What comes to mind when you perceive this word? A bulky action hero with a square jaw and a multitude of one-liners ready to drop? Or maybe that fierce, brilliant intellectual who knows they’re right despite a world telling them otherwise? What about the grief-stricken loner who struggles to overcome their past and find love again?
Did you just picture a man?
These are all examples of ‘strong’ characters. People who have to fight for something, literally or metaphorically. They struggle and they overcome.
I’m not sure about you, but when I think of these archetypes, I mostly think of the character being male. It’s like that thing with people assuming doctors in stories are all men. However, I can, if I try, find examples of female protagonists who fit the descriptions above. I do have to think very hard though and only one jumps out at me immediately. I could give you plenty of male protagonists who fit the descriptions.
Typically, if we want a feminine protagonist in these roles we get to see them mostly as men. There have been articles about that before. What I’m more concerned with here and now is strength itself, and how we define it.
What is strength?
‘Strength’ is a bit of an umbrella term when it comes to protagonists. We use it to describe the physically and emotionally strong, but a trend I’ve noticed when it comes to having strong female protagonists in stories is mistaking strength of character for kicking the crap out of them.
So many of them go through vast amounts of physical abuse in stories. Broken limbs, internal bleeding, starvation and sleep deprivation are common ones, just off the top of my head. I’m not saying male protagonists don’t experience all of these too, but I’ve noticed a trend to make it gratuitous when it comes to the ladies in fiction. It’s as though we can’t accept them as ‘strong’ unless we’ve seen them fight through adversity magnitudes greater than most male protagonists have to suffer through.
Is this really necessary? Do we need to see them go through this to earn the label of ‘strong female protagonist?’ Does it have to be physical strife and if it weren’t, would you still consider them to be strong?
They are also usually alone and fierce, and need to do everything themselves and receive barely any recognition. This can, and often does, come across as unbelievable. They’re not allowed to ask for help because if they do, they’re weak. They aren’t allowed to give in and have a good cry because their situation is terrible. Of course not, only weak characters cry. They’re certainly not allowed to be vulnerable or incapable in any way. Nope. In short, they aren’t allowed to be women and be considered strong.
There’s more to strength than being kick-ass… or getting your ass kicked.
What about a single mother who struggles through financial hardship and succeeds on her own? Or a young girl who suffers emotional abuse growing up and still turns out to be a wonderful person despite this? Are these strong characters?
I would argue yes.
There is no need for them to be physically strong and kick-ass in order to be considered strong characters. They can be average in every way. They are also entitled to be feminine and enjoy feminine pursuits. Heck, even those aforementioned ass-kicking lady heroes can be feminine and valid.
Ripley risks everything to save Newt because she has a strong maternal instinct. The characters in the movie alongside her consider this a weak and ridiculous thing to do. She does it anyway, and succeeds. She even has a great mech battle with an Alien queen just after this and succeeds. Ripley is a great example of having your cake and eating it with female protagonists.
I’ve actually quite often encountered stories where there is a character who’s still feminine but otherwise more or less the mirror of the protagonist. They’re often depicted as wrong or foolish in some way. A lot of the time we’re meant to hate this person. They’re shown to be stubborn, make poor decisions and are unable to see the ‘truth’ of the world that our protagonist sees. In short, they are often punished for being themselves while our lead is ultimately rewarded for playing the part of a man.
They’re the victim our female protagonist refuses to be.
These characters are often proven wrong in the end and their worldview and feminine tendencies shown to be the wrong way to live.
We, as readers, are being told to dislike the feminine and praise the masculine.
Nothing to prove
Please, make no mistake, I don’t want us to stop writing physically strong women. I’m a sucker for those ass-kickers myself and I don’t want to see them vanish. They are a wonderful antidote to feeling powerless and are definitely my escapist fantasy.
But they are not, and shouldn’t be, the sole definition of what we consider to be strong female leads. Women shouldn’t need to work twice as hard as men for the same reward, so can we please stop writing our lady heroes as having to do the same? They don’t need to prove themselves as self-sufficient and capable. They don’t need to prove they can stand up to and match men toe-to-toe. They can be themselves and excel in their own pursuits and fight their own battles that need have nothing at all to do with physical strength. They can be strong and not need to be strong. Can we stop requiring them to fit the moulds of the male leads they compete against and just be their own thing? Can we please broaden our understanding and acceptance of what constitutes strength?
And can we please please please stop beating up all our female leads?