Hell Yes, We Need Strong Female Characters

joss-whedon-strong-female-charactersThere’s seems to be a lot of rumbling lately over whether or not female characters – both in books and movies – should be labeled “strong.” Some authors have come out in vehement abhorrence of the term. But I think it’s not only needed, it’s necessary. Here’s why.

As women in the 21st century, we live in an in-between time. Our mothers and grandmothers paved the way for the rights we enjoy today with the feminist revolution. Thanks to them, we are accepted (mostly) in the workplace, have sexual harassment laws in place (that protect us some of the time) and are on our way toward shattering the glass ceiling. But that doesn’t mean we’re there yet. We still don’t have equal pay, are still objectified by the media (see the arguments about how women are portrayed in video games and comic books if you want examples) and are still “slut shamed” in cases of rape and sometimes just for being female (see the #yesallwomen Twitter hashtag), just to name a few. And that’s only here in America. Around the world women have much worse laws and traditional viewpoints to live under. We and our children and grandchildren will be the ones to finally bring about equality.

That is the point at which the word “strong” will no longer be needed. I agree with authors who say strong women should be the default portrayal and we shouldn’t need to call it out. But we’re not there yet. For every one She-ra or Buffy there are a dozen Bellas, good little women content to play the traditional subservient role. Until that mindset ends, we need the distinction because it helps women, especially young, impressionable girls, see and internalize the difference.

Part of the debate is semantics. By strong, do we mean physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually or something else entirely? When I use the term, I mean all of the above. To me, “strong” is about sovereignty and agency – the ability as a woman to take your life into your own hands and make your own choices (or the development thereof, if you don’t start out in a position of strength).

Last week, an article appeared in the Huffington Post asking if Katniss Everdeen is really a strong female character. While the article was good, to me, it posed one of the dumbest questions ever. Of course she is. Even if you only look at the physical aspect, Katniss won the Games. Mentally? Yep. She started a revolution by nearly ending her own life in order not to give in to the rules of the Games, which she felt were wrong. Emotionally, she has to be strong to endure all she does in the trilogy without losing her mind.

Yes, Hollywood is obsessed with physical strength. They are obsessed with physical everything, and that is due in part to the nature of film: it’s a visual medium. Physical strength is much easier to show in a movie, so that’s what they focus on. Mental, emotional and especially spiritual strength is much more subtle. We have only a few actresses with the talent to portray those roles.

But I think the bigger issue is that roles embodying these less obvious types of strength aren’t being sold (note I didn’t say they weren’t being written) to major production houses because Hollywood doesn’t trust that people will go to see them. Sex, violence and things that go boom are (or at least seem to be) what draw people to theaters. Until that changes, we aren’t likely to see many women who embody strength that isn’t, to quote Natalie Portman, “macho.”

And even if physically strong female characters isn’t the right definition of “strong,” it’s a darn good start. Humans are imitative creatures; it’s how we learn. So what if our girls want to be like these women? We have an obesity epidemic in this country; girls being more active can only help their health. Plus, women who can defend themselves are less likely to be victims of physical or sexual abuse. If you need another reason, studies about body image have shown over and over that when women feel good about their bodies, their overall confidence increases. That can lead positive changes in the emotional, mental and spiritual aspects of life. Having a kick-ass woman as a role model is certainly much healthier than watching one who succumbs to or tolerates various types of abuse.

One of the other things I often see cited in this argument about strong female characters is that a female main character can’t be strong if she’s part of a love triangle. There was one in The Hunger Games (even though I never felt like Gale stood a chance). There’s one in all of my books. So what? Life is full of them. Competing for a mate is in our animalistic human nature. If the story was reversed, would it make a man any less macho to have two women fighting over him? Nope. Actually, it would have the opposite effect.

In a previous Spellbound Scribes post, I said I was going to get this tattoo to remind me I'm a strong woman and have a duty to create strong female characters, and I did! http://spellboundscribes.wordpress.com/2014/05/12/we-are-all-the-dragons-daughters-what-a-got-video-taught-me-about-strong-women/

In a previous Spellbound Scribes post, I said I was going to get this tattoo to remind me I’m a strong woman and have a duty to create strong female characters, and I did! http://spellboundscribes.wordpress.com/2014/05/12/we-are-all-the-dragons-daughters-what-a-got-video-taught-me-about-strong-women/

And God forbid a female character wants to be part of the love triangle (with at least one of the men). Then she’s seen as traditional and weak. If she wants to get married and have kids, forget it – she’s a pariah in some feminist circles. Since when did wanting love, romance, family and companionship become equated with being not strong? Somewhere along the way, we’ve gotten this warped mindset that occasionally needing help or wanting a partner to share the burdens of life with is a bad thing if you want to be seen as strong. That’s crap. We all need help. And you know what? Sometimes we do need rescuing, just as men do. We’re meant to be there for one another, not push each other way. Love is something we all desire. It’s great for a woman to be independent, but no one can get through life alone. As long as she stands up for what she believes in, is true to herself and doesn’t rely on a man to save her, then a woman is strong.

I hope I live to see the day when the phrase “strong female character” is replaced with “female character.” But until then, I’m going to do everything I can to create characters who are strong in every way. In my Arthurian books, Guinevere is physically strong, but she’s also resourceful. She doesn’t sit around waiting for her champion to get her out of jams; she comes up with her own escape plans. Isolde, on the other hand, has no fighting skills, but she’ll talk circles around any man because she is smart and clever.  In He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not, Annabeth wants to find her other half, to fall in love and have a family, but that doesn’t make her weak. She stands up for the principles she believes in, refuses to be dominated by those who try (both male and female), and takes her fate into her own hands. And there are many more characters where they came from. I just haven’t gotten them down on paper yet.

Just as there are many personalities in the world, there are many types of strength. And there’s room on the bookshelf for all of them – the courageous ovarian cancer patient, the female survivor of war, the aspiring mom-to-be who refuses to settle in her choice of a husband, the ambitious female college student who dreams of being CEO, and even the fantasy superhero. We need all of these examples so that every woman has a strong hero to look up to, no matter where her life and her dreams may take her.

What do you think about the phrase “strong female character?” Is it necessary? Who are some of your favorite “strong” book heroines? Is there one that has changed your life or to whom you especially relate? Please share your stories below.

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17 thoughts on “Hell Yes, We Need Strong Female Characters

  1. Your post expressed how I feel about “strong female characters” and why I think the term/concept is needed. Thank you for pointing out how there are different types of strength as well! My oldest book (and screen) role models when I grew up were Jo March from Little Women, Princess Leia (and Mara Jade) in Star Wars, Yoko Tsuno from the eponymous comic book series and Dana Scully in the X-Files. These women don’t live in the same place and time and are very different, but they all are strong women on different levels. Since then I have liked many other strong women characters but the list would go very long if I started to do this, even if I just stuck to Science Fiction!

    • Glad you liked the post, Natacha! It’s interesting how we find more strong female characters in sci-fi/fantasy than contemporary and historical fiction. That needs to change and it’s up to us to do it!

  2. This post is brilliant. I’ve had to explain, or better put, justify, how I wrote my female main character, because, in some people’s view, because she had an affair – engaged in a triangle, as it may be – voluntarily, she cannot be considered a strong character. Uh, what? The girl literally spews fire and fights her way across two worlds per book. She’s allowed to have flaws. Not even Xena, the Warrior Princess was without her shortcomings. And if she had an affair, then hey – that’s on her. It does make for a plotline, in any case.
    There’s no one-method-fits-all to strong characters, male or female. This is why we keep writing…

    • Hi Kat! I totally agree with you. Guinevere has an affair and she is certainly still strong. As you say, it’s up to the character and her choices. I’m so glad you liked the post!

  3. Well said, Nicole! ‘Strong’ women in fiction can be mentally and physically strong, but in my books, which are set in the macho world of politics, women have to be resourceful and intelligent to play the men at their own game. I have one main female character but she gets more done than any of the men! I also am a bit of a gamer and despair at some of the anti-women games out there, but there has been changes over recent years with strong female leads. But you’re right, although things have improved it shouldn’t be that we’re still having this debate in the 21st century.

  4. I totally agree that we need strong female characters, and I’m guessing that phrase will continue for a long while. That’s because of articles like the Huffington Post asking if Katniss Everdeen is a strong female character. Well, duh. There are so many male heroes, especially in these years where comic book hero movies are EVERYWHERE — and most of those are guys. Some of those movies are actually good, but they offer very little in the way of heroines. Still, there are strong women characters out there, and let’s hope, like Katniss Everdeen, they continue kicking butt.

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  6. Excellent post! And you make some really good arguments for the use of “strong” to continue to describe female characters, at least for now. And you make a really good point about how women who do choose love or family can end up vilified, which is wrong, and that having physically strong heroines could help urge girls to combat obesity.

    I personally don’t always like the term “strong” because it feels limiting and is often only applied to physical strength, so I like the word “independent” better. But that can also have an isolating connotation, so we’re back to semantics. But as long as people keep writing female characters who are strong, independent, complex individuals, then I guess it doesn’t matter what label we give them.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    • Hi Kat,

      Glad you liked the post. I get your point about the use of “independent” vs. “strong.” I can see why you like that better. As you say, it’s a matter of semantics. I think different words resonate with different people. Thanks for commenting!

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