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What Do You Mean When You Say You Want ‘Strong Female Characters’?

Oh, the strong female character. Holy grail of pop culture, embodiment of all that is empowerment, role model and inspiration for viewers of all genders, proof that women do not need to be shoehorned into stereotypical roles, but can instead spread their wings and fly free. She’s the characterisation many people say they do not see enough of, want more of in their pop culture. Most of those people have a list of women they think of when they hear ‘strong female characters,’ and are happy to provide that list upon request.

But what exactly is a strong female character? Who is defining ‘strong female characters’? Who, specifically, is asking for them? And who is being left out? Discussions about strong female characters have been going round and round for a very long time, both within more insular fandom communities and more public spaces. K. Beaton set off another round of discussion with this Hark, A Vagrant strip depicting one brand of strong female characters, and then there was a New York Times article, and numerous discussions on blogs, and, and, and the discussion continues, endlessly.

Some people appear to be subscribers to what some refer to as the ‘wo-man’ school (and yes, that is a term I cringe to type, because it is laden with oh so very many things); ‘…if watching violence is fun, and watching pretty girls is fun, then pretty violent girls will be fun squared.’ These strong female characters are stoic, physically fit,  badass. They are simplistic and one-dimensional; ‘everything a man can do’ distilled to pure brute physical force. Men in dresses, as it were (that is also a term I cringe to type, but we’re going to be coming back this idea in a bit, so keep it in mind). These strong female characters are made strong through expressions of masculinity of the most stereotyped sort. Put one of these ladies in a refrigerator, and she’ll tear it apart with her teeth and bare hands.

Others seem to believe that the ‘strong’ in ‘strong female characters’ refers not to physical strength, but to complexity and character development; these women are characterized by strong writing, not big muscles. They have depth, they may display emotion. Not too much emotion, of course, because that would be unseemly, but they are more than cardboard cutouts with nice biceps and the emotional depth of a funnel cake. These strong female characters can be your moral role models, with their sassy assertiveness. They demand respect not just for their bodies, but also their minds. Some people even take this a step deeper and argue that flawed women can be strong female characters, if the flaws are written and played well and add depth and meaning to the character instead of trapping her in stereotypeland, but you don’t see that argument coming up very often.

Three women who come up again and again in discussions about strong female characters are Buffy Summers, Veronica Mars, and Kara Thrace. Oddly, I see them getting assigned to both of these categories, depending on who is doing the talking. All three women are physically strong and demonstrate things like martial arts capability, but at times, they are far from stoic. Some of their best moments actually come when they are emotionally vulnerable, whether they are asking for support from the people around them, or flailing. And all three get backed into their fair share of plot traps, too, situations where someone needs to come and save them, in a way that is often specifically framed, for them, as demasculinising. They are no longer ‘just one of the boys’ and have been shown up with weakness. Because, of course, interdependence is ‘weak.’

This theme, of masculinity, is a critical one that runs through demands for strong female characters. Whether people are demanding more characters with what are, effectively, masculine traits, or criticising demands for strong female characters on the grounds that just masculinising women doesn’t do very much to empower them, it is clear that for many people, masculinity is what makes characters ‘strong.’ Not just in the physical sense but also the emotional one, that characters are allowed to show some emotional vulnerability as long as it is controlled and gracefully handled.

These calls for strong female characters start to run into trouble with trans women, nonwhite women, and women of colour in pop culture. Because women in all three of these categories are automatically expected to be strong. It is, in fact, part of their characterisation. Trans women are frequently framed as secret men (ah!) and thus can be expected to display physical strength and emotional toughness, because it’s part of the game the creator wants to play with you. These women aren’t ‘real women,’ because they’re strong. Those masculine traits aren’t empowering, in this case, aren’t an affirmation that girls can do anything. Just the opposite. They are dehumanising and violent. They are a reminder to viewers that trans women are not real because they are really, at heart, masculine. Yet, to depict them as emotionally vulnerable, even fragile, is to play into other stereotypes about women, leaving them in a double bind; they cannot be strong, they cannot be weak. They cannot exist.

Women of colour and nonwhite women have also been subjected to the physically strong, solemn or stoic archetype since time immemorial. When pop culture bothers to include them at all, they are often heavily masculinised. Loud. Oversexed. Spicy. Overwhelming in their physicality. Or, on the flip side of things, especially for Asian women, meek and submissive; objects of sexual fetish. Bodies inherently charged with sexuality that are treated as objects in pop culture narratives. Do we need more ‘strong female characters’ when it comes to women of colour, in a media that repeatedly reiterates stereotypes about stoic, unemotional, physically strong Black women, for example?

Look at Buffy and True Blood’s Tara. The two characters have a lot in common; they’re physically strong, they’re assertive, they’re sassy. They are also both emotionally vulnerable, are sometimes wounded, may scream and cry and pout and stomp. Buffy enjoys a huge following (with a small minority that calls her ‘whiny’) while people pour on the haterade for Tara on a regular basis. She’s too emotional, too screamy, too…much. Buffy’s a strong female character by many people’s lists, but Tara…isn’t. There’s a reason for that.

So really, what people are usually talking about when they talk about the need for ‘strong female characters’ is white cis women, specifically. Emily pointed out in an email when we were discussing this issue that ‘…you have to be assumed weak in the first place for it to be groundbreaking.’ Pop culture routinely positions white women as wilting lilies and delicate flowers, a depiction that dates back centuries, and people understandably want to push back on that.

Women of colour, trans women, and nonwhite women are not, however, treated in the same way. Not now, and not historically. They are already positioned as ‘strong’ and hypermasculine, often in ways that are meant to dehumanise them and make them seem like they aren’t ‘real women;’ Emily pointed out that they are not, culturally, allowed to display emotion, particularly anger, without it being laden with meaning. Depicting such women as ‘strong’ in the stereotyped senses discussed above, with a highlight on stoicism and physical strength, emotional stability and lack of intense emotion, actually isn’t anything new, and is indeed a reinforcement of existing stereotypes.

Demands for strong female characters that go beyond superficial depictions of strength often ask for complexity, depth. These things are denied to most minority characters, who are only allowed to inhabit very shallow depictions. Depth of any form is primarily seen, though, as something that white cis women need, in discussions about strong female characters. They dominate the discussion just as they dominate the screen; they are the leading roles, the most important characters

There’s also a notable erasure of strong female characters when it comes to disability, sometimes erasure in a rather literal sense. DC recently decided to ‘reboot’ Oracle, aka Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl, as a nondisabled character, despite a long, distinguished, and notable representation as a wheelchair using character. strong wheelchair using character. People with disabilities, you see, cannot be strong, so an aberration like Oracle must be destroyed. The only ‘strong’ disabled characters allowed are those who make nondisabled people feel better about themselves by being inspirational and brave. The disability community has protested, but Gail Simone informs us that since ‘some people’ want Oracle cured, one of the best representations of disability in pop culture should be taken away. But you don’t see very many people talking about strong female characters, of any race, trans or cis, when disability is involved; how many Native trans women using wheelchairs in pop culture can you think of?

These discussions about ‘strong female characters’ often elide who is being talked about, and they play into larger narratives that no one seems to want to discuss. Who gets to tell stories? Who gets to be the lead, and who is the sidekick or supporting character? Who is calling for ‘strong female characters’ and what, exactly, do they mean when they say that?


  1. Aslinn Dhan wrote:

    I don’t mean to be nosy but what is CIS?

    Wednesday, August 17, 2011 at 3:03 pm | Permalink
  2. @Aslinn, here’s the definition.

    Wednesday, August 17, 2011 at 6:05 pm | Permalink
  3. Rick wrote:

    To those insisting that vulnerable characters (or characters who only succeed with lots of help and encouragement) should be lionized rather than “capitalist propaganda” heroes, I would really wonder what is so heroic about such pointless “heroes.” Anyone who’s ever had to do something terrifying knows that it’s much easier to do with encouragement. It takes far more courage to act alone in the face of adversity than when you have a chorus of encouragement. It’s not just some evil corporation talking; indeed, the corporation would be smart to insist none of us can function without help or challenge power individually. We admire these lone heroes because their solitary determination and/or fearlessness in the face of incredible obstacles or danger is harder than a team effort. And, no, “true courage” is not about being able to cooperate or whatever. I’m an extremely independent person who has been faced with solitary challenges and challenges which required me to work with a team when I would rather function alone. Inevitably, the former were more psychologically taxing and I doubt many people would truly disagree with me.

    @Sady, I really thought your point about the Catch-22 of trans women was a perceptive point. Much critique of the culture seems to come from a want-it-both-ways angle and I appreciated your acknowledgment that sometimes there is no pleasing everyone.

    On that note, I think that both Elizabeth Bennett (whether in the book or as portrayed by Keira Knightley) and Neytiri are great examples of strong female characters who defy easy characterization. Bennett is obviously spunky and independent, but is not simply immune to the emotional turmoil of being human. Neytiri, while certainly strong (and arguably a “woman of color” portrayal), shows emotional vulnerability, is cooperative, and also demonstrates independence when she feels the right decision requires defiance.

    Monday, August 29, 2011 at 9:16 pm | Permalink
  4. Sady wrote:

    @Rick: Sorry, but this is by S.E., not me!

    Monday, August 29, 2011 at 9:19 pm | Permalink
  5. Rick wrote:

    @Sady: Whoops. Sorry, new to this site, still figuring it out. Not smart I guess, haha.

    Tuesday, August 30, 2011 at 2:03 am | Permalink
  6. Jaffa wrote:

    @Val: +1 for Jane Tennison – she is way underknown/underdiscussed. Seriously, people, go watch Prime Suspect. The best part is the explicitly feminist plot, which is a combination of depressingly realistic (in terms of how her fellow officers treat her) and kicking ass and taking names. The second best part is how in every episode, someone says “Prime suspect.”

    Wednesday, August 31, 2011 at 11:58 am | Permalink
  7. Addie wrote:

    I agree, I would much rather see a REALISTICALLY flawed woman than “Super-hot-perfect-girl”. What I (and a lot of others) want is Strong Characters, female. Their gender shouldn’t matter very much. They should cry when they’re shot/wounded. They should sass back or even reject “Mr. Oh-so-hot”‘s advances, because they DON’T need a man. How should the ability to bear children affect anything? Well, all it means is that women are able to bear children, and are, on whole, though usually physically weaker, much more dextrous, agile, and have A HIGHER THRESHOLD FOR PAIN. THAT’S ALL. No character is a perfect character. No character should be, or they’re not even a character. I am a storyteller (not writer), so I should know this. If you want a good “perfect” character, you could look at Azula from Avatar, The Last Airbender (tv show). She acts perfect, strong, and a great military mind. She wipes out her enemies in no-time-flat. But under her skin, she had no support growing up in a loveless household, and is socially inept. Eventually she breaks, and her mind goes in the finale, leaving her helpless and terrifying in an insane way.

    Sunday, September 4, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Permalink
  8. Sady wrote:

    @Addie: I wouldn’t say all women can bear children. For one, there are trans ladies. And trans men, some of whom have borne children! So it’s not quite that clear-cut.

    Sunday, September 4, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Permalink