Strong woman. We love this phrase. It’s everywhere. Ubisoft pointed to “strong female characters” throughout Assassin’s Creed Unity in an attempt to make up for the game’s lack of a female protagonist. Less than a week ago, David Finch, who has taken over the Wonder Woman comic series along with Meredith Finch, described the new Wonder Woman character to be a “strong human” but “not a feminist.”
What does that mean? The “strong woman” phrase has been thrown around so much that I’m not sure any one knows what it means anymore. In the case of Ubisoft and Wonder Woman it sounds like an excuse, a non-explanation.
The phrase didn’t start out that way, so what happened?
A year ago, Lori Summers addressed the strong woman conundrum on her blog. She made a great point regarding the writing of female characters. Writers shouldn’t focus on creating “strong women” to pacify those asking for more female representation in entertainment. They should focus on writing female characters that are people—multi-dimensional characters that don’t exist as a plot device or a means to an end. Female characters should reflect the diversity within the gender.
The mythical “strong female” appeared in mainstream media in opposition to another type of female character that had become common in fiction, women who served solely to further the plot of a male character. These women often appeared in June Cleaver-type supporting roles — wives, girlfriends, etc. Women in direct opposition to that role were groundbreaking when they first arrived on the scene. Too bad the trope has grown a bit old.
When the phrase “strong woman” is thrown around, it’s meant to land somewhere in the ballpark of “I shoot guns, kick literal ass and say aggressive things.” In my opinion, as far as the users of this term are concerned, elaboration beyond that vagueness is not needed. The problem of female representation is easily remedied with some combination of a gun, fighting skills and a healthy dose of snark, right?
If that description sounds like a box or a trap, it is. It’s overly general even for a trope. The “strong woman” trope has its own sub-categories that differ by race, age and sexuality, yet they all seek to restrict and restrain female characters.
There’s nothing wrong with telling the female warrior/badass story. The problem comes when female characters that deviate from that idea are suddenly labeled “weak” or “poorly written.” Martha Jones, from Doctor Who comes to my mind, often the object of Internet critics calling her “weak” and “needy” because she develops feelings for the Doctor.
Never mind the fact that she’s a doctor herself and splits her time between time travel and rounds with her patients, that she becomes a mercenary when she stops traveling with the Doctor or the fact that she ends up walking the earth to save the world. She falls for someone who doesn’t return her feelings, so she’s needy. Ironically, our way of asking our fictional women to be awesome is boxing them into a traditional male stereotype.
But women can’t be too much like men, right?
Any woman that’s a professional ballbuster must be a train wreck in her personal life. If you don’t think this is still an issue, NBC’s new show State of Affairs has Katherine Heigl’s character Charlie describing herself as a “total slob in my personal life, total sniper in my professional one.” There’s nothing wrong with that story, except we hear it over and over again. At this point, it’s as old as the male anti-hero (read: a dude with a broken moral compass who still somehow manages to come out a hero — cable shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men love the edginess that inevitably follows a show about a hero who’s kind of a jerk) stories we keep getting fed.
If “strong female” is an acceptable excuse and a phrase that appeases us and makes us stop looking into the character, we’ve defeated the purpose of having a strong character in the first place. A person can be strong in many ways. Strength is also only one of several qualities that define a person and by no means one that defines a compelling character. We must move beyond women defined by one trait to women who are as multi-dimensional as the people they’re based on. In other words, we need to see fictional women who are reflective of us.