So for as long as I’ve been reading and been active on the internet, I’ve seen the term ‘strong female character’ thrown around a lot by reviewers and readers, particularly within the YA community. And recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about what constitutes a ‘strong female character’ and why some character are deserving of this title and others aren’t.
My own experience of this term is that it’s a good thing; many times when I am watching or reading reviews and the blogger/vlogger is listing off positive aspects of a book, they’ll throw in a ‘strong female lead’ as a way to excite us about it. These characters I tend to find are very tough girls, usually skilled in a weapon or able to fight, are very brave (sometimes to the point of recklessness) and don’t like listening to what other people tell them to do. It just so happens that these are traits, which according to a number of internet sources, fall under the umbrella of masculine characteristics as dictated by the gender binary.
Now don’t get me wrong. I LOVE these characters and think that representation of women who do not live up to the expectations of what a woman should be like according to this binary is SO important and necessary.
But my question is – why are these women, who typically display characteristics that are thought of as masculine as opposed to feminine, only the strong ones? Why aren’t characters like Luna Lovegood or Sansa Stark labelled as ‘strong female characters’ as well?
It seems that this all comes down to the fact that according to our society, masculine = strong and feminine = weak. You literally just have to google the definitions of these words to find the word ‘strength’ appear next to masculine and ‘delicate’ appear next to feminine. And so we have been taught to believe that if a women likes to wear dresses, cries, is not trained in combat or wants to get married, she cannot be a ‘strong female character’, no matter how complex she may be. And I don’t buy it.
For example, take Sansa Stark, who I love, but I know receives a lot of criticism for being ‘weak’ and ‘annoying’. This is a girl who watched her father die before her eyes, who is at the hands of the most powerful family in her kingdom, who has been raped and abused. And yet, she is still able to play the game, and has survived so long in a treacherous political setting that has taken the lives of many who are more skilled than she is in fighting. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t call that weak.
This way of thinking affects not just female characters, but male ones too. My all time favourite male character, Peeta Mellark from The Hunger Games trilogy, is often classified as ‘weak’ and I’ve even seen articles refer to him as a ‘typical movie girlfriend’ as a form of criticism (again, it is interesting that these writers place him in a feminine role as a way to insult and criticize his character). All because he is open with his emotions, likes to paint, and has had no opportunity in his life to learn how to use a weapon. But because he doesn’t brood like so many other YA romantic leads, and sometimes has to be saved he is classified as ‘weak’ despite being a young disabled man with a mental illness who still manages to see the good in the world. I don’t know about you, but that takes some damn strength of character.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m tired of characters who display any kind of trait that we as a society have decided is feminine as someone who is ‘weak’ when they so often display huge emotional and mental strength. Strength can come from so many places and is not just about how you would fare in a fight or how ruthless you are.
Like I said previously, I ADORE characters that feature the traits just mentioned, but I also think that the term ‘strong female character’, which is so often thrown around, can apply to characters who display feminine traits too and that we need to drop the idea that femininity = weak and just love all representations of women. It’s 2016 for crying out loud.
* This is not me trying to be preachy or tell you what words to use, merely a commentary on what I see happen sometimes within reviews and how I feel about it. It is NOT an attack on anyone at all. I would love to know what you think about anything that I have mentioned above in the comments below!
** I am also well aware that gender is a social construct and also falls on a spectrum but for the purposes of keeping this post at a somewhat appropriate length I have discussed this within the gender binary. Also the fact that we as a society gender traits and characteristics is why the wording in the post has been used. The fact that we gender traits and characteristics like this is a WHOLE other post in itself. I am fully aware that I am still learning and make mistakes so PLEASE if I’ve said anything wrong let me know, I am always trying to educate myself on issues like this!