Faux Strength in Female Characters
"Strong female character" is a big buzz phrase these days, and I am not a fan. Sophia McDougall explains many of my reasons for disliking it in her 2013 article "I Hate Strong Female Characters."
No one ever asks if a male character is "strong"...this is because he's assumed to be strong by default. Part of the patronizing promise of the Strong Female Character is that she's anomalous. "Don't worry!" that puff piece or interview is saying when it boasts the hero's love interest is an SFC. "Of course, normal women are weak and boring and can't do anything worthwhile. But this one is different. She is strong! See, she roundhouses people in the face."
Not only does the very phrase insinuate that strong women are unusual, but the Strong Female Character has become an inflexible mold that's no better than the feminine ideal of the 19th century. Victorians demanded that women be chaste, obedient, self-sacrificial angels of the home. Authors like Thomas Hardy who wrote about heroines who were smart, outspoken, or sexually curious were "vulgar." Now people demand that every heroine be smart, outspoken, and sexually curious, and any writer who fails to meet the SFC requirements is "misogynist" or "anti-feminist."
To avoid accusations of sexism, writers and Hollywood producers feel obligated to slip in token SFCs who appear suitably kick-ass. Every romance novel must have a heroine who is bold and fearless, as proven by the fact that she can ride a horse. And every action blockbuster must have at least one love interest in black leather who strikes sexy poses with guns.
These photos exemplify what I dislike most about SFCs: Strong Female Characters are rarely strong. In stories for men, they're often little more than eye candy. In stories for women, they're often vivacious tomboys who give a halfhearted show of wit and independence, but ultimately rely on men to rescue them and whisk them away to the altar.
These sheep in wolves' clothing are even more annoying than straight-up damsels in distress. Not every heroine needs to be strong, but if you intend to write a strong heroine, you should do it properly. You can't just put her in combat boots and call it a day.
What Is Strength
Most lists of "Strong Heroines in Literature" contain characters from very old novels. Scarlett O'Hara, Jo March, Elizabeth Bennet—these heroines are admirable in the context of the historical eras they were written in, but they don't meet modern standards. Or at least, they don't meet my standards.
So I'm going to throw objectivity out the window and outline my own criteria for strength in any character, male or female.
Elizabeth Bennet doesn't cut it for me because she's 100% reactive. I'd rather have a heroine who does foolish things than a heroine who lets the characters around her propel the story.
There are a couple of reasons protagonists should be proactive. The first is that active people are interesting and reactive people are boring. Audiences sometimes like the villain of a story more than the hero because the villain does things—schemes, backstabs, battles with his internal demons—while the hero merely sits around being a good guy. Even a character who commits horrible crimes is more interesting than a character who does nothing at all.
The second reason is that people admire leaders more than followers. Readers want to fantasize about taking charge, righting wrongs, and seizing happiness. Few want to fantasize about being a helpless, useless tagalong.
Maybe it's because I saw many adaptations of A Little Princess when I was young, but I've always admired heroes who refuse to compromise their morals even in adverse circumstances. I can't stand protagonists who stoop to the same level as the villains.
In movies and shows for children, the underdog heroes often "stand up for themselves" by playing humiliating pranks on the mean, overweight bullies. Even when I was in the target age group for the Nickelodeon and Disney channels, I hated these scenes.
To me, real heroes are like Atticus Finch and Jane Eyre, who stay classy even if people treat them poorly. Sticking to their ethics despite the temptation to break them shows true strength of character.
The exception is a well-drawn antihero or tragic hero. I dislike writers who expect us to applaud reprehensible behavior as heroic, but I can empathize when it's clear the protagonist is doing bad things because he or she is scared, jealous, desperate, etc. But these types of heroes aren't strong; they're interesting because they're weak.
Capacity for Growth
Capacity for growth is the number one most important trait for a hero, and I think for people in real life too.
Nobody comes out of the womb a good person. Babies are naturally greedy, amoral, ignorant, and rash. Three-year-olds scream, snatch at shiny objects, hit people, and put dangerous things in their mouths. "Growing up" means overcoming these natural faults by developing empathy and self-control. Over time, good adults admit their failings and fix them. Bad ones remain three years old forever and end up in jail for snatching at shiny objects, hitting people, and/or putting dangerous things in their mouths.
In fiction, a good hero starts out with faults and overcomes them through the story events, while a bad one stays the same from beginning to end. Conquering pride and fear to change for the better takes a lot of strength, and readers will cheer for a hero who can pull it off.
What Is Not Strength
Violence is a huge problem with films and books featuring Strong Female Characters. Writers will make a heroine punch, kick, or shoot people at the slightest provocation, and they expect audiences to think she's awesome for it.
There are some extremely violent fictional heroines out there, but more insidious is the portrayal of casual violence as strength. The spunky girl who knees boys in the groin for jilting her friends, the sophisticated Southern belle who slaps the hero across the face for making rude remarks, the no-nonsense mama who whacks her husband and sons upside the head for doing stupid things—these are the characters who teach people that violent women are strong and cute. They are not.
A prime example of "cute violence" in fiction is Steve Rogers' love interest, Officer Peggy Carter, from Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). When a soldier under Peggy's command mouths off, she punches him in the jaw and sends him sprawling. Then she gets jealous when a sexy blonde kisses Steve, so she whips out a pistol and starts shooting at his back as he walks away.
Because Peggy is a female character, her vicious behavior is supposed to be adorable. If a male character named Peter Carter sucker-punched his underlings for cracking wise and wielded a lethal weapon on his girlfriend because another man hit on her, he wouldn't be adorable in the slightest.
The only time violence shows strength is when a heroine uses an appropriate amount of it to defend herself in a life-threatening situation. But attacking a sleazy flirt with fancy karate moves, or wailing on a cheating ex with a handbag? That's not strength; it's assault and battery.
We have another bizarre double standard in fiction: victimhood. A hero who does nothing but get beaten up is a loser, but a heroine who spends the entire book or movie being abused is a "survivor."
A stock character I see frequently in books, especially historical novels, is the dazzlingly beautiful woman every man on earth wants to rape. Her father promises her in marriage to an arrogant nobleman. The nobleman tries to rape her, but she throws pillows at him and runs away. She bumps into a macho creep who stinks of cheap wine. The creep tries to rape her, but she pushes him into a mud puddle and runs away. She gets captured by a villainous warlord. The warlord imprisons her in an opulent bedchamber and—surprise!—tries rape her. She stabs the warlord with a dagger hidden up her sleeve and rushes outside to fall sobbing in the arms of her true love.
I said above that a strong woman will defend herself, but these Princess Peaches who do nothing but defend themselves don't come across as strong female characters. They come across as reactive female fantasies.
Many teenagers think rebelliousness is synonymous with strength, and some writers never grow out of that. Heroes in books and shows for young adults often demonstrate how cool and "free" they are through theft, vandalism, drug and alcohol use, and other antisocial or self-destructive behaviors. Princesses in fantasies often escape through their bedroom windows and set off on adventures because they feel stifled by the rules of palace etiquette, or they find their fiances unattractive, or they're simply bored with luxury and crave excitement.
These characters are supposed to come across as brave and independent. Instead, they come across as spoiled. If the only reason the protagonist has for acting up or out is self-gratification, it shows recklessness and immaturity, not strength of character.
Sometimes an author will tell the audience that the protagonist has a certain attribute, but then demonstrate the opposite in the story. For example, TV characters will fawn over a genius detective with an IQ of 200, but he can't figure out the simplest of clues. Or a romance heroine's friends will gush about how kind she is, but she spends the whole story selfishly toying with men.
The most annoying variation is the sexy FBI agent with a Glock 22 and a black belt in judo who needs rescuing in every episode or chapter. Other characters go on about how brave and capable she is, but when bad guys attack, she's totally helpless. She flails about until she gets tied up or knocked out, and then she needs a Knight in Shining Armor to swoop in and save her.
(Or, like in Silence of the Lambs, she's supposedly the best and brightest in her class, but she does incredibly stupid things. "Hmm, I think there's a murderous psycho in this pitch dark, unfamiliar house. Instead of calling backup and scoping out the situation, I think I'll chase him in there alone and blind. Yes, that seems like an excellent idea!")
In fiction, actions speak louder than exposition. You can't simply declare that the heroine is strong and smart and expect readers to believe it without question, especially when all evidence points to the contrary.