Strength Isn’t The Only Way For Female Characters To Be Well-Developed

I missed this piece by Carina Chocano from a couple months back about how much she hates the short-hand “strong female character,” but I wanted to come back to it because I think it dovetails with some conversations we’ve had about plausible female action heroines and how to make female characters seem “strong”:

It started, innocuously enough, with lunch in the kitsch-yet-sinister town of Celebration, where we hoped to be lucky enough to experience a postprandial, regularly scheduled fake snowfall. It took a darker turn after we piled back into the S.U.V., headed to their house to pick up the guns and drove to the indoor gun range. As Rush Limbaugh fulminated at top volume, I slumped in the back seat like a sullen 13-year-old, a gun case resting heavily on my lap, and wondered how I had arrived at this place. What did it mean that I was here? Could I be here and still be me? Who was I? Within about 15 seconds of stepping inside the shooting range, before the guy behind the counter could take my gun order, I burst into tears, ran outside and spent the next couple of hours alone in the car reading Jane Austen.

So here is the question I’m posing: If this story were a scene in a movie, and the movie were being told from the point of view of a young woman, would you describe that protagonist as a “strong female character”? Or would you consider her to be weak?

If weak, would you find it possible to relate to her on the basis of something other than her sex characteristics? Or would identifying with this “feminine” behavior threaten your sense of self, whether you were a man or a woman? Would you consider the scene funny, or not, and if not, why not? And what would a “strong female character” in a movie have done in this situation, anyway? Toss off an epigram and then shoot the radio? Reveal a latent talent for martial arts, jump the rifle-range counter and start pummeling the guy at the desk? Confidently march out the door to the strains of a Motown anthem and never look back? And what would she be wearing? Would boots or stilettos need to be involved? Or would flip-flops or ballet flats be O.K.?

I guess I agree that it might be more useful to have a broader definition of Well-Developed Female Characters, of which Plausible Female Action Heroines is a subset. A movie that’s stuck with me for years is In Her Shoes, the adaptation of Jennifer Weiner’s novel of the same name, in which Toni Collette plays a successful professional woman who’s had her self-confidence repeatedly sabotaged by her spoiled, manipulative, but also illiterate younger sister, played by Cameron Diaz in one of her best performances. Neither character is a particularly good person, but the movie holds them responsible for their actions and helps them both to grow. Collette’s character needlessly sabotages a relationship with a man who genuinely loves her, and works to find and address the reasons she’s pushing him away. Diaz’s character, after burning her bridges, goes to live with her grandmother in a retirement community, learns to read, figures out what she wants to do with her life, and makes genuine amends to her sister. Both could easily be stereotypes, but they’re shaded with a specificity that makes them pop off the page. That they don’t start out strong and confident doesn’t matter, because their arcs are interesting and realistic. Ditto for Bridesmaids, which is a story of someone who’s been dealt two knockout blows in short succession finding her way back to herself and to being a decent person again. Annie doesn’t need to be perfect to be compelling.


And it’s worth considering that Plausible Action Heroines don’t all have to present the same way. One of the things I liked a great deal about Avatar: The Last Airbender was the way Katara’s healing powers, a more traditionally feminine water tribe skill, were presented as equal and complementary to combat skills. Similarly, the Kyoshi Warriors have a fighting style that turns feminine accessories like fans into key weapons in their arsenal. When Sokka meets them, he has to be more feminine, rather than less, to become a more skilled fighter. If we had more portrayals of traditionally feminine skills and attributes as sources of strength and power, I think showing women as strong when they take on traditionally male attributes or roles wouldn’t feel like lazy shorthand and instead could be part of a Balanced Action Diet. We need Michelle Yeohs, Sigourney Weavers, and Hit-Girls along with our Angelinas.