Let’s Talk About: ‘Strong Female Characters’

As a feminist, I love seeing a diversity of characters in books or movies. I love seeing female protagonists. I love seeing characters of colour. I love seeing characters that are genderqueer or fit into the LGBTQ+ spectrum. I love seeing characters with disabilities. In other words: I love it when I see a diversity of characters.

As someone who doesn’t see herself in mainstream media often (as in, seeing Asian female characters), having diversity for the sake of diversity isn’t always enough. I want diverse characters, but I also want them to be complex and well-written; characters that break the mould, characters not written according to their stereotypes, characters that embody the idea that difference can be celebrated and respected in writing.

But today, I’m not really talking about diversity. Today, I am talking about ‘strong female characters’.

I’ve put quotation marks around the phrase, not because I don’t believe in the ideal, but because I think our thirst for ‘strong female characters’ has created an over-simplified blueprint of how female characters ought to be, and any female character that doesn’t meet these specifications are dismissed as weak.

What do I mean by ‘strong female characters’ anyway? ‘Strong female characters’, as inferred from numerous reviewers on Goodreads, may be characters that:

  • are ‘kickass’ or ‘badass’ – in attitude, appearance, or ability;
  • are able to physically fight;
  • do not need rescuing;
  • assume a dominant position in a group; and
  • outspoken and assertive

Looking at the list, I can see why these traits are so appealing. (Heck, they appeal to me too.) These traits are born from the want for something better than the stereotypical, negative portrayals of women. Where women are portrayed as the ‘damsel in distress’, namely being weak, physically unable to defend themselves and therefore need rescuing from a stronger (often male) character, are in subservient positions (often serving men) – anything that shackled us or perpetuated the idea that women can’t do it. Who can blame us for wanting characters that defied these sexist beliefs? Characters with these traits empower us, and there is no fault in that.

And yet, the ‘strong female character’, and what it has become today, troubles me. It troubles me when I see reviewers or fellow women automatically dismiss a female character because she does not meet the criteria above, or are too quick to celebrate ones that do.

‘She showed x, y, z moments of weakness!’ Bad female character. ‘She can’t defend herself! She needed saving!’ Bad female character. ‘She was so scared and she was useless!’ Bad female character. (Exaggerations, but you see my point.)

What worries me is our inability to move beyond the ‘strong female character’ archetype; that we should expect female characters to have these characteristics, and anything less is not worthy of our attention.

This isn’t about our expectations and imposing them on writers. This is how we, readers, perceive and define what ‘strength’ means. This is about how this idea of ‘strength’ is putting a constraint on how we can portray female characters. This gravitation towards a better representation of women is important for feminism and its allies, but the repercussion is that now we seek a very narrow archetype of women that does not represent every woman. 

The problem I have with the ‘strong female character’ criteria, specifically the one I listed above, is that it is tied very closely to ideals of masculinity. Look at the media and you’ll find that, more often than not, male characters are:

  • assertive
  • in dominant positions
  • do the rescuing
  • can fight a physical fight

(Sound familiar?) There is nothing wrong if a woman has these traits, but it is such a small, narrow slice of what women could be.

So my question is: what if a woman isn’t all those things? Does that make her weak? Does that automatically make her a bad character?

I really hope not.

What if ‘being assertive’ is perceived as disrespect in some cultures? Does that make the female character weak if she remains quiet? Of course not, and it shouldn’t be perceived that way. And should having a moment of being assertive be perceived as ‘character growth’? Not always, lest it be a eurocentric narrative.

Needless to say, every woman is different. Every woman has their own history, their own past, their own memories, their own aspirations, their own beliefs – the list goes on. All women are unique beings that are constantly growing and changing. It is unfair to expect women, and in extension female characters, to have all of these ‘strong female character’ traits all the time. It’s unrealistic! It’s silly. Strength may be physical strength, but strength can also be compassion, it can be bravery, it can be facing their fears, it can be forgiveness.

This is what I want: I want more than ‘strong female characters’.

I want female characters from a variety of backgrounds, that have a variety of histories, ideas, attitudes, and personalities. I want female characters to show moments of weakness in the face of adversary to show their own version of strength. I don’t really care if they are ‘strong’ or ‘weak’, but I want female characters to be written so that they are human – deep, complex and adhere to their imagined cultural context, their past, their age, their experiences, their ideologies or anything that makes them them, so that we can empathize with them or dislike them for their character, rather than their portrayal as a woman.

More so, I want to learn something from these female characters. I want to empathize with them, feel their pain, and feel their joy. If a female character is strong all the time, what is there to learn from her strength? Is it not through weakness, adversary and our mistakes (no matter how much we regret them) that we grow, learn, and change as human beings?

I want authors to write female characters with flaws without fear of their readers dismissing the characters as weak or bad. Real flaws, like being a coward or being selfish (in which they would hopefully overcome), not flaws like unable to dance or clumsy.

I want well-written female characters with depth and complexity, that show the beauty of humanness, and inspire us or change us.

Thanks for reading such a long post! I think this post may be the start of a new series, in which I write about topics (related to reading, of course!) that interest me. Let’s Talk About… sounds kind of catchy!

If you have any thoughts or comments, please share in the below! I’d love to hear your thoughts, and this is open to debate and discussion!

To end this post, do you have any characters (not just female characters – any!) that inspired you, changed you, or made a big impact? Share in the comments below!


5 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About: ‘Strong Female Characters’

  1. I wish I could word things as well as you. This post gave me a lot to consider is the realm on what is strong female character and what is a ‘strong female character.’ I think you should do a continued series of ‘Lets Talk About.’ I can’t wait to read what else you have to say.

    • Hello Amanda!

      Aw, thank you so much for your kind words. I was really anxious posting this, so your comment means a lot to me. :)

      I’m glad to hear that this gave you something to think about! It has been something I’ve been mulling over for some years now, so it was good to write it all out.

      Thank you; I will consider it if I find anything else to write about! c:

  2. This! This post right here is what needs to be given to every reader. My goodness. It has become such a phenomenon, such a routine, that people do expect the same traits in every female heroine, or for every female to /be/ the heroine! Not everyone is an alpha female! *sigh*

    It’s quite sad that people read these stories and praise them because the female is the ‘ideal’ of a strong heroine, but they do so at the expense of losing their three-dimensions. They become flat, 1D characters with no true personality. They’re all just copies of each other. They all react the same and it’s like authors are simply transplanting the same character into different worlds. It’s quite frustrating to see and boring to read about.

    I don’t want to rant, but I have to say that I wholeheartedly agree with you when it comes to the necessity for diverse, realistic female characters. We aren’t all the same. People need to stop taking cues from social media and stop trying to fit every female into the same exact mold. (What a boring world it would be if everyone did fit in the same mold…)

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Melanie! I’m glad to hear that someone else feels strongly about this topic too. I agree with some female characters being copies of each other – and the fact that this is celebrated rather than questioned concerns me. As much as I love female characters with those attributes (because I’d take that over poorly written character anyway), like you I want realistic and diverse characters.

      I think the thing that seems to get the most flak is a character’s fighting ability… There is more to strength than knowing how to throw a punch, and I wish readers would acknowledge this. :'(

      Haha yes, absolutely agreed! We need diverse, different characters that are memorable for who they are, not for their superficial traits! :)

      • Oh my goodness! Everyone seems to think that if a female character is in a dystopian or a post-apoc that they need to know how to fight? Why? Who made that rule? Can’t they simply be cunning, tenacious, or intelligent? I swear half the female MCs nowadays lean towards brute over brawns and it’s not cool.
        Even worse is that they’re all so dang fiery! Every character has to snip and snap and let their anger get the best of them. Are there /no/ collected female MCs? I mean, I get that they’re teenagers (even though hardly anyone writes them as actual teenagers), but a little bit of control in their tongue would be nice. You know? Snarkiness can get quite annoying to read about, too.
        Oh! I could go on and on about this! Ugh.

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