Why I dislike the term “Strong Female Character”

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I don’t like the term “Strong Female Character.”

That does not mean I prefer weak female characters. This is not a black and white world in which you either swing swords with swagger or cower in a corner. There’s a vast spectrum in between.

The reason I can’t stand the term “strong female characters” is because women described that way are usually one-dimensional, monotone cutouts of what the writer thinks a strong woman is. Often she’s a woman who can shoot a gun or throw a punch, and that’s enough. She never cries or feels uncertain or has any internal struggle whatsoever, unless of course it’s just for a minute to get the plot going and then she knows exactly how to deal with it. (Probably by shooting a gun.)

I dislike this character for two reasons:
1) She’s boring.
2) She’s unrealistic.

Maybe I’d feel differently if I were more into action genres, but a skill at butt-kickery is not what interests me in a person. I’m drawn to personality. I’m drawn to layers. I want texture and complexity, because that is what makes someone interesting. And I want them to be real people, with real emotions. Real people are not stone-cold badasses 100% of the time.

And? And?? I really hate when an author implies that a woman is better than other women because she acts like men. Because men, it’s implied, are the superior sex. Feminine bad, masculine good. You can GET OUT OF HERE with that misogyny RIGHT NOW.

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Is it cool when a woman is brave and accomplished? Totally! Is it fun watching a woman sling an arrow with the best of ’em? Sure! But that’s not the only kind of woman I want in my books and movies. There is no single “right” kind. Some are sassy and brassy, and I like those women. Some are shy and sensitive, and I like those women too. Some are intellectuals, comedians, nurturers, and I like all of those women. Some are angry, loving, weird, adventurous, naive, friendly, impulsive, ditzy, sad, artistic, sporty, and I LIKE ALL OF THOSE WOMEN.

And what’s with all this glorification of “strong?” That is not the only good quality a person can have. Intelligence, creativity, a quick wit, a big heart – these are admirable virtues too. Not to mention the fact that “strong” can take so many forms. The woman whose depression is so severe it’s like an anvil on her chest every time she wakes, yet still she gets up and survives the day – that is strength. Not a single butt-kick required.

Here’s the description I would prefer in a female character: VIVID.

Because it doesn’t matter what kind of woman she is, so long as her depiction is bright and multi-faceted, gleaming upon the page.

Because all women are worthy. And all are here, all around us. So let’s put them in our stories.

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Tell me, how do you feel about the “Strong Female Character” type? What other kinds of fictional women are you drawn to?

~Noel

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36 thoughts on “Why I dislike the term “Strong Female Character”

  1. I’ve long considered a strong female character to be independent, but vulnerable, as a woman should be. She should be capable of standing on her own, but still not above crying if she’s overcome with emotion. You’re right, though. Many tend to over-simplify things, and turn these women into men with breasts who show no weaknesses.

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  2. I e tried my very best to avoid such cliches with Tempest. Yes she’s an ass kicker, but she’s also, I hope, emotionally complicated. Strong isn’t a word I’d use to describe her, even on the physical sense, as she’s generally a bit deluded when it comes to her own abilities. More than anything I just hope she comes across as human.

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  3. YES! This term also annoys me because we never refer to “strong male characters.” As if women/female characters were, by default, weak — so a “strong” one is a deviation from the standard.

    Also: The fact that we define strength based on masculine stereotypes makes me wonder how many female characters who belong in that category are regularly overlooked. Characters like Jane Eyre — who are strong without being gun-wielding badasses — seem to be making a feminist comeback, but there must be loads more whose strengths have gone unrecognized.

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    • That’s a good point! We call out women’s strength as though it’s an exception. A surprise. One of my big pet peeves in a story is when a woman is really great at something and all the dudes around her are like “What?? Really??” As if that’s supposed to be inspiring, like “Look at this girl show ’em!” But I’d prefer it if women didn’t HAVE to prove themselves to men all the time.

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  4. Interesting post, Noel. I think a truly strong woman is one who knows and loves herself and can stand on her own two feet. I love imperfect “human” characters that struggle with ethics, issues, temptations, dealing with the past, etc. Action/adventure is not my genre, I am always more fascinated by the parallel story arc of how an event or decision changes the way the character views herself. πŸ™‚

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    • I’m much more interested in the internal story, too. And that’s a good definition for a strong woman. Sometimes I’m really inspired by those characters, but I also think it’s okay to have female characters who are not strong. The protag in The Girl on the Train was definitely not a woman who could stand on her own two feet, but she was still interesting and very sympathetic. All depends on the story I guess.

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  5. I love this. Very well said. I think characters with Depth are what we need, female or otherwise. I’ll be very curious to hear how you feel about Masami, the female protagonist in my book. And I sure hope she wasn’t the reason for this post!

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    • Haha, no single character was the reason for this post, it was an accumulation of experiences. I’m afraid I haven’t been able to start your book yet – I’ve been working my way through Patrick Rothfuss’s 1000-page tome for awhile, hehe.

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      • Please, no worries! Whenever you get to it, thanks! 1000 pages? You must be on to The Wise Man’s Fear. I don’t think The Name of the Wind was that long. I couldn’t keep going with that series, but I’ll reserve my comments for now. πŸ™‚

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      • Yup, Wise Man’s Fear. Name of the Wind was about 600-something I think. I read them back to back and since they’re both the same story it’s really more like a 1600 page book, hehe. (Plus the last installment when he finally releases it!) I’m enjoying it but I’d still like to hear your thoughts?

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  6. I honestly love this post! “Strong female character” are starting to become generic. And they are only the ones who are fighters the ones who are ass you say stone cold bad assess. This then implies that if a woman is not like that then she is weak. Also it’s used to add ‘personality’ to a character. As if that’s all they are. There are honestly so many things wrong with this trope. Great post!

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  7. Apparently I’m only allowed one “reply” in the previous thread, so… replying here. Okay, you asked for it! I liked a lot about The Name of the Wind. There were moments of really beautiful writing, and moments of clichΓ©d writing. In between was perfectly fine. I really liked how the system of magic is so scientific. But I just couldn’t stand Kvothe. He was just too flawless and expert at everything. He learned everything he tried perfectly and much faster than anyone else. He was skilled at everything he attempted, even being a brilliant lutist and singer. Even when things went south because of a bad decision, of course, he finds a genius way out of it. There’s even a line where he says that he’s brilliant, which really irked me. How arrogant. And despite the author saying he’s not skilled with women, of course, he says the perfect thing every time to make the women swoon. It was just way too much for me. I prefer flawed characters (with more depth. πŸ˜‰ since we were on the topic!) So… yeah, that’s why I stopped.

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    • Haha, yeah I definitely know what you mean. His perfection and genius were things I critiqued as well. But what made it okay for me is that he wasn’t a pompous ass about his skills. He acknowledged his skills and was prideful of them at times, yes, but I didn’t feel like he was being a smug jerk about them. If he had been, I couldn’t have tolerated the books. Also, in The WMF, he gets put in his place a bit more, hehe. I don’t know if you read any of The WMF, but in the latter half he starts learning a certain fighting methodology and is regularly scolded for how bad he is at it. πŸ™‚ But yes, I absolutely understand your criticism. The world and the story were interesting enough for me to forgive my criticisms of Kvothe.

      Oops, this conversation got very off-topic! I’ll bring it back around by saying that I like quite a few of Rothfuss’s female characters. In The WMF we meet Vashet, who’s really cool. Even though technically one could describe her as a “Strong Female Character,” it’s in a good way. It’s an example of the SFC done well.

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      • I have not read any of The WMF. I had considered it because there was a compelling story there, but decided not to. I would like to see Kvothe get put in his place though, so… maybe one of these days I’ll pick it up. A friend of mine is a huge fan, has autographed copies and all. So there is more pressure to continue. Still… so many books to read. And regarding the female characters… I liked Devi. Others were a bit one dimensional, I thought, particularly Denna. Or maybe it was just Kvothe’s one dimensional descriptions of her. Vashet sounds cool though.

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  8. I can’t stand “strong female characters” because they more often than not reek of internalized misogyny. They tend to look down on feminine-coded work as being weak or frivolous, which is frankly stupid because nobody’s going to last very long without warm hand-knitted sweaters and, you know, food. Plus, if there’s a strong female character, she’s usually the only female character present, and that feels like such a token gesture. It’s not that hard to write more women into a story!

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    • YES!! I agree with all of your points 1000000%!! Couldn’t have said it better myself. Not many people realize your point about women’s work, so thank you for that. People sneer at sewing and I’m like, so you want to run around the woods naked and scratch up your nether bits on thorny branches hmm??

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      • Frankly, if your attitude is that sewing is bad because it’s considered woman’s work, then that’s the very least of what you deserve. πŸ˜› Hypocrisy about how women ought to look and behave seems to be baked right into Strong Female Characters(β„’). She has to look down on weakness, but she can’t be so skilled at hand-to-hand combat that she can defeat the guy who’ll become her boyfriend before too long. She has to look down on romance and sexuality, but she’s still going to wind up the sexy love interest. It’s infuriating.

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  9. I’m completely with you on this one. “Strong female character” is bandied about with as much cliche as the nearest wheel of cheese and tankard of mead from fantasy-by-numbers. Anyone who thinks that strong woman character equals male+ladyparts is entirely delusional. I’d like to take them to task but I’ll leave that to my wife or my mum as they are far stronger and have more depth and complexity than I’ll ever manage!

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  10. Brilliant. I find it’s mainly down to men not putting the time, effort or understanding into writing a female character. I also find it a lot when adults try to write children (except Stephen King) – they end up writing little moppets rather than fully rounded characters. It’s a lot easier to trade in cleche, it seems.

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  11. I like action movies. It’s fun watching women shoot guns or wield swords. They’re usually all complicated, so it’s great when they’re on a simple adventure, and you can tell what’s going on. It’s too bad when people think this is how women should be though, because real-life adventures usually don’t involve a lot of fighting. In action movies, it’s great seeing women get the job done.

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      • Yeah, I like many sided characters, too. But I think being strong always boils down to grit and determination and trying your best, and if a gun wielding heroine does this, they should be considered strong. What a strong person does is irrelevant to who they are in a story, because it’s the qualities we want to connect with and not what they actually do.

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