Every once in a while I write a post just so I can use a comprehensive link in discussions rather than explaining myself over and over again. “No, it’s not equal” was born of this. Our issue today is not nearly as complex, nuanced, or far reaching as the subject of that post, but people misunderstanding the phrase “strong female characters” intentionally or innocently, and sometimes I just can’t tell which, is something that has been irritating me for a good long time.
Most of you probably don’t need this tutorial – everything I’m going to say here is honestly pretty basic and obvious (and I am by no means the first – or will be the last – to say it) but a surprising number of people still don’t get it. Since there ARE people that don’t get it, and still others who don’t get it to the tune that they think that writing “strong female characters” is indeed shorthand for tough badasses and that they’re doing “good work” by writing those one note characters, or by vilifying the idea of the “strong female character”…we’ll here’s my mini tutorial, rant, whatever you wanna call it. Enjoy.
“Strong female character” is simply a shorthand we use to denote complex female characters. That’s basically it. I personally have tried to move on to using something like “complex female characters” as my go-to short hand because so many people have a basic misunderstanding of this idea of “strong” which is sort of absurd since even the definition of strong has a wealth of meanings, seriously, look it up. In fact, here’s a link.
We have said “strong female character” because it’s a mouthful to say — every time you get asked this (and you get asked it A LOT) — “yes, it’s important to me that my female characters are complex and layered, that they are as nuanced and well rendered as their male counterparts have been for years. Women as protagonists and antagonists, young and old, thin and fat, strong and weak, smart and dumb, badasses and wallflowers, flawed and exceptional, funny and grave, strident and gracious, dark and light, heroic and maniacal, grim and glorious, blessed and tragic, subversive and traditional. That they can be all of these things or only a few, like real people are. Women who have strong character work. That female characters are, quite simply allowed – and assured – all the many variations that male characters are allowed by default.”
When we say “strong female characters” we don’t mean women who can bench press dump trucks (though sometimes we also mean this) or women who are one-note tough badasses, we just mean women allowed to be women the same way men are allowed to be men.
I certainly didn’t coin the phrase “strong female character” but I can only guess that we began with this phrase because of a very long history of women portrayed as the opposite of strong – both in character and in physical attributes. In comics especially we have long history of women not being heroes and instead being damsels, which is basically a definition of “weak” in more ways than one. So “strong” likely began as a more apt (and less eye rolling) descriptor – something people had been waiting for and demanding. But the short hand probably needed to evolve as both characters and audiences did, but sometimes terminology doesn’t organically update and then people like me assume others know what we of course mean by “strong female characters” while others are not understanding that it’s just a shorthand for so many other things. Like I said, I try not to use the phrase at this point because I know it is too often misunderstood.
I talked years ago about Wonder Woman and my belief that the reason she’s often not seen as accessible the way so many male characters are is because while there are any number of decades running headlining male superhero characters (Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, Wolverine, Green Lantern, Thor, Aquaman, Iron Man, Hulk, Flash, etc) when it comes to decades long headlining female characters, there is only one – Wonder Woman. And so as the lone figure in that role she has to try be all things to all people, representing all women everywhere, while these men have more freedom to be more specific things including flawed. It’s why people tend to get so much more upset when Wonder Woman is character assassinated in a story. She’s the only long running sure thing we’ve got and so taking her down (even temporarily) means taking down everything we’ve got. It’s why so many people are upset about somethings in Avengers: Age of Ultron as they relate to Black Widow. Black Widow has the unfortunate responsibility of representing the only solidly established female comic book film superhero we’ve got (i.e. one that currently has and continues to reappear with regularity and has a future). And it IS upsetting when she gets mishandled, more so than when any number of cool white guys we also love get mishandled. But the problem with putting Wonder Woman and Black Widow on a pedestal where certain stories are not allowed to be told is that limiting creators just doesn’t lead to the best stories. Being precious with your characters – not allowing them the freedom to be anything – to evolve in both good and bad ways – is no way to create good stories – limiting creators ultimately limits characters too.
When I wrote years ago about the destruction of the Amazons in Wonder Woman being so heartbreaking and ultimately a deal breaker for me with the book it wasn’t because I thought Azzarello and Chiang should be kept from telling that story, it was that because we have literally NO other stories of female characters at Wonder Woman’s level – none with the lasting power, the history, the iconic impact of Wonder Woman – that it didn’t seem worth the price we were paying for it. It ultimately felt too important and too destructive to be worth the story. If there were enough other women at Wonder Woman’s
level, with the commitment to her book and as both icon and brand, then that story might have been okay, might have been worth it. By contrast you can likely tell any story you want when it comes to Batman, Superman, Spider-Man and all the rest without worrying. Don’t get me wrong, fans will still get up in arms as this is the age we seem to be living in, but there are what feel like limitless other male heroes to fill the gap. You can make X, Y, or Z a monster (even if only temporarily) because there’s the whole rest of the alphabet to choose from. So many other characters that can carry on in a male character’s stead – a variable smorgasbord of male heroes. But there’s only one female hero with that same star power, name recognition, and history. And so taking her down feels like the end of the world. And I think that’s why people are so upset about Black Widow too. She’s all we’ve got for powerful comic book superheroines on film, and so yeah, people are taking it extra personally. In the MCU films alone there’s Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hulk, Hawkeye, and even Nick Fury, Falcon, and War Machine who may not be full blown leads yet, but are at least established in multiple films. All we have is Black Widow and so yes, it’s hard to take.
But the answer isn’t to say “you cannot tell these stories with these characters” – limiting creators hurts everyone, including our characters.
The answer, as always, is MORE complex female leads. More LASTING complex female leads. Proliferation can save us all. Only through great female lead characters becoming as prolific and commonplace as their male counterparts can we even begin to overcome this hurdle.
And so that is how we come back to “strong female characters” and how and why we need many many more of them and we need them to last longer – to not be easily disappeared by a book cancellation or a failed movie, or a movie that never even comes to fruition – only through more representation of “strong female characters” can we make sure that female characters are allowed to evolve to be both angels and devils, femme fatales and warriors, thieves and saviors, soldiers and wives, mothers and accountants, monsters and heroes, and everything in between. To be everything and nothing with the same casual application that their male counterparts manage.
So here’s to strong female characters even if those words don’t really mean what some people think they do.
Kelly Thompson is a freelance writer living in Manhattan. She is the author of the superhero novel THE GIRL WHO WOULD BE KING recently optioned to become a film, and her new novel STORYKILLER is out now. She is also writing IDW’s JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS, co-writing Marvel’s forthcoming CAPTAIN MARVEL & THE CAROL CORPS, and her first graphic novel HEART IN A BOX is forthcoming from Dark Horse this year. You can find Kelly all over the place, but twitter may be the easiest: @79semifinalist
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