YouTube Channel: Justin Dennis
Recently, there has been a lot of discussion around “strong female characters” in books and films. In general, the assumption when it comes to female characters is “the stronger, the better.” Female characters have been simpering, sobbing companions to the main male characters for too long– it’s our turn to kick butt.
But the “strong female characters” revolution feels hollow and without substance. We see strong girls and women all over the place, but do women and girls really see themselves represented meaningfully in the media? Even worse, is this whole discussion merely a band-aid solution for a larger problem with the way women are seen and represented in society at large?
This is a discussion that is desperately needed, but in order for our understanding and discussion to move forward, we need to address the problematic elements. Here are six ways discussions miss the point.
1. ‘Strong Female Characters’ Don’t Have To Be Physically Strong
Justin Dennis recently examined the “strong female character” phenomenon. He pointed to Eowyn from the Lord of the Rings series as an example. If a female character’s sole purpose in the plot is to kick butt, is she really a strong character?
I get that we want to show women as being strong, instead of being portrayed as physically and emotionally weak. But strong, flat characters are just as bad as weak, flat characters.
2. ‘Strong Characters’ Are Different Than ‘Strongly-Written Characters’
Our discussion of “strong female characters” has accidentally conflated a female character who is physically strong, with a strong character (multi-faceted and complex) who is female. Every complex character has areas of strength and of weakness, so every strongly-written character will be strong in one way or another. But the reverse is not true: physically strong characters are often two-dimensional and flat.
3. It Is Easy To Write A ‘Strong Female Character’ Who Doesn’t Say Anything Important
Although it is important to assess the percentage of dialogue carried by male versus female (or genderqueer) characters, the stats don’t give the full story. By writing a kick*ss female character, pretty much all a writer has to do is change the character’s name and physical description from male to female. In action-heavy stories, female characters can be an “easy out” for writers and filmmakers who want to increase their “lines spoken by a female character” rating, without allowing for authentic and meaningful female voices.
4. ‘Strong Female Characters’ Are More Easily Written By Men
Does the “strong female character” have a family? What does she do for fun? What are her insecurities? How does she respond to systematic sexism on a daily basis? How does she balance caring for her loved ones with her future ambitions? What does she use for birth control, and how does she deal with her menstruation?
Women warrior characters conveniently avoid these questions, by focusing on women being strong and kicking butt. And until now, we haven’t been critical of it because we’ve been so glad to see women being strong and kicking butt.
5. The Strength That ‘Strong Female Characters’ Show Is A Male-Gaze Strength
If we see one-dimensional female characters beat up men and run around in their athletic glory, we feel empowered. But that sense of empowerment is shallow and fleeting.
Real-life women usually don’t have the time or energy to become experts in martial arts like those movie women do. By the “strong girls” standard in films, few women stack up. This type of strength is not representative of the strength that many girls and women already possess.
Yes, some women are crazy-strong– that’s awesome. Other women nurse babies for eight hours straight. Others teach classrooms full of kids and young adults. Some work hard in labs. Some create beautiful art. Some diagnose and treat disease. Some raise a family full-time. There are as many stories to be told about women’s strength as there are women. And we do a disservice to all viewers and readers if we tell the same story over and over about women beating people up.
(NB: Yes, I am aware that men are also often portrayed as having a singular, flat type of strength. That is also a problem. But, generally, even those types of characters have multiple character traits. Men and women should speak up about the impact of toxic masculinity.)
6. ‘Strong Female Characters’ Make Us Forget How Few Women Are Behind The Scenes
It is important that we not forget how few strong females are actually being employed by the industries that give us “strong female characters.”
Representation matters. We shouldn’t underestimate how important it is to show strong girls and women in the media, including people of color and other disadvantaged groups.
But it is equally important that young girls see female names in the credits of movies and TV shows in roles other than acting. Currently, there is gender parity in film school graduation, but women make up less than 10 percent of film directors. That is a problem. The ratio of women to men in producer, writer, and technical roles are equally dismal.
So what are some examples of complex, “authentic female characters?” (That term is my suggestion for the new term to replace “strong female characters.”) Katniss from “The Hunger Games” (books and movies). Miss Marple. Juno.
How can you tell if you’re reading or watching a well-developed female character? Ask yourself how many adjectives can you use to describe her, without mentioning appearance: five is good. Does she have strengths and weaknesses? Do her actions tell you about her personality, or is she doing the same stuff in every scene? Does she have self-doubts?
This is an important discussion that needs to keep happening. The more we put pressure on publishers and film producers to hire and show quality women, the more we all benefit from hearing a diverse range of voices.
H/t Everyday Feminism.
Featured image via Getty Images