Strong? Not Always. And That’s Okay

The provocative headline caught my eye. Maybe it caught yours too.

An August, 2013 essay entitled “I Hate Strong Female Characters” got plenty of attention from women in the writing world.

Like many, I wondered if it was some anti-feminist rant advocating a return to distressed damsels tied to the tracks, waiting to be rescued? Of hapless, helpless love interests who stumble in their high heels as they try to flee the monsters?”

Then I read the article. And I found myself nodding. And agreeing.

First, it’s important to note that author Sophia Mcdougall doesn’t define strong as well-written, or essential to the story. Her point is not that female characters shouldn’t be strong in this sense.  In fact, she argues that more stories should demand it.  

For instance, why is the ratio of every action movie or TV show, three males to one female? Why is the female character frequently the love interest of the acknowledged (male) protagonist? Why does the male protagonist’s pivotal moment of doubt or pain often come after the female’s death, or capture?

Good questions, and as someone who grew up watching shows where the boys had adventures and the girls stayed home, I’m glad for more Strong Female Characters.

But you know what? Too often, those Strong Female Characters look nothing like me.

Take Katniss Everdeen. An admirable heroine, Katniss is a brave hunter who wields a mean bow and arrow. She enters the Hunger Games to protect her weak younger sister, a healer.  Once in the arena, she protects kind, nurturing (and weaker) Peeta, who is eventually captured and must be rescued.

What conclusion can we draw from this? That being a hunter and knowing how to shoot makes one strong and heroic, while knowing how to heal illness or nurture others doesn’t?

In a 2011 New York Times Magazine essay, Carina Chocano wrote that strength in female characters is often communicated by displaying their masculine traits. “Strength…is the 21st equivalent of “virtue.” And what we think of as “virtuous” … is the ability to play down qualities that have traditionally been considered feminine and play up the qualities that have traditionally considered masculine. Strong female characters are just female characters with the gendered behavior taken out.”

Allowing female characters only to be “strong” also limits their depth. A hero can be strong, but also show weakness, doubt, fear and sadness. He can love fully, and foolishly. He can be neurotic and indecisive. He isn’t always the best, toughest, or smartest. He’s allowed to grow and change as a result of his adventure. In other words, he’s allowed to be human.

Shouldn’t our heroines be allowed the same opportunity?

Insisting every heroine be infallibly strong creates a cultural norm as unattainable and confining as insisting every heroine look like Kate Upton. Chocano writes, “The problem is not that there aren’t enough strong female characters…it’s that there aren’t enough realistically weak ones. What’s better than…a propulsion engineer with a sideline in avionics whose maternal instincts and belief in herself allow her to take apart an airborne plane and discover a terrorist plot? A girl who reminds you of you.”

As writers, readers and feminists, we can create and support more nuanced portrayals of women, who are not only strong and admirable, but also relatable.

It doesn’t mean a return to outdated, pre-feminist stereotypes. It simply means allowing our heroines to exhibit real flaws and weaknesses, and end their adventures better than when they started. It means that instead of condemning them as doormats, we celebrate their courage and growth. Because that’s where true strength is found.



This article originally appeared in the Feb. 2016 RWA ChicagoNorth chapter newsletter. Thanks to our editor Kit Kilroy for letting me repost it here.

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