It’s become an overused and empty catchphrase with almost depressing speed; faced with sexist caricature after sexist caricature, feminist comics fans said that they wanted strong female characters as an alternative to women who serve no purpose other than to be the eye/arm-candy for male protagonists. And seemingly within days, every character was being described as a “strong female character”, from Ripley to Buffy to Catwoman to Lady Bullseye to X-23 to Tarot, Witch of the Black Rose. Because there are so many different kinds of strength and different ways to depict it, just about any character could be described as “strong” according to the writer’s personal lights, even while feminists continued to decry them as sexist caricatures. Which just led to a sort of hurt puzzlement among clueless male writers…after all, how could Lady Bullseye be considered “sexist”? She beats people up! Having read more than a few of these debates that always seem to trail off into anger on both sides, I thought I might present some of what I think are tangible, clearly-defined differences between actual strong female characters, and those just called “strong female characters”. Here are some of the characteristics of the “strong female”, as opposed to the actual strong female:
1) A “strong female character” is strictly limited in the scope of where she is allowed to be strong, usually to combat; she is strong, but she is not active. The best example I can think of for this particular trope is Cherry Darling, Robert Rodriguez’ supposedly strong character in ‘Planet Terror’. Certainly, she’s strong in one sense–she is able to kick lots of ass, mowing down dozens of zombies and Marines and zombified Marines in the film’s action climax. The ending of the film even shows her as the leader of the group of survivors. But when the film isn’t showing her shooting people and blowing people up and openly defying the laws of physics in various violent ways, it’s showing her…taking orders from El Wray, the male protagonist. He tells her to stop moping. He gives her both her wooden leg and her gun-leg. He practically drags her along through every scene of the movie. Even her final decision, to become the group’s charismatic leader and take them south to an easily defensible coastal region, comes from a scene where El Wray says, “Honey, time for you to become a charismatic leader by following my plan.” “Yessir.” She is never a decision maker, only an exceptional fighter. The two should not be conflated, and all too often are. (This is what John Scalzi referred to as “Spinny Killbot Syndrome”.)
2) A “strong female character” is strong in a way that does not threaten male gender roles. The implication that’s always given in these roles is that anytime women are anything other than helpless and simpering, they are automatically challenging sexist assertions and should be lauded for it. But the fact is, in practical terms, there is a strong societal belief that violence is perfectly acceptable for women under the right circumstances. Take Ripley, for instance. She is definitely seen as a feminist icon, and there’s certainly a lot of justification for that. But her most iconic scene is actually her least feminist; when she confronts the Queen Alien at the end of ‘Aliens’, it is with the intent of defending her surrogate daughter. It is automatically assumed, in fiction and in life, that a woman standing up for her family (her children, her husband) is going to use violence far more effectively and with less hesitation than a man would in the same situation, because her primal maternal instinct is aroused. The “Mama Grizzly” stereotype is every bit as sexist as the “Damsel in Distress”, even though one involves inflicting grievous bodily harm on people and the other involves helplessness in perilous situations. So are all the female characters who fight with determined efficiency while the battle is going on, only to faint when it ends because they’re so relieved, so are the femme fatales who vamp their way through combat. In ‘Aliens’, it’s Vasquez who is the truly challenging female character, determined to succeed better than men in their own field. (Unsurprisingly, people seem to prefer Ripley’s brand of “feminism”.)
3) A “strong female character” is either sexless or hypersexualized. The “virgin/whore” dichotomy is a classic complaint about the treatment of women in both fiction and life; female characters, it seems, are never to mention that they have body parts that produce orgasms or otherwise they’re supposed to be teases, sex kittens, vamps and sluts. Red Sonja is one example of the former; she’s a “strong female character” whose actual motto involves a vow of chastity to be enforced at swordpoint, while Catwoman gives us a view of the opposite extreme, a character who fights crime in a slinky catsuit and high heels. There’s very rarely a middle ground (and ironically, characters who inhabit it are all too frequently deemed “sexist”, because in the minds of many feminists, it’s better to fall on the “sexless” side of the divide than the “hypersexualized”. Slut shaming is all too common, even among people who know better. Of course, that isn’t to say that all sexual characters can be or should be defended by saying, “Oh, you’re just slut shaming!”. Sometimes hypersexualization is exactly what it appears to be, turning a female character into nothing more than an object of male lust. Are you listening, Scott Lobdell?)
4) A “strong female character” derives her strength from victimization. And speaking of Red Sonja, her origin story is par for the course for about two-thirds of female heroes…she was made helpless and victimized (“sexually” is often implied even if not outright stated), and she has made it her mission never to be helpless and victimized again. Lady Bullseye, Beatrix Kiddo…even X-23 has an element of pointless victimization grafted into her origin, as she apparently spent some time as a prostitute with an abusive pimp. When the female equivalent of Wolverine gets sexually abused, you know the trope is a little bit nuts. (By the way, it’s worth pointing out that the number of male heroes with the same element of victimization is exactly one: Batman. And he was a ten-year-old when it happened.)
And 5) a “strong female character” has an existence that revolves around the male protagonist. This is why I grew less and less enamored of River Song, even though I couldn’t articulate exactly why at the time. It’s because while she started as a mysterious archaeologist with a hidden past, she rapidly became “The Doctor’s assassin who became the Doctor’s lover who became the Doctor’s wife who became the Doctor’s murderer who became the Doctor’s Doctor’s Doctor’s…” While she’s active, competent in ways other than the merely physical, and has an active sex life but isn’t defined by it, she does come to be defined by her relationship to ther Doctor. Her story revolves around his, it does not cross it independently; this is all too common regarding “strong” women. (One of the biggest and most positive changes to Lois Lane was when she stopped trying to prove that Clark Kent was Superman so that she could marry him and started becoming an actual journalist.)
Now, appearing on this list does not immediately mean that a female character is sexist, or that their creators are sexist. Every character is on a journey that may involve them overcoming personal issues like those mentioned above (take River Tam, who moves from being passive to active over the course of a season of ‘Firefly’.) Some characters are meant to be flawed, but still admirable (River Song, for all that she has become obsessed with the Doctor, is nonetheless an active figure who refuses to blindly trust him or follow his orders.) If your character can check off a box on this list, it doesn’t mean you’ve made a huge mistake. (If they can check off all five, on the other hand…) But they are things worth discussing, and they are definitely things worth remembering when creating future female characters. Because an actual strong female character shouldn’t be that hard to create.