Strong Women Characters

A number of people have linked to the article Why Strong Female Characters are Bad for Women.  I’ve read it several times, and while I agree with a lot of what’s said, that title makes me cranky.

Strong female characters are not bad for women (or for men). Stereotypical, cardboard, badly done female characters, on the other hand? Not a good thing. Writers and filmmakers who have no clue how to create a strong female character? Also a bad thing.

A strong female character has to be a character.  Characters are (usually) people.  They have strengths and flaws both.  They have their own goals — which don’t all revolve around a guy — as well as their own fears. They love and hate and yearn and regret.

I’ve found that as soon as the writer tries to define a particular type of character — “This shall be the black character” or “This will be the smart character” or “This will be the strong female character,” then it fails.  The character becomes one-dimensional, defined by that label and a (usually) shallow and stereotypical understanding of how to portray it.

What about strength?  Strong does not mean invulnerable.  Strong does not mean perfect.  Strong does not necessarily mean physical strength.

Strength is my daughter holding back tears after her little brother accidentally hurts her, because she knows if she cries it will upset him.  Strength is my mother calmly shoving chocolate into my dad’s mouth when his blood sugar drops too low.  Strength is Susan Boyle getting up on stage, ignoring the derision of the audience, and singing the crap out of her song.

Sure, strength can also be Uma Thurman kicking ass in Kill Bill — but that’s just one of many kinds of strength.  When that’s the only kind of strength we see, it betrays a serious lack of creativity on the part of the writers. (And Thurman’s character is far from invulnerable.  As the article notes, she is strong, but also flawed and human.)

Lastly, a strong female character has to be female.  This is a “Duh” moment, but I think there are a lot of writers who have a hard time creating realistic female characters. Sometimes women seem to exist only as sexual fantasy objects. Other times people complain the female characters are just “men with boobs.”

Dangerous territory here. I’m not about to try to lecture everyone on what is and isn’t female. Nor am I going to claim I always get it right. What I do know is that sex and gender can affect our experiences and our identity, but they don’t define who we are, and there’s tremendous variety out there.

We’re not getting enough variety in books and TV and movies.  Often we get a few narrow character types and ignore 99% of the female population. And hey, here’s a hint: if you have only a single (strong, of course) female character in your ensemble, it’s extremely difficult to show variety.

So no, I don’t believe strong female characters are bad for women. I do believe that, as a whole, we’re doing a lousy job of writing them.

Discussion and disagreement are welcome, as always.