There’s been a lot of contention recently about the definition of a ‘strong female character’, which I find very interesting.
It’s the kind of term that is thrown around a lot when speaking about the role of women in television and film, and it can become very easy to use it unthinkingly when critiquing the problems associated with female representation, as I myself have been guilty of in the past.
It’s all very well and good to demand more strong female characters in our media, but what does that mean?
One thing it doesn’t mean, and this is something I’m not sure certain filmmakers and television creators are aware of, is a ‘perfect’ woman in the male mould; able to keep up with (and even surpass!) the boys physically, excelling in witty banter and no emotional or mental weaknesses or worries. I exaggerate, of course, but not much.
I read an excellent article by Anne Helen Petersen (link at the end) which talks about the phenomenon of the ‘cool girl’; beloved of society for having both ‘male’ traits which make her fun to hang out with- not being a prissy and boring girl basically- and the desirable ‘female’ traits without all those other uncool ones- namely beauty. For some, the ‘cool girl’ and ‘strong female character’ seem to be almost interchangeable. This all links to another problem, which is the dismissal of stereotypically ‘female’ traits in people of all genders, like the mocking of lack of physical strength, and for me highlights just how problematic and damaging it is when we assign genders to character traits and attributes.
So if that’s what a strong female character is not, how can we define what she is? My personal definition of a strong female character, and others may have differing opinions, is one that is a human being. In this sense perhaps ‘strong’ is the wrong word, ‘complex’ may be more appropriate. Male characters can be heroes and villains, brave and cowardly, strong and weak, serious and funny, worldly and innocent AND they are still interesting and complex characters (depending on the skill of their creators).
I want to see more female characters that are treated like male characters are, with the same level of care and respect in crafting their characters without resorting to stereotypes or equally limiting avoidance of stereotypical female traits. We need a greater range of interesting and diverse female characters on our screens, to reflect what we see every day in reality.
Anne Helen Petersen, “Jennifer Lawrence And The History Of Cool Girls”