Today I’m writing about a problem that has had me rankled lately: The Strong-Female Character.
Whenever I’m looking up books, I always come across descriptions of how the female protagonist is STRONG, INDEPENDENT, and all around (excuse the language) BADASS. And every time I pick up one of theses books with these “strong” female characters I’m disappointed and slightly insulted.
First of all let me state that what I’m saying mostly applies to the YA genre, and that I haven’t read a lot of adult fiction so I don’t know if it’s the same over there. Although, what little I have seen tells me that the trend exists there too.
What is this trend? This trend is the idea that a “strong” female character is one who relies on no one, hates dresses because they make her look “weak,” and beats up all the boys on the block. A really obvious example of this type of character is Katsa from Graceling or Lila from And I Darken.
Lila and Katsa consistently state how they hate feminine clothing or feminine “reactions,” the institution of marriage, and how they would never accept help from anyone. Does this mean that liking puffy dresses and pearl earrings makes a girl weak? Is a woman weak because she expresses her fear or distress? Is a women weak for asking for help?
Well, let me give you another example.
I recently finished War & Peace by Tolstoy, and despite the fact that this novel is set in an actual patriarchy, is written by a man who belongs to this patriarchy, and is full of young women who are dependent on male guardians, I found a strong female character, Princess Maria.
She’s a quiet women who is devoted to her family, and in the beginning of the story she has to constantly put up with her aging father who likes to make fun of her faith. Later on, he dies while the family is fleeing from the coming French army. At this point she gratefully welcomes the help of Nikolay Rostov in order to get to safety. Soon after, she finds out her brother, Andrey, is dying, so she undertakes another treacherous journey across the war ravaged land in order to see him. When he dies she is filled with grief at losing her second to last family member and no longer has a male protector. But she doesn’t wallow. Maria knows she is responsible for taking care of her nephew and the family estate, so she puts aside her grief and sets to work.
Princess Maria was dependent on others her entire life and was not shy about accepting the help of a male character. Based on the definition of “strong female character” paraded by authors these days, Princess Maria would be considered weak, but I strongly disagree. She is patient, resilient, perseverant, infinitely loyal, and gives and accepts help graciously. To me these are characteristics of strength.
Another example is Natasha Rostov. She is the belle of the ball, fashion conscious, loves singing, and is a true romantic at heart.When Andrey, the love of her life, dies, she too is filled with grief. But eventually she learns to share her pain and continue on with her life. Based on the definition of “strong female character” paraded by authors these days, Natasha would also be considered weak because she loves all things feminine and gives free rein to her emotions. My disagreement arises from the fact that I believe it takes great strength to share your pain with others, to move beyond grief, and to constantly find joy in life, all of which Natasha does.
The last point I wish to make is how authors of strong female protagonists, in an attempt to make their characters look more powerful, often scorn the sentiments of mercy and compassion, or make it a characteristic of people who are deliberately made to look weaker than the protagonist.
Being characteristics that are believed to be highly “feminine” (which is a wrong assumption, but a debate for another day), mercy and compassion are consequently considered weak. And since a “strong” female character must look infinitely powerful above all costs, there is no way she can be associated with these sentiments.
Take The Hunger Games for example. I think we can all agree that Susanne Collins portrayed Peeta as a weaker character than Katniss. When the rebels take the Capitol, a debate is held about whether or not they should host a final Hunger Games starring Capitol children, one last act of revenge. During this meeting Peeta votes for showing mercy, while Katniss thinks this one last act of revenge is deserved.
But the fact of the matter is, that because of the “strong female character” trope and how Katniss was portrayed, if she had voted for mercy, the reader would’ve instantly been compelled to believe that she was weak either because of the fact that she voted for mercy or because she agreed with Peeta, the love interest.
The fact that this ridiculous assumption about mercy and compassion exists is disturbing enough, but the fact that mostly female authors who are writing for an audience consisting largely of young women, who are in the process of figuring out what it means to be a women, are willing to feed into this fallacy is shocking. I would’ve had so much more respect for Katniss as a female character if she had shown mercy, and so much more respect for Collins as a female author if she had allowed it to be shown because it would be a step on the road to make mercy and compassion look strong instead of weak. After all, Love is far more powerful than Hate.
Now, I do think that’s it good (and fun) to have no nonsense female characters who aren’t afraid to take on male opponents, but when this portrayal of female strength takes over everything, I find it a gross misrepresentation. There should be more “strong female characters” who are okay with liking dresses and nail polish. More female protagonists whose silent strength is just as strong as the in-your-face kind. All women are different and so are our strengths, and they all should be known as equally formidable.
Maybe you disagree with me, and if you do, I thank you for reading all the way to the end with an open mind. But out of curiosity I have a question: What do you define as strength?