4 Signs Your Strong Female Character Might Still be a Sexist Stereotype

4 Signs Your Strong Female Character Might Still be a Sexist Stereotype | Tips for how to make sure your strong female characters aren’t doing more harm than good. A must read for writers wanting to write strong female characters.

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.


So remember:

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.

4 Signs Your Strong Female Character Might Still be a Sexist Stereotype | Tips for how to make sure your strong female characters aren’t doing more harm than good. Head over to jackalediting.com for the full article, and more great writing tips from a freelance book editor!

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5 thoughts on “4 Signs Your Strong Female Character Might Still be a Sexist Stereotype

  1. As per usual, well framed and timely thoughts, Jackal.
    My wife kicks my ass around the block seven days a week and twice on Sunday, and she’s never been anything but a lady about it.
    That she can make more money then I do, work longer hours, take better physical care of herself whilst still maintaining her feminine characteristics gives me all the evidence I need that female protagonists are a worthwhile choice to take the lead in any story I’d ever get off my ass to write.
    In fact, they’re a better choice.
    The handicap of having to put more time, effort and money into enhancing ones appearance, whist also embracing the burden of sympathising with the feelings of others, makes a well developed female protagonist a stronger, more impressive lead then the stereotypical male ones.

    1. Glad to hear that you draw from your life and experiences when creating characters. Many writers seem to forget that they know people so their characters end up being terrible stereotypes.

      Hope all is going well with your writing!

      1. Thanks to scrutinising your blogs on plotting and structure, (and learning from a few thousand mistakes you politely pointed out in your appraisal of our first draft;) we actually think we’re getting close to sending you something interesting, Louise.
        Mean time, keep feeding your site. (We’re massive fans of first chapter Friday!!!)

  2. So if your strong female is not like the guys is she like girls (beautiful and caring) only with martial arts skills and a killer instinct in business? The result is somebody who is too perfect. A difficulty comes with prescribing specific traits that genders should have and proscribing traits that they should not have. A beautiful male protagonist who pays an inordinate amount of time on appearance and is emotional under stress make readers squirm. So, does the unattractive female who offer logical solutions rather than empathy. But this mix of weakness and strength make them real and makes them interesting.

    1. I’m not sure I understand what you mean. The post explains that a strong female character shouldn’t be defined by whether her traits are masculine or feminine, but that she should be a well-written character regardless of whether her traits are considered masculine or feminine. No, if your strong female is not like the guys, that does not mean she is “like girls (beautiful and caring) only with martial arts skills and a killer instinct in business”, and that’s part of the point of the post. Women are not women because they’re “beautiful and caring” — not all of them are, and “beautiful and caring” is not what defines a woman; “martial arts skills and a killer instinct in business” are not what make her strong — those traits don’t make a character strong, and you seem to be suggesting that those are masculine traits, which falls into the traps mentioned in the post by believing she’ll be strong if you her give her traits that you think are masculine. This does not make a female character strong.

      I’m also not sure what you mean by a character being too perfect because she’s beautiful, caring, has martial arts skills and has a killer instinct in business: if that’s all there is to the character, she’s a weak character because she’s so poorly developed. Possessing these traits and skills doesn’t mean she can’t have flaws or be well-written. I agree that a character must have a mix of strengths and weaknesses, but the traits you’ve mentioned aren’t strengths or weaknesses. Being unattractive doesn’t make a character weak, and offering logical solutions and lacking empathy don’t make a character strong. These are character traits, and a female character with these traits can be either a strong character or a weak character.

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