“Strong Female” Fallacies

I’ve made no secret that I am an out-and-proud feminist, and that I am always on the lookout for great female characters in the books I read. However, sometimes it seems that people think this means I only like Strong Female Characters™, a particular breed of character running rampant in many YA and adult fantasy novels whom I dislike.

According to these books I’ve read, Strong Female Characters™ can be or have one or more of these things:

  1. Warriors, fighters, and/or otherwise physically tough, but moreover EQUAL TO OR BETTER THAN THE MENZ in terms of skill.
  2. Emotionally stoic, often to coincide with said physical toughness, but sometimes it arises as a defense mechanism against soft, mushy FEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEELINGS, which the heroine sees as a weakness.
  3.  Not only are they physically strong, they also Need No One, because their bodily strength also apparently bestows imperviousness. Needing people is for the weak! Being friends with people is for the weak! LOVE IS FOR THE WEAK.
  4. Horrific trauma of some sort has turned them from the soft, vulnerable girls they were before into Hardened Wimmin.
  5. Femininity is a dirty word.

Now, on their own, none of these traits are necessarily “bad”; I, myself, am a sucker for emotionally stoic heroines. However, while the above list can certainly apply to many female characters, these traits don’t necessarily mean the character is “strong”, or at least, not as I define it.

For me, strength in a character arises from action, but not necessarily in the swordfighting sense. By “action”, what I really mean is “making choices, often difficult.” “Strength of character” is a term we use to apply to humans we admire, humans who do or choose to do the “right” thing when it would have been so much easier to lay down and let someone else make decisions for him or her. Those who take responsibility, those who follow their moral codes, these are people whom I find “strong”.

I say “people” because I don’t believe strength of character is limited to one gender. Indeed, why are females always the one saddled with burden of being a “Strong Character” when males are simply allowed to be? We, as readers–as a society, do not critique males or hold them to the same standards of criticism as women. In order for a female to be strong in fiction or in media, she must often prove (or really, be told) that she can hold her own or be the best on a masculine playing field. I’m not talking only about physical prowess; I’m talking about “traditionally masculine” traits that include, yes, emotional stoicism. Women are “traditionally” considered physically weaker, more emotional, more into relationships (both platonic and romantic), and of course, more concerned about their appearance than their male counterparts. All these traits seem to run counter to the commonly-held idea of a “Strong Female Character”.

Of course, people are far more complex than the stereotypical gender traits I’ve arbitrarily listed, but revisiting that list of Strong Female Character™ traits, it seems that when you pare it down to its barest essentials, anything “traditionally feminine” is not “strong”, and is therefore “weak”. Institutionalized and internalized misogyny at its most insidious. I don’t subscribe to the notion that “femininity is weak” at all; I believe a woman who chooses to stay at home and be a housewife can be a strong character as much as a female warrior can be. After all, one of my favourite characters of all time is Phèdre nò Delaunay from Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series: a courtesan whose strength lies in her beauty and femininity as well as her intelligence. But what makes her strong is not her traditionally feminine trappings; what makes her strong is the fact that she chooses again and again–against impossible odds, against her own heart even–to do the right thing and save the realm.

And she doesn’t even have to wield a sword to do it.

What do y’all think? Do you share my thoughts about Strong Female Characters? Let us know!


28 Responses to “Strong Female” Fallacies

  1. Renee Suzanne Sep 28 2012 at 8:36 am #

    Bravo! This is a much-needed post! I used to buy into the fallacy that all strong female characters had to have…well, basically every trait you mentioned in your numbered list! It didn’t help that most of the books I read at the time seemed to tout that same standard. It wasn’t until I watched the television show Smallville that I realized how much more diverse the spectrum of “strong female character” really is. Silly me for thinking to not be a simpering helpless character they had to be emotionless kickass robots! Still trying to break this standard in my own writing…alas! Thanks for this wonderful post! =D

  2. Meagan Spooner Sep 28 2012 at 9:01 am #

    Oof, yes. I’m so tired of the idea in YA that strength in female characters has to be of the physical sort. I once heard that the definition of the hero (in a story sense) is that it’s the character who has to make the tough choices, and I so, SO agree. Strength of character trumps strength of body any day. People always cite Buffy (and so do I, but for different reasons) when they think strong characters, but what I think a lot of folks are missing is that Buffy’s physically strong from day one. Her strength of character is what’s dynamic, what changes and grows and gives us something to sink our (figurative) teeth into.

    Yay, great post JJ!

    • JJ Sep 28 2012 at 10:33 am #

      I agree with you about Buffy! Her strength is not in her ability to kick ass, but in her resilience and growth. But the shallow traits are the easiest to latch on to when it comes to characterizing Strong Female Characters™, le sigh.

  3. Kateri Ransom Sep 28 2012 at 9:39 am #

    Wonderfully executed post! I applaud you. I’ve always felt this way about female characters, about this complex dynamic between strong and weak, and it’s so great to see it addressed here. I hope many, especially younger, readers take it into consideration. When I was in junior and in early high school I always wondered why the opportunity for greatness never came my way. And then I thought Why? Because there was no zombie apocolypse for me to channel my inner fighter (wears the bad-ass black boots) chick. Because there was no extremely seriously messed up government take over for me to channel my inner mockingjay? But, thankfully, somewhere in that space of time (as in before I graduated) I realized that was not the case. And you just said it perfectly here!!!!!
    Can you tell I feel STONGLY about this subject?
    Ha! I could go on for days, but for now i’ll just say thank. Thank you su much for sharing!

  4. Beth Christopher Sep 28 2012 at 10:03 am #

    Yup, yup, yup! A strong female character ( or male ) is one who is brave in the face of their fear. I don’t give a rip if they can shoot a bow and arrow or kick and leap like a ninja. I want them to be afraid (be human) and do the right thing in spite of their fear. That’s real courage. And a heck of a lot more relatable.

  5. Angelica R. Jackson Sep 28 2012 at 10:25 am #

    I think Elisa from Rae Carson’s books is a great example of a balanced, strong female character. She has some powers associated with her godstone, but the trait that wins the day most often is her sheer stubbornness.

    • JJ Sep 28 2012 at 10:34 am #

      I LOVE RAE’S BOOKS. She’s “one that got away” from me as an editor, alas! 😉

  6. Ruth Frances Long Sep 28 2012 at 10:40 am #

    A great post. And so good to read it.

    One of my favorite characters, for many years now, is Mara from Janny Wurtz and Raymond Feist’s Empire Trilogy. I tend to measure a lot of others against hers.

    I like when a character can be afraid, make mistakes, be an individual, have her own plans and be determined to carry them out her own way. I like stubbornness. But she doesn’t have to act in a traditionally masculine way to display any of this. Come to that I like a male character who can feel, emote, be sensitive or even display affection (shock horror).

    • JJ Sep 28 2012 at 10:46 am #

      Agreed! Another of my favourite characters of all time is Lyra Silvertongue from Philip Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy, and she’s stubborn, determined, loyal, and sort of a little shit, but I love her for it. And Anne Shirley! She’s so charming and funny and adorable and GREAT character–because she emotes and feels and dreams and is sensitive.

      I like my male characters to be more than a prop in a love story, but perhaps I should save my thoughts on that for another day… 😉

  7. Dominic Sep 28 2012 at 10:42 am #

    There’s also the Strong Female Character who uses her sexuality as a weapon, while still displaying many of the other traits you mentioned above. Catwoman’s portrayal in the video game Batman: Arkham City bothered me because, while she’s supposedly a professional thief, she wears high heels and displays tons of cleavage so that she can us her sexuality as a weapon, instead of, you know, not being caught thieving in the first place. Wouldn’t it seem much more professional to get in and out with the prize, rather than get in, get caught, and sex her way out?

    • JJ Sep 28 2012 at 10:48 am #

      I am not averse to women using sexuality as a weapon (e.g. Cleopatra), which is why I did not include it in my list of traits. I do like that Catwoman is a sexual creature, but Catwoman in Arkham City seems more to me a victim of the male gaze. (Although I hear you on the ridiculous of high heels when you’re a cat burglar–it was one of the issues I had with Anne Hathaway’s portrayal of Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises. That, and her long, unbound hair. Lady, you are leaving DNA evidence EVERYWHERE. No wonder you have a rap sheet! I thought you were supposed to be a good cat burglar!)

  8. Crystal Rupp Sep 28 2012 at 11:02 am #

    Wow, thanks so much for this post! I think it will help me a lot in reworking one of my characters. There’s a lot more that goes into a ‘strong character’ than what meets the eye and emotional strength is something that we can all relate to.

  9. Chantal Sep 28 2012 at 11:03 am #

    I read something about The Song of Ice and Fire books once that I thought was neat. It was said that the character of Arya shows the strength it takes for someone (a female) to live outside of the her predetermined gender stereotypes, while her sister Sansa, was an example displays the strength needed to continuing living inside them. I thought that was a very cool observation.

    I hate when “strength” is only displayed in one way. The warrior-woman, who is strong and independent is good, of course, but I think it’s also important to show other kinds of strength: women working as nurses, helping injured people; women who make the tough, self-sacrificing choices for the good of others; women who are kind and provide strength and emotional support (something that is just as important as being able to fell a beast with a sword) – there are many more ways to save someone then just the physical.

    • JJ Sep 28 2012 at 11:05 am #

      I will defend Sansa TO THE DEATH. I <3 her. And Cersei Lannister. But I also think GRRM has done a pretty good job of writing complex women who are strong, weak, and human. 🙂

      • Daphne Oct 2 2012 at 7:52 am #

        I just wanted to join in on the Cersei love. There isn’t a lot of it and it’s nice to meet someone else that doesn’t hate her!

  10. Jason Nelson Sep 28 2012 at 12:35 pm #

    Strong characters are the ones who decide. Who do. Things happen around them, to be certain but they do, and choose, and live with the consequences of these choices. Strength manifests in lots of fun ways.
    You could have a strong character (female or otherwise) who spends a story trapped in a tower, waiting for a prince to rescue her, so long as you convince me that the horrors of enduring the tower, the actions she’ll take to maintain her free will are even harder than the poor prince needing a set of garden gloves and some pruning shears to get to her.
    The strength in the character comes from within. Maybe it manifests in the desire to kick some ass. No big deal. Maybe it’s an iron will that refuses to be dominated. That’s cool too. Maybe it’s the strength that gets completely broken, ruined, and yet hangs on, grows, and comes back as a more vibrant, stronger character.
    Show me a character who chooses, who lives with the consequences of her choices, survives, even thrives, and I’ll consider her (or him) a strong character. And if that character decides to kill some nazi zombies, I can live with that too.

  11. Anna J. Boll Sep 28 2012 at 1:02 pm #

    Love this post! Let us not forget that those who change throughout the story, who learn and grow and become decision makers and doers are also strong. Too, even strong characters have their moments of weakness and vulnerability which is how we connect with them in the first place. I love this quote from your post and find it true in many areas of life and work: “We, as readers–as a society, do not critique males or hold them to the same standards of criticism as women.”

  12. Pamela DuMond Sep 28 2012 at 2:40 pm #

    Thanks for a great post. I have to agree 100 % with what Anna B. just said. I love when a character arcs over the course of a story, steps up to the plate. Takes the hero’s journey. I’m much more invested in that character – be it girl/guy – than someone who has it all going on from the get go. Also – nice shoutout for the fab Jac Carey!

  13. Tim Sep 28 2012 at 5:37 pm #

    “Indeed, why are females always the one saddled with burden of being a “Strong Character” when males are simply allowed to be? We, as readers–as a society, do not critique males or hold them to the same standards of criticism as women”

    Eh, kind of disagree with that on a sociological level, but I’m just going to talk about the reading level.

    “Institutionalized and internalized misogyny at its most insidious”
    Hmm, wouldn’t that actually be classed as Chauvinism?

    Yeah, I agree with this article . I don’t think enough attention is given to the strength of character that is inherent in the caring side of society, in both males and females, as in nurses, a house parent, a child carer and so on so forth.

    Although, why shouldn’t a female character be strong if they are physically strong? Yes, if it begins and ends there and that character’s first option is “Ugh, must smash”, then they would be a weak character. But what about a strong female character who knows when to stop and start? Or knows that aggression does not equal respect and must lead people to follow and not force them to follow?

    • JJ Sep 30 2012 at 6:12 pm #

      I don’t say that the Strong Female Character™ traits are a bad thing; I say that that these traits don’t necessarily a strong character make. There are plenty of physically strong female characters I love: Brienne of Tarth from GRRM’s Song of Fire and Ice as well as Kel from Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small series.

      Chauvinism and misogyny are certainly closely related, but not the same thing. Male chauvinism, or the belief that men are superior to women, is not what I was trying to articulate by institutionalized misogyny, which is a societal and instinctual revulsion against all things “girly” or “feminine”.

  14. Nicole Sep 28 2012 at 6:30 pm #

    Love this post! I think we are often tough on female characters. Personally, I want strong female characters, but I don’t want that strength to come from being masculine because I think that just gives power right back to the boys. Women can be strong in a variety of ways, and like you said, feminine characteristics can make a woman strong.

  15. Alexa Loves Books Sep 29 2012 at 2:42 am #

    I absolutely ADORE this post, if only because I’ve always believed that strong female characters are not just those characters with the traits on your list. Sometimes, it’s important to be strong on the inside as well as the outside – intelligence and emotional stamina are characteristics worthy of being deemed as “strong”.

  16. Annie Oct 1 2012 at 4:48 pm #

    great post! I’m also really bothered by the idea that a woman has to be masculine in her traits in order to be considered strong and I love how you expressed it.. It completely undermines the reality that women are strong and complex. TV shows, I think, get this really right sometimes, but maybe that’s because there’s a living, breathing actress behind the character bringing depth to her.

  17. Giora Oct 8 2012 at 1:05 am #

    It’s great JJ that you are a proud feminist, but with all due respect feminism is about women being equal, not necessarily about kick-ass heroines in YA fiction. in my second YA fiction the heroine, 17 yrs old Petra, is a feminist but not because she is strong in action (she is but that’s not the point), but because she talks about issues that are important to feminists.
    If you are a proud feminist, then encourage St. Martin to publish YA fiction with a feminist heroine. It’s all start at young age, and girls needs feminist MC in YA fiction to open their minds. But please don’t confuse female fighters with the essence of feminism.

    • JJ Oct 8 2012 at 7:22 am #

      But that is precisely my point in this post: kickass heroines do not necessarily a strong character make. Strong in action means strong in decision and choice for me, not necessarily strong with swords.

      • Giora Oct 8 2012 at 7:16 pm #

        Fair enough, JJ. You probably know more YA novels than I do (I’m only a prat time author). Can you give me the name of at least one YA fiction where the young heroine, just like you, declares that she is a feminist and/or talks about feminism. I like to read it and compare it to mine. Thanks in advance.

        • JJ Oct 8 2012 at 7:24 pm #

          I do believe Bella Swan from Twilight actually talks about feminism, although I wouldn’t necessarily call her a feminist heroine…

          There are many heroines whom I would call feminist without necessarily outright declaring so, but Mae from Sarah Rees Brennan’s Demon’s Lexicon series is an outspoken one. 🙂 I believe nearly all of Sarah Rees Brennan’s heroines are “out and proud” with regards to their feminism.

  18. Giora Oct 9 2012 at 2:52 pm #

    Thanks. I’ll read Sarah Rees Brennan’s novels. Bitch Magazine has a list of 100 YA books for feminist readers but they don’t list her. Katniss from Hunger Game is on the list, but Bella Swan is not. Best wishes.

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