The Truth About "Strong Female Characters"

Are there just too many strong female characters in Hollywood? Are we erasing women's identities by trying to turn them into action heroes, and stoic badasses?

Mur Lafferty points us to a New York Times essay bemoaning the trope of "strong female characters" in movies and other mass media. The author, Carina Cochano, complains that in order to be strong, Hollywood's women have to be the "strong, silent type" and avoid showing any traditionally feminine characteristics. (I'm curious if Cochano ever saw Battlestar Galactica, which gave us not only Starbuck but also President Roslin and Caprica Six, three very different strong characters.)

In any case, the NYT piece came out last summer, but I hadn't seen it until Lafferty's response today, in which she writes:

Strength is taking charge of your own destiny and not waiting on others to do so. You don't have to swear and drink and beat people up and slay monsters. You're allowed to cry and take care of children and cook and get your heart broken and dress up and date and get pregnant. But when decisions have to be made, a strong character makes them and doesn't wait for someone else. When a monster is chewing on your true love, you hit it with a stick (or pick up the sword that's RIGHT THERE.)

I guess I have a few things to say, off the top of my head, about this issue:

1) "Strength" certainly means different things in the context of a zombie apocalypse than it does in the middle of a relationship drama. In the former context, strength means the ability to kill zombies, or hide from them — whichever keeps you alive and helps keep the people you care about alive. So in a lot of genre entertainment, we do judge the strength of characters by their ability to cope with monsters or mcguffins, because that's how we judge all characters.

2) Cardboard characters are cardboard characters. What Cochano seems to be bemoaning in the New York Times is not an absence of traditionally feminine characteristics, but an absence of character traits. She says "strong female characters" are devoid of "blubbering, dithering, neuroticism, anxiety, melancholy or any other character flaw or weakness that makes a character unpredictable and human." Cochano sees bland characters and decides this is a matter of gender, rather than bad writing — even though the men, too, are often bland and badly written in these films.

3) Passive people are hard to watch. I say this as someone who was riveted by Melancholia, but also as someone who thinks Hamlet is Shakespeare's most overrated play. Generally, people who are passive in the face of challenges are not as interesting as people who take action, however futile. A great example of someone who is not a "strong female character" is Audrey in the Lorax movie, who wants to see a tree — but doesn't want it badly enough to do anything about it. Instead, she natters about her tree-lust to Ted, who goes off and actually makes it happen. That's why Ted's the main character and she's the love interest.

4) There are many ways to be a strong character. See the BSG reference above. Or Buffy the Vampire Slayer where, as Lafferty points out, Buffy and Willow were strong, but so was the relatively introverted and sweet Tara.

5) Whenever everybody in Hollywood starts writing the same character, it quickly gets annoying. I'm reminded of the period, in the 1990s, where all female characters had "attitude," meaning that they pouted and acted bitchy until it was suddenly time for them to turn sweet and kittenish. But acting tough isn't the same as being tough, and having "attitude" isn't the same as having character.

But what do you think?

[via Mur Lafferty]