Strong Female Character

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See also: Misogyny in Fandom, Mary Sue, Fuck You, She's Awesome
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Strong Female Character is a fraught phrase in both media creator circles and in fandom. It has a variety of definitions, which often results in arguments over whether a particular female character qualifies and whether the term is at all useful in promoting greater gender equality in media.

Definition

Definitions of strong female characters can vary radically from person to person. Some define it as female characters who are three-dimensional, interesting, and complex; characters who can act as points of identification for audience members.[1][2] Others define it as female characters who are physically strong, mentally strong, have a strong personality, etc.[3] Still others define strong female characters as essentially female versions of men, with traits primarily defined as masculine.[4]

In Interstat Issue 23, G.M. C asked:

Perhaps someone should define the term "strong women" before we start another war over women in treklit. "Strong" in what way? Female weight-lifters? or, the "strong, take-charge woman" Jean Lorrah mentions? or even the "brutally aggressive, insensitive, slovenly, foul mouthed, and promiscuous" imitation man [Mary Lou D] says appears to be chosen for the "Liberated Woman" image...??? I'd say that the Vulcan T'Pau is possibly the 'strongest' female character in ST, though certainly not in physical prowess nor imitation masculinity. Vanna ("Cloud Minders") was no weakling, neither was Eileen ("Friday's Child") nor those insufferable females in "Plato's Stepchildren" whose delicate femininity was all on the surface. What kind of 'strength' are we debating?… So what standards are we judging by? What makes a female character 'strong'? If you want just muscles, how about Tamoon, Checkov's Drill-Thrall on Triskelion? That was one plenty strong woman![5]

Fandom sometimes fights over whether a female character counts as strong if she incorporates stereotyped behavior, clothing, romantic relationships, etc.

Development of the Term

The concept of "strong female character" is decades old. Variations of the term can be seen in arguments in fanzines from the 1970s,[5][6] and it is a term found in media creator circles since that period as well.

Over the decades, the use of "Strong Female Character" in media to refer to women who are defined as strong in some way but are subject to existing (or new) sexist tropes has caused some female fans to reject the phrase entirely, or to lampoon it.[7] Sophia McDougall explains:

Nowadays the princesses all know kung fu, and yet they’re still the same princesses. They're still love interests, still the one girl in a team of five boys, and they’re all kind of the same. They march on screen, punch someone to show how they don’t take no shit, throw around a couple of one-liners or forcibly kiss someone because getting consent is for wimps, and then with ladylike discretion they back out of the narrative’s way.

On the posters they’re posed way in the back of the shot behind the men, in the trailers they may pout or smile or kick things, but they remain silent. Their strength lets them, briefly, dominate bystanders but never dominate the plot. It’s an anodyne, a sop, a Trojan Horse - it’s there to distract and confuse you, so you forget to ask for more.[8]

Sometimes supposedly strong female characters in media are deliberate spoofs, used to ridicule feminism or women's requests for better representation.[9]

Difficulties in Portrayal

Strong female characters are inherently mired in the misogyny of the culture they're created in. Thus, there are several obstacles to their creation, development, portrayal, and reception. Fan fights over who even qualifies as a strong female character occasionally flare up, as in the case of the notorious Female Character Flowchart from Overthinking It.

Race

While many white women see strong female characters, particularly independent ones, as a progressive step away from the common trope of passive, submissive love interests, the same is not true for many black women.

Take the Strong Woman who isn’t there to be loved. White women love this trope, because white women in media are so often primarily seen as love interests. I can understand how that can be frustrating, and how it can be refreshing to see, say, Furiosa in Mad Max. But – and this is important – the Strong Woman trope, applied to a Black woman, reads entirely differently, and to ignore that ignores intersectionality altogether.

Black women have almost never been the ones who need protecting in media. Black women aren’t sick and tired of always being love interests. The Strong Independent Woman (thanks in part to fandom repeatedly using the term to try and keep women of color in their romance-free place) has become virtually a slur when it comes to Black women in media in the same way the Damsel in Distress makes white women’s skin crawl. If you care about intersectionality at all, it’s important to understand that. The experience of Black women in media is the Bizarro World version of white women’s experience.

[...]

Abbie Mills is a tough, independent badass – but Katrina embodied “womanhood,” precious and pure. Michonne is a tough, independent badass – but Jessie embodies “womanhood.” And on and on.

It has been said so many times, but it hardly ever seems to sink in: It is progressive and feminist for Black women to be the precious ones, the love interests, the damsels who need saving.[10]

Undermining in Canon

Female characters who start off strong are often later subjected to tropes that undermine their initial strength, such as fridging,[11] damseling,[12] sudden and inexplicable incompetence,[13] sidelining,[14] transformation into eye candy,[15] sudden and overwhelming romantic interest,[16] etc.

In addition, they may be subjected to tropes not portrayed in a fashion that supports their complexity and audience identification with them, but which instead evoke audience pity and promote objectification and victimization. Some tropes which can be used this way include break the cutie, mind control, sexual assault, terminal illness, etc.

Fan Backlash

Fans, particularly male fans of established canons, sometimes react very badly to the inclusion of new strong female characters in an existing franchise. For example:

  • Tauriel in the Hobbit movies was only one of several women added to the storyline, but she became a major target for hate online even before the second movie was released.[17]
  • The Ghostbusters 2016 reboot faced a similar backlash for replacing the male characters with strong female characters.[18]
  • The Furiosa Test was created to describe this type of backlash in positive terms, indicating that any character who receives such a backlash is probably receiving it because she is a strong female character. It was named after Furiosa, the lead character in the Mad Max: Fury Road movie, which inspired a sexist backlash.[19]

Sometimes even completely new franchises can suffer from similar responses, such as some fans' reactions to Leia Organa in the first two original Star Wars films. In the primarily female space of fanzines, many debates were had about her portrayal, including some that used gendered insults:

The commanding aspects of her personality often takes on the form of bitchiness, especially toward Han. I was of the opinion that the lady should have been pasted one a couple of times, and I thought Han showed considerable restraint in not doing so. The spiritedness came off as stubborn and ill-mannered—Luke, Han and Chewie risk their necks to save her and does she even give them a thank-you? Of course not—it was their duty and honor to save her skin! She has to be brassy to get where she is, but I me of two guys coming out of a theater after seeing SW, and one askinq the other, "Who did you like, Han or Luke?" "I'll take the Princess; she's got more balls than either one of them." Intentional or not, that's the way she sounds to me. Here's hoping that in the sequel they can make her a strong character, but sufficiently feminine, too.[20]

Relationship to Mary Sues

Strong female characters are often associated with Mary Sues in fandom; the lack of complex female characters in many canons tends result in the creation of original characters to allow gender-based identification.[21] Despite the obvious lack of any female characters in some canons, many fans still reject strong original female characters who are not believable by their personal standards.[22] As Charlotte Frost explained:

Fans, and especially slash fans, really did detest female characters. And, God forbid, if a woman had a large, positive role in a story, then the story was sneered at for being a "Mary Sue" story, where the author was assumed to be inserting herself into the narrative, in the guise of an all-powerful, all-knowledgeable, can-do-no-wrong character. And yet... even if the female character wasn't the least bit all-powerful, or all-knowledgeable... if she was a "good guy" and female, then the story was automatically labeled a Mary Sue by disgusted fans.

[...]

I do think fandoms have matured a lot about the female thing. It seems to me that younger fans aren't so hung up on it. It doesn't jar them as much to have somebody female around. In fact, modern fans don't appear to have the knee-jerk, frothing hatred toward women in the episodes that past fans did.

But it's still navigating dicey waters to include a female character who is more than just window dressing. Or maybe not.[23]

Some strong female characters are also identified by fans as Canon Sues, particularly if they become love interests for popular male characters.[24] This reception issue can cause characters to be rejected by the audience, even if they achieve the basic requirements for a strong female character; conversely, sometimes strong female characters in canon are called Mary Sues precisely because they are identified with and beloved by many women.[25] Female characters are typically held to a higher standard than male characters,[26] despite the fact that a large number of beloved canon male characters are Gary Stus.[27]

Connection to Media Gender Tests

The Sexy Lamp Test addresses common issues with strong female characters who can better be described as "physically strong female characters". That is to say, characters who have great physical strength but who are not in any way integral to the plot or well-developed.

Similarly, the Mako Mori Test directly measures whether a female character is well-developed enough to have her own arc that is not about a man. While this doesn't prove a female character is strong, it does predispose them to be so. (Mako Mori was generally well-received by Pacific Rim fandom as a strong female character.)

Impact on Femslash

The relationship between the presence of two or more genuinely strong female characters to femslash is generally assumed to be positive by fans and fan scholars.[28][16] One of the reasons often given for the higher prevalence of slash over femslash is the limited number of such characters. In a demographics study of fans, Jae found that:

There’s less femmeslash fanfiction than m/m slash (Heather, 2003b; Plotz, 2000; SapphicSlayer, 2003). One of the reasons for this discrepancy is probably the lack of strong, female characters. It’s hard to find a TV show or movie with not one, but two interesting female characters (Kadorienne, 2003). [...]

In the last ten years, however, the amount of femmeslash stories steadily increased along with the increasing appearance of female main characters in TV shows (Chonin, 1999).[21]

Canons with two or more strong female characters often see femslash fanworks. However, this is not absolute; some canons with two or more strong female leads still see more fanworks produced slashing minor male characters than the female leads.

Meta/Further Reading

References

  1. "“Strong” is not an adjective describing that character’s physical or emotional or intellectual strength. It is an adjective describing the potency and depth of the character — in the narrative, not moral sense. A strong character is complicated, flawed, compelling." On The Subject Of The “Strong Female Character” by Chuck Windig. Posted March 10, 2013. Accessed December 3, 2016. Warning: Genitalia-based gendering.
  2. "It is important to understand what we mean when talking about strong characters, be they male or female. This isn’t physical strength or the strength of their convictions. A strong character has strong characterisation. They are flawed, complex, varied, fallible, and realistic." Dispelling the Myth of Strong Female Characters by Megan Leigh. Posted June 24, 2016. Accessed December 2, 2016.
  3. "A couple decades ago, filmmakers realized their sexist representations of women made women angry and this led to an increase in “strong” women characters. They were given guns, began to curse more frequently and took up characteristics of “strong,” “intelligent,” and “feisty.”" ‘Strong female characters’ should be defined by personality, not ‘strong’ characteristics by Spencer Simonsen. Posted October 7, 2013. Accessed December 3, 2016.
  4. "“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." ‘Tough, Cold, Terse, Taciturn and Prone to Not Saying Goodbye When They Hang Up the Phone’ by CarinaChocano. Posted July 1, 2011. Accessed December 3, 2016.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Interstat/Issues 021-030#Issue 23, published in September, 1979.
  6. See The Easy Way Out review by Caroline Nixon.
  7. Strong Female Characters on "Hark: A Vagrant". Posted 2012. Accessed Dec 3, 2016.
  8. I hate Strong Female Characters by Sophia McDougall. Posted August 15, 2013. Accessed December 3, 2016.
  9. Tropes vs Women: The Straw Feminist by Anita Sarkeesian. Posted September 22, 2011. Accessed December 3, 2016.
  10. Fandom and the Intersection of Feminism and Race by diversehighfantasy. Posted September 15, 2015. Accessed January 6, 2017.
  11. Tropes vs Women: Women in Refrigerators by Anita Sarkeesian. Posted April 6, 2011. Accessed December 4, 2016.
  12. Tropes vs Women in Video Games: Damsel in Distress by Anita Sarkeesian. Posted March 7, 2013. Accessed December 3, 2016.
  13. "M, as previously mentioned, a capable head of MI6, only in this film she’s rebooted as a relatively inept head of MI6." Skyfall: James Bond’s return to male-gaze misogyny by Craig Grannell. Posted November 17, 2012. Accessed December 3, 2016.
  14. "Valka is just the latest example of the Superfluous, Flimsy Character disguised as a Strong Female Character. And possibly she’s the most depressing, considering Dragon 2’s other fine qualities, and considering how impressive she is in the abstract. The film spends so much time on making her first awe-inducing, then sympathetic, and just a little heartbreakingly pathetic in her isolation and awkwardness at meeting another human being. But once the introductions are finally done, and the battle starts, she immediately becomes useless, both to the rest of the cast and to the rapidly moving narrative. She faces the villain (the villain she’s apparently been successfully resisting alone for years!) and she’s instantly, summarily defeated. Her husband and son utterly overshadow her; they need to rescue her twice in maybe five minutes. Her biggest contribution to the narrative is in giving Hiccup a brief, rote “You are the Chosen One” pep talk. Then she all but disappears from the film, raising the question of why the story spent so much time on her in the first place." We’re losing all our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome by Tasha Robinson. Posted June 16, 2014. Accessed December 3, 2016.
  15. Tropes vs Women in Video Games: Women as Rewards by Anita Sarkeesian. Posted August 31, 2015. Accessed December 3, 2016.
  16. 16.0 16.1 "As much as I like Jordan, I found her Parent Issues a lot more interesting than her Romantic Issues. It's like writers go "Oh, we wrote an interesting female character whose life doesn't revolve around men! We can't have that! Let's give her buckets of romantic angst!"" On narrow genre tastes, female characters, and a wider variety of books by Carmarthen. Posted January 14, 2007. Accessed December 3, 2016.
  17. The woman who 'ruined the Hobbit', by Clem Bastow. "Yes, much bile was posted immediately following the release of the first official image of Evangeline Lilly as the elf warrior Tauriel in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug – a new character created by filmmakers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh – and the commotion continued yesterday with the premiere of the film's trailer.

    I'm not great at maths, but the trailer provides roughly 11 seconds of footage of Tauriel, which is apparently enough evidence – paired with that sole official photo – for great swaths of the fan community to decide that they despise the character. How dare Jackson do something so “non-canonical”! The Hobbit doesn't need more women! There's already one in it!!" Posted June 13, 2013. Accessed December 3, 2016.
  18. Why The ‘Ghostbusters’ Backlash Is A Sexist Control Issue by Sam Adams. Posted July 14, 2016. Accessed December 3, 2016.
  19. "It was formally named during the kerfluffle around Mad Max: Fury Road. If Men’s Rights Activists declare the movie to be feminist propaganda and demand a boycott (excuse me, a mancott), the movie has passed the Furiosa Test." What's the Furiosa Test?, answered by roachpatrol. Accessed December 3, 2016.
  20. from Alderaan #5, published July 1979.
  21. 21.0 21.1 "Lack of strong female characters in entertainment: This pragmatic theory assumes that women write about relationships between men because TV shows and movies portray very few strong, interesting female protagonists (Chonin, 1999; Rat, 2002; Wegerer, 1995): “Taking a look at the characters on Star Trek, it is easy to see why most fanfic would have focused on the males. First, there were simply more of them, and second, they were given more to do. Poor Uhura simply repeated what the computer told her” (SapphicSlayer, 2003). If writers wanted to write about an equal partnership and relationship between a male and a female character, they are forced to either rewrite an existing, weak female character or to create their own female character. Both can cause problems: If the writer goes with the first option, readers might say he’s not sticking to canon and having the female character behave “out of character”. If he chooses the second option, some readers will think he has created a “Mary Sue” (Boese, 1998; Larsen, 2003; Leigh, 2002). Writing about the relationship between two men offers an escape from this dilemma." Young, Female, Single…?: A Study of Demographics and Writing-/Reading-Habits of Fanfiction Writers and Readers by Jae. Posted prior to September 2010. Accessed December 3, 2016.
  22. "I have seen the accusation leveled at any original female character who is in any way cool." Thoughts about Mary Sue by alias-sqbr. Posted March 21, 2010. Accessed December 3, 2016.
  23. The Male-or-Female Thing by Charlotte Frost. Posted April 9, 2013. Accessed December 3, 2016.
  24. "They've taken Keller and tried to turn her into a Mary Sue, the 'geek girl' that we are supposed to identify with. Think about it. She's supposed to be smart, sweet, not self-confident, the wallflower of Atlantis. She even calls herself nerdy. She has these amazing adventures, and turns out to be super!competent under pressure, pulling off brain surgery with nothing more than a cordless power drill and a jury-rigged scanner. It's no wonder that all the men fall in love with her. " Mary Sue Keller by Wicked Words. Posted September 6, 2008. Accessed December 3, 2016.
  25. "However, in Buffy fandom, the writers of the show, the original text, have created a pre-fab Mary Sue in the character of Willow Rosenberg. Willow is nice, shy, sweet, kind, a computer geek, and utterly adorable. Young women who watch the show identify with her almost instantly, and an entire internet fandom has developed specifically around her, including a bevy of fanfiction lists." The Appropriation of Characters: The Curse of the Willow Sue by Kate Bolin. Accessed December 3, 2016.
  26. "It seems strikingly obvious to me that Scully is actually significantly quieter and more respectful of authority than her male partner, yet it's Scully who is described in this way. It would be odd, in fact, to hear Mulder called mouthy and insolent, even though he sometimes is, because it implies that these are negative qualities and it implies that the holder of these qualities is claiming an importance for themselves that they don't deserve. Mulder is talkative, sure, and he's no respecter of persons in his search for the truth. He's certainly insubordinate. But insolent? To call him that would make him sound like a small child talking back to the teacher, or a slave talking back to his master. And that's exactly what it makes Scully sound like. These, in my mind, are strongly gendered terms suggesting that Scully doesn't quite know her place in the hierarchy." "You know I wouldn't want it any other way..." by Emily Shore. Posted January 16, 2007. Accessed December 3, 2016.
  27. "When I tested Harry Potter, he scored about 116. When I tested Edward Cullen, he scored about 129. When I tested Luke Skywalker, I stopped halfway through from giggling. (He eventually scored an impressive 149) You get the point. This is incredible for several reasons. Firstly, almost everyone you know knows, or knows of, one of these characters. Most of the people I know, know all of them. These characters are from best-sellers and well-loved stories. Secondly, is the fact that they are all male, and many of them were written by men. Thirdly, Star Wars was written in the 70s, Harry Potter began in the 90s, Twilight in early 21st century, and apparently, the original Dr. Who was written in the 60s and holds the record for the longest-running sci-fi series of all time. (I didn't test the Doctor, but I know people who did; he scores around 102.) Which means, to those of you playing along at home, Gary Stus are everywhere AND WE LOVE THEM!" Oh, Mary, Mary by seeallywrite. Posted March 17, 2010. Accessed December 3, 2016.
  28. Normal Female Interest in Men Bonking: Selections from The Terra Nostra Underground and Strange Bedfellows#Excerpts from the Discussion: Excerpted in Turn from the Letterzines, comment by Sandy Herald regarding Blake's 7 fandom.