‘Strong Female Characters’
How would you define a strong female character? I would define it myself as a well characterised person who identifies themselves as a woman. That’s all. Though I am aware the term is primarily associated with the fantasy, science fiction and action genres. This is likely due to our being from a society that values physical acts as ‘strength’ more often than some sort of moral courage, or any intensity to one’s personality. The term has been misused many times in this way. Lots of fantasy and Sci-Fi comic/film/TV/video game writers have mistaken this term for meaning women who are literally physically strong. And thus the term has become linked to these genres most like to have women with superpowers. People tend not to apply the term, even correctly, to films like Young Adult where the lead is a strongly characterised woman. The determining factor seems to be that she doesn’t kick people to death.
In the RedLetterMedia Mr Plinkett review of The Phantom Menace a useful method for determining the strength of characterisation was proposed. One must describe a character by their personal attributes with no reference to their appearance or role/actions in the narrative. The more words you can use describe a character, the stronger their characterisation. For example the eponymous lead of the cult series Buffy the Vampire Slayer was physically strong, but more importantly she was also intelligent, curious, a leader, witty, impatient, brave, defensive and so on. It is also important to note that Buffy’s influence was wide ranging enough to cause a brief influx of female dominated action films and TV shows in the early 2000s. However these productions rarely lacked the care and attention to detail that Joss Whedon used in creating Buffy.
Perhaps less aware writers saw Buffy as a character popular for her superhero-esque status rather than her personality. Thus female characters influenced by Buffy often have no real personality, but are strong/kick things. This is in addition to usually being good looking. Their good looks create the impression that these ‘ass-kicking’ women were created as a fantasy for male viewers who like a certain idea of what ‘strong women’ are. (Hint: They kick things.) If they aren’t created for this purpose the character often takes on a too perfect streak and then we’re into ‘Mary Sue’ territory. Sadly the term ‘strong female characters’ has been tainted by its use to relegate female action heroes to just ‘strong’ with no other personal attributes. The term’s worth is negated completely because of its associations with this cheap characterisation and often accidental sexism.
I’d like to give a few more examples of my favourite well characterised female heroes, but I will give references to actual narrative events, sorry Mr Plinkett. I am going to pick characters from Sci-Fi and fantasy media, as said previously those genres are repeat offenders in reducing female heroes to ‘ass-kickers’. Although I’ll also write about a certain detective I adore given that lone maverick female investigators are rarely written about.
Batgirl (Barbara Gordon)
“Tonight, I am Barbara Gordon. She of eidetic memory.”
It’s hard to describe Barbara Gordon’s more timeless facets as she has had more character development overall than anyone in the Bat-family. Her more consistent qualities can be said to be described as; cunning, deductive, scientifically minded and good with tech, an adventurer, moral, and kind, shy and sometimes lacking in complete confidence. However anyone with a passing interest in Barbara Gordon knows she suffered a shot to the spine from the Joker in the 1980s story The Killing Joke, which was later used as a reason to make her wheelchair bound by DC. This was undoubtedly part of many moments in comic book history of the mistreatment of female heroes. But putting that aside Barbara became the primary representation of the differently abled as superheroes (apart from maybe Daredevil, but he’s a bloke.) As a character she became more reserved and bitter and defensive about her capabilities to her comrades.
She also took on a leadership role in the all-female vigilante team ‘Birds of Prey’. After the DC soft reboot called the New 52 Babs was given the use of her legs back and took up the role of Batgirl again. Under writer Gail Simone this has been one of the best superhero comics in years. Rather than using reboot logic to ignore her wheelchair bound years, the story is actually about Batgirl gaining her mojo back. At the beginning of her new arc she is afraid (and frequently having nightmares about the Joker) and even freezes up when a gun is pointed at her. She is shown with a complete lack of confidence mixed with her rekindled joy for adventure and fighting crime.
She also has mixed feelings about her past disability; she keeps a hold of her wheelchair and even has nightmares about being returned to it, but when another character makes an ignorant remark about wheelchairs being a prison Babs has to restrain her anger at the person’s ignorance. If I felt more comfortable using the phrase, because, I’m no psychologist, I’d say her current arc is about her overcoming PTSD and the need for an immoral revenge than it is about the villains she fights. It’s great to see a character driven superhero comic, especially in a medium filled with a status quo attitude to characters.
“I hope we’re still friends after I taser you.”
Veronica Mars of Veronica Mars is wonderful. She’s not technically involved in the Sci-Fi or fantasy genres, but it is rare to have a female teenage detective played straight and taken seriously. She is smart, incredibly witty, affectionate, chirpy, empathetic, furiously self-righteous, bitter, vengeful, hard-working and driven, untrusting and paranoid, fickle, manipulative and finds lying easy. Despite those more negative sounding descriptions, she’ll infect you with joy almost as though she were real. She is a character who through all three seasons and the recent feature film puts herself into bad situations and makes them worse. As teenage private investigators go she is the best. But she chooses to take on cases that are too dangerous to tackle alone, makes questionable decisions in her love life, frequently going with her gut rather than with her brain (sorry Piz).
Now I can imagine some people may take issue with the fact that when she gets into life threatening danger she is either saved by her Dad or the nearest male protagonist. That being said, this is just illustrative of two things. One; Veronica Mars is set in a fairly realistic world where an unarmed 5’2 seventeen year old girl, with no combat training, is not going to be Kill Billing her way through antagonists. Two; It illustrates her arrogance and refusal to trust others to help her so she ends up in needlessly deadly situations. A running theme in the series is how her actions have damaging consequences on the people around her, but this rarely stops her pursuits entirely despite her obvious deep care for others. Ironically she helps others out of empathy and has to ignore their sometimes changing feelings to get the job done her way. This is in addition to all the morally problematic wiretapping and blackmailing of enemies she proceeds to do in her cases. She never quite gets out of situations herself unscathed either, Veronica Mars does not have a steely gaze during danger, she experiences trauma like any scared human being does.
Overall it’s great to have a detective show where the plot isn’t dictated by the clues, but the main characters choices of what to do with said clues. As a side note I also have to mention how this show has the best father/daughter relationship you’ll ever see.
“GET AWAY FROM HER YOU BITCH!”
Now I’ll admit that Alien‘s Ripley isn’t the strongest example for my purposes, however I feel she is a far better character than people give her credit for. It could be said she was under written in the first Alien, however this was consistent with all the characters. Ridley Scott was going for a laid back and average people working atmosphere. But even in just the first Alien film she is shown as; authoritative, wise, pragmatic and utilitarian, intermittently brave, prone to panic but also patient, strict and by-the-book and mostly level-headed in spite of fear. All in all she was the voice of reason that could be driven to breaking point by a terrifying creature, but also able to put herself back together when the situation demanded it. I can’t be the only person whose favourite moment in Alien is when Ripley tries to kill the Xenomorph face to face whilst barely controlling her panic by singing “You are my Lucky star.” I love Alien for the visuals, the mood, the heavy handed Freudian nightmare subtext and the sets, so I feel it says something that my favourite bit was a small human moment. It is genuinely rare to see such a great female character in horror, a genre usually dedicated to reducing women to screaming victims.
Now…Aliens! Ripley is definitely more prominent in Aliens. She’s got back to Earth! But many decades too late and her daughter (and presumably all other family) are dead. Her piloting skills are out of date and no one believes her story of the events of the first film. But naturally disaster strikes and she has to return to the planet she is still having daily sweaty nightmares about. Then enter Newt, the last survivor of an alien onslaught, and the same age as Ripley’s dead daughter. As one would expect Ripley basically adopts Newt, and then goes into situations that make the first film look like a joke, all out of sheer nerve to protect Newt. Is director James Cameron reducing women to mothers or their strengths as derived from being mothers? No, he’s not. There are two female marines in the film who are not mothers and in no way act as mothers that are capable warriors, however they do resemble the underwritten ‘strong female character’ fare. Vasquez may be a sexist trope namesake, but her ability in combat isn’t driven by a mother’s instinct. Admittedly the film is very problematic and uneven in this area, but it would take more than a few uses of brackets to break it down quickly. In summary James Cameron is saying that women aren’t strong because they’re mothers, just that mothers are strong.
Either way, in this film Ripley shows us all the ranges of her cool headedness and tactical ability and real human fear coupled with a newer sense of frustration, which is thwarted by a more humanistic purpose of saving Newt and her marine entourage. I find talking about the two further Alien sequels distasteful, so I’ll be brief in talking about them. In Alien 3 she gets all self-sacrificing and stuff. In Alien: Resurrection she is dead but has a cheeky clone.
Let’s wrap this rant up…
As I said previously the phrase ‘strong female characters’ is lost to the stereotyping moron writers of the world. It is no longer useful to say, and even harmful to the reputation of the well characterised. But that doesn’t render those who the term is supposed to apply to any less great in the stories. The desire to fight injustice or evil and so on is something that has to have an interesting fully actualised person behind it. Otherwise they’re just ‘strong’, whatever that means.
Dana Scully and Aeryn Sun.