How Not To Create a Strong Female Character

As a writer and a woman (from a family of strong women) the evolving role of female characters in fiction, especially movies and TV, is a topic that I’ve been following and discussing for a long time.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I was at a writers’ conference on a panel called “Where have the strong female characters gone?” We got to talking about the difference between creating a real, genuinely strong female character vs. writers taking shortcuts to create a token “woman of cardboard.”

The most egregious shortcut is what you could call “weapons=empowerment” or what is referred to in the article below as “faux feminism.”  Judging from Disney’s Merida and The Hunger Games’ Katniss, guns are passé for the movie heroine du jour – today it’s all about bows and arrows.

As Forbes columnist Scott Mendelson puts it, :

“Crafting a well-rounded female character in a mainstream picture is about more than just putting a weapon in their hand or giving them a patronizing ’girl power punch’ during an action sequence or two.”

It’s not just a problem in mainstream movies. At the conference I attended, my fellow panelist mentioned how quickly she dismissed the “female empowerment” in the television show Once Upon a Time, which debuted on ABC just a few months after the above article came out.  She was unimpressed with Snow White’s self-consciously-presented backstory, which showed her skulking around in the forest as a highwaywoman brandishing – guess what – a bow and arrows.

I actually enjoy Once Upon a Time, and I find its deconstructions and mashups of its Disneyfied fairy tales to be quite clever.  But I do see the point my colleague was making.  Another egregious example from the same year (2012) was the protagonist of the NBC post-apocalypse-set show Revolution. In what was a pretty blatant attempt to position her as the “poor-woman’s Katniss” on promotional art, she was shown prominently carrying – YET AGAIN—a bow and arrows.

Look, she's got a bow! She must be a STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER!

Look, she’s got a bow! She must be a STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER!

What this boils down to is that for a woman to be taken seriously as a hero, she has to take on the attributes of a man.  She must be heavily armed and solve her problems with physical violence. (Why now it’s with a bow and arrows and not a gun is, in my opinion, merely a fashion statement of the moment.  After all, 2012 also brought us the male archers Hawkeye in The Avengers and Arrow on TV)

Now, don’t get me wrong – I have always enjoyed female action heroes.  When I was a kid I wanted to be Batgirl, Wonder Woman or Princess Leia.  In the 80’s and 90’s I cheered for Ripley in Aliens and Sarah Connor in Terminator 2.  More recently enjoyed the first Underworld movie, where Kate Beckinsale played a gun-toting vampire who protects Scott Speedman, “dude in distress,” from other vampires and werewolves.  And as a longtime comics fan I root for the female X-Men and Black Widow in the newest Marvel movies.

I think all these characters made important steps in the evolution of the movie heroine. (Though female action heroes are still few and far between compared to their male counterparts, at least their number seems to be steadily growing over the years.) I’m not at all saying that it’s WRONG for a female character to tote a weapon and throw a few punches. But after all these decades, it’s time for the writers of popular entertainment to broaden their horizons and their definitions of what makes a hero.  This is a problem for both male and female protagonists, to be sure –male movie heroes rarely overcome their challenges with brains rather than bullets either.

However, I have hope for the future, at least for movie heroines and Disney Princesses in particular. That hope can be summarized in one word: FROZEN.

Ironically, the marketing of this film reportedly took great pains to dissociate itself from the “Disney Princess” label, in the hopes of attracting more boys to the theaters.

But it wasn’t the marketing that made this movie such a success.  Frozen is pretty much THE MOST SUBVERSIVE DISNEY PRINCESS MOVIE EVER.  (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it was written by a woman, either.) The conventions of Disney Fairy Tale movies are deliberately upended – from the storyline’s critique of the “love at first sight” trope, to the simple fact that in this film a Disney Princess is crowned a QUEEN IN HER OWN RIGHT without having to actually marry a prince.

What I found most refreshing about this film was that Princess Anna is a true heroine – but she does it by virtue of her own personality, not the short-cut of carrying a weapon.  She saves the day with her own determination, resourcefulness, and sisterly love. Unlike Merida she isn’t necessarily focused on improving her own situation but in saving her sister and her people. Plus the “true love’s kiss” trope (SPOILER ALERT!) has NOTHING to do with loving a man.

What it boils down to is a simple truth. Heroism comes from the heart, not from the barrel of a gun or the point of an arrow.  It would be nice to see more male heroes embody this principle as well. It’s a matter of creating a three-dimensional character with a real inner life and inner strength, not a mannequin carrying a requisite set of props.


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5 Responses to How Not To Create a Strong Female Character

  1. Frank says:

    I watched Frozen this weekend for the first time and agree completely. I was delighted by the ending. Elsa is just as heroic in her own way.

    I wonder to what extent the association of girls with bows and arrows goes back to Artemis.

    • kakindya says:

      >I wonder to what extent the association of girls with bows and arrows goes back to Artemis.

      Indeed, that is a good point. I know for a fact that Suzanne Collins, the author of The Hunger Games, was in some part inspired by Greco-Roman mythology. The idea of the combatants in the Hunger Games being “tributes” was inspired by the story of the young people who were given in tribute to King Minos for the Minotaur. Katniss is a huntress, of course, who frequents the forest to get food for her family. Artemis may well have been a direct inspiration.

  2. I was always frustrated by the weak princesses – the ones waiting to be rescued. I loved Belle because she won through her goodness and loyalty. I also like Melanie from Gone with the Wind. She was gentle and kind – willing to associate with hookers. She was willing to carry a sword to protect her household (even though terrified). Or how about Marmee from Little Women? She was strong and gentle at the same time, holding the family together and looked forward to a joyful reunion when her husband came home.
    All of these women knew their own minds and were willing to do what was right. They ignored the men that put them down and went on and did the right thing anyway.
    Real strong women aren’t strong physically. They have strength of character.

    • What I was really trying to say is that a woman isn’t strong because she thumbs her nose at authority figures or acts tough. She’s strong because authority figures aren’t a part of the equation at all. Her choices are her own, determined by her desire to do right.

  3. Pingback: More on How Not to Write A Strong Female Character | Sinosauropteryx!

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