re driven and independent characters, terrific! See, for example, our recent celebration of strong women in crime drama television, a la Sara Linden of The Killing.

Chocano goes on to draw up her definitions of strong female characters against the idea of a strong male character. A tangible idea, I think. And then:

The insistence on “strong female character” is not bad because it aspires to engender respect, it’s bad because it tries to compensate for an existing imbalance by stacking the deck in favor of the female character, by making her better, more deserving, higher-toned, more virtuous and deserving of respect, somehow… “Strong female characters,” in other words, are often just female characters with the gendered behavior taken out. This makes me think that the problem is not that there aren’t enough “strong” female characters in the movies — it’s that there aren’t enough realistically weak ones.

Chief Nursing Officer Christina Hawthorne on “HawhoRNe”

If I were an academic, I might say that there is a lot to unpack in Chocano’s argument. But since I’m a blogger of lesbian and female-centric pop culture, I’m just gonna say this: There’s a lot going on here. Chocano is basically saying that since female characters have gained more so-called “masculine” traits (workaholic, unattached, tough, not outwardly emotional), they become less realistically female. And that is where Chocano loses me completely, because I’d like to believe you have both. There are female characters (and female people) who carry those so-called “masculine” behavior traits, and female characters who do not. There are girls who light up to see ass-kicking femmes in battle on the big screen, and there are girls who love to watch awesome independent women shirk traditional relationships and drip sarcasm. I’ve yet to find wrong in either.

Call me a super progressive liberal hippie (I can take it!), but I like to look for strong characters, period. And if they’re strong characters who battle a stereotype which pervades gender and cultural norms, all the better.

What do you think about strong female characters? The more the merrier, or a plague upon your houses?

More you may like