Why do we even need to specify “strong” when referring to female characters? Why such is not the case for their male counterparts?
Maybe because in fiction, we saw too many females portrayed as damsels in distress, empty shells of love interests for the male leads or just objects of sexual desire. Therefore, anything that goes beyond this, is considered as a “strong” female character. But unfortunately most of those “strong” characters actually aren’t.
Geek feminism wikia has a neat list on how to recognize a strong female character who isn’t strong at all:
- The character’s strength is in combat, but she has no strength of character
- she still has to conform to gender-normative standards of attractiveness
- she will wear skimpy or fetishistic gear to fight in (see my previous post)
- she will be strong right up until she can’t deal with something and has to be saved by a man
- her strength is diminished when she gets interested in a member of the opposite sex
- her strength is primarily a narrative tool to measure a male protagonists’ progress in his emotional maturity plot arc, in which his full maturation is signaled by getting the girl, and her interior life or own motivations are not portrayed.
- she has no close female friends or female allies, and disdains “weaker” or more conventionally feminine women for not being “badass”
If you make a google search like “strongest female characters” for example, you’ll see that most of the ladies listed on those charts will fall in the traps stated above.
So how can we recognize a truly strong female character?
Of course there is the Bechdel Test, according to which, a media (movie, book, TV series, etc) has decent female characters when:
- There needs to be at least two women characters;
- who talk to each other;
- about something other than a man
OK. We got it, but it still doesn’t tell us what a strong female character is, does it? I think the criteria needs to be much more simple than that. How about: You know you have a strong female character when, throughout the story she accomplishes something significant. Because for me, a strong character needs to be a catalyst.
Let’s see some examples: (this of course in a non-exhaustive list 🙂 )
DSI Stella Gibson – The Fall
Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson is not just a cop trying to catch a serial killer. She is a woman who fights the battle of sexes by her own terms. She’s one of the strongest characters on TV regardless of the gender. That’s a character who doesn’t need superpowers or guns or magic to scare the hell out of a street gang leader, just by taking a step forward
Root (Samantha Groves) – Person of Interest
Person of Interest is by far my favorite show. It is filled with awesome female characters like Carter, Zoe, Shaw, Control, etc. All of these characters could be in this list. Also, when it comes to catalyst, Zoe is one hell of an example. But I chose Root for this list because while having a very strong emotional depth of character, she is not a love interest for a male lead.
Apart form being a master gunslinger, Root is a genius hacker. If we were using Ghost in the Shell terms, her skill would correspond to a Level A+. I think it would be safe to say that the series became interesting once they introduced this character (and once she hacked into the Machine and rendering it more “communicative”). Root has a very strong mistrust in humanity. Therefore she turns towards “Singularity” (as Alan Turing described it) building a unique connection with the machine.
Root is always one step ahead of… everything. Seriously, she walks around like a Maxwell demon 🙂
Natalia Romanova (Black Widow) – The Avengers
As a Marvel character, of course Black Widow comes with a skimpy leather outfit and killer looks. But apart from a skillful martial artist, she is also a master manipulator and a genius tactician. She kicks Loki’s ass on battlefield and outwits him by manipulating him to reveal his plan… Loki being the master trickster of Asgard.
Jane Eyre – Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë)
Jane Eyre is an individualistic, passionate and complex female character. Though she suffers greatly, she always relies on herself to get back on her feet instead of being a wilting damsel in distress.
Chihiro Ogino (Sprited Away)
Miyazaki is famous for his strong, interesting female leads. Just for the sake of naming one of many, Chihiro, in Sprited Away has a very interesting character arc. She grows from a timid, petulant ten-year-old into a family-saving, river-naming hero.
Do you agree with these examples? Can you think of other characters that could be added to this list?