Strong Female Characters

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Sexism is a weird and controversial subject, and it has the potential to get particularly weird when talking about fictional characters. There’s an ongoing (although often quiet) discussion on the scarcity of strong female characters and the problems with those that do exist. Now don’t get me wrong: I loved Buffy, and indeed pretty much anything that Joss Whedon – often heralded as THE writer of strong female leads – creates. But seriously, kicking ass in high heels and a tight leather jacket? No. I’ve been in (larp) battles and can confidently report that restrictive clothing does not help your case.

More importantly, looking good whilst prodding buttock isn’t what makes a strong female character. Or a strong male one, for that matter. Sexy appearance is largely unimportant, except for the promotional posters – what matters is why the character does what they do. Or, to put it another way, the strength to make decisions and carry them through. What this guy calls ‘agency’.

I loved Hunger Games, but I loved it for the setting and the concept. The character of Katniss didn’t grab me as a strong female lead, although at the time I didn’t analyse why. The Last Psychiatrist makes an excellent point, though, when he explains that

She is protected by men– enemies and allies alike; directed by others, blessed with lucky accidents and when things get impossible there are packages from the sky.  In philosophical terms, she is continuously robbed of agency.  She is deus ex machinaed all the way to the end.

That doesn’t make for a satisfying character. No one likes a deus ex. It cheats the audience of fulfilment, and is bad writing to boot. I think the first time I came across a deus ex was during a school performance of Euripides’ Medea – the woman who kills her sons to get back at their father, and then escapes justice by flying away on the divine chariot of Helios. Even at the age of 12, I could see that this was deeply unsatisfactory as an ending. But I digress – Medea is a strong character because she actively chooses to kill her sons (for no decent reason, I may add) and then follows through. By comparison, Buffy doesn’t choose to become a Slayer – it’s thrust upon her and she does what Giles wants; Katniss doesn’t kill to win the Games, other people rescue her; Bella Swan just does whatever the strongest supernatural hottie at the time tells her to do.

I am female, and write 1POV female characters who I like to think are not exactly wilting wallflowers. I don’t take inspiration from any of these. In fact, I don’t take inspiration from any modern female characters at all. But there is one fictional woman who made her own decisions and quietly stuck to them, and who did it a long time ago. And I’ll always go back to her.

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2 responses »

  1. Coincidentally I was watching something with a very strong female lead yesterday. Have you seen Nausicaa of The Valley of the Wind (Studio Ghibli)? I hadn’t until this weekend and I was really impressed by, firstly the depth of the imaginary world it is set in, but also the character of Nausicaa.

  2. My favourite strong female character remains Elasta Girl from the Incredibles; a master spy, super hero, helicopter pilot, mother of 3, devoted wife who saves her husband while protecting her kids, displays strong feminity whilst also looking stunning. Saying all that, since the Incredibles is only a 1 1/2 hour odd movie I don’t think there is much to draw reference from.

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