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?