Then and Now: “Strong Female Characters”

Katniss

This idea for a blog post came to me while I was half asleep in bed. It sounded genius then and didn’t seem all too bad in sober daylight, either.

Then and Now is going to be an infrequent series (read: I’ll write one whenever my lazy brain feels like it), and it’s basically going to be a way for me to recount my changing tastes when it comes to fiction. We all have characters that we loved when we were 14 but can’t stand as adults. This is a way to examine the why’s of that change–is it just a matter of growing older and having more experience, or is there something more? Every aspect of what makes a story a story–from settings and character traits to plot tropes–is fair game.

And because I don’t make anything easy for myself in life, I’m going to start off with a possibly controversial topic: “Strong Female Characters.”

When I was 13 and pint-sized, I discovered Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness books and Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword, and my whole world shifted on its axis. The idea of plucky young girls wielding swords and walking around in male-dominated settings with casual confidence lit a fuse inside of me. I browsed the YA shelves from A to Z, desperately searching for books that offered similar characters. I would literally Google “YA fantasy with strong female protagonist” and devour all the recommendations.

Now, though? I grimace whenever a book touts “strong female characters” as its main selling point. It’s not that I have a problem with female characters being depicted as strong. It’s the way that the phrase is interpreted by writers and the media as a whole. The way it suggests that there’s only one way to be a strong woman–a genderbent version of a typical male hero. Physically strong or capable, talented, charming, and often snarky. And ultimately bland.

Partly, I think it’s a direct reaction to the way female characters were portrayed in media for so long–as love interests, as damsels in distress, as a long-legged maiden whose sole existence is to be a reward for the dashing male protagonist. But partly it’s also a slightly evolved variation of the male gaze. “Badass” women in skin-tight outfits, brandishing swords or guns. A titillation for men who want a little danger and oomf to go along with the long legs and cleavage. We see this countless times on the cover of paranormal books that star female protagonists. In 2012, SFF author Jim Hines sacrificed his poor body in order to reenact some of the more ridiculous poses women are seen doing in fantasy covers. The results were interesting to say the least (go check out the rest of his blog posts on women in covers here–they’re fun, insightful and brilliant).

Jim pose

We also see it in video games, with ones like Metal Gear Solid 5 touting out its female soldiers in a bikini and a pair of fashionably-ripped tights because, according to game developer Hideo Kojima, she breathes through her skin (yes, you read that right).

Quiet

I mean, just SAY that you want her to look sexy, dude.

And when it’s not a matter of the male gaze, it’s a case of many writers forgetting (or ignoring) that while strong and capable is all well and good, that can’t be all that a woman is–because a real woman has fears and weaknesses. It’s a case of swerving so far into the opposite direction of the damsel in distress, to “badass heroine,” and bypassing this massive, largely-unexplored territory in between the two extremes.

Finally, I think it’s also a mixture of all of these: men and women want to see physically strong female characters kicking down doors and wiping out enemies with casual flicks of their wrists. But maybe for different reasons–women love seeing physically strong women who can go toe-to-toe with their male co-casts; and men just enjoy asskickery in general (according to my friends, at least–male readers, feel free to weigh in).

So what led to this shift in perspective? One simple reason would be that I just gained more real-life experience. I met many different, incredible women during my undergrad years–many of whom were shy, soft-spoken, or non-athletic but I would still consider some of the strongest people I’ve encountered.

But it’s not until Vanessa Ives from Penny Dreadful came into the picture that I could pinpoint what was missing in these “strong female characters.” In my humble opinion, Vanessa is singularly the most complex female character to have walked on television and also happens to be my all-time favourite female protagonist in any media.

In the first episode, she’s the definition of what people would call “strong female character”– she’s confidence and cool and she strides through the world like she rules it.
But as the season goes on we see these layers stripped away. We see her oscillating from a terrified, guilt-ridden young woman to a goddess cloaked in sexuality and anger. We see her devotion to Catholicism war with her fascination and love with the occult. We see her hate herself even as she loves those who mirror her faults.

She’s frailty and strength both.

She’s a woman.

Period.

So I guess the bottom line is that I’m bored and tired of strong, 100% capable male characters and I’m equally bored of strong, 100% capable female characters. For me, “strong female characters” are ones who aren’t written with just a single label in mind–a damsel, a soldier, a princess, an assassin. The ones who are treated as normal people with human struggles and inner demons. You don’t need to wave around a sword, skulk around dark alleys brandishing knives, or make snarky quips to be strong. There are infinite shades of strength. And weaknesses are a part of it.

flourish

Now I pass the mic over to you. I absolutely love discussing these kinds of things (you’ll have to bash me over the head to get me to stop once I start going), so feel free to add your own thoughts and point out things I may not have considered.

Or you can just yell at me. I’m open to that too.

 

24 thoughts on “Then and Now: “Strong Female Characters”

  1. Lily @ Sprinkles of Dreams says:

    I get soo many ideas for blog posts and everything else right before falling asleep as well, haha.

    This is a very interesting topic! I sometimes find myself a bit hesitant about books that pride themselves on featuring a strong female character as well – it’s great to see more strong and even heroic female characters in books/movies/TV shows nowadays, but it’s also important that they still stay human, and aren’t reduced to just their “strength”.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Vera says:

    I personally can not stand the ‘I can do it all, I don’t need anybody’s help’ characters either. I think it’s the message it’s sending. That asking for help is potentially considered a weakness. And that physical strength combined with the ‘I don’t need you’ attitude is something we should be in awe of. No thanks.

    To your point, I used to like these types of characters because initially, they started feeling like a breath of fresh air after years and years of damsels in distress… but as I have been growing up, they also started to appeal to me less and less because let’s face it, we all need help from time to time. And asking for help is not weakness but courage because it require us to be vulnerable.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Kathy @Pages Below the Vaulted Sky says:

      I love this point. I’m always, always awed by people who are so candid about their struggles and are like, “I’m scared, I don’t know what to do, and I need help.” Because *I* personally have so much trouble opening up to people around me. And I think seeing these kinds of characters in fiction–especially YA–can give the readers who are going through similar situations a mental boost of sorts.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Tammy says:

    The words “strong female character” have really become overused, as everyone is jumping on that bandwagon. It’s sad that we even have to call attention to them. They should just BE as strong as the men without making a big deal about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Sionna (Books in Her Eyes) says:

    Sometimes I really like reading books about “strong female characters” — I’m right there with you on Tamora Pierce; The Song of the Lioness is what got me into fantasy and made me a huge bookworm. On the other hand though, sometimes the writing on those characters is so cliche and can feel tired. Reading books with multiple types of female characters who are strong in different ways is what I truly enjoy… when I can find it.
    Strength isn’t the only way people can be strong.

    Nice topic!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kathy @Pages Below the Vaulted Sky says:

      Thank you! ❤ Reading "strong female character" books can be cathartic for me sometimes. Like, when I don't want to expend much brain energy and just read about a super tall and athletic woman hacking down enemies with her sword (*cough* Kate Daniels). But it's kind of like eating junk food–after a while I get sick of it.

      Like

      • Sionna (Books in Her Eyes) says:

        Kate Daniels <3!!
        I will say the worst types of books which tote their strong female characters are when those super hyped up females need to constantly be saved, told what to do, win by luck, or just don't even do anything… THAT is sooooo annoying.
        What is the point of making them The Greatest if they act like the worst.

        Like

  5. Norrie says:

    For me a female character who rejects help and is a badass all the time is not strong. That character is annoying.
    I think Katniss from Hunger Games was a good one. She was sort of badass, but at the same time she was also a kind of average teenage girl who got scared of things, but didn’t mind being nice. And even tho in the last book she was criticised for being reluctant to participate, it was quite realistic in my opinion. She must have felt overwhelmed that at a young age so much responsibility was put on her, but came around eventually and her badass side shined through 🙂

    I like realistic characters and that means that sometimes they need to fail and not be so bloody perfect and know-it-all and can-do-it-all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kathy @Pages Below the Vaulted Sky says:

      I know I stuck Katniss’ pic on the post but I absolutely agree with you on her being a complex character! I loved seeing her tough side but also her maternal, nurturing side–towards Rue and her own sister whose name I can’t remember. And I LOVE your point about the last book. Things got very brutal in Mockingjay and I think readers often forget that she’s still just a teenager. Doubt and fear is something all of us deal with on a daily basis, so it’s not surprising that a teenager in the midst of a war would suffer through it.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. acquadimore says:

    I agree with what you said about labels, every archetype gets tired if it’s overdone and not developed enough.
    “For me, “strong female characters” are […] the ones who are treated as normal people with human struggles and inner demons”
    This! One thing I had noticed with some writers was that they were so focused on writing a strong female character that they forgot to write a person. It’s the reason so many SFC all feel the same – they have no personality.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kathy @Pages Below the Vaulted Sky says:

      It does feel like there’s this stock mold that many writers are using when it comes to their female characters. Which was great when there were ZERO books with SFC, but there’s an abundance of them these days and I feel like we should have branched out into other areas of “strength” in femininity by now. It’s a frustrating problem.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. PerfectlyTolerable says:

    When I first read your title I thought you were going to be comparing old time females to new ones. Like the difference between Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice vs Katniss from Hunger Games. While that would be an interesting topic too, I really liked your post!

    When you said “a genderbent version of a typical male hero” it made me realize how true it is! I love kick ass heroines, but they are basically just males with boobs. And they are almost always gorgeous too. Very few books have that middle ground. You can have a strong main character and still have them be emotional and vulnerable!!

    Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kathy @Pages Below the Vaulted Sky says:

      Old vs new female characters would be a VERY interesting discussion! Though it’d probably requires more research because it’s been a while since I’ve read a classic book that features a female protagonist. 😛 And I absolutely want to see female soldier/knight-types who are tough but also gentle and insecure.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Mogsy @ BiblioSanctum says:

    These days, the idea of the “strong female character” has become a cliche in and of itself – the beautiful, kick-ass protag with a snarky comeback for every statement, the one who the male hero inevitably falls for. To me, it’s gotten to the point where I literally cringe whenever I see a book tout that as its main selling point. The GENUINE and truly interesting characters, who are, to me, the real kind of strong female characters, have become a rarity, imo 😛

    Liked by 1 person

  9. gwalsh1985 says:

    I adore this. I don’t have enough words to say how much I adore this and I’ve been looking forward to reading this post since you mentioned you would be writing it!

    As you know I could read and blather on about female characters all day and would just constantly chew your ear off about it.

    I love that you used Katniss because I loved her character so much and I honestly think there’s a reason that so many YA writers of current fiction try and create their own female leads based on her. Does it work? Not always but I think that’s because Katniss’ creator truly made her a complex and rounded individual. She’s a woman of ‘action’ and a survivalist who has icy traits to her personality – especially around those she doesn’t like or trust – who can be brutal in the way she talks to and treats people at times. Yet, she is also warm and kind hearted and maternal and a lot of what she does is based on others’ survival not just her own. I dislike when people criticise her for having a romantic interest or having children at the end because they don’t feel that someone that badass with a bow should be interested in that kind of thing. But why not? She is allowed to love and want children after all. That doesn’t take anything away from her and in fact it’s in character – if people miss that then I don’t know what books they’ve been reading.

    I read a post today somewhere else that was critiquing fans of Frozen for liking Elsa and Anna and that they had forgotten Mulan is a ‘stronger’ female and I thought of you and our comments! That post made me feel a little sad because I feel like how society perceives women in fiction comes in waves. There must only be one ‘type’ of women or heroine apparently. We can’t like more than one. We can’t like them for different reasons. It’s back to – be feminine but not TOO feminine. Don’t be reserved or cautious or warm or open. Adopt masculine traits but don’t be TOO masculine – pick up a sword but try and be feminine about it. I just think my eyes are going to roll right back into my brain one day.

    Like

    • Kathy @Pages Below the Vaulted Sky says:

      Yes!! I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Gerry! I had you on my mind when I was doing last minute polish-ups. 😀

      And I’m completely with you Katniss. I don’t think I’ve come across a YA “strong” heroine who’s as well-rounded out as she is. And I think a lot of writers who try to replicate her character forget that her strength comes from not just her abilities with her bow and her determination, but also the way she embraces those maternal instincts. Yes, you can be a warrior and revolutionary AND also a mother! The two aren’t mutually exclusive! I think The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin also touches on this beautifully (though it’s not YA).

      And I have no idea what version of Frozen and Mulan that person was watching, but I think Elsa and Anna’s struggles are in many ways similar to Mulan’s–they just kind of take different trajectories? Both movies are about finding your footing in this world and learning to accept your strengths. And I get what you mean by perception of female characters coming in waves. I also have a problem with people going, “You can show off your feminine and sensual side, but don’t be TOO sexual, because that’s pandering to the male audience.” If feels like there always has to be a line drawn in the sand somewhere.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Gerry@TheBookNookUK says:

        I’ve never heard of The Fifth Season but I’ll have to check it out!

        I agree re. Mulan and Anna/ Elsa – about being true to who you are or finding out/ accepting who you are and trying to overcome self doubts and the society you live in who view you with scepticism. I think male characters are often allowed the luxury of making mistakes/ finding who they are. Not so much within their stories but in the perceptions of viewers/ readers. We want women to do *more* than hold them in a harsh light when they do and an even harsher one when they make mistakes. *Sighs wistfully.*

        I think it’s true as well what you say about female sexuality – it’s very much a fine line. But quite often I think that women in fiction or movies are allowed to be sexy for men but not allowed to own it for themselves, if that makes any sense? But then that happens in real life so why am I not surprised?! I could rant on forever 😛

        Like

  10. Kristen @ Metaphors and Moonlight says:

    I also had a discussion once about “strong female character” and why I dislike that phrase. And I completely agree that one of the problems with it is that it seems to have come to mean “badass and physically tough,” but there’s more to strength than that, and there are other ways to be strong. I feel like these “strong female characters” usually get written with no emotion, and I don’t care for emotionless characters. I also love your point about how in some ways it’s still just about the male gaze. But yes, I also prefer the characters who are just written as real people with strengths and weaknesses!

    Like

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