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The Problem with Abandoning the “Strong Female Character”

Drimoa the Guild Leader by Wonchun ChoiYet another descriptor has been caught in the verboten term net. Recently, several essays have appeared arguing that people should stop using the term “strong female character” (SFC) or “strong female protagonist” because

a) The SFC has become just another trope in speculative fiction, providing authors with another cardboard token with which to people their supporting cast and tick off the diversity checkbox, while still maintaining the patriarchy by featuring a white male protagonist.
b) there’s never a need to modify “male character” with the word “strong,” and so by using this modifier for female characters or protagonists, we are reinforcing the notion that females are inherently weak.

Both statements are true, but abandoning an easily recognized shorthand for “female character with agency” is a tough hill to climb, and I’m not convinced we should try without a good substitute.

First, putting a female character in armor and handing her a sword does not a strong character make. On the flip side, a strong female character needn’t be a warrior. A character who makes decisions and faces consequences, and who acts like a fully-fledged and fleshed out human being, rather than a prop, is “strong.” Such a character could be a queen or a lady’s maid. She could be a peasant or a priestess, a wife or a prostitute. She could also be a warrior, or she could even be an old-fashioned damsel in distress and still be “strong.”

Eithlinn, Daughter of Balor by P. J. LynchMy favorite example of a “strong” damsel is Rebecca from Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. Rebecca is a maiden who is imprisoned under a false accusation of witchcraft early in the story, so she spends nearly the entire novel as a captive. Brian, the novel’s antagonist, offers to free her if she agrees to become his mistress, but she refuses even though a witchcraft conviction will mean her death. Her stalwart and courageous resistance eventually inspires Brian to give his life to save her. Contrast Rebecca with the novel’s other main female character, Rowena, who does little but wait for Ivanhoe to rescue her. Both characters are traditional heroines who are captured and must be rescued by the hero, but Rebecca is “strong” and Rowena is not because Rebecca makes decisions that drive the plot whereas Rowena is a beautiful prop.

Another (non-fantasy) pair of examples come from Ingrid Bergman’s film catalog: Notorious and Casablanca. In Notorious, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman are American spies on a mission to infiltrate a group of former Nazis living in Brazil. Grant serves as Bergman’s handler while her character, Alicia, seduces and then marries Claude Raines, who plays one of the Nazi leaders. In Casablanca, Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa and her husband (played by Paul Henreid) are fleeing from the Nazis and find themselves in a bar owned by Humphrey Bogart’s Rick, with whom Ilsa had had an affair several years earlier while she thought her husband was dead.

In Casablanca, Ilsa is essentially a beautiful trophy handed back and forth between her lover and her husband, while in Notorious Alicia plays an active and vital role in the espionage operation. In Casablanca, Rick gives up Ilsa for the greater good (leaving her little say in the matter, as he bullies and shames her into sticking with her husband). In Notorious, Alicia chooses to thwart Nazis at the cost of her reputation and her romantic relationship with Grant’s character, Devlin, who spends much of the film slut-shaming her before he finally acknowledges her patriotic sacrifice. (Hitchcock repeats this scenario in North by Northwest, with Eva Marie Saint as a mole in a Soviet spy’s household, while Cary Grant slut-shames her before recognizing her patriotic deeds.)

Ingrid Bergman Notorious by AlejandroMogolloLike Rebecca and Rowena, Ilsa and Alicia illustrate the difference between a strong and weak female character—agency. Ilsa’s desires carry little weight and it’s Rick’s choices that drive the plot of Casablanca; in the end, Isla is an object, which the male protagonist nobly sacrifices. In Notorious, Alicia sacrifices herself (and endures scorn for the manner of that sacrifice—hence the title of the film). In Casablanca, Ilsa is the hero’s motivation, while in Notorious, Alicia is the hero.

So, here’s the core of the issue: we live in a world where strong is the default setting for male characters—weak men are either villains (Wormtongue and Wormtail) or antiheros (Theon Grayjoy). Meanwhile, strong is not the default setting for female characters (unless they’re villains). The Rowenas, Ilsas, and Bella Swans are still common (and may still predominate) and are still admired. The problem with abandoning the term “strong female character” isn’t with the goal—that we should avoid reinforcing weak as the default setting for female characters—but with our cultural readiness to accept strong as the default. We are so used to the Ilsas that the Alicias still surprise us (even 60 years after Casablanca and Notorious were made). In fantasy terms, we are so used to the Arwens and Sansas that the Eowyns and Daeneryses stand out.

Last Stand by juliedillonI’d love to see the words hero and heroine turned into gender-neutral terms to define, not the sex of the characters, but the manner of their heroism (active combat vs passive resistance, which can be equally effective—look at Rebecca), but I don’t see that happening in my lifetime, especially because calling a male character a “heroine” would be considered emasculating (even while the ennobling “hero” is applied to female characters more and more frequently). Among English speakers, sexism is still so ingrained that the words man and woman or hero and heroine still carry opposite connotations about strength and weakness and all the associated linguistic baggage.

The bottom line is, we may be reinforcing internalized bias when we label female characters strong, but—regrettably—we still need to a term to identify female characters who play an active role in the story. Authors and publishers use “strong female character” as a key word in marketing efforts, and reviewers still use it to distinguish the Bella Swans from the Katniss Everdeens. Plenty of people like Bella and her story, but an awful lot appreciate knowing from the get-go that the female main character will drive the plot, not be the passive motivation for the male protagonist’s efforts. Until our literature is so filled with Lessas, Morgaines, Briennes, Inevras, and Egwenes that the fainting damsels are the surprise, I’m afraid we need to call the strong women…strong.

Title image by Julie Dillon.

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2 Comments

  1. Yora says:

    At the same time, I don’t see the world coming around to stop using the term for any woman who fights, even if she devoid of individuaity and agency. And I think that’s what we really want. Characters who are their own persons with individual mannnerisms and goals, and who are actively working to pursue them. This encompases such a wide range of possible characters, theat I don’t find it very useful to have a shorthand term for them to begin with. It becomes a marketing term that I’ve seen used very often for characters with no individuality or agency of any kind, that are only “strong” because the authors say she is, but doesn’t actually do anything to earn such a description. I also have trouble with the implication that only “strong” characters are viable and somehow not being “strong” makes you unworthy of being a main character. Even weak characters deserve to be respected as individuals.

  2. Thank you for an interesting article. It would be nice to look at “strong” characters in the sense they are well-developed, have a credible arc and readers want to invest in them. Fantasy of course usually has a battle or two going on so there will inevitably be “strong” characters, who have strength in arms. But as Yora pointed out above, that kind of strength isn’t necessary to make the character worthy. Cersei and Tyrion spring to mind!
    I agree with A.M. Justice that we perhaps notice “bad-ass” female characters more than male ones for the exact reason stated above; ie. it’s not the default. I have been enthralled by the exploits of so many such female protagonists in the past decade of reading. Lowa in Angus Watson’s Iron series, Thorn Bathu in Joe Abercrombie’s Half series, Cywen in John Gwynne’s Faithful & Fallen series, Renna & Inevera in Peter V Brett’s Demon Cycle and of course Vin in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series.
    But I would like to think that I was drawn to these characters not because of their gender but because they were so well written. I think it’s fair to say we are a) moving in the right direction, and b) there is an abundance of excellent characters, both male and female, in fantasy these days.
    Peter Jackson increased Arwen’s role in LOTR and introduced Tauriel into the Hobbit. As we can see in HBO’s Game of Thrones, there’s no need any longer to do this. There is a treasure trove of beautifully written female characters in 21st century fantasy. Cheers to that!
    PS Was it Reese Witherspoon who panned Hollywood for making too many movies where a female character cries “What do we now?”?

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