“Strong female character.” I hear it all the time. It’s how so many writers, authors, and critics describe women in TV shows, books, and magazines, and honestly, I’m tired of it. I’m tired of everyone describing every female character on TV as “strong.”
Logically, I know what they are trying to say. They are trying to talk about women who can stand on their own and female characters that embody the ideal of someone who can endure. My problem is they keep using the same word to describe all these women, when each one is so different and complex that it seems wrong to apply the same adjective to them. Apparently some people have forgotten that strong is an adjective describing something else: strong mind, strong body, strong stomach, strong language, strong beliefs, strong resemblance, strong color, strong flavor. The list is endless, but it’s time to stop using strong to describe every new and interesting female character. When I read that a character is strong I have to decide what they are actually trying to say. Is this person physically strong, are they brave, are they able to stand despite terrible things, or do they just kick ass? Strong is an aspect, but it doesn’t tell the whole story, and I tired of critics and even actors pretending it does.
Some of my favorite characters can be described as strong women. Literally women who kick ass, like Sydney Bristow does on “Alias.” She was physically strong and literally able to withstand torture, but that wasn’t all she was. My favorite scenes or episodes revolved around Sydney dealing with some personal or emotional crisis. Ultimately, what made her such a good agent was her ability to care. Yes, she was strong, but she was also vulnerable, insecure, scared, intelligent, and brave. She was emotional at times and stone-cold at others, and it was the range that made her an interesting character.
Everyone always describes Buffy as being a “strong female character,” but she was more than her slayer-powered strength. She was weak at times and downright irritating at others. Her foil, Cordelia Chase, could easily be described as strong by the end of her “Angel” run, but when she started at Sunnydale High she was nothing more than an insipid, shallow valley girl. Over the years, her character got a chance to grow and change with time (like people do) and circumstances turned her from a prom queen to a hero.
There are so many more examples. Characters like Meredith Grey (“Grey’s Anatomy”) or Brooke Davis (“One Tree Hill”), who have gone through so many traumas, both physical and emotional, and are still standing. They are women to look up to because they seem like people. Not a women boiled down to her most basic desires or needs. Occasionally, “strong” women are depicted as cold and standoffish; Meredith Grey is one example. She isn’t always cold, but sometimes her ability to separate herself from her emotions shocks me, and that’s OK. I don’t have to like her 100-percent of the time for me to relate to her or care about her story. Being “strong” and being cold don’t have to go hand in hand. If you want to write accurate characters have them do things people do: We learn and grow and change every day. Marvel’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” has a resident “cavalry” Agent May, and she seems to be only made up of her strength, which she regularly uses to beat people up, and her concern for the six people she seems willing to tolerate.
Strong is not an accurate way to describe a person, fictional or otherwise. It is only one part, only one aspect of a person. We spend so much time focusing on the moments characters rise that we forget to appreciate the moments they fall. Those moments hold as much truth as the strong moments, and so many of us are weak. Olivia Pope is often touted as a strong woman who doesn’t take crap from anyone, but she is so weak when it comes to her relationships. It is her failings in that part of her life that allows her to be a strong leader in her work and “handle it.”
We never ask if our male characters are strong. We assume they are, by the simple fact of them being male. If we are judging by the “strong” descriptor, the Doctor is certainly strong. He is also clever, silly, lonely, sympathetic, abrasive, whimsical, brave, gloomy, calculating, and obsessed. Clara, by virtue of not being like the Doctor, is subsequently described as weak in article after article. While Clara is absolutely my least favorite companion, and she certainly has her weak moments, she is ultimately just as complex and difficult to discern and box up as the Doctor.
In a ELLE magazine interview last year, actress Natalie Portman said,
“I want [female characters] to be allowed to be weak and strong and happy and sad—human, basically. The fallacy in Hollywood is that if you’re making a ‘feminist’ story, the woman kicks ass and wins. That’s not feminist, that’s macho. A movie about a weak, vulnerable woman can be feminist if it shows a real person that we can empathize with.”
We shouldn’t classify characters into strong or not strong. We should use various adjectives and words to describe who we are, and how we see each other. When it comes to female characters, “strong” shouldn’t always mean physically strong; it should mean strongly written, someone with a personality who has fears, desires, flaws, and strengths. Just like male characters, female characters should be written and portrayed like complex people because they are complex people just like men. Women are so much more than how much or how little weight they can lift, but we can still be strong.
Female characters shouldn’t be in stories just to support a man on his quest. We should have quests of our own, and often do. Don’t put a female character into a story if you aren’t going to give her a personality.
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