I Hate Strong Female Characters — in the New Statesman

Here  I pour bilious hate unto the unfortunate figure of the Strong Female Character as she appears in popular fiction. From the piece

I remember watching Shrek with my mother.

“The Princess knew kung-fu! That was nice,” I said. And yet I had a vague sense of unease, a sense that I was saying it because it was what I was supposed to say.

She rolled her eyes. “All the princesses know kung-fu now.”

 No one ever asks if a Male Character is Strong.  Nor if he’s “feisty,” or “kick-ass” come to that.

The obvious thing to say here is that this is because he’s assumed to be “Strong”  by default. Part of the patronising 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.”

 

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But you should also read my teenage poetry, or I may weep bitter, poetic, teeny tears.

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5 Comments

  1. Posted August 20, 2013 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    Spot on. One counterexample is Once Upon A TIme. The writing may be going downhill but gender balance doesn’t seem to be skewing malewards and there’s a whole ecosystem of female characters.

  2. Posted August 20, 2013 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

    I couldn’t agree with you more! The assumption that “normal women are weak and boring and can’t do anything worthwhile” is insulting. And from the perspective of a reader, don’t we assume that the leading characters—whether female or not—are going to be interesting/strong? If they aren’t, we wouldn’t read it whether they wore their superhero t-shirts or not.

  3. Lucie
    Posted August 25, 2013 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    I agree, I’d just like to recommend one film which has that kind of female lead; The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec. It came out a couple of years ago – it’s a French Luc Besson film and I don’t think it did that well at the box office, which I guess lends weight to your argument. Do watch it though if you haven’t seen it – it’s great, good fun, and Adele is a wonderful character. I remember seeing the poster and thinking I must see it but it was out of the cinema by the time I tried to book, but I got the dvd and was ecstatic to find all the traits I always wanted to emulate in male characters bundled up in one amazing lady, plus more. I wasn’t thinking in terms of feminist breakthroughs when I saw it, it was just part of a lifelong search for relatable yet inspiring characters. Yet as soon as I saw it I began to think it was the exception that proves the problem. Anyway – highly recommended!

  4. Posted August 26, 2013 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    I thought about this a bit more over the weekend. And I remembered Joan Hickson’s Miss Marple; you’d struggle to describe her as “strong” but she has agency. I do concede that most other portrayals, including Murder, She Wrote, have her as a “stronger”, bossier, woman, although she still relies on other people (okay, men) to apprehend suspects.

    But imagine a show, Last Men Off Earth, where men crash land on a colony filled by women, and attempt to fall in love. In that show, you wouldn’t want thousands of men; you’d want the hero, a couple sidekicks, one or two older, unthreatening mentors, and a few antagonists. Reverse the genders and haven’t you got most shows aimed at women. E.g. in Vampire Diaries: there have to be plenty of men to fawn over our hero; but other women are competition and must be controlled. (Elena doesn’t start as a strong woman, either; she’s dithering and vapid.) I’ve not seen enough RomComs etc.. to know if that’s a trend. It maybe these ideas are so embedded in society or that men have such a large influence over production that we don’t end up with ecosystems of women. But “competition” might explain why women are under represented in shows where romance is important. Contrast this with Once Upon A Time, where the romantic pairings are set in stone, and suddenly it’s okay to have lots of women; the themes are couples being separated and reunited, and who gets to be the mother of child.

    PS Does Thersa May know Kung Fu? I bet she does. Yvette Cooper, too. Let’s face it, they teach Kung Fu to women in church halls. Every woman knows Kung fu. Why don’t you know it?

  5. Posted September 20, 2013 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    I know this comment is a little late, but I just wanted to say that you’ve really explained this so well in your article, and it’s changed my mind. I’ve long been conflicted about the “strong female characters”. On the one hand, I like it when portrayals of characters break with stereotypes (e.g. women doing things, like fighting, that are usually considered “for men”) and I don’t like it when female characters who fight are insulted for being “like a man” (as if that’s somehow a wrong way of being female). On the other hand, I don’t like one-dimensional characters that are reduced to just being “strong” and not anything else. I loved the parts in your article about agency and the relatively much fewer times that women get to be the main character. To me, these are really big parts of why I get frustrated with the portrayal of female characters—even some who may be physically strong don’t get to have agency or be main characters or be someone the fans will understand and get to know. Thanks for writing.

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