I’m not the first one to say this, and I’m probably not going to be the last, but it just keeps coming up. Whenever someone asks about how to write a strong female character, I die a little inside.
It’s not so much the question as the ensuing discussion. Someone always seems to take the badass torch and run with it, proceeding to completely miss not only the main point, but the connected ones as well. There’s a problem with representation in fiction, and conventional wisdom is that strong female characters are the solution to that problem. But see, English has a pesky habit of assigning multiple meanings to the same word, and “strong” is a prime example. So while this buzzy phrase gets tossed around ad nauseum, it frequently seems like no one knows what it actually means.
So really, who is a “strong female character”? Let’s look at some examples.
Zoe Washburne is a classic “strong female character” in the sense that most people seem to accept, meaning that she can kick your ass six ways from Sunday. But aside from being able to call you an idiot while casually saving your life, what are her character traits, really? What are her motivations? Her dreams? Seriously, go back and watch Firefly again. From that angle, Zoe comes up surprisingly short. She’s loyal to her husband and loyal to her captain, and that’s about the extent of it. Her character is static, not showing any particular change or growth, and also not really making any choices that affect the direction of the narrative.
Now, would she have gotten more development had the series lasted longer? Perhaps, although I’m not entirely convinced. See, Zoe also stands as an example that weak characterization is not always a bad thing. Not every character is going to be a protagonist. Zoe has a strong personality and works really well as a support character: she’s there as a foil for Mal, providing a crucial voice of dissent and a check on his actions, but she’s ultimately his second in command and damn good at her job. She’s just interesting enough for the amount of screen time and story that she gets, so she’s a successful character even if she’s not ultimately a very deep one.
Black Widow, like Zoe, is an ass-kicking woman who takes a supporting role in both the organization within the story and the narrative itself. But unlike Zoe, she has clear and strong motivations, and she takes an increasing role in advancing the story, growing from mere SHIELD minion in Iron Man 2 to full-blown deuteragonist in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
The thing that drives Natasha Romanov is atonement. We aren’t given the explicit details of her past, and we don’t really need them. It’s enough to know that she has done Very Bad Things before, but is now a white hat and trying to make amends.
In The Avengers, this drive is embodied by Hawkeye. Clint Barton’s choice to bring her into SHIELD as an asset rather than a corpse was the crucial factor in turning her straight, and she owes him for that. The need to return that favor and save him from Loki’s control is what brings her onto the mission at the outset, what prompts her to question Loki and discover his plans, what gets her back on her feet and into the fight after she’s been terrorized and injured by the Hulk. If you were to remove her, the choices she makes and her reasons for making them, you would have a narrative that plays out very differently. She’s not necessarily a protagonist, but her actions matter.
Fast forward to Winter Soldier. Her motivation in that film is failure. Once again, she’s making mistakes and wants to rectify them. She previously failed to thwart the Winter Soldier and protect someone. She fails to protect Nick Fury. She fails to see the influence of Hydra within SHIELD. These mistakes consume her and prompt her to team up with Cap and try to put things right. She’s still secondary to his story, but only just. They’re a pretty equally balanced partnership, each in it for their own definitive reasons. And, as her exchange with Pierce near the end indicates, she’s still seeking that atonement for her shady past; she’s willing to expose her own secrets if it also means exposing Hydra.
Rapunzel isn’t quite as lethal as the other ladies mentioned thus far, although she can wield both her frying pan and her hair competently and effectively in a tight spot. Her biggest weapon is her charm, using her sweetness and friendliness to turn Maximus and the Snuggly Duckling gang from enemies into staunch allies. Indeed, it’s notable that, while she is the princess in the tower, she saves Flynn’s ass a lot more than he saves hers. However, unlike Natasha or Zoe, Rapunzel is very much the protagonist, and it’s Flynn who’s in the supporting role. She’s the one with a dream, and her determination to see it fulfilled is the plot, every step of the way.
Now, that’s not to say that Flynn doesn’t get a lot of development. His journey takes him from self-serving rogue to self-sacrificing hero. Rapunzel’s arc is about breaking free of Gothel’s control and taking her rightful place in the world, both as a princess and as a person. These stories are deeply intertwined, and at no point is one reduced to merely an accessory to the other.
Anna is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a badass. Her contribution to combat is generally lots of running, and she’s a swooning romantic who’s about as far from our soldier or assassin as you can get. Yet her femininity is neither her sole defining feature (like might be argued for some of the classic Disney princesses) nor an obstacle she must overcome (like Mulan, Pocahontas, and Merida), but simply is. She makes no apologies for wanting her happily ever after, she’s just got some shit to take care of first.
Indeed, her desire for that fairy tale is what puts her at odds with Elsa and creates the main problem of the story. Anna then sets off immediately to solve that problem. She needs Kristoff’s help, but doesn’t need him to do it for her. The climactic moment on the ice shows how far she’s grown since the opening ball and serves as a perfect reversal: she turns away from the consummation of romance she’s certain will quite literally save her life in order to protect her sister. This choice provides the key to wrapping up every major plotline. Elsa also has a distinct character arc, but her actions mainly just complicate the story, while Anna’s actions resolve it.
Four very different characters. The word “strong” applies, and doesn’t apply, to each of them in very different ways and for very different reasons.
So why the fuck are we still using it?
We are not the goddamn Smurfs, people. As writers, precision in language is pretty much our entire job. The phrase “strong female character” has so many meanings as to become meaningless, and therefore needs to die in a fire.
If you’re looking for advice on how to write women who feel authentically female, say that.
If you want to discuss how female characters drive or don’t drive the plot, say that.
If you want to know if this is the kind of role an actress would be proud to play, say that.
Sometimes simplicity is the enemy of clarity. Get specific about the things that are problematic. If you don’t understand why a character or work is problematic, that’s a significant part of the issue right there. You can’t fix something when you have no idea what’s actually broken.