One thing that always bothered me in media is that when writers wanted a female character to be portrayed as “strong” they immediately created a woman who was both beautiful and able to kick ass. She had to be able to throw a punch in red lipstick and keep up with the boys while running in heals. She had to have the physical capability as a male action lead in order to be acknowledged as someone empowered. If she was portrayed with little fighting experience or a pacifist, she’d be labeled weak because that’s not what the media’s definition of “strong” is for women.
For a long time as I was growing up I couldn’t stand the stereotypical strong female character. She was always bland and her only redeemable quality was that she could fight. As someone who isn’t physically strong and terrified of confrontation, I had difficulty relating to these characters. I always felt more in touch with the girl characters who were typically off to the side – the ones that were only there to make the “badass” one look more badass. If a character fell into the “sidekick” role they were considered less valuable. If they couldn’t look sexy, they weren’t remembered.Yet, these were the characters I felt were more strong than the ones in leading roles.
For me, a strong character is one with values, personality, a purpose, a heart, and a passion. When I think of strong female characters I think of these:
Olive and Chuck in Pushing Daisies
Monica, Rachel, and Phoebe from Friends
Hermione Granger in Harry Potter
Fantine in Les Mis.
Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing
Dr. Ellie Sattler in Jurassic Park
Glinda and Elphaba in Wicked
Any of the female characters in Studio Ghibli films
Honestly the list goes on, but that would take up this entire post. I see capable and powerful women who don’t need physical strength to give them worth. And yes, I do still like the characters that can fight and I would proudly call them a strong female character as long as their combat ability isn’t their only defining trait. The fighter character works best and is more likable for me when she’s given layers and allowed to have personality beyond how hard she can hit. (Peggy Carter, Batgirl, Wonder Woman, Catwoman, etc). What gets to me is when a character can be called worthless because she doesn’t step into battle. Is that really what makes her strong? Can’t she step into battle in another way?
There is something within these less battle geared characters that makes them steady. Even a character who is girly and silly can be powerful based on her values and heart (think Glinda in Wicked). Their strength is shown in the way they treat others, how they solve problems, how they stay positive, how they stay grounded, and the reasons go on.
Also, even if a female character falls in love and acts a little flighty over a boy, she can still be strong. The idea that falling for a man causes a woman lead to be anything less than strong irritates me to no end. Let’s look at the Shakespeare Much Ado About Nothing. Beatrice falls in love with Benedict, but she is still this sassy, hilarious, and confident woman.
Let’s also look at Friends. Monica falls in love with Chandler and marries him, but she still continues to be herself. She looks out for her friends. She stands up for her opinions. She acts goofy. She has this amazing give and take relationship with her husband. She doesn’t stop being herself because she finds someone to care about. Much like Beatrice, love does not make her weak.
A character does not need to be a loner and fighter to be strong. A character can be soft and even a bit silly and not be weak. There is still that stereotype of the strong female in media, but when I look back at these wonderful stories and characters over the past decades or centuries, I realize there are thousands of powerful women in fiction. The problem is, they don’t receive that spotlight because they don’t fall into the expectation our media has set out for us. They’re viewed with less value which is a shame because it’s time for some of us to realize that kicking ass doesn’t define worth or strength.