I don’t think it’s any secret that I love women.
(For the purpose of this article, I mostly mean in the feminist way, but I suppose it’s true in the bisexual way, too.)
I love helping women, supporting women, learning more about the experiences of other women, so whenever I hear about a piece of media that is supposed to represent women well, my interest is immediately piqued.
Because, let’s face it, there is a lot of media out there that doesn’t represent women well. Sometimes, they’re reduced to plot devices for the sake of the male characters. Sometimes, they’re represented as empty vessels: devoid of a brain or personality, there only to provide the film with tits and ass.
And let’s face it: These types of female characters are boring. I’m much more interested in seeing a woman with strength, a woman who can be explored and developed, a woman who can really become something amazing.
But, apparently, writing strong female characters is a complex art, perhaps more than it should be. I mean, we as a society have been writing strong male characters for years, decades, centuries even. Writers know how to write them, so it shouldn’t be too hard to just transfer that ability over to the other gender, right?
And some try, but audiences continue to pick these attempts apart and argue about what the “correct” way to represent strong women is in the media.
But what is the correct way?
As a writer and a supporter of strong fictional women, this is a question that I have spent plenty of time puzzling over. What is the difference between a successful strong female character and an unsuccessful one? What is it about these characters that makes me gravitate toward them, and how can I replicate these qualities in my own writing?
Take the character of Rey from the newest Star Wars movies for instance. I’ve heard some people say that Rey is a terrible example of a strong female character, because she doesn’t have enough flaws, she isn’t willing to accept help from anyone, and she doesn’t come across as human enough, whereas Princess Leia from the original Star Wars series was a “better” strong female character because she was humble and cared more about helping others than herself.
I’ve also heard that Rey is a wonderful example of a strong female character, because she is emotionally complex, capable of taking care of herself, and doesn’t rely on anyone, whereas Princess Leia was a weaker female character because she was only allowed to be strong if the fans got at least one scene of her in a tiny, gold bikini, acting as a slave girl.
Arguments like these surround almost every female character that comes out in the media nowadays. Peggy Carter from the Marvel Cinematic Universe isn’t a good strong female character because she’s too aggressive, Harley Quinn in the “Suicide Squad” movie can’t be strong because she wears tiny, sparkly shorts that may as well be underwear, and fans criticized Black Widow because she expressed regret at never being able to have a family in “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”
It seems like the smallest detail can suddenly make a female character either not feminist enough or too feminist, too feminine to be strong or too masculine to be taken seriously as a woman.
So, really, what is the answer? How can one properly write a strong female character?
Well, in my own humble opinion, there is no real answer. There is no one way to represent a woman that will immediately translate as “strong,” because there is no single way for a real human person to be strong. And at the end of the day, that’s all that I want a female character to be: real.
She doesn’t have to be a gun-toting badass, she just needs to feel complex and human. She just needs to be a person. And real people find all sorts of different ways to be strong.
Some women find strength in wearing tiny, sparkly shorts that may as well be underwear. Some women find strength dressing up in men’s clothing.
Some women find strength through physical means, some through mental means, some through emotional means.
Some women find strength by being hyper-feminine and reveling in clothes, make-up, and pretty nails. Some women find strength by behaving the way men stereotypically do—fixing cars, building houses, whatever it is those men-folk do, I don’t know.
Some women find strength through creating families, attaching themselves to friends, and helping others. And some women find strength by being all on their own.
So how do we represent that? How do we create strong women in the media if the definitions of a strong woman are so incredibly varied? Well, the answer to that is a bit simpler: We keep writing female characters, as many of them as possible, and we make them as varied, unique, and individual as possible.
And at the same time, we need to stop comparing them to other female characters, expecting them to act one specific way to be strong.
To return to the examples of Rey and Princess Leia, I find both of them to be good, strong female characters. One is a bit more independent and the other is a bit more focused on helping others, but neither of them are wrong. They’re just different, because women are different.
And that’s awesome. That’s something that should be celebrated, not shamed.
The purpose of a strong female character shouldn’t be to show women and girls how to be strong, or that there is only one way to do so. The purpose should be to show them that they can be strong.
Men and boys have had centuries of seeing complex and varied male characters—men who think their way out of situations, men who punch their way out of situations, men who can work alone, and men who need validation—so that every man, regardless of how he defines himself, can feel like he has the capability to be strong.
And as much as those male characters are awesome and should continue to be written, it’s our turn now. It’s our turn to have the opportunity to see ourselves represented, regardless of how we define ourselves, and to know that our way of finding and defining strength is perfectly valid.
Author: Ciara Hall
Editor: Callie Rushton