Strong Female Characters are Weak Writing

Lower your pitchforks, I come in peace. I’m a feminist, and I have a lot of opinions on women in fiction. Today I want to talk about the Strong Female Character, which is a disingenuous and reductive trope. On the surface, this character seems like a big win for women’s rights, but she is, at the most, nothing more than a gateway towards more inclusive media.

My feelings towards this character are exemplified in this post that I found:

This, this is EXACTLY why I dislike the Strong Female Character trope. It is nothing but another way for female characters’ agencies to be robbed, their bodies hypersexualised, their humanity belittled.

The Male Gaze

The Male Gaze basically is a concept in feminist theory that calls out the depiction of women and the world in general from a heterosexual male perspective. In a nutshell, it is a perspective that treats women like sexual objects. The term was coined by film critic Laura Mulvey.

For very direct examples of this, we can look at a couple of ads.

In this ad, the woman is literally being compared to a shoe.
In this Suit Supply ad, naked, dancing women are the “reward” for any man wearing a Suit Supply suit.

The male gaze, I believe, is inherently toxic. It plays into this alpha male, heterosexual, heteronormative idea of manhood, and the way women are depicted through that lens is extremely demeaning. And the male gaze is RIFE in the trope of the Strong Female Character.

Who Is The Strong Female Character?

This woman is a ball-busting man-eating tigress, usually with some powerful physical ability, who is still somehow second-fiddle to the men in the story. This woman has no real agency, and is only there to tick a box. (“Feminism? CHECK!”) Despite her gifts, she ends up having to be rescued by the men in the end, anyway.

Have you ever noticed there’s no male equivalent to this trope? There’s no Strong Male Character? Of course not, it is always assumed that men are strong.

One of the key issues with this character is that her worth is still linked to her beauty. That’s a big “male gaze giveaway”. And what absolutely enrages me about this trope is that it isn’t as empowering as it seems on the surface. It is just one more impossible standard for women and girls to live up to.

Our Culture Values Masculine Strength

What is stereotypical masculine strength? Physical prowess, not crying (in fact, not being emotional at all, unless it’s anger), always being ready for a fight. The SFC exemplifies all these qualities–which is what makes her “strong”, as opposed to other women, who are considered “weak”. She is the exception, because she displays stereotypically male qualities, but does it in high heels an a push-up bra.

I’m not saying that women like this don’t exist, I’m saying the SFC is not a real woman. Not even close. She doesn’t depict the dynamic, conflicting, fascinating inner life of a real person. She is an idea put up by men for male pleasure, and token feminist representation at best.

It is a direct attack on women who…say, aren’t supermodel robots who can wield a sword. When I am afraid, I am not a Strong Female. When I cry, I am not a Strong Female. Vulnerability, sensitivity, pain, are considered weaknesses and weaknesses are considered inherently bad. The Strong Female Character is not me. It’s not you. We are bigger than Her. We contain so much more.

Why It’s Bad Writing And What Writers Can Do About It

Male characters are generally diverse. There are all kinds of tropes, all kinds of different strengths. You have your classic hero types like Superman, your antiheroes like Michael Corleone, brooding loners like Geralt of Rivia, geniuses like Sherlock Holmes, the comic relief character is almost always a male (leading to the disgusting, misplaced idea that women aren’t funny, but that’s a whole other topic). The list is endless.

How many female character types do you know of? The Love Interest, the Smart One (often the same person, in an action/fantasy-type story), the Strong Female Character (again, all these three characters could serve the same role in the story), the Mother, and what else? Female character tropes are few and far between because they never actually represent real women.

SFCs are vapid and one-dimensional. They’re bad characters. And if you want to make them more interesting, give them agency! Make them serve a purpose in your story. Give them thoughts and opinions, flaws and feelings. Let them cry. Let them be sensitive. Let them be brave. Allow them to be more than the Male Gaze demands of them.

Your SFCs can be badasses, but just giving her a big sword and throwing her into a battlefield doesn’t make her strong. Her power comes from who she is as a person, not how tight her breastplates are or how sexily she can kill monsters.

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