Do Strong Female Characters Make for Better Stories?

(Cross-posted from Marina’s Musings)

Much discussion time and blogging space over the last few years has been devoted to the topic of Strong Female Characters. (Yes, people usually capitalize the first letters of each word when using this term because it’s So Very Important.)

Part of the emphasis comes from troublemakers from both sides of the feminist/masculinist divide. There is a type of feminist who would never be satisfied until there are no male characters left in fiction except for killers and rapists; and there are certainly people on the other side who groan in disgust every time a trailer for female-fronted action flick pops up on the theater screen. The issue is in fact that divisive, and politically charged on top of that, even if most of us fall somewhere in the middle and want no part of the drama.

Scratch that last one. We most certainly do want drama. Storytelling drama. Excitement. Unpredictability. Surprise. And this is where some of the current trends fail us. It’s a shame, really. Movies have more and better technology than ever, and book publishing is less and less constrained by the gatekeepers. Yet whether in an effort to adhere to new societal norms or simply to pander to the perceived demands of the market, our stories are swapping new tropes for the old and still leave many of us longing for something more.

To start, I will use a familiar recent example, even though there have been enough words written about that particular scene to fill several doorstopper-sized novels. In case you haven’t yet guessed, I am going to bring up the semi-controversial scene in The Force Awakens where Rey fights off the bounty hunters while Finn, having realized his help is unnecessary, is watching in slack-jawed awe.

People smarter and more knowledgeable that I have already addressed the realism, or lack thereof, of that scene from the point of view of the physical interactions and fighting choreography. I have a different question for you, and please be honest.

Did you, at any point before or during the confrontation, expect Rey to lose?

Of course not. A woman surrounded by a group of burly thugs who fight for a living? How could she possibly lose? It just isn’t done. Even Finn is apparently familiar with the way modern stories go because after that initial gallant impulse (which was intriguing, and I’d like to know how a Stormtrooper would have acquired it) he decides to just watch. Objectively speaking, the fight looked great. It should have been exciting. We should have worried about our spunky heroine. But we didn’t, not really, because we know the Strong Female Character trope. So all we got to see was a really cool performance. Fireworks with no heat, if you will: great visuals with an unexciting story. If that sounds too familiar, you’re right. And familiarity breeds, if not contempt, then at least boredom.

Mind you, there is an upside to an overplayed trope. A writer can easily set up a situation we think is familiar and have it play out differently. A great example, again from a popular movie: the Mad Max remake. As soon as I saw Furiosa and Max start swinging at each other during their first encounter, I just KNEW what was going to happen. I was already prepared to roll my eyes (especially considering how the early buzz had declared the movie some kind of feminist triumph) and then… whoa, what did I just see? A tough-as-nails heroine with a metal arm does not prevail against a guy who was just thrown from a moving vehicle? Are you kidding me? Did the writers not get the memo? Well, maybe they did, and then decided to give us something fresh instead. The movie was not exactly perfect, and got mixed reviews. Personally, I enjoyed it not even so much for the action as for the fact that, after that one scene, I knew the story would not go by the numbers, and I was mostly right.

To be fair, there are constraints on Hollywood. We as consumers demand to see beautiful people on screen, and the standard of beauty for women still tends to the thin, no matter what the body positivity movement will tell you. I’m not saying it’s good or bad. It just is. As a result, the casting pool of leading ladies, with a few notable exceptions, is filled with women who don’t ring true as realistic action heroes. (Male actors are not without their own problems. I could easily write a separate post on the ridiculousness of Tom Cruise as a slab-of-beef Jack Reacher, with some of the scenes obviously written with a larger man in mind. However, there are tricks to make an actor seem bigger on screen, and an obviously strong upper body certainly helps. There is a reason male movie heroes go shirtless so often, and it’s not just to entice women into the theater. Actually seeing the muscles aids in our suspension of disbelief, so we can go along with the story. But I digress…)

What is the harm, you ask? After all, Hollywood, for the most part, sells us fantasy, whether wrapped in a love story, a hard-boiled action movie, or an over-the-top superhero production. Why expect realism in female characters when there is so little of it elsewhere?

Well, for one, as I pointed out earlier, adhering to the requirement that a woman, no matter how small and thin, must win the fight takes away any possible suspense in terms of storytelling. But there is also a bigger downside. No teenage boy will expect to single-handedly defeat a group of terrorists after watching Olympus Has Fallen (or its much better precursor, Die Hard). On the other hand, a young woman, when confronted by a predator in a dark alley, might very well believe that she could take down a larger man with a single punch to the jaw. After all, she’s seen it countless times on TV and in movies. It seemed plausible enough. To be sure, there are ways to take down a larger opponent, none of them easy, with a firearm being the most reliable if less glamorous. But the false confidence created by unrealistic female action characters is as dangerous in real life as unrealistic body image, if not more so.

The sad part is, the solution to the dilemma, in pure storytelling terms, is laughably simple. One more movie example, if I may. The first Black Widow appearance in The Avengers. As a super-assassin, she could, in fact, outfight the group of Russian thugs any time. But she doesn’t have to. She feigns utter helplessness, playing the perfect damsel in distress with no savior on the way, and then, when the time comes, takes them by surprise. In other words, she outsmarts them. Later on, she plays up her vulnerability again, and tricks none other than Loki into revealing his plan. Those scenes are much more memorable and suspenseful than most of her pure action sequences. Why? Because they show a heroine with a different skill set, and because there is an element of surprise that we as consumers so crave.

I find it interesting that while family movies and sitcoms over the last 20-some years have taught us that women are smarter and mentally tougher than men, we rarely see women outsmart, rather than outfight, their opponents. Whether it’s lack of imagination or blind insistence on physical equality between men and women, too often the writers’ choices end up diminishing both the female characters and the quality of the stories. It is high time we got past the tropes and moved on to different, and more exciting, possibilities.

Marina Fontaine is a co-founder of Conservative-Libertarian Fiction Alliance and the author of Chasing Freedom (a Dragon Awards finalist) and The Product, a dystopian novella from Superversive Press.

  • “To be sure, there are ways to take down a larger opponent, none of them easy, with a firearm being the most reliable if less glamorous. But the false confidence created by unrealistic female action characters is as dangerous in real life as unrealistic body image, if not more so.”

    I do think you’ve hit the nail on the head with this. I think it’s been part of The Narrative (see what I did there?) that we (meaning law-abiding citizens) don’t really need guns to defend ourselves. The fastest growing demographic of gun ownership has been women, and as part of the fight for The Narrative, I think Hollywood has striven to give us these unrealistic portrayals of women being the physical equals of men. Hollywood is decidedly anti Second Amendment despite deriving its success from movies where the heroes use, gasp, guns. And I think it grates on them, not in a, “We’re hypocrites” sort of way, but in a more subtle, perhaps subconscious way, that guns are the great equalizer. God may have created Woman, but Sam Colt is the one that made her equal.

    So let’s take some toothpick-armed woman who’s been eeking out an existence in the desert, barely getting enough to eat (where did she get the protein to build all that muscle and mass she’d have needed to actually make a worthwhile opponent?) and show her taking down a bunch of guys. Surely women will know that’s not realistic. Yeah, maybe. Maybe not. I’m going with the not. Because it’s not just one incidence. Like you said, it’s become a trope. How many women will actually go into a place like a dojo or a gym and learn to fight? I don’t mean katas. I mean sparring. Grappling. And not with nice men who pull their punches? How many of them are willing to put on the type of muscle required? And maintain it.

    How do you overcome a lifetime of socialization (for both men and women) that says that fighting is bad and that violence never solved anything? Really? Never? Anything? If that’s the case why do criminals employ it to get what they want?

    Using a gun is a skill. It takes training, but it doesn’t require you to be the physical equal of a man. A wheelchair bound grandmother can pull the trigger on a revolver. It’s such an “equal” skill that competitively, teams are mixed. Because it’s far less about the shooter’s mass, muscle or bone density. And because criminals prefer unarmed prey. Now there’s a useful trope. Don’t hold your breath waiting for Hollywood to adopt it any time soon.

  • Hey, if you could direct me to any of these troublemakers on the masculinist side that you refer to, I’d really like to meet them. Thanks!!!

    • Bellomy

      That would be me, mostly because I’m aware when I see those trailers I’m almost certainly about to be subject to more ridiculous feminist claptrap.

      We frankly need more troublemakers like me.

      The rule of thumb is this: Is your name Hayao Miyazaki? Because if the answer is no, you should not attempt to write a badass female character.

  • I follow the simple rule of whatever serves the story best. Having said that, I’m currently writing in a shared universe and my main two characters are a male and female fighting duo. As it turned out I had to write another shorter story for the anthology, Interspecies, and I ended up writing about the origins of the woman, about the things that shaped her into the alien-hating warrior she grew up to be and I found that experience wonderful. She does not share the brawn of her male counterpart but she is strategic and fast and an expert with her knives, and telling the story from her point of view where she acknowledges her physical limitations and compensates in battle was awesome.

  • Benjamin Rodriguez

    As for Finn & Rey, let’s also compare how, say Jackie Chan would have handled things.
    Jackie’s fought alongside women in a number of his movies, fighting alongside the likes of Michelle Yeoh & Maggie Cheun.
    A Jackie Chan-inspired Finn might not have had those improbable moves, but certainly would have entered the fray. Heck, a rolling conversation taking 3, the 4 parts could have developed. As Rey fights Finn, Finn fights the scavengers, the scavengers fight Rey, and the First Order arrives with troopers… Heck, do they have a local constabulatory? Add them in because there’s suddenly a ‘riot’. (And in the midst of that, a conversation between Rey & Finn as they exchange punches with everyone in sight)