What is a strong female character to you? You might answer simplistically; well it is a strong character who is a female. Even though this definition is hardly used by writers or fans, it is the first thing that comes to my mind when I see the ‘strong female characters’ that are slowly becoming the norm in modern literature. To be categorized as a ‘strong female’, it seems to be enough for the individual to be a main character. Fit her with badass weapons, a cool costume and have her beat the crap out of much stronger men. There you have it, a character that will be eagerly devoured by new generation teens.
There is obviously nothing wrong with this characterization. But I think we should be weary of celebrating such characters as ‘female’ because as I will discuss in this piece, the ‘strong female character’ is seeking to make a point and one of those is not that she can do things better than her masculine counterparts.
“Why are we even having this discussion?” Joss Whedon would say. Because essentially, in both anatomy and psychology, man and woman are different. If they were not, we would simply never need to identify characters as male or female. Thus, when we are constructing the image of a ‘strong female’ figure in our minds, we shouldn’t be thinking of the hunkiest and strongest man and then replacing that said figure with the anatomical modifications of the female.
Consider Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games. Is she a strong female character? While of course, the avid fan would say. “Not strong enough” I would say. You can try the following mental exercise to help you understand why.
Reverse the gender of Katniss and her lovers. Objectively, does the story become more enticing? What is uniquely female about Katniss that she should be considered a strong female character. That she can beat people up, shoot arrows, cross politicians, lead revolutions and pursue love interests while she’s at it? None these things are uniquely female.
Uniquely female?? Am I a sexist? No. If we are attempting to celebrate the female in literature, our characters have to celebrate uniquely female qualities. We love Katniss with a passion. We love Korra from The Legend of Korra with the same fervor. But both of these characters rarely face the unique challenges of being female such as motherhood, or child birth or alienation, themes that are portrayed for example, in Khaled Hossani’s novels. A man will never, in the history of human civilization, be tried with the trail of child birth. A man will never – even in the most creative of imaginations – be faced with the unique challenges of motherhood. A man – regardless of what century he is in – will never be alienated or restricted due to his gender.
We as a society love to talk about women’s rights or the end of sexism, but as long as we cannot internalize the fact that man and woman are essentially different in the challenges they face, we will get nowhere. I like Katniss, but she is not a strong female character.
She is a strong character that happens to be female.
The strong female is the one who faces the challenges of being a female, and shines.