Defining Strong: Why the "Strong Female Character" Trend is Actually Anti-Feminist

10:48 AM Gemma Fitz 12 Comments

We're all familiar with the "Strong Female Character" issue. Aimee blogged about it here and CC blogged about it HERE and both posts are absolutely awesome and you should go check them out. NOW. Come back when you're done.
All done? Yay! Welcome back!

So, you're familiar with the stereotypical Strong Female Character. She's that hot fighter-girl in the skin tight suit, knocking out all the guys and doing a cool hair flip in her spare time. "Woooh!" we all shout. "You go, girl!"

But there's a problem with this. (There's actually a lot, but we're just going to talk about one, because Aimee and CC already covered all the others.) The problem lies in what we're using to define the word "Strong".
The origin of the "Strong Female Character" was really a protest. Not so many years ago, the typical female character was a flat "damsel in distress", there for the dashing hero to save. She was prone to swooning and bursting into tears, she was stunningly beautiful, and she honestly couldn't do anything for herself. And women found this insulting because, seriously, what girl is this helpless? It was a really stupid stereotype.

So something had to change. And the novel writers and the movie makers thought they'd found a solution to make everyone happy. They'd write "Strong" female characters. The question now was what really made a strong female character strong? And the writers and makers formed an answer based on years of the very root prejudice that the people who objected to the old stereotypes were actually objecting to-- namely, the idea that men are better than women.

How do we make a woman strong? We make her masculine! We give her traditionally masculine strengths like fighting, fixing cars, drinking a lot (don't ask me where they got that one), etc. We'll present a character who is physically, mentally, and emotionally strong in all the same ways men are. We'll make her masculine, and that will make her strong.

This is chauvanism. Men and women are equal. That means women, real women, the way they are, are (generally speaking) strong. That means men, real men, the way they are, are (generally speaking) also strong.
And men and women are different. I know some people disagree, but they are, not only anatomically, but emotionally, psychologically, physically different. Have you ever seen a man and a woman arguing? They are different. And that's a good thing. It honestly doesn't matter because they're still strong the way they are.

Creating masculine female characters and calling them strong because of their masculinity is degrading. It's saying that "strong" equals "male".

Now, don't get me wrong, it's okay sometimes for female characters to have abilities like fighting, fixing cars, and lifting weights. Real women do these things, especially in recent years, and do them well. But the reason these abilities were given to "Strong Female Characters" is because they are traditionally identified with men, and that's a problem. Not to mention a couple of fancy talents don't necessarily make you strong.

Think of all the women who can't do certain things that men can do. I can't fix a car. I don't know the first thing about cars. Does that mean I'm not strong? No. I can shoot a gun (I can't hit anything outside a range of two feet, if that much, but let's not mention that). Does that mean I am strong? No. Think of all the women who can't act or think or talk the way men do. They're still strong-- they're just women.

We shouldn't use men (or women either) as a standard of strength. If your character is a girl, she can be strong and be a girl. Taking care of little siblings, throwing girly parties, or running a sewing business are all admirable talents that some girls have and most guys don't. Who's to say that a mechanic is stronger than a seamstress? That a businessman or woman is stronger than a babysitter?

When we call a female character strong simply because she's better than a guy at something or other, particularly in a traditionally masculine areas, we're buying into the false idea that guys are usually better than girls. Write your women to be strong women-- not female men.

What's your take on the "Strong Female Character" trend? Do you think there are some business and societal roles that are "stronger" than others (mechanic vs. babysitter)? Comment away, but do try to keep it polite, as I know this is a controversial issue.


  1. Interesting read. Yes, I would agree; characters written expressly to fill a swapped-gender role are, in general, just kind of bland, and more than a bit lazy. Creating characters in a book should be more involving than switching the gender slider on Skyrim!

    It's a shame that society kinda pushes that ideal of 'strength' on people ... certainly heard 'be a man' and 'man-up' plenty of times in my life. You know who acted 'strong' then? The bullies who made my life a living Nocturnes. Given the choice, I'll pass on being a 'man' and stay a Dreamer. At least that way, I get to keep a little empathy.

    1. Thank you! That is exactly true! It's important that we craft our characters carefully, and don't end up repeating the same old stereotypes, such as "Strong Female Characters".

      I think people need to realize that there is more than one kind of strength-- and honestly, I don't think becoming cold, heartless, and unemotional is really a strength. Neither is treating other people badly to show your "toughness" and "superiority". More often, being strong is standing up for what you believe in, or being there for people who need your help, or just plain treating people right even when it's hard-- and both men and women have the ability to do things like that.

  2. True strength is internal. In other words, /what/ you do doesn't reveal strength so much as /why/ you do it. That being said, I don't think any role can be classified as "stronger" than any other. It annoys me in movies when the character, be he male or female, shoots a helpless person because someone else is forcing him to (e.g. he has to in order to qualify as a secret agent, join the assassin's club, "prove" himself, etc...) and the action is presented as "strong". Nope, it's the weakest cowardice. Sure, it takes guts to shoot someone in cold blood, but it takes a lot more strength (and kindness, and intelligence, and everything else that matters) to NOT shoot him. Strength is doing things that are truly hard for you to do, not just things that /look/ hard to do--just like bravery is being scared and doing the thing anyway, not simply /not being scared/. In other words, true strength is something you acquire, not something you're born with.

    Rant over. :D GREAT post! (And thanks for the plug-in.)

    1. Yes, yes, yes. Soooo true. Strength is more about your heart and mind than your stunning physical feats.

      Thanks! And you're welcome!

  3. SO MUCH AGREEMENT. Thank you so much for this post!
    I do have one additional comment on the damsel in distress stereotype though, and here I'm echoing sentiments from the blog Kingdom Pen. The whole "guy saves girl" thing worked (and by it's popularity, even if that was mostly in the past, proves it was appealing to a lot of people) because guys like the idea of saving a woman and women like the idea of a guy valuing them enough to save them. So while in today's day and age, where everything is permeated by feminism (which, as you said, essentially wants women to be more like men) and everyone thinks women should be "strong" people do find the damsel in distress insulting. I wish it wasn't like that so much though because the stereotype highlighted the worthiness of women to be defended by men. I don't think it was insulting at all.
    (Though I get as fed up with completely helpless, un-innovative, or passive characters in general as well, whether they're women or men).

    1. Thanks for commenting! I'm glad you liked it!

      Absolutely! I don't think there's anything wrong with a guy saving a girl sometimes-- in fiction or out of it. In fact, I believe everyone needs saving now and again-- both men and women (duh-- I'm a Christian), and I really admire the guy characters in stories who save the heroine through courage and sacrifice. My problem, then, with the "Damsel in Distress" trope is not so much with the idea of a girl who needs saving as it is with the typical girl in most given scenarios who is far more helpless, weepy, and weak than is realistic or complimentary. ("Cress" is an example of a Damsel in Distress that I thought was pulled off well. Cress needed to be saved, but she also was a realistic and respectable character.) Plus, my motto is, "Variety, people!" xD

      But here's another thought (just throwing it out there). Assuming that both men and women need saving sometimes (and are worthy of being saved), as I believe, why is it so rare to find books (especially older ones) with a plot revolving around a man saved by a woman? I would say it's because men are proud of their physical prowess and independence and would consider such a male character a "wimp" or a "sissy". And, since in modern times, women more and more are seeking physical prowess and independence of their own, it makes sense that they would view female characters who need to be saved by a man as a "wimp" as well. Not saying it's right-- just saying it makes sense.

      ...And I should have just gone ahead and made that into a completely new blog post with how long it turned out, but oh well. Thanks again!

    2. Yes, I agree with you. :) haha maybe you can just copy it and post it as your next one. ;) I started following your blog too, by the way. :)

    3. THANK YOU!!! You've made me so happy. :)

  4. This is a subject that has come up a lot in many blog posts recently, I think. And I think the message of them all has been similar to yours, and each with a slightly different spin on an important message: girls are strong girls because they are strong people, not because they are more masculine or feminine or anything else than what they actually are. It's good to see that there are all different kinds of girls in the world, and I'm glad you said this, because this kind of thing needs to be shouted from the top of steeples. :)

    1. It's definitely getting a lot of attention right now, which I think is a very good thing. As you say, it needs to be shouted out there. :)

  5. Not to mention the assumption that women are automatically strong and independent if they're single. Argh, that one bugs me to no end.

  6. Not to mention the assumption that women are automatically strong and independent if they're single. Argh, that one bugs me to no end.


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