Strong Female Characters: What Do We Really Need?

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I’ve been sitting on this post for a while, but lately I’ve been talking to Rosa, my brain twin, and the more we talk about it, the more she and I both want to write about feminism, storytelling, and the characters we love.

There have been several posts written already about this, but I wanted to add my own voice to the numerous ongoing conversations. I don’t expect that my voice will necessarily be heard over the din, but I talk about it a lot: to Rosa, to my friend Toni, to myself (yup), and really just to anybody who is even pretending to listen. The hazard of talking about something that lots of people are already talking about is that opinions have been shaped and decisions have been made and people don’t necessarily feel like listening, even if they agree with you. However, here I am, talking about it.

I’m here to discuss the Strong Female Character.

Generally whenever there is a demand for strong female characters, particularly in film and on television, I roll my eyes. There are two reasons for this:

  1. I find that the results of making such demands set us back more than we realize.
  2. I find that “strong” is 100% the wrong word to describe what it is that we want and need.

When I say that demanding strong female characters sets us back, what I mean is that the result usually lets us down in one way or the other. A lot of shows that have a so-called feminist edge can be hurtful overall to feminism and how far we have come. And it’s not completely the fault of the show itself, but also partly due to the audiences watching.

Agent Carter is an example. Not to trash the show, as I do watch and enjoy it, but when it first aired, I was annoyed by the overall response to the show, which I will summarize thusly:

Yeahhhhhh, Agent Carter! Girls can do anything that boys can!

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I don’t want to sound like an asshole but I really recall this being a response to the show. And to some degree I get it. Women may have had the right to vote post-WWII*, but their lives were still very different from our lives now. The men who work with Peggy Carter don’t view her as an equal, even though she too is an agent of the SSR (that’s Strategic Scientific Reserve, if you don’t watch the show). What she does matters very little to them because in their eyes, her status as female makes her less-than.

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However: this is the twenty-first century. “Girls can do anything that boys can” is no longer an appropriate response. For fuck’s sake, guys. Wasn’t that the same message that audiences got from Mulan? And even in 1998, the concept of girls being capable of the same things as boys was by no means a revolutionary idea.

Having this response, in my opinion, sets us back. It’s part of what I call “Hollywood feminism.” The male execs running the show(s) decide to acquiesce to the request for female stars and storylines, in hopes that getting those female characters and storylines will distract us enough that we won’t ask for something else.

If you think I’m just making it up, you’re right. This is a conspiracy theory that I haven’t really backed up. But in some cases I feel that it is at least half-true, and that is how I felt about the response to Agent Carter.

Moving on to my second point, “strong” is not the correct word to describe what we want.

There are many Strong Female Characters in books and movies and on television. I’ll name some: Michonne, Lagertha, Brienne, Mulan, Lexa from The 100, and so on.

The problem here is that strength is more often portrayed and perceived as a physical quality than an emotional one, although a sort of emotional strength is displayed by many female characters. I like a lot of the characters I have named, but it has nothing to do with their strength, physical or emotional. The issue isn’t a quality of the character; it’s the quality of the creator. A good creator is going to treat their characters well: they will have a backstory, a personality that reflects that backstory in addition to whatever outlook they have on life, they will have goals and the capacity within themselves to change (for better or for worse) and most importantly, the creator will be consistent in all of these.

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Here I’m going to use a character who may not be physically strong, but is incredibly written**, and her name is Melisandre. Many readers, and especially people who only watch the show, do not like her. She is easily one of the most hated characters, and Dick & Douche (the producers/writers) have made it so. However, George R.R. Martin has made the comment that she is the most misunderstood character, and has also stated:

Melisandre has gone to Stannis entirely on her own, and has her own agenda.

Part of what I love so much about GRRM in addition to his incredible worldbuilding skills (not just in ASOIAF, but also his 1000 Worlds universe) is how much work he puts into his characters. Each one of his characters, regardless of gender, brings to the table their own strengths, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities. He gives them backstories and has these backstories influence their outlooks on life and personalities in some way. Most importantly, and this is what sells GRRM for me forever and ever and always, is the fact that they all have a) goals and b) the capacity for change.

Part of why Melisandre is so misunderstood is due to how mysterious she truly is. We don’t know a whole lot about her past; she claims to be from Asshai and to have been a slave named Melony. We know that she is a priestess of R’hllor (the Red God) and that she believes that Azor Ahai has or will be reborn. Her hobbies appear to be burning people alive as sacrifices and giving birth to shadowbabies. She also is not impervious to compassion, although we don’t always see this.

However, we don’t know, for example, who her parents are. We don’t know how old she is. We don’t know what her endgame is, although many have guessed. And I am positive that GRRM knows exactly what he is doing with her. While she may not be physically strong and her motivations are dubious, Melisandre is an incredible character who is lucky to have had a very skilled creator who does right by her.

Saying we want “Strong Female Characters” sets us up for failure, due to the perception of the word “strong.” The people in charge would rather take that word literally than put in the work to give us fully-developed characters. I’d say we need “Good Female Characters” but “goodness” is also a quality of character that doesn’t mean what I want it to mean. “Well-Written Female Characters” is a little more on the mark, but when you talk about film and TV, things start to get dicey because of all the people involved with the project who aren’t writers, such as directors and actresses.

Strong Female Characters are problematic for more than one reason, and I’ve listed two of them here. Should we change our perception of the meanings of words or should we change the language we use to describe the characters we love and hate?

What do you think of Strong Female Characters? Do you like or dislike the terminology? Comment below with your thoughts!

*this sentence sounds so clumsy… what I mean here is that women have had the right to vote in the US since the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, so by the time WWII happened, they’d had the right to vote for a while.

**as far as Melisandre goes, GRRM has written an amazing character, and Dan and Dave have done her show counterpart an incredible disservice. Also, Carice van Houten is phenomenal in the role.

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