Recently, I found myself describing a character in a book I was reading and why I liked her so much, and the book as a whole. I described her as “a strong female character” then immediately rephrased with “but, you know, not one of those strong female characters.”
I was struck by what that meant, that I had to clarify my statement, that I felt the need to clarify, when “strong female character” (henceforth abbreviated as SFC) should be a positive thing. Something we readers enjoy. Something we writers strive for. After all, don’t we desperately want the females in the stories we read to be like us, to be their own personalities, to have their own goals and beliefs and thoughts, to have agency separate from the menfolk unlike those soulless female shells that so fill older literature and – sadly – still make appearances in modern literature?
Well, yes, of course we do. But that’s not what SFC has come to mean. Now, when you think of SFC, you think of a very specific female character. She’s willful, but only when it’s convenient. She’s fit, possibly athletic. She can run in heels, kick ass, and take names, all in the same night. She might have a good female friend, but most likely she is surrounded by males. Most of whom she wants to get in bed with – and probably has – because she’s liberated, dammit. And because she’s so STRONG. And FEMALE. And she probably has a handful of character flaws that only serve to make her either endearing – ooh, she’s clumsy! – or will be to her benefit in wooing the male character.
But the problem is that the agency is still all held by that male character. As soon as SFC gets within the event horizon – plotwise or physically – of the male MC, all of her agency disappears. She becomes the same shell of a character that the SFC was supposed to eliminate, just with a different personality. We’re still being told by the author that the SFC knows what she wants, is going to by golly go out and get what she wants – but then, somehow, all of that agency vanishes like smoke in the wind as the male MC enters, stage right. She doesn’t grow. She doesn’t change – at least, not at any meaningful level.
For example, my fiancee brought up a book she had just finished reading, wherein the SFC had divorced her husband of so many years to forge her own way in life. She knew what she wanted. She had no qualms going to get it. That is, until the male MC strode onto the page and then whoosh – all of that agency went out the door. Suddenly the SFC wanted nothing better than to live her life with the male MC, and obviously whatever she had thought she wanted had been wrong. The implication was that she couldn’t possibly have known what she wanted until the male MC came along and all of her previous agency was but smoke and mirrors.
This is a somewhat extreme example and I’m not writing this post to merely belittle and decry the SFC, only to point out that in striving for this supposedly strong, feminine ideal we’ve created a
monster stereotype. We’ve lost sight of the reason this type of character was needed in the first place by placing too much emphasis on the strong and the female than the character.
People are complex. Characters should be complex, too, and we do a disservice to women by proliferating the SFC stereotype. There are certainly authors out there that write strong female characters well, but the overwhelming majority of SFC are anything but characters. They lack agency. They lack depth. But they certainly don’t lack a man in their life.
I’m down with the characters being strong, and I certainly enjoy when they’re female, but let’s focus on making them characters first and foremost, all right?