Strong Female Characters – Who Gives a Toss?

In the world of Fictionville, all male characters walk free.

There are many of them. They are the rich ones, the handsome ones, the brave ones, – the sad, lonely or neurotic ones. The geniuses and warriors, the artists, the lovers, the vain and aloof. Scores and scores of them. All free.

But, in Fictionville there also exists a box. A plain wooden one, not too large and not too small, but ‘just right.’ It stands stationary at its designated place out between Writer’s Street and Reader’s Avenue. The box is labelled “Strong.”

Some female characters are allowed to live in the box, but only if they can be somewhat like the males. The other females languish in a dungeon reserved for the weak.

I dislike the term “Strong Female Character” or SFC, and the reason for that is because I have never been truly comfortable with it.

That’s not to say I haven’t used the term to describe some of the female characters I’ve written. I have. But, I’ve always considered it to mean ‘strength of character,’ and not because female characters hold traditionally accepted male traits which in turn makes them “strong.”

Independent, tough, ballsy (seriously?) brave, kick-ass and more labels like those is almost always what makes a female character strong for many. That is what we’re told, that is what more and more writers are feeling compelled to portray when etching out their female protagonists and/or secondary characters, it’s what many of us as readers/viewers expect and get impatient about if we don’t receive it. When it comes to male characters though, we just expect them to be.

I don’t know what it is that makes it so, but to me it says if a female character is brought to the blank page, and she is then not sketched out with some or all of those generally accepted male traits, then she is weak.

So, by default a woman is weak, unless she in some way sets herself apart from that, or rises above it.

This is the reason I have always been uncomfortable with the SFC term. Because, generally, female characters are either supposed to be in the designated ‘strong’ box, or they’re worthless. It’s such a stifling concept.

For me, whether I’m reading, viewing, or writing, I feel strong characters are ones who make choices and decisions, and do things. They act. And, then they live with the consequences of those decisions. They keep learning and growing. Strength of character should be inherent, and equal in males and females.

Buffy wasn’t a “Strong Female Character” because she was tiny and blonde, but could kick the shit out of male vampires twice her size and was as emotionally detached as Batman. She started out being physically strong,  and quite complex considering she appeared on the series as the girl who had just burned down her old school’s gym because she was kind of fed up with being a slayer.  She was “strong” because she grew into the person she was destined to become.

Then, there was also Willow, who was not “weak” because she lacked confidence. She was just a regular girl who had some insecurities just like every other character on the show . But, she was one of the strongest characters in the series, and that’s because she grew, changed, grew some more, changed again, till she eventually found herself.

The same in the more current The Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) – Arya fights to break the stereotypical mold, Sansa remains in it and is ultra feminine to boot.  Applauding Arya for “being tough” and labelling Sansa as “weak” for not having her sister’s streak would be ridiculous. Both characters show strength because of the choices they make, and how they deal with the results of their choices.

Personally, and as much as I love a good traditionally power filled female character, I think Sansa in GoT has more strength than many of the other female characters in the series, and definitely the males too. She holds strong to the lessons she was raised with, never compromises on who she is (castles in the air and all) and uses her kindness as an armour against the world. Hell, she outlasts most characters in that horrifically dangerous world by just being a girl and that says a lot. Love her, or hate her candy floss ways, she is still an exceptionally strong character in the series.

In fiction we (mostly) see that female characters often need to prove their strength, and that is usually achieved if they adopt traits traditionally assigned to men by default.

A rich, successful female character is “strong.” – A rich, successful male character is normal.

A female character who takes a stand is “gutsy” or “feisty”  – A male character who takes a stand is… well, that’s what guys do.

Traditionally feminine traits (like Sansa’s romantic notions, her patience and kindness, and her acceptance of her ‘role’) are mostly frowned upon, and/or outright considered annoying and “weak,” but give a girl a sword and make sure she wields it as good as any boy and everyone’s happy to give her a standing ovation.

That makes no sense, and it’s not how it should be. Screw the box labelled “strong,” screw either keeping female characters in that box and forcing them to prove their worth, or then banishing them to dungeons for being weaklings.

How about writers just write characters and readers just read/watch them? How about books and movies and TV shows be about people and not labels? How about we stop placing value on women only after they’ve proved themselves equal to or better than ‘the boys,’ and how about we stop dismissing them as weak, worthless and irrelevant if they don’t?

 -*-

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12 thoughts on “Strong Female Characters – Who Gives a Toss?

  1. I like this post. A lot!

    For me its always been about the characters’ belief in themselves. Right or wrong comes secondary.

    And, then there’s individualism.
    Why? Why compare.
    I shit. You shit. We all shit.
    Mind your own damn business.

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  2. In the world of fictionville especially in tv:

    All male characters are clueless, illogical , wooden and have a doctorate in being the last ones to know about what is happening in their abode/office/life. They also have a special talent of passing their share of sin to the object of their desires.

    Femaie characters are Godlike- always right. Sacrificing, with a talent of hiding things , dumb, reality for them is overrated. She is “the” who changes the world of fiction.

    SFC is the most overrated thing, stereotyping , caging and suffocating.
    I feel this is an escape route, you are limiting your female character by setting her boundaries in terms of emotions, physical strength and reactions.

    The only thing that makes a character, female or male -weak is lazy writing .

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  3. Very very well said Anne! *claps*
    Why the parameters for being strong is set on the male traits? Are not females’ own traits strong enough to stand alone?
    These questions have always irked me….Anne, you have written such a wonderful article….as if speaking my mind, but in way more better words!
    I hate it when people say for their daughters ‘ Ye beti nahi, hamara beta hai!’ Why!? damn it! Can’t be beti, beti? Why would labeling her as beta makes her more worth? And why do girls has to prove themselves that they are as good as the betas? Well, I could go on…but I am happy that whatever you have written here summarizes my concepts which I have harbored in myself for long and many times made futile efforts in making people understand….Hope, someday the definition changes!

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  4. What can I seriously say Anne! What words should I choose? This time I m totally speechless. Can there be a single time that u post a topic n it don’t hit my heart? Seriously I am in awe right now n had this smile on my face. You r perfection bas. The topic and ur selection of words kya bolon ab. Really that really what a strong women is. The one who is strong by character not by looks or how she acts. I m sorry if I hurt but I m saying this by experience. A tom boyish girl is actually not strong she mostly wear that avatar to hide her insecurities. She didn’t rise from her fears instead she covers herself with another fake layer of bravery which she does become but mostly in her outward self coz deep within she is the same girl. That’s what I have felt n seen. And no a woman is not weak by default neither I will say she is stronger than a man. N the last u said beautiful. Tight hugs for writing this love u
    :*

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  5. For me, whether I’m reading, viewing, or writing, I feel strong characters are ones who make choices and decisions, and do things. They act. And, then they live with the consequences of those decisions. They keep learning and growing. —– I share this same opinion!!

    And this post makes me share something which I read today morning – http://www.buzzfeed.com/jobarrow/these-stunning-illustrations-contain-powerful-messages-for-w?bffb&utm_term=4ldqpgp#1ps8mvh

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  6. Women are always considered the weaker sex because of our build … but we all know that actually we are much stronger emotionally as well as mentally than our male counterparts … 🙂

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  7. Completely in sync with your angst Anne. This reminds me of that perspective of women who work outside the house being considered working women, while women who manage the household single-handedly – staff, budgets, kids, elders, maintainence…- are considered as the non-working category. What is in the face is what is accepted as the ‘label’, whether strong, working, anything.

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  8. every makes strength so objective when it is so much subjective…its according to person and circumstances. ..

    it feels so good to read one of your posts, I couldn’t for nearly a month due to internet problems in my phone

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  9. strength is not objective its very much subjective, according to person and circumstances….
    I feel so good to be back here, my internet was not working in my phone for nearly a month. need to catch up…

    Like

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