On the Words “Strong Female Characters”

There’s been a rash of people talking about “strong female characters” for a while. The phrase really grates on my sensibilities because many have used it to describe the fact that their characters are feminist. And then my head explodes.

Descriptors are adjectives on a character write-up. Class: Barbarian. Sex: Female. Primary trait: strong. So yes, in that case the character is strong and female. Whoopie. In order for her to be feminist or strong or whatever, she’d have to be characterized as such. Ah, grasshopper, therein lies the crux of my description problem: character traits versus characterization. No character has internal strength that’s visible to the reader unless they are thrown into a scenario where that shines through that scene or set of scenes. But, even then, there’s a character arc that follows through the story that provides her with the opportunity to change. So some characters may start out as “weak” and wind up “strong” through the heroic journey. We may not like change in real life but a story has to have it. Has to. Conflict of all sorts is what drives the characters to go forth and do.

Feminism, on the other hand, has been grossly misrepresented in my opinion. In recent years, this term has come to mean “a fierce, independent woman.” This, cats and kittens, is NOT what feminism is. Let me quote this definition from the Feminist Majority Foundation: “Feminism n. the policy, practice or advocacy of political, economic, and social equality for women.

So how exactly is a “strong, female character” a feminist? She’s not, because you can have a strong character who doesn’t give a flying fig about feminism nor does she live up to those ideals. The woman who stands by her misogynistic man can be strong. A female character who subjugates other women to save herself can also be characterized as “strong.” A woman who believes in the precepts of feminism but doesn’t really do anything that speaks to her ideals can be strong, too.

The nature of strength, like any other internal attribute, is relative. The term is about as useful as saying a character has blonde hair. What I feel is “strong” may be different from what another author or reader does. This (like the treatment of women) can also be cultural depending upon where you live, what family you hail from, etc. This is where the story becomes crucial to shape a character, regardless of whether or not she’s iconic.

That’s not to say I ever want to be antagonistic about the use of the terms “strong, female characters” or “feminism” — especially within the context of fiction. What I’m trying to convey is that perhaps talking about strong, female character types warrants more discussion about feminism, and not be simply thrown into a line to placate the crowd based on a common perception. (Though, for as much as I am complaining about the misuse of language, we’ve come a loooooooong way baby. Try reading or listening to a chronological progression of fiction featuring female characters through the twentieth century some time. It’s an ed-u-cation.)

Personally, I think it’s a disservice to any reader to lump all male, transgender, and female characters underneath the same banner. (Same goes for ANY class of human beings, really, whether its based on religion or race or profession or age, etc.) Instead of putting guilty labels on characters, I’d love to see more discussion about what an author is doing within the boundaries of that specific story. Maybe by identifying how an author is characterizing a particular character others will start learning what feminism really is — if that is their goal. Otherwise, I’ll just chalk up “strong, female characters” to what they really are: the modern-day woman.

    Mood: Pulp-y with a side of OJ
    Caffeinated Beverages Consumed: In recovery. (SERIOUSLY.)
    Work-Out Minutes Logged Yesterday: Walk.
    In My Ears: Screaming dust bunnies
    Game Last Played: Battle Nations
    Movie Last Viewed: Indiana Jones marathon
    Latest Artistic Project: Crystal Cluster bracelet in gold
    Latest Release: “Don’t Ignore Your Dead” included in Don’t Read This Book for the Don’t Rest Your Head RPG

Monica Valentinelli is a writer, editor, and game developer. Her portfolio includes stories, games, comics, essays, and pop culture books.

In addition to her own worlds, she has worked on a number of different properties including Firefly, Vampire: the Masquerade, Shadowrun, Hunter: the Vigil, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, and Robert E. Howard’s Conan.

Looking for Monica’s books and games that are still in print? Visit Monica Valentinelli on Amazon’s Author Central or a bookstore and game store near you.

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