What makes a strong female protagonist/antagonist?
Is it that she . . .
- . . . has the ability to lead others?
- . . . “better” than other characters, especially the men?
- . . . is highly intelligent (booksmart and streetsmart)?
- . . . is gutsy, brave, sarcastic, and beautiful to boot?
- . . . doesn’t wait for anyone, especially a guy, to save her? Doesn’t like pink or other “girly” things?
- . . . always stands up for what she believes in? Never loses her fighting spirit?
- . . . is witty, fiesty, and able to beat someone up? Apologizes to no one, not even herself? Can kick butt in heels and a midriff?
- . . . doesn’t want to be a housewife or have kids — because wanting that would be imprisoning herself and putting down all the women who’ve fought to gain acceptance in the public/work sphere?
- . . . again, not dependent on a man for anything?
- . . . isn’t white, popular, or “lame” enough to be interested in anything “mainstream”?
- . . . only needs herself? Stays on the defense?
- . . . can read your mind? Can manipulate you in less than 10 seconds?
- . . . always gets her way?
I’ve discovered that I feel uneasy about strong female leads. On one hand, the creators take strong to mean “well-developed and balanced.” On the other, strong can mean that unlike the other female characters who are boring, average, dumb, and weak, this one will shoot first, ask questions later. This one is smarter than you. This one isn’t a damsel; she saves herself and the men and children. This one doesn’t react to things, she’s the one setting them off.
Yes, the strong female character has become a stereotype, to me. And I’m saddened that unless the teen/adult is kicking butt, throwing around her wit, or defining her independence from page one, many are turned off from the story or feel angry towards that character for being “weak.”
Last week, we discussed how writers introduce characters. To tie that to this week’s topic, let’s think of how strong females are brought to our attention to immediately establish their authority and autonomy. Examples!
1. Lord of the Rings (film):
- Arwen (the beloved elf) jabs a sword into Aragorn’s neck, making him lift his hands in surrender.
2. Hunger Games:
- Katniss, who has no respect to the lives taken, hunts to feed and care for her younger, squimish sister and mentally-distant mother.
Here are more examples of characters Emily Temple, at Flavorwire, lists as being powerful characters in literature (and she isn’t alone). Let’s analyze why she and many others deem these protagonists to be strong.
1. Jane Eyre:
- “China Miéville wrote, ‘Charlotte Brontë’s heroine towers over those around her, morally, intellectually and aesthetically; she’s completely admirable and compelling. Never camp, despite her Gothic surrounds, she takes a scalpel to the skin of the every day.'”
2. Hermione Granger
- “Hermione starts as an insufferable know-it-all, blossoms into a whip-smart beauty who doesn’t suffer fools (except Ron), and ends up as the glue that holds the whole operation together.”
3. Katniss Everdeen
- “Katniss annoys us to no end with all her boy-related waffling and wailing, but any girl who can shoot like that deserves a place on this list. Not to mention the fact that she survived not one but two 24-person fights to the death, one of which was designed specifically to kill her.”
4. Éowyn (Lord of the Rings)
- “Who could be more powerful than the woman who killed the Witch-king of Angmar? A shieldmaiden who is itching to defend her countrymen from the first minute we see her, Éowyn disguises herself as a man to follow her friends into battle.”
5. Jamie Crawford (Their Eyes Were Watching God)
- “A remarkably independent woman, Janie Crawford’s strength is in her ability to keep on going, no matter what her life throws at her, and to uphold her dignity throughout. She challenges the conventions of who should love whom and what leads to a happy life”
- “Unlike in the Disney version, which features a bumbling girl trying to be a soldier, the traditional figure is a totally bad-ass seventeen year old, already a martial arts and weapons expert — just things she picked up on the side because she was too smart to be totally happy with her life of weaving. She goes to war in place of her father, wins all over the place, and then comes home and returns to her normal life.”
To be clear, I’m not putting up this picture to say that Emily or anyone else is contributing to bullying and sexism. I put it up so that we can evaluate, or reevaluate, the way we regard and create characters, because words have power. We — or better yet — I need to understand why I think the way I do . . . why certain “strong” females irk me . . . and why it disturbs me when I see things such as the following:
At the end,
Katniss fought for what she wanted because she loved deeply,
Bella fought for what she wanted because she loved deeply.
Yet many admire the first and hate the second.
Why does strength typically equal
physical/intellectual dominance, limited trust,
and a fight against any form of dependence?
Is that all that can make a character, female or male,
worthy of adoration?
While I ponder this further, please feel free to comment below
or post a response with a link back to this.