Alice is the most badass of badasses. She swings a sword, fixes her own space-ship, and generally holds her own. She doesn’t need men to do things for her, and the plot aims to make this explicitly clear. And female viewers everywhere are expected to love her for being both female and not utterly useless. Alice is a Strong Female Character™.
For anyone who’s read my other articles on feminism, it may have come to your attention that I can never say Strong Female Character without a twinge of irony. Below, I’m going to explain why I roll my eyes at this seemingly progressive term. But first, some definitions so that we’re all on the same page. I am not using the term to refer to a well-rounded female character. We shouldn’t need a special word for female characters who are treated like, well, characters. I’m using the word to refer to a particular character archetype (described above) that appears feminist but actually opens up quite a lot of problems, and has received a fair amount of criticism from the feminist community.
On the surface, the Strong Female Character sounds like a good thing, but there are a few fundamental flaws in the concept.
The first big issue is how often Strong Female Character refers to a woman who written to be strong, but not much else. Rather than being written like a real, believable, flesh and blood human being, she’s a vaguely appealing stock character. She’s strong, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s very much to her, and as a result she tends to ring hollow. What’s more, strong is often means “unable to fail” or “without weaknesses.” Faults and weaknesses are what make characters interesting. Showing a woman fail doesn’t make her lesser; it makes her human. By focusing on making her strong rather than relatable, the writer deprives her of the nuance and depth of characterization afforded to men.
So, the problem here isn’t with women being capable or badass; it’s with the fact that capable and badass don’t comprise a full personality. She needs something in addition to these traits to make her function as a believable human being.
Another issue with the Strong Female Character is usually lauded as being able to “hold her own with the guys” and “not needing to be rescued by a man.” She’s not cool because she’s a woman who kicks ass. She’s cool because she’s one of the boys, and because she’s Not Like Other Girls. In fact, its rare for the Strong Female Character to surround herself with other powerful women. The idea of “holding her own” and the language that we use to discuss Strong Female Characters suggests that it’s not about the SFC being a badass in her own right so much as its about proving that she can keep up with the men, which carries the unfortunate implication that men can do anything while women have to earn their place.
Instead of challenging gender assumptions, the Strong Female Character enforces them by implying that the only way for a woman to be badass, strong, and interesting is to make a show of aligning herself with traditional masculinity.
Another big issue with Strong Female Characters is that their presence doesn’t actually indicate that a work is representative in any way. There may be one female character who is legitimately well written and compelling, but if she’s drowning in a sea of dudes, there’s still a major problem. It’s entirely possible to have one excellent female character and for the story to flunk the Bechdel test anyways which—unless you can count the cast members on one hand—means that it’s failing to represent in a pretty big way.
A Strong Female Character also doesn’t necessarily have any plot relevance. There are plenty of SFCs out there who can pack a punch but if you remove them from the story, absolutely nothing will change. That implies that no matter how powerful they appear, their role in the story is often cosmetic. They’re flashy and they may quell the cries of blatant sexism, but being a Strong Female Character doesn’t mean that they have more than a token involvement. This relegates women to the role of furniture and accessories while the menfolk do all of the heavy lifting. (Do all SFCs do this? No. Do Enough SFCs do this that their presence doesn’t guarantee that a story won’t be a steaming heap of misogyny? You bet.)
So while the presence of a Strong Female Character is often used as a bland “good enough” when discussing how progressive a piece of media is, it’s actually no indication of whether or not the work treats women like people. It’s not even an indication of whether or not the Strong Female Character herself is treated like a person.
Lastly, I want to address how we talk about Strong Female Characters. If I had a nickel for every time that someone said, “You’ll love this! Just look at the Strong Female Character!” I might not be rich, but I’d certainly have enough for a cup of fair trade coffee. And fair trade coffee isn’t cheap. No one tells guys that they’ll love a book/movie/video game because it has a strong male character. In fact, no one talks about Strong Male Characters at all. There’s a word for Strong Male Characters: flat. People don’t get excited about Strong Male Characters, because if we strip away the veneer of representation–that is, if we could pretend for a moment that women were treated equally by the media–a character whose chief characteristic is “strong” isn’t particularly interesting. Neither is a character whose principal identifier is their gender.
It also stands that we treat Strong Female Characters as an added bonus and a selling point, where male characters who get stuff done are a given. Its absolutely absurd for anyone to expect women to get excited because the creator has deigned to acknowledge our existence. I have lost track of the number of times that I’ve been expected to give someone a pat on the back for featuring a hollow excuse for female character, and I know that I’m not alone in this. Its unacceptable that treating women (and all gender minorities, for that matter) like people isn’t the default.
Well written women should be an expectation, not an exception.