A “Strong Female Character”? – Random Musings

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I could write an entire article on this picture alone. Whoever made this meme has not only clearly never seen the show but is very likely the devil, and so help me God if I ever come across the person who made this I will feed you to the Flukeman, Tooms, the Peacock family, the alien rebels, the black virus, and then hand you over to Dana Scully herself so she can destroy you with her defined personality, complex character, and inescapable Stare of Death.

 

A few months ago, I read an article that gave a negative review of the movie Frozen. The article wasn’t so much a review of the movie as it was a list of reasons Frozen should not be considered a feminist triumph, which is an issue I don’t want to get into lest I be slain by the communities of BuzzFeed, Tumblr, Upworthy, and, well, everything else. Fortunately, I don’t have to because Lindsay Ellis (Nostalgia Chick) of ThatGuyWithTheGlasses.com fame already did it for me on her own website, Chez Apocalypse. You can read the negative article here and Lindsay’s response to it here.

But the article did bring up one point I’d like to talk about. It made the argument that Elsa was not a “strong female character” like many have claimed. And, according to the author, here was the reason:

This is not a strong woman. This is a frightened, repressed, vulnerable woman who starts running at the beginning of the movie and doesn’t stop until her sister literally turns to ice in front of her.

And when I read that, I kind of sighed and did a facepalm.

This aspect of the article embodies an issue I have seen plaguing the internet for some time now. It’s not an issue of feminism, it’s an issue of definition and understanding of what makes stories and characters work. And it’s also an issue of a term that has become exceedingly misused in today’s day and age.

The term “strong female character,” despite what it should mean or what it was originally intended to mean, has become the title of a certain type of female character in modern entertainment – a character who is female, independent, strong, confident, challenges the roles society has given her, and don’t need no man. And while I love and respect all of these attributes, I don’t think that’s all a strong female character should be. I don’t even think that’s the way we need to go about equalizing gender portrayal in the media. It’s probably the worst way we could possibly do it.

Being a strong character, regardless of whether you are male or female, is not dependent on being a strong person or having a strong personality. There are plenty of characters I would consider strong that have absolutely pitiful personalities. That’s not the point, and that’s not what a strong character is.

Here’s more from the article.

There’s an ongoing problem, I think, with “strong female character” being made synonymous with “any fictional woman who isn’t just window dressing”. There’s a whole argument to be made about why the phrase “strong female character” is a problem in and of itself — after all, do you ever hear a writer set out specifically to write a “strong male character”? — but I think that that’s what going on with Frozen. Because both characters are arguably leads, and neither is reduced to talking production design, we are conditioned to see them both as “strong”, whether or not they actually are. Frozen certainly has two female characters. It even arguably has two lead female characters. But it certainly doesn’t have two strong female characters, and two out of three just isn’t enough to justify all the praise.

And ever so ironically, this particular paragraph included a link to an article that pretty much seems to get it, for the most part. I don’t want to sound rude, but…did the author even read the article she provided a link to? Because here’s the thing. I think Frozen did an incredibly good job of creating two compelling female characters without throwing it in your face that they are female, and they still retain their femininity.

Elsa’s flaws are what make her a strong female character. To me, a strong character is one with conflicts and struggles and weaknesses. Elsa is insecure, scared, and runs away from her problems instead of facing them. That’s what makes her character interesting – and that’s what makes her character strong.

STRONG

Writing a female character should not be done for the sake of making that character female. The most important part of the phrase “strong female character” should be the word “character.” If you write a strong character – a character that has a personality, has flaws that help define the theme of the story, has conflicts, both internal and external, that she has to face, and, most importantly, deals with those conflicts in a way that helps the story, you’ve probably got a strong character. And, if you make that character female, good for you.

When you’re telling a story, the focus shouldn’t be on the gender of the characters. One might even argue that’s anti-feminist. The focus should be on writing characters. The best way to equalize gender portrayal is not to add more of the same “strong female character” we’ve been seeing – the confident, kick-ass, always deals with her problems in a respectable way female character – but the character we need to see, the character who retains her femininity without shouting in your face “look at me, I’m a woman. Look at me, I’m a woman.”

Doug and Rob Walker’s very last Avatar: The Last Airbender vlog included a discussion of why the show was so good for people of all types. At some point, Rob Walker said (and I am paraphrasing here), “What a great show for girls. The girl characters in this show can go toe to toe with the males, and you don’t even notice.”

Right, Rob. You don’t notice because the female characters in Avatar: The Last Airbender put relatively little to no focus on their femininity, just as the male characters put relatively little to no focus on their masculinity. And when they do, it’s usually a joke and within the spirit and character of the show.

You can be a strong female and embody femininity without saying you do. Look at Dana Scully from The X-Files. Look at Dr. Ryan Stone from Gravity. Both are characters I love and consider to be some of the best female characters in existence, not because they say they’re female and strong but because they are female and strong.

I heard a lot of arguments against the scene in Gravity where Ryan figures out what to do through a hallucinated version of George Clooney’s character, Matt Kowalski. A lot of people interpreted that scene as anti-feminist because even though Ryan was a female alone in space, in the end it was a hallucinated version of a man that saved her life.

But to me, that scene perfectly articulated how today’s entertainment should go about equalizing gender portrayal. It’s made very clear throughout the film that Matt Kowalski is a veteran astronaut and this is Ryan’s first trip to space. Because of his experience and expertise, she knew he would know what to do, and her mind cooked up an image of him because he embodied the knowledge and inspiration she had within herself but didn’t realize she possessed.

None of those qualities have anything to do with George Clooney’s character being a man, and if his character had been played by a woman, I have no doubt Ryan would have cooked up a version of that character, no matter what gender or what form that character took. George Clooney being a man is not the point. George Clooney being a mentor is.

I hope that, in the future, people will continue to write characters – male, female, or any other gender. This extends to other indentifying characteristics such as ethnicity, social class, age, sexual orientation, etc. The character must always come first.

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4 thoughts on “A “Strong Female Character”? – Random Musings

  1. Great post – I think oftentimes the term strong is misunderstood. Definition literally is: “able to withstand great force or pressure”. Therefore a strong female character is expected to do the same. Although, in order for a character in a story or movie to be interesting it must have an arc, to change, grow and develop. If Frozen hadn’t had any of those things it would have been useless entertainment (like so much of movies these days). A great example of character arcs is Lord of the Rings. Frodo goes through amazing changes and by the end he is completely different from who he was to start with. Hence while it’s an enduring classic. The movie Erin Brockovich has a strong female character – she’s brash, abrasive, and at times desperate and offensive but she grows throughout the movie into a better mother, a better employee, and a better person. She withstands the pressures of her life and overcomes them, which is what makes her a strong character.

    Very interesting post, thanks for the sharing in the Community Pool on The Daily Post.

    • EXACTLY! A great character is made through development, not by how strong or bold they are. Scully from The X-Files is one of the strongest characters I’ve ever come across because her growth as a person is simply incredibly intriguing and well done. This notion of “keeps getting hit on the head and kidnapped” is not only untrue, as she is able to get herself out of several situations with her own intelligence and quick-thinking, it’s also completely and totally irrelevant. If those two things were what defined Scully’s character, that would be one thing. But she’s no damsel in distress, and no true X-Phile would ever consider her as such.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. Thank you. This is excellent. It can also be applied to the screen queens in slasher movies who end up overcoming all obstacles. Yet feminism issues are still brought up by some dumb critics who have no clue what they are talking about…

    Also…Some stories depend on people with flaws!

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