Strong Female Characters

Pop Culture

Ah, the strong female character. The phrase is thrown around quite a bit. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I absolutely hate this term. This might come as a surprise. After all, I’m a woman who supports gender equality and loves television shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Veronica Mars. You’d think I’d be out there advocating for more strong female characters, right? Well…no. Let me try to frame this in terms of two questions that often come to mind when I hear “strong female characters.” There are other questions and issues that we could talk about, but today I want to focus on two.

  1. What the hell is a “strong female character” anyway?
    The term “strong female character gets thrown around, but I don’t know if there’s really a consensus as to what it actually means. And it bugs me when terms get used as if everyone agrees on its meaning, even though they obviously don’t. Several years ago, s.e. smith wrote an article for Tiger Beatdown asking this very question. When we talk about a strong female character, are we talking about a woman who’s physically strong and could kick your ass if she wanted to? Or are we talking about a well-developed complex female character? As s.e. smith points out, characters that are often held up as strong female characters like Buffy Summers (BtVS), Veronica Mars (Veronica Mars) and Kara “Starbuck” Thrace (Battlestar Galactica reboot) arguably fit both definitions. That said, however, I suspect what most people mean is a woman who’s physically strong. But I’m not positive that most people actually mean that and I would love to be proven wrong. Does a woman need to display stereotypically masculine traits in order to be considered strong? Is it possible for a female character to display only stereotypically female traits and still be considered strong?
  2. Who gets to be a strong female character?
    s.e. smith pointed out the term “strong female character” doesn’t get applied to women of color. And I think ou is right, to an extent: most of the characters that are hailed as strong female characters are played by white women. There are the aforementioned Buffy, Veronica and Starbuck, all played by white actresses. And it makes me wonder: would these characters continue to be hailed as “strong female characters” if the only thing you changed about them is the race of the actress playing the part? But while it’s rare for a woman of color to be called “strong” in pop culture, I have seen a few that have been called strong. Zoe from Firefly comes to mind as one example. Let’s get real, though: characters played by women of color rarely get labeled strong.

As far as I know, nobody has ever called a trans woman, disabled woman, or other minority woman “strong.” Perhaps the issue is that there aren’t a lot of roles out there for these groups of women (which is a problem in and of itself). But how we think about women of color, trans women, and disabled women also plays a huge part. The preconceived stereotypes we hold about certain groups of women (and people in general) play a large part in how roles are written and how the audience views a particular character.

What I’d like to see are female character that are well written, engaging, have good story arcs, and feel like actual human beings with both strengths and weaknesses. I don’t want my characters to display only stereotypically female or only stereotypically male traits. I absolutely think that stereotypically female traits should be held up as being equally valuable as stereotypically male traits. However, I will tell you that while I consider myself a woman, I don’t think I hold only stereotypically female traits. I suspect there are others out there who feel the same way. What I would like to see in my idea world would be for characters of all genders to have a mix of stereotypically male and female traits and have those seen as perfectly normal and acceptable.

So let’s talk, folks. Tell me in the comments what you think about the things I’ve said. How do you feel about the term “strong female character”? Who are some of your favorite female characters?

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