Female characters can’t just be er…female and characters, they have to be ‘strong female characters’. But what does that mean? Well, I think it was supposed to mean female characters who did more than get kidnapped, married or died. Strong female characters are supposed to be more than something for the men to kiss or rescue and be interesting characters with their own story. However, I hate to blame Buffy, but Joss Whedon’s vampire slayer seems to have convinced everyone that a strong female character is someone who looks cute and kicks ass (they conveniently miss the bit where Buffy was also a cool character with an arc).
The likes of Buffy and Lara Croft have blazed a trail for baddass babes, but, along the way, writers often forget that strength comes in many guises. Here are five ways you could be weakening your ‘strong female characters’:
- She’s Flying Solo: If you only have one, token female character, she’s going to have a hard time being anything other than a token woman and she may even slip into love interest and nothing else. Remember the Bechdel Test? It’s a test coined by Alison Bechdel and it determines that a story should feature a scene in which at least two women talk to each other about something other than a man, without being interrupted by a man. Most Hollywood films fail. And of course, if you’ve only got one woman in your story, she’s unlikely to be talking to another woman any time soon, which means, either, men are central to her world or she is just passing through a man’s world and doesn’t have any real agency in the story, making her a mere plot device, rather than a character.
- She’s a Kickass Robo Babe: One thing that often happens to create the strong female character, is that she gets a gun or kung fu skills and just fights her way through everything. She doesn’t have any of those pesky girl feelings and she certainly doesn’t cry. The robo babe is sexy, violent (a.k.a. fights like a man) and has no emotional depth. But because she has the psychological complexity of a house brick, robo babe is actually quite dull and cartoonish. Plus she’s been done so often that even diehard robo babe fans might be looking for something more interesting these days. Let’s go back to Buffy – she’s kickass, but she also falls in love and cries and makes mistakes and shirks her duty to go dancing and be popular and all that teen girl stuff (although, this faded as the season’s went on), which keeps her from becoming another boring robo babe.
- She’s Baddass, but Needs Rescuing: Just last week, I was watching the BBC’s Musketeers and saw a prime example of strong female characters made weak. The Musketeers come across a band of war widows who have built a settlement in the forest to defend themselves from men fleeing war and looking for weak targets. They capture the injured Musketeers, hold them at sword point and reluctantly let them stay for one night to heal. By the mid-point of the episode, this self-sufficient troupe of women can’t fend off some deserters, the leader of the women (who it turns out was raped earlier in her life) is captured and the whole village needs rescuing. A classic case of giving female characters agency and strength and whipping it away to serve the story.
- She’s Sexy but Evil: The female villain usually has all the fun because having a sexual appetite and being a female protagonist or lead of any kind seem to be mutually exclusive. DSI Stella Gibson, played by Gillian Anderson, in BBC crime thriller, The Fall (co-starring he of 50 Shades fame) is one woman who bucks this trend. At one point, at a crime scene, Stella sees a young, male cop and gives him her number and they have a one night stand in her hotel room, on her terms. It would barely be of note, if it was a male character – that’s what men do, have sex without being judged. Although, when the affair is discovered, she is judged, but Stella shrugs it off – so refreshing. My point is, beware the Western obsession with the Mary Magdalene figure – the fallen woman, who must be evil because she’s just too into that sex without letting a man decide that she should be.
- She’s Doing it Like a Dude: You don’t make a strong female character by making her into a man with boobs. The Tomboy is the go to, when someone wants to write an interesting female character. The trouble with the girl who only likes boy things and eschews the feminine is that they are deemed strong or interesting, purely by the virtue of their masculine traits. Katniss Everdeen is continually rejecting anything feminine, such as makeup and fashion or even the domestic. In contrast, Elle Woods of Legally Blonde is a much more feminist character than Katniss. She doesn’t have to reject her femininity to succeed. People think she’s a shallow, stupid Barbie, but when she’s dumped by the boyfriend who wants a serious, Harvard girlfriend, she decides to sign up for law at Harvard to win her man back. Along the way, she realises that she doesn’t want him and that she’s a really good lawyer. She’s into fashion, but she’s not a mean girl or stupid, which is how most fashion conscious characters are portrayed. Elle proves you don’t have to do it like a dude. Being feminine doesn’t make you weak, just as being masculine doesn’t make you strong.