I cringe when I see them done badly. I probably cringe even more when there aren’t any. I have a hard time reading novels without them. Some of them are my absolute favourite pieces of fiction ever. It’s perhaps not so much of a mystery what I’m talking about if you glance at the title of this post. Yep, we’re talking ‘strong female characters’.
A couple of month’s ago, when a post by the lovely ladies of Let The Words Flow (arbiters of wonderful writing/publisher-seeking advice and support) went off-topic an interesting if brief conversation about what constitutes a strong female character followed. Everyone felt that there were many different takes on the ‘strong woman’ and almost as many misinterpretations. So, here goes with my take (hopefully not a misinterpretation) and perhaps, if you’d be kind enough, then I’d love to hear your responses as readers, writers, men and women: what does the phrase ‘strong female character’ mean to you?
I think we can all agree that The Smurfette Principle is exactly why stories of all kinds need good female characters. (I love TV Tropes!)
We all know too well those clichés of what women do and are in fiction. Gods, that sounds a bit pretentious, doesn’t it? Well, what I mean, really, is that all too often women are the main character’s wife/daughter/love-interest/mother – they’re defined by male characters and their own interest in men. Even when they are the stars of the show, sometimes they do little more than look for how they can become wives/love-interests/mothers. For a great example of what I mean (which explains it far better than I have), check out TV Tropes’ article on The Bechdel Test, which a film/book/etc must pass by following these criteria:
- it includes at least two women,
- who have at least one conversation
- about something other than a man or men.
Stories with Strong Female Characters have to pass this test for me to really enjoy them: even though it’s a romance, Pride and Prejudice passes, Lizzie and her sisters discuss the state of the family affairs, religion (even if Mary is quite utterly silly!) and dressing for balls. (And even the conversations involving Lydia are a prime example of the perils of failing the Bechdel Test and having thoughts of nothing other than men – she is portrayed as a foolish girl and ends up suitably punished, married to a nasty piece of work who will never be able to afford the luxuries she desires. Even Austen got it a couple of centuries ago.)
So what about this strong female character, then?
She is woman, hear her roar! She doesn’t need a man, she doesn’t get caught by the Big Bad and she can save the world! She’s a strong female character, right?
Wait, you meant strong as in muscular, right?
The problem is that somewhere along the line our outcry against the weak, swooning lady, desperately in need of a hero was misunderstood: we wanted real characters, well thought-out, believable, people in their own right who just happened to be female; we got women who were more masculine (wow, she’s a good shot!), less feminine (I don’t wear skirts, they’re for girls! This makes me strong.), attractive and strong in terms of being good at stuff. Somehow we ended up with Lara Croft – intelligence, nifty shooting/jumping skills and hot! Overthinking It gets this idea across perfectly with the example of that annoying woman in Transformers – Why Strong Female Characters Are Bad for Women – here’s a taster of their point:
Though, physically strong characters can be strong female characters, too: the first example that leaps to my mind is Paksenarrion Dorthansdotter of Elizabeth Moon’s The Deed of Paksenarrion. She starts off young and head-strong, but grows and learns throughout the trilogy. Thoughout she is flawed and believable as a person and nor does she fall at the feet of the first man to flutter his eyelashes at her or beat her in battle. Paks’ depth of character prevent her from being a failed strong woman.
I read the books a long time ago, but whenever I think of them, I always remember a scene where she is being measured for some clothes and the tailor exclaims at her wide neck: this isn’t some weedy woman weilding an unrealistically large sword, Moon has realised that someone wearing a heavy helm day in, day out, would have a muscular neck – the reality of Paks’ character is more important than her being attractive (at least in a traditional way).
So, I suppose what I’m trying to say is that a strong female character is a strong character, flawed and active, with depth and quirks, who just so happens to be female and is not the only female.