I see the phrase “strong female character” on a daily basis, largely because I follow a lot of geek-centric folks, blogs and companies on social media. The phrase is thrown around so casually: “If you love strong female characters, you’ll love this movie!” “I love the new Star Wars movie. Rey is such a strong female character!” “So-and-so is such a strong female character; I love her!” “This show is great because it features so many strong female characters.”
Yes, it’s amazing that there are so many fictional women that us lady geeks can look up to and relate to: Agent Peggy Carter, Agent Melinda May (or any character portrayed by Ming Na Wen, for that matter), Zoe Washburne, Buffy Summers, Wonder Woman, Kamala Khan, Michonne, Storm, Princess Leia, Daenerys Targaryen, Felicity Smoak and many others, especially since geekdom has always been such a boy’s club. But why must we feel so obliged to state their gender when talking about them? Why are we saying strong female characters rather than, “they’re a really strong character?” I’ve never heard anyone say, “I love so-and-so! He’s such a strong male character!” to describe Captain America, Han Solo, Thor, the Doctor, Batman, etc. Usually I just hear “He’s so badass,” or some variation, but never that they’re a “strong male character.” Sure, I’ve read and personally used “badass” or “kickass” to describe a lady character from a geek-centric franchise, but I don’t say, “she’s a badass female character.” The term “strong female character” is only used to emphasize how great a female fictional character is — and it needs to stop.
Admittedly, I used to say “strong female character.” It had become so ingrained in my brain that I never thought about why it’s actually negative. It wasn’t until last year, when I was geeking out about the Outlander television series to my friend Jen, that I learned why saying “strong female character” isn’t good. Jen had never heard of Outlander, so I told her about its protagonist, Claire Fraser, an English World War II nurse who is suddenly transported to Scotland in 1743. I described her as witty and stubborn, as someone who absolutely didn’t take any shit from misogynists. I talked about how she uses her medical skills to help her survive in her new world. When I couldn’t think of anything else to say about her, I concluded, “she’s just a strong female character.” That’s when Jen told me she hated that particular phrase. I was flummoxed since I used the term and also saw it elsewhere, so I asked her why. She pointed out to that women have always been looked down upon and seen as the lesser sex — so essentially, women are weak. And thanks to society, we’ve been brainwashed to think that masculinity is synonymous with strength. Despite the fact that it’s disguised as a compliment or a positive feminist phrase, it actually pretty much acknowledges that women are the lesser sex. It’s 2016 and we haven’t progressed much at all. It is a fucked up world that we live in. But I digress.
So what, exactly, determines whether a female character is strong? I asked a few of my geeky blogger pals who aren’t opposed to the phrase what it means to them. They said that a “strong female character” is both physically and emotionally strong, has ambition, is flawed but still amazing, and is relatable. I think that kindness, intelligence and being able to strive through hardships are strong traits as well. A woman (or any person, for that matter) doesn’t have to be physically strong enough to survive a zombie apocalypse to be considered a strong character. Strong characters are also the ones that survive anything, whether it’s an emotionally traumatic situation or one that challenges them physically or mentally.
The phrase also pops up a lot when people talk about how a character is written. I think it’s perfectly okay to say that a female [as well as a male] character is strongly developed or strongly written. It reflects that the creator/writer took the time to flesh out her quirks, traits and ambitions so she would be relatable and human. George R.R. Martin, the writer of the A Song of Ice and Fire series (aka Game of Thrones), was once told in an interview that he wrote women really well and really differently, and was asked where that came from. George’s answer? He said said he’s always considered women to be people. Thank you, George. THANK. YOU.
Historically, female roles in geeky franchises have been used as eye candy or the typical damsel in distress; they weren’t always multidimensional. Marvel’s Peggy Carter (or Agent Carter) is a great example of a character that went from being somewhat trope-like to becoming a well-developed character that not just women, but all viewers can admire. She was introduced to major audiences in Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011 (portrayed by Hayley Atwell) as Steve Roger’s love interest. Even in that film, Peggy was tough as nails, scrappy as hell (girl knows how to throw a punch), didn’t take any bull, and was also sensitive. Basically, for a small role as the so-called love interest, her character was well-written and given depth. She never felt flat. Peggy’s so damn awesome that Marvel gave her her own TV show, which debuted last year. And from it came one of the most inspiring quotes to ever come out of any fandom: “I know my value. Anyone else’s opinion doesn’t really matter.” This is said after her asshole male colleague didn’t correct whoever was praising him and took full credit for her hard work when she’s the one that saved the damn day.
Doctor Who’s Martha Jones (played by Freema Agyeman) gets a really bad rap among Whovians because she’s seen as the “rebound companion” (traveling buddy, if you will). While the Doctor is hopelessly upset over losing his previous companion, Rose Tyler, Martha becomes completely infatuated with him. Does she come across as being whipped and in puppy love? Definitely. But we’ve all been there. We’ve all fallen for someone who is totally not right for us, and we stuck around for too long. We’ve all been Martha at one point. And you know what? Martha, unlike many of the Doctor’s companions, left the Doctor on her own terms. She didn’t get stuck in an alternate reality or meet an untimely demise. She left the Doctor because she knew her feelings wouldn’t be reciprocated and she knew she deserved better. Good for you, Martha! On top of that, Martha is smart. She’s an actual doctor for fuck’s sake. She doesn’t allow anyone to belittle her, and she uses a Harry Potter reference to get out of a sticky situation. Martha Jones doesn’t get all the credit she deserves for being such an amazing character.
Although I used to use the phrase “strong female character,” I now realize the phrase is downright ludicrous. If you think that saying “strong female character” is acceptable, you are perpetuating the idea that women are weak, whether you intended to or not. Like the theme song to The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt says, “females are strong as hell!” We always were strong, and always will be strong. So stop saying “strong female character.”