Does a “strong” female lead need weapons or the ability to kick someone’s butt?

Strong, female protagonist. I hear people calling for them all over the place. We need role models for women and girls, we need leads that aren’t male, we need kickass women!

What do YOU think of when you think of a strong, female lead?

Most of the images I’ve found for Hollywood science fiction and fantasy popular movies involve beautiful women who can either a) fix and/or drive cars/machines, b) physically kick butt or c) use firearms/weapons with amazing proficiency, such as Black Widow or Lara Croft.

 

   

 

I can recall when becoming powerful as a corporate woman meant “strong”. A suit. No family. And as smart and clever as a man in the same position. Tough, no-nonsense, aggressive, ambitious, and proud. Big shoulder pads. Stiletto heels. (Not sure about you, but that image seems to have some flaws of its own.)

So now we jump forward a couple of decades. Has the “powerful CEO” image of a strong woman simply been replaced by one that can beat anyone up? The corporate woman now seems to be more of an antagonist, appearing cold, distant, emotionally detached from the world. They always need to “relax”, often times because of a fun-loving guy who’s willing to help them. (like Claire from Jurassic World) If they don’t, their character remains the same. (like Miranda from Devil Wears Prada)

  

 

As some of you may know, I’m a big Joss Whedon fan. (Writer of such shows as Buffy and Firefly and the Avengers movies). I’ve found many of his characters to fit the above listed categories, however there seems to be another part that fits with these woman. They enjoy their femininity, their sexual nature, and their appearance while still equipped to stab vampires in the heart of fix a space ship engine. They have relationships with ups and downs, they work hard and train hard for what they can accomplish, but sometimes they just want to hang out.

 

   

(Buffy from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Kaylee from Firefly)

 

 

Another image is that of Katniss from Hunger Games. Katniss is the reluctant heroine, not really wanting to take up her mantle as a symbol for the Games. But many people I’ve spoken to say this makes her come off “weak”, since she is being thrust into the spotlight, but not taking control of her own life. As a “passive” character, is she considered “strong”?

As a writer, I’ve found it interesting that being emotional, needing help, and wanting a relationship are signs of weakness in female characters. I don’t know about you, but being a robotic, isolated, lonely person doesn’t sound like strength, it sounds like a terrible way to live.

So how do we fix this issue? How do we help portray women as “strong”? And do we really need to?

I personally feel as if “strong” means self-aware, healthy, and independent. Someone who knows what their goals are and strives for them. Someone who takes care of themselves physically, mentally, and emotionally. Someone who can stand on their own and survive, but knows that there is more to life than survival. Not that they are always successful at these things. 🙂

I write my books without thinking about these characteristics. I write simply how the characters unfold before me. Some of them are strong. Some of them are weak. Some of them make bad decisions. Some let others make all their decisions for them. All need growth–some grow, some don’t.

The main character of my newest book, ILLUSION, is Daith. Daith is struggling with the fact that she has no memories of who she is. She doesn’t know how to trust herself or those around her. She doesn’t know what path in life to take because she doesn’t know what her past self would have chosen. Those around her offer different suggestions, but the ultimate choice is hers. She must decide if she needs her past to move on with her future.

Daith is not a “kickass” woman in the literal sense. Yes, she discovers amazing abilities about herself, but they are a part of her, they don’t define her. She is sarcastic, panicky, frustrated, ignorant, fierce, confused, desperate, and driven. She is a whole person. Both strong and weak.

Fantasy and science fiction let us escape into other worlds. We want to be swept away by grand stories and even grander characters. But we also want to relate, to idolize, and to understand.

I never imagined that when I began writing about Daith and the other characters in my books that they might have a place in this crazy debate. However, for me, I love whole, flawed, heartfelt, messed-up, forgiving, and growing characters. I’d love for you to explore the galaxy I’ve written about and let me know how you liked all of the tangled characters you find.

What do you think about this debate?

*side note. This article is just my opinion. It doesn’t encompass every movie every made or every character ever seen on-screen. It is a mix-up of what I’ve seen, what others talk to me about, and what I’ve seen in the media. Please enjoy and feel free to share your own thoughts.

12 Comments

  1. Oz V

    For me, strength in a character is not defined physically or mechanically. It is in the character’s ability to face often overwhelming odds to accomplish what hopefully is a morally justifiable conclusion. In High Noon, Grace Kelly showed tremendous strength when she shot an outlaw who was about to shoot her husband, Gary Cooper, in the back. This even though everything in her Quaker upbringing was against such action. This required more strength that mechanically mowing down aliens. Female leads need only have the strength to do what needs to be done, no matter what their skill level – just like the men!

  2. acmoyer

    I’m so glad you asked–I’m already up on my soapbox! In my opinion, we haven’t moved very far from the 1980s concept of the “strong” woman, which is basically a woman dressing and acting “like a man.” Of course, “like a man” brings up questions of its own and has problems of its own, but basically, the idea seems to be that if a woman is different from a man (whatever a man is imagined to be), she is less-than.

    I’m not saying that female protagonist needs to reclaim traditionally-feminine attitudes and behaviors, but honestly, I am bored to death of the warrior woman trope. 99.9% of the time, it seems that it’s allowable for a female protagonist to be strong so long as she doesn’t violate the cardinal rule: she has to be hot. In short, the warrior-princess character is almost always just another male fantasy. Even my earliest heroes, Wonder Woman and She-Ra, were forced to save the world in (respectively) a strapless bathing suit and a strapless mini-dress. (Seriously?!) And I don’t care if she’s wearing lingerie or pistols, I’m sick of being told that no matter what, the most important thing about a woman is that she be desirable to men. You see this a lot even when the author is a woman, because after all, the author doesn’t stand outside her society of origin–she’s just as subject to the messages that the rest of us receive, and unfortunately, often just as likely to perpetuate them. (Of course, I don’t think *you* would do that.)

    That’s why I don’t think a woman character enjoying her femininity, her sexuality, or being pretty is a remedy for the lack of variety in strong female protagonists. Not that a strong female character can’t do all those things, but only if we detach them from the constant pandering for male attention. Otherwise it comes off as, “Sure, I can fix a spaceship, raid tombs, and dispatch terminators, but does this skin-tight leather bodysuit make my butt look big?”

    That said, I am also a huge Firefly fan, and although that show did have a warrior woman and a woman who can fix and drive a spaceship, do you think Inara was any less strong? In fact Inara was always my favorite character; I see her as being the strongest of all, because she is often the moral compass and the wisest of the group. And I view her as an artist. (Why can’t we have more strong female protagonists who are artists?) Can’t speak to Buffy as I’ve never watched that one.

    As for Katniss, I think anyone who sees her as “passive” and therefore not strong is missing the whole point of the character. The thing about Katniss is she isn’t your standard warrior woman–she’s basically a nurturer and provider, albeit one with a very fiery and rebellious personality, who is pushed into extraordinary circumstances. Moreover, I don’t think that criticism would even be brought up if the character were male. Lest we forget, Luke Skywalker was a reluctant hero too. I liked the Hunger Games series in large part because there were many strong female characters (some of them peripheral, but still) who all brought different qualities to the story.

    Mind you, I am just as bored with male protagonists who are cardboard cutouts, be it the warrior or the socially-awkward genius. Give me real people doing real stuff in a real way and I’ll be happy.
    -Ali

  3. mom

    whenever i’ve thought of a strong woman character in sci-fi/fantasy films, the first to come to mind is ripley from ‘alien’. she was intelligent, protective, and did what needed to be done. i also like katniss. she may have been an unwilling leader of the cause, but she chose to take her sister’s place at the beginning, which is a strength beyond most. hollywood super hero women are merely cartoons come to life, so i don’t even consider them as 3-dimensional women. but i love alice in wonderland. alice has always been the epitome of a strong female figure to me. what guts it took to go down that rabbit hole! and at the end of her journey through the unknown, even with fear, uncertainty, and confusion, she had to deal with a murderous queen! her strength showed brightly throughout the story. by the by, thenn is now among my favorites!

    1. Interesting, Mom. Alice from Alice in Wonderland. It might be argued that she simply “fell down” the rabbit hole, but I agree that she always searched and explored her surroundings, no easy task considering what her surroundings were! Thanks for your thoughts! And I’m glad you enjoy Thenn so much from my Hollow’s Prism series!!

  4. Does a male character need a particular set of attributes in order to be considered strong? I don’t think so. Simon, Wash, and Book from Firefly were all good characters who avoided combat for a number of reasons, both ideological and practical.

    I think that a character’s sex is an important thing about the character, but it’s far from the most important thing.

  5. I feel Katniss represents real strength much more than the others. And frankly, that ‘popular’ image you describe seems more of an over-grown boys wet-dream than anything substantial or meaningful. I’m with you as regards characterization (for both male and female characters); give me a real person, warts and all. If the soul of the person speaks to me than I will connect, all the rest is just eye-candy or obsession — IMHO.

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