I have a lot of feelings about the idea of the Strong Female Character, and what that means for female role models and the cultural perception of women in general. So I’m going to try and make this make as much sense as possible, so bear with me if I go off on weird tangents, because I’ll come back, I promise, to the idea of the Strong Female Character, what she is, and how she’s affecting pop culture.
Let me start by saying that Joss Whedon does not have the monopoly on writing Strong Female Characters. Sure, his characters are excellent examples of women who don’t take no shit from anybody, but even in my lifetime there have been scores of examples of women who are like that, and they don’t necessarily get any recognition.
I open with this because my thoughts on this matter began to properly coalesce around the same time Marvel’s The Avengers came out, and the clip of Scarlett Johanssen talking about Joss Whedon’s Strong Female Characters. Every time I see that clip (or any of the million GIFs thereof), I get really happy that Johanssen doesn’t use the phrase Strong Female Character. And then she does.
Here’s the thing about Strong Female Characters: they’re not only one thing. The vast majority of characters bearing the label are fighters – the Black Widow, Arya Stark, Bayonetta, Evelyn Salt, Zoe Washburne. All fabulous women, and well worthy of the role model position they’ve been placed in. But fighting isn’t everything.
Strong Female Characters aren’t just fighters. They’re sacrificers. They’re the ones who do anything, use any tools at their disposal, to survive. They’re the ones who don’t take any shit. I’m thinking characters like Sansa Stark, Inara Serra, Pepper Potts – characters who don’t have fighting skills to fall back on, but who kick ass and take names nevertheless. In real life, the types of women who are making a name for themselves are these, the Sheryl Sandbergs and Arianna Huffingtons and Beyonces of the world, who use their femininity as part of their taking-on-the-world arsenal.
To go back to my first example, about the Avengers press conference and how Scarlett Johanssen felt about playing one of Joss Whedon’s Strong Female Characters. Clearly Joss Whedon has made a name for himself creating female characters who are more than just decoration. Indeed, I named three of his characters in my examples above. (Okay, two and a half. The Black Widow already existed, he just did her justice.) But how many of you would have included Inara in a list of Strong Female Characters? Even though her entire entire character arc is about her protecting whoever of the crew she can from Reavers and not letting Mal push her around even a little bit? I only thought of her because I was thinking really hard about recognisable feminine characters. I’m not proud of that, but it is part of my point – Strong Female Characters are considered to be those who pick up masculine traits, martial skills and witty one-liners and being the one who kills rather than gets killed. The wolf in sheep’s clothing.
My word count is getting up there (yay for you if you’re still with me!), but I want to talk about one more example, and then we’ll see if we can’t pull a conclusion out of this ranty mess.
Let’s talk Sansa Stark. She’s up there with Joffrey as one of the most hated characters on Game of Thrones, and I’m not really sure why. Sure, she messes up, has dreams of marrying the prince and living happily ever after, is kind of a bitch to her Septa Mordane – but on the other hand, she’s also twelve. She also learns pretty quickly that her prince is a homicidal maniac, and in pretty much the same breath, figures out that the best way to protect herself is to go along with whatever he wants. And that both of those things also go for the rest of the royal family.
People hate Sansa not because she messes up, but because she has the audacity to do so while acting like a girl. (via)
Then there’s Arya Stark. Younger, cuter, and more of a tomboy than her sister will ever be, there’s still nothing about Arya’s situation that is more dangerous than the one her sister is in. They’re both cast adrift in a dangerous, dangerous world, and yet Arya’s response makes her a hero, a Strong Female Character, while Sansa’s makes her a whiny bitch.
I’m not an athlete. I don’t have a razor sharp tongue. I don’t fight, or swear much, and I can’t match the boys drink for drink. But I am strong. I don’t take shit. I guess I just want to see my kind of strength – feminine, adaptable, capable – represented in the media I like to watch. For that kind of strength to be acknowledged as a characteristic of the Strong Female Character.
At the end of the day, any female character is a Strong Female Character in her own right. So why do we laud those masculine characteristics as her defining traits?