I don’t think it’s any secret that I love women (for the purpose of this article, I mostly mean this in the feminist way, but I suppose it’s true in the bisexual way too). I love helping women, supporting women, learning more about the experiences of other women, and whenever I hear about a piece of media that is supposed to represent women well, my interest in it is immediately piqued. Because, let’s face it, there is also a lot of media out there that doesn’t represent women well; sometimes, they’re reduced to being plot devices for the sake of the male characters. Sometimes they’re represented as empty vessels, devoid of a brain or personality but there to provide the film with tits and ass. And let’s face it, people: these types of female characters are boring. I’m much more interested in seeing a woman with strength, a woman who can be explored and developed and who can really become something amazing.
But, as it turns out, writing strong female characters seems to be a much more complex art than it really should be. I mean, we as a society have been writing strong male characters for years, decades, centuries even. Writers know how to write them, so it shouldn’t be too hard to just transfer that ability over to the other gender, right? And some try, but audiences continue to pick these attempts apart and argue about what the ‘correct’ way to represent strong women is in the media.
Take the character of Rey from the newest Star Wars movies for instance. I’ve heard some people say that Rey is a terrible example of a strong female character, because she doesn’t have enough flaws, she isn’t willing to accept help from anyone, and she doesn’t come across as human enough, whereas Princess Leia from the original Star Wars series was a better strong female character because she was humble and cared more about helping others than herself. I’ve also heard that Rey is a wonderful example of a strong female character because she is emotionally complex, capable of taking care of herself, and doesn’t rely on anyone, whereas Princess Leia was a weaker female character because she was only allowed to be strong if the fans got at least one scene of her in a tiny, gold bikini and acting as a slave girl.
Arguments like these surround almost every female character that comes out in the media nowadays. Peggy Carter from the Marvel Cinematic Universe isn’t a good strong female character because she’s too aggressive, Harley Quinn in the Suicide Squad movie can’t be strong because she wears tiny, sparkly shorts that may as well be underwear, and Black Widow was criticized by fans because she expressed regret at never being able to have a family in Age of Ultron. It seems like the smallest little detail can suddenly make a female character either not feminist enough or too feminist, too feminine to be strong or too masculine to be taken seriously as a woman. So, really, what is the answer? How can one properly write a strong female character?
Well, in my own humble opinion, there is no real answer. There is no one way to represent a woman that will immediately translate as ‘strong’, because there is no single way for a real human person to be strong. And at the end of the day, that’s all that I want a female character to be: real. She doesn’t have to be a gun-totting badass, she just needs to feel complex and human. She just needs to be a person. And real people find all sorts of different ways to be strong. Some women find strength in wearing tiny, sparkly shorts that may as well be underwear. Some women find strength dressing up in men’s clothing. Some women find strength through physical means, some through mental means, some through emotional means. Some women find strength by being hyper-feminine and revelling in clothes, make-up, and pretty nails. Some women find strength by behaving the way men stereotypically do – fixing cars, building houses, whatever it is those men-folk do, I don’t know. And some women find strength through creating families, attaching themselves to friends, and helping others, while some women find strength by being all on their own.
So how do we represent that? How do we create strong women in the media if the definition of a strong woman is so incredibly varied? Well, the answer to that is a bit simpler: we keep writing female characters, as many of them as possible, and we make them as varied, unique, and individual as possible. And at the same time, we need to stop comparing them to other female characters, expecting them to act one specific way to be strong. To return to the example of Rey and Princess Leia, I personally find both of them to be good examples of strong female characters. One is a bit more independent and the other is a bit more focused on helping others, but neither of them are wrong. They’re just different, because women are different. And that’s awesome. That’s something that should be celebrated, not shamed.
The purpose of a strong female character should not be to show women and girls that there is only one way to be strong. The purpose should be to show them that they can be strong. Men and boys have had centuries of seeing complex and varied male characters – men that think their way out of situations, men that punch their way out of situations, men that can work alone and men that need validation, so that every man, regardless of how he defines himself, can feel like he has the capability to be strong. And as much as those characters are awesome and should continue to be written, now it’s our turn. Now we should have the opportunity to see ourselves represented, regardless of how we define ourselves, and we should know that our way of finding strength is perfectly valid.