By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)
I planned to post today on “Creating Strong Yet Likeable Female Characters.” As I was researching helpful links to include, I came across a post from the New York Times called “A Plague of Strong Female Characters.” And I realized that, before we can talk about how to make sure strong female characters are also likeable, I first need to cover the inevitable debate over what we mean by strong female character.
In the NYT article, Carina Chocano writes, “I get the feeling that what most people mean or hear when they say or hear strong female character is female characters who are tough, cold, terse, taciturn and prone to scowling. . . in order for a female character to be worth identifying with, she should really try to rein in the gross girly stuff.”
She goes on to conclude that “Strength, in the parlance, is the 21st-century equivalent of virtue. And what we think of as virtuous, or culturally sanctioned, socially acceptable behavior now, in women as in men, is the ability to play down qualities that have been traditionally considered feminine and play up the qualities that have traditionally been considered masculine. Strong female characters, in other words, are often just female characters with the gendered behavior taken out.”
And yes, those stereotypes float around in books and movies—the character that could go from being a woman to a man with a simple name change and a haircut.
But when you think about strong women in real life, is that the image that comes to mind? Because, you see, what makes for a strong female character is exactly what makes for a strong woman.
Strong female characters, like strong women, can enjoy painting their nails, wearing makeup, and putting on a beautiful dress. They can wear stilettos, or ballet flats, or hiking boots. They can be moms, even stay-at-home moms. They can be musicians or cooks or doctors. They can cry. They can comfort a friend. They can listen. And yes, they can even be afraid of bugs.
None of those things define a strong woman or a strong female character.
So what does it mean when we talk about a strong female character?
Strong Female Characters Are Smart
Smart can mean book smart the way a quantum physicist is, but it can also mean a woman with common sense that lets her find creative solutions to everyday problems. Or it can mean a woman who’s talented with using her hands and can paint a picture or fix a car.
She has a skill that earns respect and contributes to society. Her intelligence makes her competent, able to help others, and not totally dependent on another person for her entire existence. (Some dependence is okay—none of us are entirely self-sufficient.)
Hermione Granger’s character in Harry Potter didn’t “play down qualities that have been traditionally considered feminine and play up the qualities that have traditionally been considered masculine,” yet she was a strong female character largely because of her intelligence and magical talent. She contributed to the search for Horcruxes in a meaningful way, so much so that Ron (in the movie version) admitted, “We wouldn’t last two days without her.”
Strong Female Characters Act
We’ve all seen the female character who stands by when she clearly should have acted. As much as I love the classic The Princess Bride, would it have killed Buttercup to whack the ROUS with a stick while it was gnawing on Wesley? A strong woman would have defended her beloved.
When she can, a strong female character escapes on her own rather than waiting for someone else to rescue her. Tameri Etherton wrote an excellent post on Danielle from Ever After, a strong female character who worked to change her bad situation.
A strong female character also makes decisions, rather than always waiting on someone else to call the shots. Captain Kathryn Janeway in Star Trek: Voyager listens to advice from Chakotay (her male first officer) and Tuvok (her male chief of security), but she doesn’t always take it, and if they’re not there to advise her, she’s strong enough to act on her own.
The difference between a strong female character who acts and a weak one who simply reacts is the difference between Buffy and Bella.
Strong Female Characters Stand Up for What They Believe In
Whether or not you agree with all the decisions made by President Laura Roslin in Battlestar Galactica, she stood up for what she thought was right. From sending Starbuck back to Caprica to retrieve the Arrow of Apollo (that’s supposed to help lead them to Earth) to fixing the election to prevent sniveling Dr. Gaius Baltar from being elected, she didn’t sit by if what was happening violated her beliefs of right and wrong.
She might be frightened and injured, and risking great loss, but as her hands shake and tears well up in her eyes, a strong woman stands up for what she believes in.
A strong female character, like a strong woman, can stand side-by-side with a man, confident in the knowledge that they are different but nevertheless equal.
How do you define strength in a woman? What do you think goes into a strong female character?