Strong Female Character Syndrome

With everyone jumping on the bandwagon of SFC-hate, I would like to add my own two cents. Not so much with the concept, but with the execution. Or, in short…. What is it with these really freaking tiny women adopting the “strong female character” trope?

I have no problem with women fighters, I have enough of them in my novels. I’ve defended against that stupidity from feminazis often enough. I’ve defended women in military science fiction, and I’ve written an entire article on SFCs. This doesn’t even count when I’ve beaten up on the idiocy of Tor blogger Liz Bourke. But there, the point usually seems to be that they object to women who are sexy, or chasing such pursuits as “Duty, Honor, Country.”

Because, you know, how could anyone consider those worthy of feminism. [Insert appropriate eyeball roll here]

However, I would like to highlight a major problem when it comes to the use of many of the the Strong Female Characters going the rounds lately. Because, sorry, when I create a woman character who is ALSO a a living weapon, I also make certain that these women are either a) not a size zero, or b) fighting in creative, indirect ways.

Why? A few reasons. Consider, to start with, even among well-skilled (and equally skilled) male fighters, the bigger fighter is probably going to win — the odds are nearly certain. There’s a good reason that Loki rarely, if ever, directly engages with Thor — Thor has got at least fifty pounds of muscle on him. Depending on the comic book issue, the Joker does not square off against Batman and exchange punches, because Batman is twice Joker’s weight.

If you have two pro-wrestlers, how many of them fight exactly the same? When you get out of different weight classes, the changes are extreme. But you’re not going to have a 5’6″ wrestler like Rey Mysterio take on the 6’11” Undertaker in a direct fight — the smaller wrestler bounces around the ring like a ping pong ball, and trying to catch him is a pain.

Small people fight different than bigger people. Simple as that.

But why are women treated so much differently than men in this area? There are weight differences between men, but somehow, all women are written to fight exactly the same way as men in media, even though women are naturally 50-100 pounds lighter.

Regardless of whether or not Hollyweird is trying to spin some sort of agenda, I’m just talking about the execution right now.

Because this is just stupid.

Granted, in some cases, this works — when well-trained women go against untrained hoodlums, there is no contest. That’s superior skill versus brute strength. I’d take a dozen marines with handguns versus three dozen MS-13 members armed with SMGs any day of the week. But the women in media are getting smaller, and their opponents (many of whom are supposed to be of equal talent and ability) are getting bigger.

Take Jaimie Alexander, who is basically playing Jason Bourne on Blindspot — and she is victorious over almost everyone she comes across. She is possibly better known as the Lady Sif in the Thor films.

Jaimie Alexander

Okay, yes, she’s sort of pretty. But I didn’t pick this photo for the underwear value. Look at her arms. Now look at her legs. Yes, I know, I’m putting you through torture.

But here’s my question: Where’s the muscle? She’s a 5’9″ toothpick. Her shooting someone feels more believable than her bringing down a 6’3″ thug with her bare hands. And the last few episodes I bothered with (I gave up in early season 2) had her going up against an FBI agent with four inches and well over 100 pounds on her. Probably has over 150 pounds on her.

This is no longer fiction, this is fantasy — full-on, credulity breaking fantasy.

Enter the other 5’9″ female woman who has spent her days swinging a sword.

Yes,Xena is a stereotype, but we’re talking about execution. Please compare the two actresses: which one looks more believable in terms of being able to hold her own in general? Xena wasn’t a toothpick, or “a guy with breasts,” and she had this bright light in her eyes right before she wiped the floor with everyone in a berserker rage, and she looked like she was having fun. (Yes, I’m ignoring later seasons when it went strange. I ditched the show somewhere around she was crucified by Julius Cesar, after having only met King David … I came back briefly around the time she met Lucifer … that show hurt my brain).

Once you compare and contrast the build, why are the “strong women fighters” straight-up brawlers? When you consider that not even all men fight like this, why are all women fighting like this? Are the stunt coordinators that stupid? (Unlikely). Or are the directors and writers? (That’s where my money is).

The closest we have to a Lucy Lawless type these days is Adrianne Palicki. Palicki was wasted on a Wonder Woman pilot from David E. Kelly, and is currently being wasted on Agents of SHIELD.  Some may recognize her as Perkins from John Wick.

Adrianne Palicki

Note, from this photo, three things.

1) Her body type is not “Toothpick.”

2) She is 5’11” in body armor.

3) She is holding an improvised weapon, because people who fight have weaponry.

Thank you. Was that so hard?

Frankly, I think I would have preferred her to being Wonder Woman in the films than Gal Gadot. Why? Because Wonder Woman was many things, but never a toothpick. Heck, I would have even taken Hayley Atwell (formerly Agent Carter), who is 5’7″, and not a size zero.

Does anyone remember actress Antje Traue from Man of Steel? I mean, look at this woman.

Oh wow, look! Muscles!

Height? Only 5’6″, but I’d rather not get punched by her.

Can we have her in some of these films? I know everyone in Star Wars is British, but still, can we make an effort here, people?

Seriously, Hollywood, what are you doing to get these toothpicks as actresses? It’s very off-putting. There’s “thin” and then there’s “good God, please eat a hamburger, I’m expecting you to break.” Is it that hard to find a healthy female actress? Are they that rare? If so, I worry.

This is why, at the end of the day, the most believable woman fighter I’ve seen in current  media is, well, Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow. Why? Because despite her being 5’3″ (yes, she’s that tiny), she’s 1) not a toothpick and 2) she fights in so many varied and sundry methods and styles, she never takes someone on directly and / or bare handed. She’s jumping on people and breaking necks, or dropping them with a gadget, or just shooting them.

Remember Black Widow in Avengers, where she just stood square against Hawkeye and exchanged blows with him? Of course you don’t, because it never happened. She jumped all over the place like a freaking rubber ball, and catch her if you can.

Don’t get me wrong, there are places and points where smaller women can, and have, been used WELL. Frankly, the best points where getting these tiny, tiny women to perform great feats of strength is, really, science fiction or fantasy. Whether it’s the Bionic Woman or Summer Glau as a Terminator, it’s impressive because they’re so small. Supergirl works in the comics because she’s a freaking alien. But this isn’t how normal people operate. Heck, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was supposed to be physically stronger than the undead, and she still jumped around all over the place.

Why is Buffy the Vampire Slayer better executed than some of these more “serious” thrillers, like Blindspot? (Heck, I’m actually surprised that Jaime Alexander isn’t better built, considering she has to carry what looks like at least twenty pounds of plastic armor in the Thor films. I didn’t expect her to be that tiny.)

For a moment, let’s look at my books … with normal characters, because I’m not counting the vampire as “normal.” That’s covered under my “science fiction and fantasy” exception. (Though I should note, Amanda Colt is not the toothpick Jaimie Alexander. I think I would rather have Scarlet Johansson, if she were a little taller. Anyway…)

In my straight-up, non-fantasy work, I have three women who have gotten into fights.

Exhibit A) Wilhelmina Goldberg: Five-feet tall (really 4’11”) Goldberg is a computer nerd. She used to work for the NSA, but went over to the Secret Service to audit security, since she’s not tall enough to jump in front of Presidents. Her fights included: punching someone in the balls, and dropping low and cutting their Achilles tendons. If the books she appears in get made into a movie, I’m not sure what would be worse — if they have her cast with Lucy Lawless, or if they kept her at 4’11” and had her get into fist fights with men five times her weight class.

Exhibit B) Maureen McGrail: somewhere around 5’9 (because I don’t recall), imagine Jaimie Alexander with about thirty pounds of muscle on her, and a broader frame. She’s ridiculously over skilled. Even though she has more black belt levels than Chuck Norris, her fighting style boiled down to: attack joints, attack eyes, and deflecting, rather than blocking attacks. It’s one part Krav Maga (which is designed to be used by little old ladies or beefy 20 year old) and one part “go with the flow” Kung Fu. Why? Because she’s not that big.

Exhibit C) Mandy: She’s relatively small. And while she’s in a science fiction universe, she is mostly not relying on technology to get things done. What does she do? She shoots people. That’s it. Up close and personal isn’t something she does. Okay, there WAS an altercation on top of a cargo container being airlifted by a helicopter, but most of the time, she just shot her enemies. Because bullets are your friend.

Seriously, at the end of the day, can we have a collection of characters and actresses who look, well, healthy? I’m tired of the cliche. It’s getting problematic, and the execution is getting more and more lazy as things go on. At least in the Thor films, Alexander’s Lady Sif is covered in body armor to bulk her up. But in general, the actresses seem to be getting smaller and shorter, and becoming more like empty-handed, bare-knuckle brawlers.

And it really needs to stop.

This entry was posted in books, writing by Declan Finn. Bookmark the permalink.

About Declan Finn

Declan Finn is the author of Honor at Stake, an urban fantasy novel, and nominated for Best Horror at the first annual Dragon Awards. He has also written The Pius Trilogy, to be released by Silver Empire Press. Finn has also written "Codename: Winterborn," an SF espionage thriller, and "It was Only on Stun!" and "Set to Kill," murder mysteries at a science fiction convention.
  • I seem to recall Black Widow manhandling Hawkeye at some point when he was possessed. Like picking him up and throwing him around. Remember rolling my eyes and everything.

    • DeclanFinn

      Watch that scene again. They were on a catwalk. …. well, he was on the catwalk, she was over it, around it, under it, and drop kicking him in the head. She wasn’t picking him up anywhere– unless you count Judo throws. She swung around on poles and used acrobatic cruiserweight wrestling moves.

      She never did anything more outlandish than Emma Peel ever did. I mean Diana Rigg, of course.

      Besides, Black Widow can’t be a traditional SFC — they wouldn’t mind being sterilized for the good of her profession, and they would NEVER be kidnapped by a mechanized Bond villain, and if they did, they would CERTAINLY save themselves.

      • Clarence

        The Black widow’s fight scenes are still ridiculous.
        She hardly ever gets bloodied or scratched even when fighting against trained fighters.
        Her punches and kicks would not have the same strength as a man’s. Thus, she’d need to throw alot more of them (an inherent disadvantage of her sex) to do the same amount of damage. Her margin of error is also slimmer as women’s bodies are more fragile (seriously, check bone injuries in sports and the military). But the most egregious misuse of the character, in my opinion, was in the first Avengers movie, when she is out there with the Hulk, Thor, Ironman , whatshisface with the arrows… and Captain America fighting the superhuge aliens in hand to hand combat
        A. Thor is a God. Hulk might as well be. Most people recognize that these guys could kill a normal human or even someone like Spiderman as a side effect of their PUNCHES in battle or when they bring down buildings or, or,….
        B. Tony Stark is a normal man. But he has advanced nuclear powered metal battle armor.
        C. Arrow dude is, at least, seperated from the others by at least a block and the height of a building. Plus he’s using his arrows to keep the big bad aliens at bay.
        D. Captain America is just an ordinary guy. But as powerful as a normal human can be. He can bench around 800 pounds according to various Marvel sources. Plus, his shield can take hits from Thors hammer without shattering, so it can stand up to alien fists, potentially protect him from shockwaves from the Mega Powered heros, and etc.
        E. Then there’s this teeny little woman who is wearing nothing more than a skin tight body suit.
        And she’s going up against seven foot tall aliens WITH HER BARE HANDS and occasionally a gun.
        These aliens look like like they could tear a bear apart. A full strength adrenalized punch by Cap MIGHT hurt them(but probably not. Hulk and Thor are overpowered compared to them, Iron Man probably as well except maybe the actuators in his suit are about their strength level, meanwhile Cap, BW, and Arrow are underpowered) I doubt Arrow dude could hurt them with his hands or feet at all, and Black Widow shouldn’t be able to hurt them without a weapon at all. In short, Black Widow’s ass should have been hiding and/or escorting and guarding the civilians, and her only contact with the big bads should have been at the barrell of a large gun, but no…they had to let her play Action Girl and pretend that her stupid acrobatics that work all too perfectly against normal humans would work against aliens who seem like they could rip apart bears…

        • Terry Sanders

          They could’ve at least given her a cool S.H.I.E.L.D. Special gun or something. 9mm on THOSE guys?

  • Dawn

    One of the scenes I love in Jessica Jones is when the cop attacks the Trish and even though she was trained in Krav Maga, she gets her butt kicked. Size really does matter. (PS. You have a very strange definition of “toothpick”)

  • I was reading an otherwise good story in which the heroine speaks contemptuously of princesses who don’t rescue themselves.

    I knew at the time that wouldn’t come back to bite her, which was an aesthetic flaw. You shouldn’t tempt fate like that without it coming back to bite you.

  • Stephen J.

    This is more than a bit of a useless tangent, but is it wrong that I’ve now started imagining all your columns as if being read out loud by Irish standup comedian Dylan Moran (of Black Books)?

    Check the man out on YouTube, he’s ridiculously funny and has much the same incredulously exasperated tone in a lot of his material.

  • Stephen J.

    A more on-topic reply, though: Probably the reason we will not get actresses who look like healthy non-size zeroes anytime soon is due to several major factors:

    1) It’s extremely rare to find women of the appropriate size and training level who are also even moderately competent actresses, and the career window for women in that specific type of role is even narrower than the roles for women in general — so much so that it’s far more common to recruit athletes for minor screen parts (cf. Gina Carano and Ronda Rousey) than it is to try to find a genuinely talented but physically tall and brawny actress and train her up to the necessary skill if she hasn’t got it already. (It’s worth pointing out that when you note Antje Traue is “only” 5’6″, that’s actually well above average American female height of 5’4″, so she’s already more uncommon an example than might be realized.)

    2) Female roles are always written to be one convincing step down in general badassedness from their male counterparts, because one of the great unadmitted truths in Hollywood storytelling is that a man who gets out-badassed by his love interest immediately loses most of the audience investment. (This is the reason why nobody cares about Steve Trevor but everyone cares about Lois Lane; a man who keeps needing to be rescued is very quickly seen as not worth rescuing.) As part of this, female co-stars are usually cast to maximize the contrast of size and impressiveness between them and their male stars, unless the story has made a specific exception for a particular character and the weirdness of the contrast is the character’s point (as with female knight Brienne, played by the 6’3″ Gwendoline Christie, in Game of Thrones). Even when it is made to work, as in the TV series Chuck (where the eponymous geeky lead is protected for the first two seasons by his badass spy babe handler Sarah, but earns our respect and her affection anyway by sheer nerve, quick-witted ability to improvise, and good-hearted kindness), care is taken to maximize the contrast — action girl Yvonne Strahovski (Sarah) is over 5’9″, but she is still significantly shorter than the 6’4″ Zachary Levi, who plays Chuck. So anybody cast as a love interest for the surreptitiously diminuitive Tom Cruise, or any other leading man actor who isn’t as tall as his roles make him seem, is almost certainly not going to be tall or large enough to meet the requirements of the “healthy non-zero”.

    3) Female physical beauty standards in the West have in general been artificially distorted for decades in the direction of either exaggerated slenderness or exaggerated hourglass figures, and women who meet a perfectly average definition of size and fitness are by the very fact of their average-ness either deemed not interesting enough to put on screen, or in fact thought to look unappealingly overweight. Until our visual images of female beauty in general tilt back towards realistic healthiness of their own accord, I think it unlikely that producers’ casting choices will risk their bottom lines on trying to lead them that way (since one of the reasons we go to movies is to see people better-looking than those we meet everyday).

    • I’m 5’3.

      Most women, my eyes are well below their chin-level– I have to stand on tip-toe to see over their shoulders straight ahead– it’s actually startling to find women that aren’t older grandmothers where I can see the top of their head, almost as much as finding a guy as short as I am. My mom is slightly above the on-paper average height, and is still described as “the short one.” I get called “tiny,” without irony, and it sure ain’t my build! *big grin* This is in multiple states and both urban and rural environments.

      Best guess, there was a sampling error in the NCHS’s study.

      • Stephen J.

        Possible, I suppose; I just grabbed the first stat I found about average female American height, which dates from 2010. However, it comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so I’m a little less inclined to assume data-crunching incompetence.

        I don’t doubt your own experience, but as the saying goes, the plural of anecdote is not data. Certainly despite being shorter than most North American men at 5’7″, I find it uncommon to meet women even close to my height and even rarer to meet women taller. Even at 5’3″ you yourself would be taller than half the women in my office.

        • In what region, if you don’t mind my asking?

          Because it’s not just personal experience, it’s how other people from very different areas describe us as well– and the NCHS deliberately over-sampled groups that they knew would tilt the statistics down, because they believed they were able to accurately estimate the normal population– and then they additionally manipulated the data to try to mimic what another survey suggested the national demographic balance to be.

          Add in the known problem of younger people not behaving as the models predict, especially in relation to surveys, and that’s a lot of room for issues; doesn’t take very many, oh, Asian ancestry to tilt the non-Hispanic numbers down, and the mean for “Hispanic Women 20-39” vs “Non-Hispanic White Women 20-39” is over two and a half inches; “Non-Hispanic Black Women 20-39” it’s two and change.
          (Page 20 of the PDF, 14 by the page numbers, for those wondering: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/series/sr_11/sr11_252.pdf )

          If you’re in an area with a lot more non-Pacific Islander Asian, or a lot of “Hispanic” (at that time, I don’t think the Federal Gov’t included European Spanish-speaking countries, but it doesn’t say) that would contrast strongly with north Cali/San Diego, rural Oregon and Washington state.

          Incidentally, while I recognize the general intent of the quote, the plural of ‘anecdote’ is also not “consistently observed pattern without counter-examples.” If my basis was “I have been called short,” it would be one thing– but it’s consistent, and there’s no counter-example of “about average height” or “the one with the glasses” and only one or two of “the one in the blue shirt” type descriptions.
          I even removed things like the Samoan or Norwegian folks with a much higher average height– even the Vietnamese girls who were not first-generation were taller than I am, even when they were in flats, with one or two exceptions, although those are rather major exceptions. (Roughly 4’9.)
          When it comes to trusting information, I’ll take what a decently wide range of people actually use descriptively in a successful manner over what a survey says they should be saying!

          • Stephen J.

            I’ll politely dodge the question of my home region for reasons of confidentiality, but lacking the requisite time and statistical expertise to argue, I’ll stipulate for the nonce to the idea that 5’4″ may not be as accurate a representation of “average female height” as one might expect. I do, however, still think Antje Traut’s 5’6″ is almost certainly above the average.

            Which is why I still think that my basic point remains valid: Casting for decent acting ability and for the size and physical proficiency being recommended in the original article, while still keeping your leading actress’s height below your leading actor’s and trying to get someone with enough name to be an audience draw, means you are casting within a fairly narrow Venn overlap where supply is unlikely ever to meet demand; put simply, the supply pool of Yvonne Strahovskis, Gwendoline Christies or Adrianne Palickis is limited. And since simulating on-screen badassery for a good actress can usually be accomplished more reliably than imparting good acting ability to an off-screen badass, it doesn’t surprise me that that’s the route producers tend to go.

          • Re: confidentiality: I’m commenting with a fox-girl avatar and obvious pseudonym– no reason to hand the malicious ammo, aye?

          • Stephen J.

            Indeed. Somebody who really wanted to figure out who I was could probably find enough data to do so if they bothered to look, but I’ve recently gotten cagier about making it easy.

            (Another thought occurred to me as well, re your own experience with looking up at most women: are you remembering to account for the high-heel factor? 🙂 It only occurred to me because my direct boss is one of the few women I know as tall as me, but I only just realized now that I never see her out of her business heels.)

          • Started checking for that about ’10, when that study came out, precisely because it was so far off from what I’d actually seen and I was wondering if I was not seeing something– it makes ladies where I’d be looking at their chin instead be ones where I am looking at their collar bone. Since I’m not in an office environment, most of the women are wearing… argh, I don’t know shoe language, the ones where the heel is a bit elevated but isn’t defined. Including interior padding, max of an inch more than my tennies.
            I’ve got a six-foot (female) cousin who loves heels and cowboy boots but didn’t wear them very often until she was married, exactly because guys really don’t like looking eye-to-eye with potential dates– she was gorgeous, but in the Amazon zone.
            She ended up marrying a guy my height. 😀

            The slouch factor can’t even explain as much of a gap as there is…. it’s fun to try to figure out, though.

  • Small people fight different than bigger people. Simple as that.

    You can see this bite a guy in action in the Eric Garner video– the guy on his back is trying to do the standard half-nelson looking control hold…but the guy doing it is use to being a big guy, and fighting like it. If he was going against a standard sized guy, it’d be fine, but it’s as if, for the Avenger’s movie cast as an example, Black Widow tried to do the same move on Hawkeye, when the largest person she’d ever faced was Scarlet Witch.

    It MATTERS.