Picture this: A woman. She's tall. Aloof. Cold. She's considered "one of the boys" because she can hit hard and is also the only girl present. Her makeup is perfectly done and her hair falls in curls, yet she's a tomboy. She hardly speaks. Her personality consists of fighting techniques and being the "pretty one." This is the stereotypical strong female character.
I've always been bothered by the way many writers create their female leads. When they want her to be strong they toss shallow traits into a cauldron with an added dash of spice so that her "tough girl" persona makes her seem like a three-dimensional character when she's not.
They create a woman who is both beautiful and able to kick ass. She has to throw a punch with matte red lips and keep up with the boys while running in heals. She has to have the same physical capability as a male action hero before her empowerment is acknowledged. If she's portrayed with little fighting experience or seen as a pacifist, she’s weak, because those aren't the definitive traits of a strong female character.
Growing up, I brushed off this type of character. I found her bland and her only redeemable quality was that she could fight. As someone who isn’t physically strong and terrified of confrontation, I just couldn't relate. I always felt more in touch with the ones who were typically off to the side; the ones who were only there to make the badass look more badass. If a character fell into the sidekick role they were considered less valuable. If they couldn’t look sexy, they weren’t remembered.
Yet, for me, the "weak" ones were stronger because they had heart, brains, personality, raw courage and humanity. When I think of strong female characters, I think of Phoebe, Monica and Rachel. I think of Chuck and Olive from Pushing Daisies. Of Dr. Ellie Sattler in Jurassic Park or Hermione Granger from Harry Potter. I even think of older protagonists like Hyacinth Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances. These characters aren't out there kicking ass and taking names, but they are fiercely independent while still knowing when to ask to help and use their talents, passions and smarts to navigate their problems.
I see capable and powerful women who don’t need physical strength to give them worth. And yes, I do still like the characters that can fight, and I will gladly call them a strong as long as their combat ability isn’t their only defining trait. The fighter character works best and is more likable for me when she’s complex and allowed to have traits beyond how hard she can hit. (Think Peggy Carter, Wonder Woman, Supergirl, etc.).
There's a scene in the recent Wonder Woman film where Diana takes on no man's land by herself, and it sends chills down your spine. It's also deserved because Diana isn't a wooden character only meant for battle. Up until this moment, audiences see her demonstrate compassion and humor. She's fighting out of a sense of duty and love for humanity. She isn't there for the sole purpose of looking tough — she just happens to look cool while doing it.
What gets to me is when a character is labeled worthless because she doesn’t step into battle with a sword drawn. Is her physical strength really what makes her powerful? Can’t she fight in another way?
There is something within these less battle-geared characters that makes them critical components of a story. Even a character who is girly and silly can be a force of energy based on her values and heart. Her strength is shown in the way she treats others, solves problems, stays positive and stays grounded no matter her flaws.
Even if a female character falls in love and acts a little flighty over a boy, she can still be strong. The idea that falling for a man causes a woman lead to be anything less than powerful is such an odd notion. Let’s take a look at Friends. I also saw Monica as a well written female lead because she stands firmly in her beliefs and isn't afraid to state her opinion. She's independent and smart, but also has visible flaws with her competitiveness and controlling nature.
I think writers are often afraid to give a strong female flaws because she's meant to be this idealized woman who can do no wrong. She's an unfeeling statue who only moves to fight. Monica, on the other hand, has her share of mistakes, but that's what makes her seem real. Her strength is shown in how she continues to move forward, fix her mistakes and do what she thinks is best — despite her flaws.
She falls in love with Chandler and marries him, but continues to be herself. She looks out for her friends. She stands up for her opinions. She acts goofy. She has this amazing give-and-take relationship with her husband. She's even vocal about wanting to start a family and be a mother. She doesn’t stop being herself because she finds someone to care about or because she wants children. Love does not make her weak.
A character doesn't need to be a loner and a fighter to be empowered. A character can be soft and even a bit silly and not be useless. There are thousands of powerful women in fiction who don't fight with their fists. The problem is they don’t receive that same spotlight because they don’t fall into this tight box of what a strong character is and isn't. They’re viewed with less value, which is a shame because it’s time to prove that kicking ass doesn’t define worth or strength.
Who is your favorite (and most relatable) strong female character?