Deconstructing the myth of “The Strong Female Character”

This probably comes as a surprise to a casual reader of this column, but when it comes to films, there are few things I hate more than the recurring trope of the “Strong Female Character.”

Who, exactly, is the “Strong Female Character” who so gets on my nerves? I’ll give you a few hints. Is she an emotionally detached snark? Does she hate other women, reject all “girly” activities, and call herself “just one of the guys”? Does she kick ass for no reason, and with no explanation? And, finally: is she initially presented as more competent than the male protagonist, only to find herself overshadowed by him and in desperate need of his aid by the end of the movie?

The thing is, on their own, none of those traits are necessarily all that bad. But if you answered yes to several of the answers above, chances are, you ARE looking at a “Strong Female Character” (SFC, for short).

And the thing is, she’s not new. You’ve seen her in pretty much every movie since feminism-lite made it big in the movies: “The Matrix,” “NCIS,” and “Big Hero 6.” An alternative name for an SFC is actually “Trinity,” named after the character from “The Matrix”: a female who appears stereotypically “strong” but has no real effect on the plot.

Here’s the full, most definitive explanation for an SFC I could find: “A character whose exterior qualities and achievements are designed to stand in contrast to her inner feminine vulnerability. She is given value because of her masculine traits; she is kept from being the protagonist because of her feminine traits.”

And the thing is, the recurring trope of the SFC has been used by the media more as an avoidance tactic than anything else. It’s a clever way to sidestep the problem of having to write complex female characters who do more than play love interests and kick ass when necessary. By creating SFCs, screenwriters posture supporting gender equality, even though they are really just rehashing a tired caricature over and over.

SFCs also help perpetuate new impossible, unattainable standards that women must meet in order to be “good enough”: levels of physical fitness, beauty, intelligence, and achievement that are downright ridiculous, a preference for emulating traditionally masculine traits over feminine ones, to the point of exhaustion, and the dressing up of sexism and sexual exploitation as something empowering when, in fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. All of this, and most SFCs still manage to finish in second place to their less-qualified male counterparts (unfortunately, as women often do in real life, even in the workplace). It’s not exactly a rousing feminist message, to say the least.

Nor, for that matter, are these SFCs particularly intersectional. The topic of intersectionality isn’t one I’ve broached much, mostly because a column on the topic requires the sort of thought, energy, and attention I’ve had in short supply. However, this topic certainly begs the question: Why is it that we rarely, if ever, see strong female characters who are women of color, LGBTQ, or disabled?

Amidst all of this critique, I must say that while there’s still a ways to go, Hollywood, thankfully, has done an excellent job reversing the damaging trends of “Strong Female Characters” this year.

Whether it was the binge-drinking warrior Valkyrie of “Thor: Ragnarok,” the legendary Diana Prince of “Wonder Woman,” or the female classmates Liz Allan-Toomes and Michelle of “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” the “strong female characters” of the year have been nuanced, layered, and — big surprise here — they are not all white women.

All the women I just mentioned come from superhero movies, which was important to me because 1) these are depictions with enormous mainstream audience access and, by extension, huge pop culture impact, and 2) with the money and budgets running on them, these female characters were the ones most likely to fall into the entrapments of the “Strong Female Character.”

Thankfully, none do, so: Valkyrie is presented first as a fallen-from-grace warrior suffering from PTSD and a gambling and drinking problem, with only hints at a possible future romance that are subtly done and never distract from the character’s presence or importance to the film. (She was also the first canonically bisexual woman in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, though the scene presenting this was cut from the final version of the film; the reasons for which are anyone’s guess.) Similarly, Diana Prince is allowed to be a heroine with distinctive flaws and blind spots. And despite her badass upbringing, she displays traditionally feminine and masculine traits almost equally, with no ridicule or abuse hurled at her for either one. And Liz Allan-Toomes is free from the normal cliches that befall the “popular girls” of high school movies: she’s allowed to be sweet, kind, and smart, with ambitions and goals of her own. The movie never sexualizes her or treats her character as anything other than a normal high schooler — a huge step in an industry that likes to sexualize female characters young, and especially unfairly so to female characters who are black. Meanwhile, Michelle, played by Zendaya, is a wonderfully quirky character who falls into a role usually reserved for boys: the Weirdo. She takes that role and makes it an absolute delight to watch, earning some of the loudest laughs in the theater.

Let’s be clear here: superhero movies are not necessarily stories with tremendous emotional depth, nor are they particularly subtle. But these films do demonstrate a level of feminism that makes me optimistic about the future of movies. The female characters are never defined by their relationships to the men around them. Their failures and accomplishments alike are completely their own. What they bring to the table doesn’t pivot on their gender. They don’t attempt to emulate typically masculine behavior, and their feminine qualities are never hidden, derided, or seen as a source of weakness.

They are allowed, in essence, to truly be themselves — just as they are, flaws and all.
And at the end of the day? That’s EXACTLY what a “strong female character” should be all about.

About the Author

Namankita Rana

Passionate about technology, women’s issues, art, fashion, and global politics. Though maybe not in that exact order.