Women have not always been portrayed well in fiction, with female characters often being relegated to little more than objects or plot devices. Real-life women grew tired of their fictional counterparts always being in in need of rescue or stuffed into refrigerators, and the Strong Female Character was born.
The Strong Female Character archetype was well-intended. We needed female characters whose story roles weren’t defined by men. We needed female characters with agency and autonomy. We needed to be presented with more than two or three different types of women. But somewhere along the way, the Strong Female Character archetype has been misunderstood and skewed.
In a literary sense, strong does not refer to a physical or emotional state.
In a literary sense, a strong character is a character who is well developed and intrinsic to the plot.
The misconception about what it means to be a strong female character has given rise to multitudes of female characters whose representation still plays on sexist ideas, undermining the reason the archetype was created in the first place.
By no means am I saying that your story is sexist if your female characters align with any of these points. I am simply saying that these trends associated with Strong Female Characters do not automatically make a character strong. A strong female character is a female character who is well developed and intrinsic to the plot, regardless of whether or not she aligns with any of these points.
1. She’s “not like other girls”
Heels, dresses, makeup, cocktails, drama … your girl has none of that and can’t stand girls who do. She goes barefaced, wears jeans and sneakers, drinks beer and likes to chill with the boys playing video games. She’s not like other girls.
She’s also a bigot.
This attitude suggests that all females are essentially the same person and your SFC is a unicorn because she defies gender stereotypes. The reality is that females are generally high-functioning human beings who are capable of having a wide range of interests, characteristics and skills. Your girl is not even close to being the only one who hates heels, dresses, makeup cocktails and drama, nor is she even close to being the only female who goes barefaced, wears jeans and sneakers, drinks beer and likes to chill with the boys playing video games. None of these things are even mutually exclusive.
Stripping your character of any traits perceived to be feminine so she can feel better about herself is saying that Other Girls have little value because of their femininity, which is sexist. Femininity is not a negative character trait. Stripping a character of feminine qualities because you think it’ll make her a stronger character perpetuates the sexist idea that masculinity is better than femininity.
Making your female character Not Like Other Girls doesn’t make her inherently strong. Femininity and strength of character aren’t mutually exclusive.
2. She’s Emotionless
Girls are emotional and that’s a weakness, so you decide to make your chick a hard-ass so she’s strong. Except strength is not synonymous with coldness, apathy or internalisation; femininity is not a weakness; and having completely normal human things like feelings is not a weakness. Even emotional strength does not mean closing oneself off emotionally.
This trend developed from the gender stereotype that men can’t express their feelings, so you’re still trying to make your female character strong by turning her into a guy! Not to mention how harmful this stereotype is anyway …
3. She’s, well, sexist
Respect for women isn’t achieved by disrespecting men, so if your female character tries to act strong by telling male characters that they cry/fight/shoot “like a girl”, she’s being sexist, which undermines the reason SFCs came into existence in the first place.
Using “like a girl” as an insult suggests that the way girls do certain things is not good enough, and that it’s insulting for a man to be equated to a woman in any capacity because women are lesser than men. A female character telling men to “man up” or “come on, be a man” because she thinks she’s tougher than them suggests that for a woman to be any good at something, she must become more like a man.
It also demonstrates that while it’s becoming more acceptable for women to cross over into typically male territory, men don’t have the same wiggle room. “You throw like a guy” is used as praise; “You throw like a girl” is used to tear people down. It does not make a female character strong to point out how inferior other characters are based on their masculine or feminine qualities.
Further, if she fights sexism with violence, she’s not fighting sexism. Reacting to a mild unsolicited sexual comment with a smug right hook might seem like female empowerment, but it’s really assault (unless, of course, she’s defending herself from an actual attack). It suggests that it’s outright immoral for a man to be a jerk to a woman in any way, but excusable for a woman to use a disproportionate amount of violence towards a man. Because men are bigger, and women can’t actually hurt them, right?
4. Your Girly Girls are Vapid
Contrasting your SFC with the Girly Girls that exist in her world to demonstrate how Strong she is says femininity is a weakness, which is sexist. If you aren’t allowing your Girly Girl characters to succeed through their Girly traits and skills, you’re doing everyone a disservice. Femininity should not be portrayed as a weakness. That hurts everyone.
Strong character = well developed and intrinsic to the plot, regardless of gender, physical capabilities, femininity, masculinity, capacity for experiencing emotions, etc.
Assuming a female will be stronger if she acts like a man = not cool.