Do you know the difference between a strong, female character and a Strong Female Character?
Though people tend to use the terms interchangeably, I’m going to draw a distinction for the purposes of this blog post.
Do you all remember when this was floating around the Interwebs?
These are strong characters who happen to be female.
These are a few of many Strong Female Characters (also known as the Action Girl trope):
… and every woman ever in a Michael Bay movie. And so, so many others. I was going to include that woman from Star Trek: Into Darkness but I googled “Star Trek Into Darkness woman” and all I got were pictures of that underwear scene and so, too sad for humanity, I’ve left her out of the image lineup.
The Matrix‘s Trinity so completely embodies the frustrations surrounding Strong Female Characters that she has a whole syndrome named after her. The writer of that article also touches on the Strong Female Character With Nothing to Do, an all-too-common movie-addition by a Hollywood that knows it needs to include female characters but doesn’t often understand how to make them matter.
What is a Strong Female Character?
A Strong Female Character is a girl/woman often written with impressive talent, skill, and/or smarts who is usually 1) defined by her relationship with a man (typically the hero), 2) given nothing of importance to do or 3) so hypersexualized that she exists for the male viewer.
Basically, she is missing a want or need independent of the main hero’s want or need. She is a tool for his crusade, a plot device to keep the story moving, or a love interest to draw in female viewers.
Why Don’t I Like Them?
I don’t like Strong Female Characters for the same reason why I don’t like any character defined by a trope: They are not complete. Strong Female Characters are half-written women with ability but no motivation or drive. They have no want or need, and so they have no character arc or goal that they are seeking. They exist as objects, not as people.
Trinity, the holy grail of Strong Female Characters, has a badass, epic introduction. She literally opens the movie in a 4ish minute scene that includes her fighting off several cops, evading agents and bullets, jumping between buildings, flying into a window, and rolling down the stairs only to immediately aim her two pistols at the window to prepare for any incoming agents.
Most importantly, we learn she is not invulnerable–she bleeds, she is afraid, she needs help to get out of the Matrix safely.
There is a I line I personally love in that scene where Trinity is lying on the ground, waiting for the agents to find her. She says, “Trinity, get up.” She says this because she is paralyzed with fear. But she gets up and she goes on to race a huge truck to see who can get to the phone first. She shows grit, bravery in the face of fear, and a strong will to survive and, aside from a ringing phone, there is no one to help her.
And then she becomes Neo’s love interest and that potential for a layered, fleshed-out character sort of slides down the drain.
Just imagine a Matrix where Trinity is as complete a character as Neo. Imagine a Hobbit where Tauriel is more than an elf there to balance gender (ha!) and fall in love with a dwarf.
Now imagine a Buffy the Vampire Slayer in which Buffy doesn’t struggle with her identity as a Slayer and the massive effects it has on her life. Imagine a Firefly where Zoe is only a piece of tail for Wash, Kaylee’s only function is to serve as a minor distraction for Simon, and River…well, River probably wouldn’t exist.
In the former, those stories become richer and more vibrant. In the latter, those stories lose their color and become dull.
Stories suffer when characters, female or male, are not complete, when they haven’t been developed as much as they needed and when they aren’t given an appropriate amount to do, feel, or want.
How Do I Avoid Strong Female Characters (with a capital “S,” “F,” and “C”)?
Write strong, female characters. Spend time establishing each character’s motivation. What is their long-term goal and how do they get it (or not) by the end of the story? Is it realistic that they are always in alignment with the hero?
Notice that in the pop-diva-reality-star photos above, most of those women are the protagonists of the movie or series but not all of them. Supporting characters need to have backstory and their own reason for doing whatever they do in the story.
The fact that we have labeled these women characters as “Strong Female Characters,” with the capital letters, suggests these are not the norm. Some use the same term to describe a woman with agency, an agenda, and function in the story, but they’re more referring to a strong female character where the “strong” means well-written.
I’m tired of seeing uber-tough women in movies who don’t need a man and also get nothing to do (and usually fall in love with the hero anyway). And, you know what? I’m actually fine with the one female character (because, let’s face it, there will only be one of “importance”) falling in love with the hero because he is exactly that–a hero. Just don’t make it her purpose in the story to be the love interest.
But I can’t relate to a woman who is AMAZING at martial arts/coding/weaponry/dragons/archery/running without an inhaler/etc and also has no goal. That woman is a piece of the scenery and I’m certainly not anything like that.
The Strong Female Character that everyone actually wants, the one with agency, an agenda, and function in the story, should really just be a “female character.”
You don’t need a female character who is amazing at martial arts or computer science to have a strong, female character. You just need one who is her own person, even though she is a fictional person.