We’ve been clamouring for them for years, but now that we’ve finally got we wanted, it may actually be necessary to kill the strong female character off.
The Origin of the ‘Strong Female Character’
Before you get your pitchforks out, know that I’ve long been an advocate for strong female characters, and have praised the fact that in animated form at least, they are far more prevalent than their live-action cousins. So why call for their demise now, just as they are finally gaining traction?
Greater representation of female characters is always highlighted as a necessary progressive step in entertainment. In an ideal world, any female character could fulfill that need and help promote a more equal and balanced variety of entertainment for all. Unfortunately we don’t live in an ideal world, and imperfect solutions are regrettably rife.
Improving the representation of women and girls in media and entertainment, but in a way that does not repel male audiences is the strong female character’s objective. On the surface they’re an appropriate solution because:
- They get already under-represented female characters on-screen
- They serve as a vehicle to attract female audiences
Masculine Versus Feminine Traits
The defect with the strong female character lies in the second point. Despite embodying many positive traits, they nonetheless also embody a large number of masculine traits. Implementation is less on a basis of feminine independence and intelligence, and more along the lines of embodying masculine traits within a feminine form.
Common traits of the strong female character include exemplifying traditional male traits like physical strength, inclination towards violence, and a lack of empathy. Absent or muted are traditional female traits such as love, emotion, sense of caring, and gentleness.
Unfortunately, the legitimacy of the role of female characters is being undermined as a result. Injecting a degree of masculinity into the female character implies that the femininity of the character alone is not enough to portray an appealing character and role model. Even though the initial intent of the term was to identify female characters permitted to act on their own independent thought without the assistance of a male character or masculine traits!
Subconsciously admitting masculine traits into an otherwise female character displaces traits that would otherwise be feminine. Masculine traits also encourage characters to embody them. Since they are the more aggressive traits, they tend to overpower feminine traits. What viewers end up with is a women or girl who gradually succumbs to the male traits inherent within her.
The Negative Impacts on The Female Gender
No-one denies the need for women, and young girls in particular, to have role models to look up to; who can verify their place in the world, and the inherent strength of their God-given abilities. However women are long accustomed to exactly the opposite for many decades. Societies have historically required (or at least heavily suggested) that women and girls are subservient to men and boys.
Despite many improvements in recent times and attempts to bring the expectations of both genders closer together, we are bearing witness to exactly the opposite. Girls and boys are more separated than ever. Toys, clothing, and other paraphernalia are pushed further into the extremes. Pink is exclusively for girls, and blue is exclusively for boys, etc.
Leaving aside from the questions of how this affects relationships between the genders, the female gender is thrust further into a dichotomy. On the one hand the pink-loving girly girl, and on the other you have…the strong female character. A girl who rebels against the attempt to constrict the concept of femininity to a colour and range of interests like beauty and fashion.
The price for this rebelliousness is almost always the very traits that make the character feminine to begin with, and instead of representing a more realistic concept of a woman or girl, the character invariably achieves it by sacrificing the notion and simply aligning herself with the opposing male faction.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
All of this isn’t to say that genuine strong female characters do not exist. Examples are scattered throughout live-action and animation. Any Studio Ghibli film is likely to feature a female character that stands tall on her own merits, sense of self, and pride in her femininity.
Lisa Simpson in earlier seasons along with her mother Marge represent two positions on the spectrum; the former being an intelligent, independent, ambitious girl, and the letter being a contented housewife and loving mother. Both exemplify strong female characteristics, yet neither devolves into being a tomboy, or being a sugar-coated princess. Even My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic when viewed as simply a cast of characters, is another excellent example of a broad range of female characters.
Katara Vs. Korra
The most clear example of the trend can be found by comparing the two series’ Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Legend of Korra. Both are noted for their prominent portrayal of female characters. However, no two characters better represent the shifting attitudes than Katara and Korra. Both are strong female characters, yet the latter is very much an example of the the flawed, contemporary type. She is loud, aggressive, physically strong, and intensely competitive. Her feminine traits play second fiddle to these and only rise to the fore when required for plot purposes.
In stark contrast, Katara is caring, understanding, and above all, emotional. The early parts of the series see her as a more immature girl acting in instinct and feeling. Yet her desire for self-improvement and ability to play her part in the group’s mission drives her character growth throughout the series.
By the end of the series, Katara is as skilled as Korra (relatively speaking,) yet she does not lose the qualities that she exhibited during the earlier parts of the series. In the third series episode ‘The Southern Raider’ we see how these various aspects of her character collide as she sets out to murder the man who ransacked her village and killed her mother. The episode is not driven by her character’s masculine traits though (as Korra’s inevitably are) but by her feminine ones; primarily her emotional grief and anger.
Even the tomboy of the original series Toph, provides a finer example of a strong female character than Korra. Despite embodying numerous masculine traits, Toph doesn’t pretend that they are in any way a substitute for the fact that she is a girl. Rather, they are a reaction to her being born blind, and subsequently being treated like a delicate and fragile child by her parents.
Wholesome Female Characters Wanted
What is desperately needed more than ‘strong female characters’ is ‘wholesome female characters.’ Women and girls in storytelling and entertainment embodying a range of characteristics and accurately reflect society. Men and boys have a similar need, but because they are already heavily represented, they do not face the same lack of exposure that girls do.
This list is a good starting point. It describes the qualities that any good female character ought to be imbued with. The same writer also advocates for the place of passive female characters; another aspect that is often inaccurately portrayed, or produces negative effects.
Giving female characters greater depth and sense of personality will also bring about positive effects for producers and creators too. The limited number of tropes that female characters tend to inhabit seriously constrict the volume of stories that can be told. Such a limitation also applies to male characters, so the solution may require a broader shift in attitudes among producers and audiences. New entrants into the industry like Netflix can be the engine for this change, yet it is still to early to tell if their original productions are generating such a shift.
The Axe Must Fall on the Strong Female Character
Women and girls in real life are as different and varied as men, if not more so. Yet they face many challenges in contemporary society. The role of the media and entertainment industries ought to be rightfully pointed out as a major element of the social education of young girls and women. The characters they portray have a significant impact on the views and opinions of viewers, and they do have a duty to portray characters that accurately reflect a better society.
Strong female characters do not fulfill this obligation. As a concept, they have been infiltrated and warped by economic and financial forces. They have ceased to be true engines of change. They praised as the saviour of female representation, yet they bear false witness to the truth.
For all the advancement that we have seen in recent times, we are in danger of losing the momentum, and will be forced instead to watch the flawed representation of women and girls continue.
It is time to kill them off, and to find a suitable replacement that can do a superior job.