The Problems with Strong Female Characters

I’m not even close to the first writer/blogger to bring this up. Two of my favorites are this New York Times article and Natalie Whipple’s post. I don’t actually agree with everything in both of these, but I think they’re well-spoken and worth reading. And of course, I’m going to throw my own two cents in.

For me, the main problem with this phrase is that it exists. What we should be discussing, in my opinion, are strong characters – or perhaps, in certain circumstances, female characters. If reviewers, agents, editors, readers, and writers started throwing around the phrase “strong male characters,” the ludicrousness of the female counterpart becomes clear. By specifying that these desired strong characters are “female,” it implies to me:

1) That most female characters are weak.
2) That most females are weak.

3) That most male characters are strong.
4) That most males are strong.

5) That gender alone makes these different topics.

Which brings me to my next point, as evidenced by my “and/or” options. The very phrase “strong female characters” is confusing. Are people who seek “strong female characters” looking for female characters written strongly, or characters who are strong females? And yes, there is a difference. Let’s break it down.

Characters Who Are Strong Females

What makes a woman strong? There is literal strength. If someone knows martial arts, lifts a lot of weights, or perhaps is very skilled at gun fights, she can justly be called strong. A person can be physically weak, absolutely. Physical strength can be an excellent symbol of moral strength, but I think far too often, physical strength is conflated with moral strength, so that trend has perhaps outlived its welcome.

So then there is moral strength – what in non-literature life we call “strength of character.” Can someone stand up for what she thinks is right? Does she know what she wants? Has she weathered obstacles? Persevered? The problem, of course, is that moral strength is not only subjective, but ambiguous as well. Is the stay at home mom a societal hero, bucking pressure to do what she believes is right, or is she weak for sacrificing her career and power position in society to fill traditional roles?

The problem with “strong female characters” becoming more and more masculine is quite simple: it implies that men are innately strong and women are innately weak. This is not about literature at all actually, but about our society. If we think the ass-kicking assassin is stronger than the wife who bakes cookies – based on that information alone – that’s a reflection on our own gender views, not on books. (And by the way, wearing heels while you beat up bad guys doesn’t make you “girly,” it makes you totally impractical and probably overly sexualized.)

“Masculine” and “manly” should not be synonyms for “strong.” “Feminine” and “girly” should not be synonyms for “weak.” No, really. This is part of what I love so much about Zooey Deschanel’s character Jess on New Girl. She is ultra-feminine and girly and happy and it doesn’t make her weak at all. In fact, that she’s embraced who she really is makes her super strong, in my opinion. “I brake for birds, I rock a lot of polka dots, I have touched glitter in the last 24 hours…” If you assumed Jess would be weak based on that, you might want to rethink.

[Side note: I’m not bashing “masculine” women/characters. I love masculine women, as long as that’s who they feel they really are. I just don’t think women should “hide” or “subdue” their femininity because they think it’s a weakness, and I don’t think masculinity should be used as a measure of a character or person’s strength.]

Female Characters Written Strongly

So are there weak women? Sure. It’s subjective, as I established above, but all people find certain other people to be weak. Maybe they’re too selfish, with few redemptive qualities, or maybe they let people walk all over them and don’t stand up for what they believe. Maybe they run from who they really are. Whatever the deciding factors, weak women exist because weak people exist. Does that mean that weak women can’t make strong characters? Not if you interpret the phrase to mean female characters written strongly.

Most people would agree that well-written characters:

1) carry the story (meaning they have a story worth telling)
2) seem three-dimensional, complicated, and life-like
3) are emotionally engaging
4) are flawed and conflicted
5) grow and/or change (dynamic)

The execution of these criteria is just as subjective as what makes women strong, so there’s always plenty of room for debate. But I’m going to take a much-cited “weak female character” to make my point: Scarlett O’Hara from Margret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.

Now, many if not most people find Scarlett to be a weak person. She’s selfish, spoiled, materialistic, narcissistic, greedy, and somewhat wishy-washy. I believe she has redemptive qualities, too, but let’s agree for the sake of discussion that she’s a “weak” woman overall.

And yet… whether you love her or hate her, she’s one of the strongest, most memorable characters in all of literature. Why?

Her story is the central story, and it’s one worth telling. She’s vivid, lifelike, and multi-faceted. She’s emotionally engaging. She’s deeply flawed and equally conflicted. She grows and changes from the beginning of the book to the end, showing that’s she’s dynamic. By the end of the book, Scarlett has become real to us, and it doesn’t matter if we like her or not. She’s that well-written.

None of those things make her a “strong woman.” All of them make her a “strong character.”

The Vast Array of Strong Female Characters

To prove how little this phrase means, here’s a sample of some of my favorite “strong female characters.” I’m not going to explain why or sort them into which way I mean, just to show how useless this concept is:

Anita Blake
Catherine Earnshaw- Wuthering Heights
Scarlett O’Hara- Gone with the Wind
Jane Eyre
Carrie Bradshaw- Sex and the City
Liesel Meminger- The Book Thief
Oedipa Maas- The Crying of Lot 49
Cherry Darling- Planet Terror
Lennie Walker- The Sky is Everywhere
Annah- The Dark and Hollow Places

I think you’d be hard-pressed to pick out exactly why I think these female characters are strong, and whether it’s because they’re strong people or strongly portrayed.

So my vote? Let this phrase die. At best it’s vague and subjective; at worst it’s confusing and sexist. Instead, let’s talk about female characters, strong people, and well-written characters, with specific traits that we like.

What are your thoughts?

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  • I wholeheartedly agree with all of this. The phrase “strong female characters” gets bandied about so much and so vaguely that it doesn’t even mean anything anymore, and has become a placeholder for actual discussion of characters. Also, it’s too easily interpreted as physical strength, which has given us no end of “strong” women who lack depth and are completely uninteresting. So yes, I’m ditching the “strong female character” phrase!

  • I have absolutely nothing to add, because you are brilliant and have said it all perfectly. 😀


  • Yes to all of this. I especially love the post you link to here in the comments.

    As I get older, it has really bothered me that women are very limited character-wise. Even character-design-wise. A girl has to always be pretty, even if she’s fighting tooth and nail. Somehow, she’ll always have neat nail polish, perfect lipstick, a stylish cut. She’ll be able to fight in those heels, and men will fall over her just because of it.

    To be honest, that’s what actually drives me nuts about New Girl, haha. The show only works because she’s really pretty and cute and everyone knows it even if they don’t say it. If you had a normal girl in that position who was owning her strangeness with pride and she wasn’t as cute, I doubt the show would be as big a hit as it is.

    I’m all about unexpected strength. Just managing to persevere is a strength all its own.

    • I totally disagree about New Girl. I think what makes her lovable is her weirdness. She’s pretty, no doubt, but I don’t think she’s perfect at all. She has physical flaws, and no one can help how they look, so disliking her quirkiness because she’s too pretty seems just as unfair to me as disliking it on someone who’s less attractive. That being said, could they have picked someone else for the role? Sure. I still think it would work.

      I do agree, though, that it’s annoying how lovely and made-up female characters have to be – ESPECIALLY in action/survival type scenarios. Kick-ass heroines who wear their hair down is one of my biggest pet peeves ever. It’s totally impractical. In fact, I address that in my WIP. I mean, I can’t even wear my hair down when I work out, much less when I’m running for my life and beating up bad guys. I find it very annoying.

      • I didn’t say I dislike her quirkiness. I dislike the way Hollywood and media make it so that a girl HAS to be cute in order for the quirkiness to be okay. I’m sorry, but that has been shown time and time again. The girl must always be a particular size and have a particular look. Could they have picked out another actress who was also actually different than the norm? Yes, they could have. But the question is would they have? No, they wouldn’t, because that is not what they do and it isn’t what they believe. THAT is my biggest concern.

        Let’s look at another show– Ugly Betty. There was a quirky girl who was different from the TV norm though still cute (even when intentionally dressed down among other things done to make her less attractive). And her show was called Ugly Betty.

        When this norm in Hollywood changes, then that will be the day when a show or movie like New Girl doesn’t make my stomach churn.

        • No, I understood what you meant. I’m just saying that I’m not going to dislike a show because the actress they picked fits within a certain range of “accepted” body proportions or whatever. I think Zooey Deschanel is talented and good at the role, and I do think she’s less “perfect” than most female stars these days. I agree that Hollywood has a big, ugly trend of forcing all characters toward a certain “look,” but that’s true of every genre, and almost every character archetype. So I actually agree with you that they could have and probably should have done better and tried harder to break those stereotypes. I just disagree that that specific shortcoming makes the show bad. If that were true, I wouldn’t watch any shows.

          • This is just my problem with the show and why I dislike it. This actually isn’t the reason why I don’t watch this particular show. It’s not exactly like I saw the first episode and declared it my arch-nemesis though I had these feelings from the first episode. I actually decided to give it a try multiple times because I did like the idea (quirky girls who own it rock, and plenty of quirky girls are freakin’ adorable), but each time it failed to really catch me. I swear I didn’t just stop watching it because she’s another pretty actress with gorgeous model friends. If I were to take a stance against pretty actresses, I wouldn’t watch any TV either. (Not that I watch a lot of it now.)

            I don’t want to come across as a look-ist.

          • Lol, I like “look-ist.” And I totally understand where you’re coming from, on both counts. Shows are just as subjective as books, and I don’t have a problem with people disliking shows I like. There’s no way I’d judge you for that, especially since I hate the idea of people judging me for liking it based on their own qualms, you know? But that’s hypocritical, I guess, because I totally judge people who like Entourage (because I’m really morally offended by it). So, eh, what’re you going to do? Watch it or not watch it, I guess. Always fun to discuss, though. =)

  • feberam

    Wearing heels when fighting bad guys is barely even physically possible. Runway models can barely WALK in heels, let alone fight crime. I love the look of heels but it just not something I can wear on even a regular basis. crazy.

    Good post on female characters. It’s not about strong or weak female characters. I agree that it should be about strong characters in general.

    Love the part of who’s stronger? is the stay at home mom weak or strong.

    Haha and I have to disagree with you about the new girl. I don’t think she’s original at all. She’s boring and terribly cliche. Heck, even the show’s credits are a rip off a comedian’s sketch. I feel like the new girl is just pandering to what quirky girls think they should act like. Quirky is more than polka dots and glitter.

    • Well that’s part of the problem, I think. “Quirky” women are so underrepresented that when any show comes out featuring one, it’s expected to cater to all of them. But quirky women are just as diverse as any other type of women, and New Girl never claimed to be encompassing all of them. Jess loves polka dots and glitter because she’s that type of feminine. That doesn’t mean it’s trying to say all quirky women are the same – just that that’s how Jess is. I love her for it.

      And yes, heels are impossible. My feet ache after wearing them for several hours. I can’t imagine running in them. You’d snap an ankle for sure. Ridiculous.

      Thanks for commenting, Feebs!

  • This post reminds me of one of my favorite Joss Whedon quotes. I read that, when asked why he enjoys writing strong female characters so much, he responded “Because you’re still asking me that question.”

    I can’t wait till the day that phrase is obsolete, along with others like women business owners or work/life balance in women’s life (does anyone ever ask a man that question?).

    • Such good points. And I LOVE that quote! The very fact that people feel the need to specify that the strong characters are female is the problem. Thanks for sharing that.

  • Amanda Myre

    So this is pretty late because I’ve been very internet-restricted for the past two weeks, but this topic really piques my interest.

    I agree that “strong female character” is quite a vague term, possibly to the point of uselessness, but it does have meaning for me. When I was a kid, one of my favorite fantasy series was the Prydain Chronicles, by Lloyd Alexander. One of my favorite characters from this series was Eilonwy, the only female main character (aside from, I suppose, the oracular pig). At the time I thought she was a “strong” character in the sense that she was always acting more sensible than the main main character, a boy called Taran.

    But then I got older, started re-reading the series, and realized that she’s an incredibly weak character. By that I mean that a) she has few useful skills, b) she’s mainly around as a comedic/romantic foil for Taran, and c) she never, ever takes a leadership role even though she talks a lot and appears to have strong opinions. That last bit bothers me immensely. None of the other characters ever listen to her, follow her lead, or include her in the decision-making process in any way. All plans are dreamed up and executed by males without any female input.

    Buffy, on the other hand, isn’t just physically strong and well-written. She’s the general. She’s the leader. More and more as the series progresses, she makes the plans and tells other people what to do. When a dire situation arises, she’s the one who deals with it.

    So that’s kind of my own personal definition of a strong female character – a female character who takes responsibility for dealing with the crises arising in the story. She doesn’t have to be the general, either. For example, I’d say Willow is a strong female character too, even though Buffy’s usually the ultimate leader, because she contributes to the decision-making process and she does take a leadership role in some situations.

    I’m not sure how neatly this definition applies to other sorts of stories, but it sure does apply to the ones I like. I also think it applies quite well to Scarlett O’Hara, and is equally relevant for housewives and assassins.

    • I’ve never read the Prydain Chronicles, but I do understand what you mean (and have read other books with the same issue). And it’s funny, too, because someone else also said I should add Buffy to my list, but I’ve never watched that show. (I think maybe I was a little too young when it came out, and I’ve just never gotten around to renting it, etc.)

      I agree that decision-making and leadership is a big part of what makes characters powerful – male or female. I still dislike the phrase “strong female character,” even though I understand it holds personal meaning to you (and everyone else, I think). Instead, when talking about your definition (which I like), I would try to use phrases like “capable” or “powerful women,” since it’s more specific anyway. Because what you’re describing is less about the characters’ portrayal and more about the characters as women, right? Weak women can be well-portrayed too, but that wouldn’t fit your personal definition of “strong female characters.”

      Food for thought. I like what you’ve said here. Thanks for the comment!

      • Amanda Myre

        Yeah, you know, “capable” and “powerful” are actually pretty good words for what I was fuzzily trying to describe. (It occurred to me after I posted that one could be a decision-maker but do a terrible job at it – so yes, competence is definitely part of this.) Perhaps I’ll start using phrases like that, because I agree, they’re much less ambiguous than “strong.”

        Certainly a weak/incompetent/stupid woman could be well-portrayed. Although, I think the demand for “strong female characters” probably comes out of a time with few female characters that were either well portrayed or in any way personally strong. These days we have lots of great female characters to read about.

        Also, I too recommend Buffy. Hilarious, fun, dark, complex… it’s just really good. I will say, though, it would be an extremely different series if the vampires had ever thought of wearing body armor.

        • Amanda Myre

          “Neither” well portrayed “nor” in any way personally strong, I mean.

          • Yes, I agree that the phrase “strong female characters” came from a time when it was more needed. But now it seems (to me) to be working backward. Not all characters have to be strong people, especially in literary fiction. In fact, the demand for “strong” or competent women, etc., has caused a gender imbalance in fiction. “Weak” or less powerful women don’t even have a place, while “weak” men are the main focus of literary fiction. I think it’s unfair. So yes, I agree that there was a time when it was needed – at least in theory. But I think that time is over, and I think now we should be aiming for equality, which means all types of both gender characters. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments, Amanda. I love discussions with you!

            I’m totally interested in Buffy. It’s actually kind of shocking that I haven’t seen it, considering that I’m something of a vampire aficionado. We don’t have Netflix like the rest of the world, so I don’t know how I’ll do it, but I’m officially putting it on my “to watch” list. =)

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  • Thoughtful post Annie. I must say I agree and disagree to some degree. I think it all comes from genres who tend to lean on cliches and stereotypes to portray women. The fantasy genre in particular, in the past certainly has tended towards portraying a “strong woman” by cutting out the femininity and making them more masculine. To some degree the setting has some say in this. Women were not fit for battle and had to shed their femininity (which often meant sacrificing the chance to become a mother, being less physically feminine, being less emotional etc) either pretend to be male – or become just as physically strong to be able to prove themselves in a male-dominated world. Of course this isn’t as prevelant these days. I’m just saying that when you are talking about fiction in general the term “strong female character” doesn’t have the same weight across the board.

    • Thank you, Alison! Yes, I think you have a good point about the phrase having a different history in different genres. Thanks for a very thoughtful comment!

  • Very insightful. 🙂

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    What about Maka from Soul Eater? She is an amazing character, who grows as a person not only emotionally to herself, but also emotionally WITH her partner Soul, and physically as a fighter. It’s rare to see a character grow not only with another character, but grow to work better with them.

    • I’ve never read Soul Eater, but Maka sounds like a wonderful character!

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