Good Strong Female Characters

When I first heard the term “Strong Female Character,” my first response was to shrug. When I was a child, I had grown up with reruns of Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman, Diana Rigg as Emma Peel, and one of my favorite characters of ThunderCatswas Cheetara. When I hit my teens, I really enjoyed Ivanova and Delenn of Babylon 5, with Lyta Alexander thrown in, if only because she was a redhead.

To hear the SFC label as an insult threw me for a loop. The first time I heard it was about a leftist complaining about women fighting evil.

Though recently, the Superversive blog has not only highlighted problems with the idiocy in Strong Female Characters, this horse has been beaten to death using the carcass of another horse as the cudgel. Between Dawn’s post, my post, and multiple others, it’s been covered fairly thoroughly.

Can we talk about when it works? I know it sounds strange, but bear with me a moment. I can’t imagine that anyone involved in the Pulp Revolution crowd will be happy if you dismiss Red Sonja as an SFC (or, looking at the history of her character development, perhaps they would). Let’s face it, there are times where it can at least be entertaining. As I mentioned the other day, Xena was entertaining at one point …. before it went really flipping strange; I, at the least, can enjoy most of Buffy the Vampire Slayer without accepting the agit-prop that Joss Whedon thought he was putting in.

Now, in these cases, it works in part because overly strong female heroes aren’t usually a problem when it’s someone superpowered. No one objects to the concept of Wonder Woman, Supergirl, or X-men’s Rogue. We have usually just complained about the execution thereof.

To see where things can go right, let’s see where they’ve gone wrong, shall we?

Agent Carter, brought to you by the spin-off department at Marvel, featured Peggy Carter from Captain America, and dear lord, what were these people smoking? Yes, I know, enough lefty agit-prop to kill a small herd of elephants. This was depressing. Hating men by the truckload — but it was okay, because our heroine did the hating [eye roll]. I’m not sure what was worse, Carter’s sudden hatred for all men (which wasn’t in the film she debuted in) or some of the flashbacks in season two that tried to explain it (yes. the show had a season 2). But no, Agent Carter was perfect, no flaws at all, and if you disagreed with her, you were wrong.

Yikes. At least in the case of 24, when Jack Bauer was “always right,” it was largely because he was surrounded by bureaucrats, and even then, he sometimes lost big. Sure, if everyone listened to Jack Bauer, the series would be called 12, but despite that, he’s lost his wife, daughter, his family, and nearly all of his friends. On her tv show, Carter is “always right” because the plot says so, all of her office mates were men, and therefore evil, and she loses nothing. It’s sad, because in The First Avenger, the character worked because she was empathetic with our hero, risked a lot on an untried Steve Rogers, because she saw in him the same qualities and virtues that he embodied as Captain America. AND she was nifty with a machine gun. The Agent Carter of the tv show? What is this thing called empathy?

Then there’s Supergirl, the current TV show. I’m not sure what’s the worst element about this show: the message fiction (feminista, LGBT signalling, strange anti-Trump digs, et al), the writing, characterization or the plots. It is mind-boggling how much is wrong with this show, from the angsty men to how Supergirl herself is portrayed as, mostly, a ditzy blonde — and it’s not even an act. Depending on who’s writing the DC comic book, Kryptonians on Earth are naturally smarter, stronger, and faster than anyone else. Superman has often been described as overpowered. Technically, Supergirl herself could be a flipping Mary Sue, and it would at least be consistent with the premise that SHE’S AN ALIEN. Having recently seen the first two Christopher Reeves Superman films recently, the contrast is stark — Clark Kent is a front, a mask where Superman is clumsy and awkward and presents as a total idiot. In this Supergirl TV show, Supergirl herself comes off as awkward, uncertain, and even childish. It’s not a mask, it’s who she is. She’s not perfect in every way, and fewer and fewer people are willing to correct her about it.

And I think the real, major problem with the general concept and execution of the Strong Female Character: these women are portrayed as being totally problem free and perfect when they’re clearly not. To my recollection, no one called out Agent Carter on her BS, unless it was Tommy Lee Jones in Captain America: The First Avenger, and he was a honey badger — he didn’t care for crap from anybody. On Supergirl, the lead lacks empathy more often than not, and insists on putting down anyone who wants to stand up and be counted because they’re not as invulnerable as she is; and no one calls her on it anymore.

The less said about Blindspot‘s Jaimie Alexander being able to square off against and pummel men three times her weight with her bare hands, the better.

We, as an audience, are being force-fed women who are deeply flawed, and in some cases unlikable, and being told that they’re perfect. These aren’t the Strong Women Characters I grew up with. This doesn’t work.

So … where does it work?

In some cases, the SFC trope can work because they are pure popcorn action pieces. Xena worked, at first, because it was pure popcorn, and actress Lucy Lawless was just fun to watch. It failed when it went strange (Greek myths ran into the Old Testament, then Christian mythos? Huh? Please stop hurting my brain). And even then, her perky blonde sidekick would occasionally take her to task for her BS, which is a cute trick since it looked like Xena had about six inches on her.

Red Sonja has never had any pretensions, and if you think it has, I can’t take any project too seriously when the film stars Ernie Reyes Jr as a super badass 12-year old.

Why did Buffy work? Because if you were just looking for entertainment, it was, again, mostly pure popcorn, with some metaphorical overtones for teenage life. I think the least subtle aspect of that was a conversation after Angel went evil, where Buffy’s mother asked, “You slept with him and it was like he became a completely different person, wasn’t it?” Talk about your understatement. The character also had plenty of faults. Most, if not all, of the season finales came after an episode or two where, yes, she’s vulnerable– duh, she’s a teenage girl. She lost at least one boyfriend because she treated him like dirt, and it was Xander, the one labeled “loser” at every turn, who had to explain why she was being an idiot.

Black Widow, for me, works quite well, mostly because a lot of her characterization has been very straightforward femme fatale (see: The Winter Soldier). Or she would rather have a normal life than be a Russian super assassin (Age of Ultron). Heck, even “Mister Feminist” himself, Joss Whedon, directed a film in which she was not only a damsel in distress for five minutes, she even mourned that she had been sterilized as part of her training (also Age of Ultron)– wait, I thought good SFC Feministas were supposed to welcome being freed from the burden of children? Isn’t that in the Gloria Stienem handbook? No wonder feminstas pilloried Joss offline (he claims he just needed a break from Twitter … yeah, sure, Joss).

Emma Peel is fun to watch if only because, well, Diana Rigg. She was obviously having fun. She was obviously still a woman — and obviously the source of inspiration for Black Widow’s outfit. And, while the character knew practically everything, and naturally gifted in almost every form of spycraft and fighting, she still didn’t manage full on Mary Sue status. How did she manage that? In part, because she was captured in literally every single episode of the television show. She almost always had to be rescued … okay, she typically wasn’t held captive for very long, and she was usually, she was unleashed to beat up her captors, Sadly, I believed her fights in the 1960s Avengers than any of the fights on Blindspot.

For more recent examples of SFCs who work, I will direct you over to Baen books. John Ringo has two very nice female protagonists, who are perhaps more badass than anyone else on this list thus far.

In the first place, there is Faith Smith, of his Black Tide Rising series. Faith is a teenager, barely 14 years old. Because of genetic quirks, she’s tall and looks older than her age. She’s highly athletic, and fairly strong. When the zombie apocalypse hits, she is in her element, and becomes an awesome, neigh-unstoppable melee fighter who even makes Gurkas take a step back and watch in appreciation.

Surely, Faith is part of the problem, isn’t she?

Nope.

For one thing, Faith is still a teenager. When clearing seafaring vessels for survivors, she can’t handle seeing those who died because help hadn’t arrived in time. She becomes depressed, and starts claiming that Trixie, her Teddy bear, “Doesn’t like to see this.” She has literally put her trauma onto her Teddy bear. It’s touching, and a little creepy at times. By book four of the series, after months of working with Marines, they liberate Paris Island, where “real” marines threaten her, browbeat her, and drive her into a nervous breakdown. Because she’s handling a zombie apocalypse before she’s even old enough to drive, and she’s had a bad day. Strong? Yup. Perfect? Nope. Does anyone pretend she is? Nope. Her marines tend to her general care and feeding around things she’s bad at — like jumping from heights, or paperwork, et al.

Barbara Everette is Ringo’s other major female lead, of his Special Circumstancesseries. She is a tall athletic soccer mom with a rigorous prayer life that enables her to be the bad ass ninja warrior for God.  And no, I’m not snickering as I write that sentence. No, she’s not perfect. She actually spends a lot of her time calling herself out on her own flaws, particularly her temper.

I’ve got at least two characters who stand out from my own writing: Mandy Rohaz and Amanda Colt. In my Love at First Bite series Amanda Colt …. has social anxieties, to put it nicely. In my Last Survivors series, Mandy is a mercenary, by profession and by nature. She’s impulsive, but changes her mind as fast as new data comes in. She’s basically an armed tomboy who likes money, and will do the right thing, sometimes whether she likes it or not. There’s good under there, but you have to dig for it, and she’s been called to the mat for that a few times.

I think I’m making my point. At the end of the day, I don’t think there’s an actual problem with “Strong Female Characters.” I grew up on Emma Peel, Buffy, Xena, Red Sonya and Princess Leia. At the very least, we should probably stop labeling the offending phenomenon SFCs, and relabel it PPFC — Pretend they’re Perfect Female Characters. Because that’s really the problem here, isn’t it? It isn’t necessarily that the characters are strong, but that’s all that they are; they’re overly strong, to the exclusion of most other characteristics. And what else is there to them? Many of the examples used on the site lately are really shallow creatures. The most common description I hear about Katniss Everdeen is “Moron.” Bella Swan is a blank slate, at best — assuming you don’t view her as a fickle, manipulative Creature from the Black Lagoon.

But I think it’s time to bring back actual strength to these Strong Female Characters, and rid ourselves of the pretenders.

This entry was posted in movie, TV, 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.
  • You’ve hit the nail on the head. It’s less “Strong female characters” and more “Mighty Womyn Surrounded by Incompetent Men.” I’ve been kicking this around for a while… anime is full of strong female characters without being annoying. (Granted, it’s also full of a lot of crappy and/or exploited female characters.) The original Macross in particular comes to mind– tons of super competent women–within their field. Most of them are bridge/staff officers, not warriors. (Beyond the sense of flipping switches for the cannons.) But even with the one that -is- an amazing warrior, she’s not better because womyn. She’s a supreme example of a warrior race who’d never met her match prior to the series.

    The issue isn’t gender or strength. Once again, we’re back at the worldview of the writers being warped.

    • Well, it is ALSO about the implausibility of the women’s physical strength and combat abilities.

      Theodore Dalrymple recounts the story of trying to persuade a battered sixteen-year-old that her boyfriend’s greater strength made him dangerous to her. Her position? Saying so was sexist.

  • I don’t have a problem with a strong female character. I’ve known enough strong women in my life after all. But I do get tired of the ‘uberwomen’ characters, who are smarter, faster, stronger, than everyone else and exist to continually show up all the men around her, who often worship at her feet.
    But hey, apparently it sells, so what do I know?

  • Stephen J.

    I think part of the problem with the Agent Carter show was simply that they hadn’t quite remembered the key requirement of good TV: The thing that makes TV shows exciting and interesting is good relationships between characters, not just sexual ones but relationships of all types.

    One of the reasons that I gave up on Supergirl after Season 1 was not just that they started introducing all kinds of politicized SJ messaging, but that they all but destroyed the emotional matrix that had drawn me in and engaged me. First, they lost the Cat Grant-Kara mentor relationship (which they couldn’t help because Calista Flockhart didn’t want to move to Vancouver with the rest of the show), which was to me one of the most genuinely interesting dynamics of the show; you really don’t see enough woman-to-woman mentor relationships in TV. Then they resolved the Jimmy-Winn-Kara romantic triangle in an extremely perfunctory way (Kara chooses Jimmy and then within two episodes decides they’re better as friends). And then they backburnered the sisterly relationship between Kara and Alex by giving Alex a new love interest that takes her focus away (that this love interest was female is almost incidental). The overall result is that you no longer have the emotionally integrated ensemble you used to, and the show suffered for it because the basic plots weren’t interesting enough to make up for it.

    Agent Carter‘s problem in that regard stemmed in part from the fact that Steve Rogers’ (apparent) death hung over the entirety of Peggy’s first season — giving Peggy a replacement love interest worth her time so soon would have been extremely difficult. As a result, none of the male characters on the show were allowed to be even her equal, much less her superior, in terms of either general badassery or strength of personality, and those that came close were forced into roles either antagonistic (Jack Thompson) or subservient (Edwin Jarvis) by the creators’ decision to retread the same old tired “grrl power” storyline. This same storyline also prohibited giving Peggy female friends and sidekicks who could keep up with her, because the whole point of “grrl power” is not to need help. (And, of course, the fact that Peggy Carter is guaranteed to survive until the 21st century dilutes all possible drama a bit.) As a result, while Peggy remains the interesting character she always is (and it helps that I think Hayley Attwell is a genuinely charismatic actress), there is simply not enough of an interesting relationship matrix around her to keep our attention.

    Put simply, I don’t care how strong your Strong Female Characters are; they have to have equally strong other characters to bounce off of before I’ll care about them.

    • Jason75

      And when they introduce Mon El, who has the potential to be almost as strong as Kara, they make him even whinier than she is.

      Their portrayal of Superman was pretty good though, a pity he only turned up in two episodes.

      Mind you, in all the DC television shows they seem to think that “whiny” equals male character development.

    • cirsova

      DC TV show runners are trash, except for the folks making iZombie.
      They can’t make any of their characters seem human or relatable; when they do, I feel like it’s almost by accident, because they immediately screw it up. For example, the one brief stretch where the Flash was a tolerable show was when they were teasing at Barry x Caitlin, which lasted maybe two episodes?

  • Strong Female Characters…? Eh, no thanks.

    Let’s see some Feminine Female Characters. That’d really be something new!

    • DeclanFinn

      [Arched Brow] You don’t think Emma Peel is feminine?

      • Shambleau is feminine.
        Deirdre in “No Woman Born” is a brain in a robot body and she’s still feminine.
        Emma Peel is most famous for dressing up in dominatrix getup.

        • Dawn

          What do you consider feminine?

          • Read C. L. Moore for an example.
            Compare “No Woman Born” to “Totaled”.
            Compare Jirel of Joiry to both Conan and the range of “Strong Female Characters” referenced in this post.

          • Dawn Witzke

            That would require entirely too much reading time, since I haven’t a clue about any of those characters except a vague recollection of Conan. I just want a concise idea of what you consider “feminine” so I have an idea of what you’re talking about.

          • If you don’t have time to read five short stories, then you will not grasp what I’m pointing out anyway. I really can’t make it more concise than that.

          • Everybody has the time to read five short stories. Not everybody has the time to find them when you don’t provide links to sources: especially when the stories in question are decades old and were originally published in magazines. Nobody has the time to do your homework for you, and nobody is under any obligation to let you prescribe their recreational reading for them because you can’t be arsed to spell out your argument.

          • If you have not read A. Merritt or C. L. Moore, then you will not be able to imagine what I’m talking about. There’s no point in explaining. The culture gap is that great.

            Books I can recommend include The Ship of Ishtar and The Best of C. L. Moore. Short stories like “Through the Dragon Glass” and “The Face in the Abyss” are also good. Again, Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories are also an essential reference point. Anyone that has only a “vague recollection” of that character could stand a go back and take a second look.

          • Robert Blume

            Maiden, mother, crone. Athena and Artemis are maidens. Hera, Ceres, Persephone are mother’s. Hestia is the crone. Remember Athena is the goddess of warfare. Her battles are ones of wit and guile and not straight up fights. Artemis was the hunter who struck from hiding.

    • Perhaps you might like Madeleine and the Mists. The heroine is a wife and mother and not once in the entire novel does she lift a hand to another character.

      For obvious reason, I can’t speak to how well it works. 0:)

    • Rawle Nyanzi

      It’s a difficult needle to thread. I want feminine females too, but I don’t want to leave them out of the action entirely. Perhars I should read up on P. “Cirsova” Alexander’s favorite dames from those old 1930s stories.

      • Craft!

        yes, your craft, but the heroines have to be crafty too.

        I will toss aside magic as the Great Equalizer, except to note that it often helps when the heroine’s skills in magic or such like matter is not immediately applicable, so she has to work out a crafty way to make them applicable. (Which can apply to less than warrior type guys, too.)

        But in the mundane craftiness arena, there’s a lot she can do. Probably not such that she can be plopped into the middle of a wide-open gladiatorial arena and face off with the muscular hero and win, so there are limits, but given enough scope. . . .

        She can play up her weakness until the foe elides it with helplessness, and launch a sneak attack. Same with surprise. Though those tend to be short.

        Appropriate settings, she can take advantage of smaller size and lesser weight to take paths the foe can’t. In extreme cases, she can kill that way.

        She can make use of unusual weapons, that the foe doesn’t expect to be dangerous. (Hmm, is that surprise, take 2?)

        Or, what she can not accomplish by straightforward fights, she may by sneaking about. Possibly even during a fight while she lets the men guard her back.

        • DeclanFinn

          Alfred Hitchcock did some fairly good female leads. I prefer the original “Man who knew too much” for that reason. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it. Grace Kelly in “Rear Window” is probably the one that Hitchcock himself would hold up.

          Also, most noir films — Ministry of Fear, or This Gun for Hire — will *usually* not lay on the fatale too thick with “femme fatale”…. unless it’s Double Indemnity, that one was just creepy.

        • Rawle Nyanzi

          Sounds like a good way to handle the issue. I always roll my eyes when female characters fight like big, strong men.

  • Cameron Wood

    Strong woman: sexy.
    Tiny porcelain doll manhandling a roomful of giant, heavily muscled enemies: not sexy – not because it’s some kind of perceived attack on my manhood, but because I can’t fully accept that fantasy any more than I can fully accept CGI when I see too much of it on the screen.

    I suppose this goes for men, too, now that I think more about it.

    And I’m willing accept that maybe I’m just very, very, very tired of choreographed, dance-like, faux-martial magnificence regardless of gender.

    You’re gonna fight, get bloody like Daredevil. I don’t care what your gender is.

    • Best commentary on ‘choreographed, dance-like, faux-martial magnificence’: in one of the Plinkett Star Wars reviews, he showed a clip of one of the light-sabre fights… set to disco music. Instantly made it clear that this was not a fight scene, but the modern equivalent of a Busby Berkeley production number. Only we were supposed to have a sense of danger and the visceral thrill of combat – two reactions that nobody with a vertebrate’s nervous system ever had to a Busby Berkeley number.

      • Cameron Wood

        Love those Plinkett reviews. I’m pretty sure they were the one’s who pointed out to me specifically what I knew was a problem, but couldn’t vocalize: nobody fights like they have actual skin in the game.

    • DeclanFinn

      Thank you. I concur
      It was a little bit of my point here: http://www.superversivesf.com/2017/04/01/strong-female-character-syndrome/

  • Rawle Nyanzi

    What have I wrought? (It’s good to see this discussion, though.)

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  • Kane

    I think the main problem with anything like this is that virtually all forms of media are dominated by the far left, following an agenda and everything is forced to a point where it’s almost like a checklist:

    Have you got a gay character? a black one?, a ‘kickass’ female lead? a transgender? cool, now all we need is a straight white male for the villain

  • You know, I’m probably dating myself, but all this discussion about who is and isn’t strong and/or feminine, but no one brought up the women from the Mission:Impossible show? Beautiful, feminine, smart, insanely brave and IRRC none of them had to punch out a guy to prove how strong they are.

    • Terry Sanders

      Oooooh, yeah. You *don’t* want to be in Cinnamon’s meaphorical crosshairs. And the later girls were just as competent and just as feminine.

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